The Deinstitutionalization of America’s Schools | AJ Webster & Christy Durham | 4 Min Read

By AJ Webster & Christy Durham, Co-Founders of the Sycamore School in Malibu, CA 

Believe what you want. These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. After long enough, you get so you depend on ’em. That’s “institutionalized.” 

– Ellis “Red” Redding, The Shawshank Redemption

In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), a movie about men trying to survive incarceration, Morgan Freeman’s character makes this observation of fellow prisoner Brooks Hatlen, the elderly prison librarian. Imprisoned since the early 1900s, Brooks does not know how to live outside the prison system. When he is given his freedom, he despairs and commits suicide. It is a gut-wrenching moment; the audience cannot help wishing that Brooks could see that his new life is full of possibility. Sadly, he cannot. Fully institutionalized, he is unable to imagine life without the strictures that once controlled him. 

This phenomenon, while well-documented in prisoners, is not unique to the penal system (Yuan). Any organization which enforces compliance at all costs can have the same effect: narrowing of vision, loss of agency, and a learned sense of helplessness. Individuals lose their ability to function independently and solve problems in new contexts. It sounds insidious and dystopian — a scheme hatched by villains to break the spirit and dull the mind. In reality, however, most people are subjected to this process through a highly respected and well-meaning institution: the school system. 

Consider the similarities in how schools and prisons are run, as illustrated by the author and educator Graham Brown-Martin:

The principles are the same. Can the results truly be so different? 

Institutionalization happens when we value obedience and order above inquiry and engagement. For example, in many classrooms, the goal is to produce the “right answer” quickly. This teaches students to fear voicing a wrong answer, which in turn discourages risk-taking and exploring the problem space. Students come to view a question — whether from a teacher or on a test — as an opportunity to be punished instead of as a challenge to be relished. Another impact of this model is that students develop the habit of waiting to be told what to do rather than taking an entrepreneurial approach to problem-solving. For instance, many kids facing a tough math problem will say “I didn’t learn that” or “I forgot” instead of trying to reason their way through. Institutionalized students become disconnected from learning, viewing it as something that is inflicted upon them, at set times and in certain locations under supervision. The concept of pursuing a line of inquiry for its own sake cannot exist in this mindset. 

Even the “most successful” students, the valedictorians, suffer. Karen Arnold, a professor at Boston College and the author of Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians, studied 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians after graduation.

“Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries,” says Arnold. “They typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.” In essence, valedictorians may be the MOST institutionalized. In the article, “This is Why Class Valedictorians Don’t Become Millionaires,” reporter Kathryn Dill observes that the traits that make one valedictorian — “conscientiousness and the ability to comply with rules” — “are not the same traits that lead individuals to start disruptive companies or make shocking breakthroughs” (Kathryn Dill 2017). 

Some might think that prison comparison does not apply until students enter middle or high school levels.  Surely elementary school is relatively innocuous, with its cozy reading nooks and abundant art projects.  Unfortunately, the drive to “get into the right college” now begins in kindergarten — with all of the accompanying “rigor” and risks of institutionalization starting earlier. Ken Robinson, in his widely viewed TEDTalk, warns that creativity may begin to drop off soon after kids begin formal schooling. In our experience, as early as second grade, students begin to dread school — recognizing that conformity, not creativity, is the order of the day. It is important to start addressing our institutionalizing habits of pedagogy early on.

Institutionalization poses a risk to all of our students. To fight against its deadening effects, we must consider changes both small and large. Within the current education system, teachers can prioritize new principles and change practices. For example, stressing creativity over conformity can help students retain agency in their learning. Instead of a lecture and a worksheet, pursue question-driven, project-based learning. For those of a more revolutionary bent, consider overhauling the whole system. Imagine a classroom without grades where curiosity and inquiry drive learning. Examples and resources abound. At the Sycamore School, the focus is nurturing creative, engaged learners as they prepare to tackle challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Klaus Schwab). Check out our blog for more. Engaging students in sprawling, real-world problems is daunting, but it creates resilience and grit. Let us cultivate learners who not only survive but thrive outside the walls of our institutions — which is, after all, where they will spend most of their lives. 



Source: Learners Voice: Are we really listening? by Graham Brown-Martin 

Klaus Schwab, Revolution_Klaus_S.pdf h.htm This is why class valedictorians don’t become millionaires (Kathryn Dill 2017) 

From: An Interpretation of Influences of Institutionalization on the Fate of Characters in “The Shawshank Redemption” Yuan-yuan Peng (2020)

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