Adultism in Schools

Freechild Institute Facing Adultism Toolkit

Adultism in schools is bias towards adults that results in discrimination against students. It has a lot of causes, takes many different forms, and creates a lot of different outcomes. This article explores adultism in schools. Please respond in the comment section below.

Every single teacher, parent, cafeteria worker, school psychologist, education administrator, afterschool worker, summer school teachers, playground monitor, speech and language therapist, math tutor, and school principal discriminates against students. As this article addresses, discrimination against students is implicit and inevitable in the very structure of schooling today.

What It Is

Who invented schools? Adults. Who decided all children and youth need to go to schools? Adults. Who teaches, leads, counsels, facilitates, administrates, and otherwise runs schools? Adults. I define adultism as bias towards adults that can result in discrimination against children and youth. Since adults are the instigators, drivers, maintainers, reformers, leaders, and sustainers of schools, schools are inherently and implicitly biased towards adults.

Bias towards adults happens anytime the opinions, ideas, knowledge, beliefs, abilities, attitudes, or cultures of adults are held above those of people who aren’t considered adults. Because of this, our very conception of schools is adultism at work. Adultism happens throughout schools, and should be addressed as a systemic, cultural and attitudinal challenge facing education.

Anyone who works professionally in schools with students as an adult is inherently adultist. This idea is reinforced by Cervone and Cushman, who wrote,

“It is tempting to think that if you just pay attention to students’ voices, you will hear what you already know. Secretly, adults—outside schools as well as in—generally believe that they know best.” (Cervone & Cushman, 2002)

Ultimately, adultism is the reason schools exist.

Seeing Discrimination

Adultism informs our society’s conception of adulthood through our cultures, structures, and attitudes.

Schools constantly and consistently demonstrate adultism by discriminating against students. This discrimination happens through:

  • National, state, and local laws;
  • Educational, health, nutritional, and funding policies;
  • Curriculum, pedagogy and leadership practices, and;
  • Cultural norms and social customs.

Everything from cafeteria tables to laws making education compulsory to the voter-denied school funding levy passively and actively reflects adultism. Seeking to make students into our visions, adults invented childhood to ensure that kids were comprehendible and controllable. Because of that, the status of students has become passive, static, and predictable.

Does that make adults wrong or bad? Not all the time and not everywhere. There are times when, as an adult, I am discriminated against. Legally, I cannot go into a hospital and operate on someone, nor can I drive an 18-wheel semi-truck. Culturally, it is inappropriate for me to use a women’s changing room at a store, or attend a self-help group for narcotics. None of those examples is inherently bad or wrong. They are intended to keep myself or others safe.

Well-Meaning But Poorly Thought Out

It’s the same with much well-meaning educational adultism that is intended to keep young people or others safe. If a building is burning down, as an adult I feel it’s my responsibility to grab everyone and make sure they are out of the building, regardless of age. However, in our schools adults constantly act like the building is burning down. That’s what must change.

People who want to change the miserable state of affairs in schools must take action to stop education adultism now. We must challenge the ineptitude of adults and their intransigence towards the changing abilities and roles of students throughout education, and push back against age-based assumptions that have nothing to do with the capacity of learners today. Education is adultism—but it does not have to stay that way.

Back when children and youth packed factories, farm fields, mines, and service jobs around the western world in the late 19th century, many adults could not find jobs. This caused adults to rally against child labor and for public schools. A lot of adults said they wanted to end children ending up on the streets without an “occupation”- especially after newspapers reported that was the case. Schools suddenly became popular as places where young people could have productive experiences throughout the day. In the early 20th century they were made compulsory in many Western nations. Moving children from compulsory labor occupations into compulsory learning occupations without their input, ideas, or contributions in any way paved the way to the state of education today. That is why adultism is the reason schools exist today.

