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Book Review: Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to the Old School Culture by Kirsten Olson

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Over a ten-year investigation, author Kirsten Olson defined the damaging gaps in the U.S. education system. Here, through personal case-studies, she shares the intimate stories of people who were indeed wounded by their school experiences.

Those with a lifelong love of learning may be surprised at the portrayal of our school system as outdated, lackluster, and forcing conformity. Yet that is exactly why Wounded By School exists: to create awareness of the shame and blame many learners suffer for the sake of conformity.

Among the damages done to many students in the traditional education system, the wounds Olson describes include: a loss of pleasure in learning, compliance, rebellion, underestimation, perfection, and the sad wounds parents experience when they feel helpless about their child’s education troubles.

Through Wounded By School, you’ll learn how to stop dysfunctional and outmoded methods that castigate teachers when learning fails and inhibit learning development.

Wounded By School was written to help any current or former student who feels wounded by school, is reluctant to learn, or has trouble with traditional learning methods. It is a guide for teachers who feel frustrated and isolated in the system — and for parents who work to keep their children intellectually challenged and treated fairly. Often these parents' efforts at involvement are both welcomed and pushed away by the administration.

Over and over, the book’s case studies illustrate children with difficulty being understood and receiving accommodation. Sometimes incompetent teaching is a fault, but often the efforts of schools to “sort and track” students is at greater fault

Olson demonstrates how much of the problem with the American school system stems from the "No Child Left Behind Act," especially as it relates to motivation, choice and self-direction. “We seem to have almost totally lost sight of the importance of pleasure, inspiration, connection, the experience of wholeness in our current vision of educational improvement,” she says.

The book cites this interesting fact: one of the reasons our forebearers placed such an emphasis on rote memorization and low levels of cognitive work was that education took place in an era of information scarcity. Libraries, books, and even printed material were rare and precious. Being able to remember facts and details, and categorize information was central to being well educated. We now live in an era of information overabundance and supersaturation, where more facts, ideas and documents than we possibly can remember or interact with are available at our fingertips, 24 hours a day.

With research pointing to a hidden curriculum of values and ideas in schools, the author leads us to a hopeful awakening to the radical school crisis experiments in better ways to educate children.

A model school program, such as Minnesota New Country School (MNCS), a project on which Olson worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is based on:

  • Curriculum
  • Students complete ten projects a year
  • Students organize their own workspaces and workdays
  • Students work in small groups with advisors
  • School days are loosely but carefully structured

The curriculum includes enrichment, public presentation of student work, a daily atmosphere of quiet intensity, and a balance of students, advisors, administrators, and parental engagement.

Most importantly, it offers a track record of success, with 100 percent of MNCS graduates being accepted at higher education institutions, 90 percent who took the ACT test, and 20 percent who received merit-based college scholarships.

Olson believes students and teachers can heal, and that we can create institutions that serve us better. She says: “It is incumbent upon every person who has been wounded by schools to take account of his or her wounding and to honor it, to not be ashamed of it, and to work to change the conditions of schooling that lacerate.”

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About Helen Gallagher

  • http://www.kirstenolson.org Kirsten Olson

    Hello Helen,

    Thank you for this wonderful and perceptive review. Now that I have discovered your blog, I will be spending YET MORE (is this possible?) at Amazon buying the books you recommend. Thank you for this notice and I look forward to your thoughts on good and important books that come your way!

    Kirsten