What It Does

Bias towards adults is so heinous because it discounts the validity, personhood and importance of students themselves. Creating exclusive control and domination, adultism forces students to feel unjustly inferior; encourages adults to believe they’re unduly powerful; and creates a cascading imbalance of authority that can impact students negatively for the rest of their lives.

Adultism drives adult behavior throughout schools, as well as a lot of student behavior. Teaching styles frequently represent adults’ values and skills rather than young peoples’ perspectives and capabilities. Adults determine what is valuable for students to learn and how young people need to demonstrate their learning. They enforce inequities between students and teachers in everyday behavior, too: When teachers yell at students, they are controlling classrooms; when students yell at teachers, they are creating unsafe learning environments.

Ultimately, students in schools are subjected to their parents’ and their teachers’ assessments of their performance in the classroom, and have no formal input into grading or graduations. Searching for adult approval in order to receive the most praise or achieve the best grades, students routinely appease adults with sufficient class work without actually engaging in the content being taught. They find solidarity with the adults who control their classrooms while betraying the trust of their peers as they tattle and compare each other.

According to Wikipedia, corporal punishment is legal in schools around the world. Corporal punishment is any physical, psychological, emotional, or sociological punishment administered to students. As one of the most brutal and overt exhibitions of adultism in schools today, corporal punishment is the belief that abuse has a place in educating students. In schools where students received corporal punishment, students generally have no format to appeal such punishment. They frequently do not have the ability to raise concerns over the legitimacy of the claims made against them, and they may not have the ability to raise concerns over the severity of the punishment being administered for their presumed violations. Corporal punishment may be one of the most obvious physical impacts of adultism, but it is not the only one.

In a much more subtle yet obvious way, the very physical plant of the school is adultist. A hundred years ago, because of the influence of Italian educator Maria Montessori, educators began paying attention to the physical apparatuses young people were expected to learn with. Their desks got lower, the chalkboards were holdable, and drinking foundations were built at their height. These types of accommodation ended where young people were expected to stop interacting with adults.

School board meeting rooms were built for adults; school counselor offices were built for adults; cafeteria food preparation areas were built for adults. Even in high schools students are generally expected to be “of average adult height” in order to operate learning instruments such as microscopes, computers, and other devices. Research suggests that within in school students comprise an average of 93% of the human population of school buildings, with adults accounting for the other seven percent. There is an awful lot of accommodation of that seven percent!

Adultism is apparent when large numbers of young people of any age are not allowed to congregate, cooperate and coordinate. Schools today are rooted in age segregation that disallows young people from socially and educationally interacting with each other. With few formal opportunities to socialize, young people may learn to distrust their peers and seek the approval of adults only. Some adults in schools lose the ability to distinguish between conspiracy and community, and they make continuous efforts to keep students from interacting with each other in schools.

Defeating Education

Finally, and perhaps ultimately, adultism undermines the very purpose of educating students in schools. Student engagement has been shown to directly affect academic achievement. When students experience adultism, their engagement is severely affected in negative ways, no matter the environment. C

lassroom management, learning activities and student discipline are all affected by adultism, in all grade levels. In response to all of the bias towards adults throughout their educations, some young people completely acquiesce to adult expectations. Others completely abandon or apparently rebel against these expectations by routinely performing lowly in school through behavior or academic achievement, and through dropping out. Dropping out of school is the ultimate impact of adultism in schools.

The Student Involvement Gap

There is an inherent student involvement that is both implicit and explicit throughout schools. In every classroom throughout school across every community around the world, there are students who are involved while others are not. This may reflect conscious or unconscious discrimination; be completely chosen by students or not; and may or may not be an inherent outcome of compulsory education. Regardless of why or how it happens, it happens.

This gap is often caused by adult bias. Whether it is motivated race, gender, income, or otherwise, the gap is real for those who are stuck in it. There is adult bias for learning styles, with many teachers demanding that either students learn the way they are willing to teach, or not be taught at all. In other circumstances, adult bias focuses on student behavior, with adults relying on students complying with any seemingly arbitrary boundaries and expectations laid out by their classroom teachers and building leaders. Despite insistence to the contrary, many educators are also biased against academic ability, frustrated by their apparently inability to move underperforming or differently abled students while they are intimidated by highly gifted students.

The gap that is created by adult bias is as obvious as what happens every day in every classroom, where some students speak up while others look away, and other students are acknowledged for their contributions while others are punished for not being involved. It extends further towards the heart of Meaningful Student Involvement when we look at what student voice gets heard and which student voice gets ignored. I often address this as convenient and and inconvenient student voice. (Fletcher, 2012)

Convenient Versus Inconvenient Student Voice

Convenient Student Voice entails students saying or doing things that adults are comfortable with. Student voice is convenient when adults can predict who is going to share it, what the students will express, how it will be shared, where and when it is going to happen and why students want to share it. When students talk about the non-curricular things that most directly impact them, such as cafeteria food, textbook conditions, or bathroom usage, they are generally offering convenient student voice. Convenient student voice usually comes from students who are already seen by the adults as positive role models in the school—a student leadership class, for instance, or members of the Honors Society.

Inconvenient Student Voice happens when students bring up ideas and taking actions that adults do not expect or are uncomfortable hearing. It is inconvenient because adults cannot predict it, do not expect it and frequently do not want to hear it. These topics can be those that impact teaching or governance at the school, or even be topics that some adults themselves want to discuss but fear bringing up due to the administration or other outside forces.  Inconvenient student voice often comes from students who are not seen as leaders by adults, or who feel alienated by the school, and it might come at times and places that adults are not expecting.

These realities make the student involvement gap wider and more pronounced. Without direct intervention, this gap will spread and devour more students.

Challenging Discrimination in Schools

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In addition to those such as Montessori, who was almost uniquely oriented against adultism in schools, educators have rallied against adultism in schools without naming it as such for more than a hundred years. Massively influential, though often misunderstood, American school philosopher John Dewey constantly promoted a curriculum for schools that was footed in student realities instead of adult conveniences. He once wrote,

“Nature wants children to be children before they are men… Childhood has ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling, peculiar to itself, nothing can be more foolish than to substitute our ways for them.”

This situates him squarely on the side of anti-adultist teachers. Paulo Freire justly sought authentic learning for students, too. His attitude could be summarized by his singular belief that, “the educator for liberation has to die as the unilateral educator of the educatees.” This positions the student as the holder and determiner of learning, and that is anti-adultist. While some theories address students’ roles indirectly, and others head-on push against the overbearing domination of adults, in schools, all are valuable as allies in this struggle.

Adultism makes schools today ineffective. The only way to begin the massive cultural and structural transformations that are required is through Meaningful Student Involvement, and engaging students as partners in learning throughout the education system.

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2 responses to “Adultism in Schools”

  1. ALL of them discriminate against students? That’s just overblown.

    1. Great statement! Let’s just take the subject on the surface:

      Who invented schools? Adults. Who decided all children and youth need to go to schools? Adults. Who teaches, leads, counsels, facilitates, administrates, and otherwise runs schools? Adults.

      Now, let’s look at adultism, which I distinctly define as bias towards adults that /can/ result in discrimination against young people. Since adults are the instigators, drivers, maintainers, reformers, leaders, and sustainers of schools, schools are inherently and implicitly biased towards adults.

      Does this make all schools bad? NO. Does this make all schooling wrong? NO. Does this mean that adults can confront our adultism throughout the education system and transform schools to embrace partnershipping with all students everywhere throughout every facet of schools? Absolutely.

      So rather than simply dismissing the idea out of hand, its our challenge to address our own attitudes, actions, behaviors and beliefs and see how else we can do things in order to stop discriminating against the very people schools are supposed to serve: Students themselves.

      THANKS FOR YOUR COMMENT! What do you think about this?!?

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