Why Is School Like a Prison?

August 2, 2016

When I taught middle school, I once had a very thoughtful conversation with a group of 7th graders during a study hall. They did not want to get started on their homework; they were disgruntled by the perceived busywork, and they weren’t afraid to share their thinking with me. One young man started the discussion with something along the lines of, “Why is school like prison? We don’t have any freedom here. The teachers just order us around, and tell us what to do, and if we do anything they don’t like, we get punished for it.” The others agreed with him, and gave other examples as well: no input in the kind of work that was assigned, a lack of choice for with whom they would work on projects, an expectation that they would be silent in the halls, being told when they could use the restroom or sharpen their pencil or get a laptop from the cart. One young lady even suggested that the food in the cafeteria was like prison food—the whole group laughed at that.

All of this was fascinating for me, so I asked them if they felt that way in my class too, and the response surprised me: “Well, kinda, Mr. Mulder…’cause it’s school. But don’t worry; you’re a fun teacher.”

I was struck by that comment, because early in my teaching career, I really wrestled with this: I did want to be thought of as “the fun teacher.” I did want students to like me; honestly, I probably worried about this more than whether they were learning much in my classes1. And I thought that—by the time this conversation was unfolding, anyway—I was largely past that point in my career. But when asked if they perceived my class to be “prison-like,” they still saw some aspects of it, but they were okay with it. I like to think this was because I was being deliberate at developing relationships with my students—notice that all of this all came out in a conversation—and I was striving to make my class “for them” as much as possible, giving them a voice, and the opportunity to make reasonable choices about what and how they would learn.

Previously, I confess, I had tried to keep tight reins in terms of my classroom atmosphere. But when I came across this quote from school reform advocate, Alfie Kohn, I realized that my teaching practice needed a change:
“One is repeatedly struck by the absurd spectacle of adults insisting that children need to become self-disciplined or lamenting that ‘kids just don’t take responsibility for their own behavior’—while spending their days ordering children around. The truth is that, if we want children to take responsibility for their own behavior, we must first give them responsibility, and plenty of it. The way a child learns how to make decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions2.”
This has me wondering how class must be for students when they don’t have a voice, when education is seen as something done to students, rather than something done with students. Maybe it’s no wonder that students would think school feels like prison?

What do you think: if your students were not required to attend your class, would they still show up? Yes, this is a hypothetical, but I hope that this question has merit for you, and not just because you might teach a subject that is considered an elective. What draws students to your class? What is happening in your classroom that is so interesting, so compelling, so…fun?…that students don’t want to miss out?

I am not suggesting that every class period has to be fun and games. “Edutainment” seems destined to fail on both ends; it probably won’t be very educational, and most students probably won’t find it very entertaining. But I do wonder what educators are doing to make their classroom a place students want to be?

I do not claim to have this all figured out, certainly. But I can offer a few words of encouragement for educators willing to take steps to make their classroom a space that draws students in to learning.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink, explores human motivation3. Based on his extensive research, Pink suggests that there are three things we should consider to make work more intrinsically motivating:

1) Autonomy – providing space for self-direction in our work,
2) Mastery – working towards getting better and better at something that matters, and
3) Purpose – expecting to do work in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Think about your own learning, whether for work or play: do you learn best when you are learning on your own terms, working towards getting better because you care about it, and with a sense of purpose? Or do you learn better when the what, when, with whom, how, and why are dictated to you? Imagine the change in motivation in a classroom that was formerly teacher-directed to one where students have a voice in the learning process!

Clearly, it’s a stretch to expect students to always be self-motivated in their learning, but I am convinced that adding a little playfulness can help to draw them in. I want the students in my classes to have joyful surprises regularly. Let me be clear: students need to know what to expect, generally4. Within that structure, however, don’t be afraid to try things, to experiment, to play with students. Share a story or a song. Bring in a silly prop to make your lesson memorable. Take on an accent for part of your lecture, or try to teach a lesson in pantomime. Silly? Perhaps. But, in my experience, such playfulness is not wasted5.

I should share that this did not come naturally to me. I have been learning, over the eighteen years I’ve served as a professional educator, to be myself in the classroom. About a decade ago, I was handed a copy of Parker Palmer’s inspiring book, The Courage to Teach6. This book changed the way I think of myself as a teacher. Palmer uses the analogy of an actor playing a role onstage, and then being a very different person backstage. His encouragement to educators: don’t act like a teacher, be the teacher. Let the character you are backstage—your real character!—be the person you are “onstage” while teaching. And for me, owning my authentically geeky self, with my quirky sense of humor, and my enthusiasm and passion for my subjects blew the doors off of simply acting like a teacher.

I challenge you this, teacher: no one ever said school has to be prison. I believe that play and learning are complementary, two sides of the same coin even. What are you going to do to entice your students to learning?

About the Author
  • Dave Mulder serves as Professor of Education at Dordt University, where he teaches pre-service teachers in the undergrad program and works with practicing teachers in the Master of Education program. His interests in education are varied, but include educational technology, online learning, STEM education, faith formation, and teaching Christianly. 

  1. To be fair, I still prefer that my students like me than that they don’t like me…but this has become far less important to me. More important: are they learning?

    The question might be asked, do students have to like their teachers in order to learn? It seems to me that students are more likely to learn from teachers they don’t dread, but this is a gut reaction for me, and I don’t have any research handy to back it up. 

  2. Kohn’s work over the past 25 years spans a wide variety of issues in schools; he is somewhat controversial because of the approaches he advocates, which often fly in the face of traditional educational practice. However, his recommendations for change are always based on meticulous research; his critiques should be considered.

    This quote come from p. 11 of his 1993 article, “Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide.”

    Kohn, A. (1993). Choices for children: Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan, 75(1), 8-19. 

  3. Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books. 

  4. Students thrive when there is a structure for them to work within, where they know the limits and the expectations for appropriate behavior. I do think that these could be collaboratively negotiated between the teacher and the students, working towards the good of all, as guided by the teacher. Perhaps instead of an absolute monarchy, you could consider your classroom a “benevolent dictatorship?” 

  5. Master teacher, Dave Burgess agrees. His book Teach Like a Pirate is full of ideas to boost your creativity…and your students’ engagement. (And it’s not just fun and games; these are strategies informed by research and practice.)

    Burgess, D. (2012). Teach like a pirate: increase student engagement, boost your creativity, and transform your life as an educator. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.

  6. Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

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  1. Great article, Dave. Good thoughts to keep in mind as we prepare for another year ahead! Who doesn’t want to be the fun middle school teacher? 🙂

  2. Not only does the inside of a school often function as a prison, but the outside often looks like one as well. Most schools feature the usual institutional colors on both the inside and outside walls. How can we make schools look less institutional in terms of color and furniture while still on a budget; this is a question I wrestle with in my own school. Right now I can choose one or the other: make changes OR stay within the budget.

  3. Thanks, Dave, for this post. I love the quote by Kohn, that responsibility needs to be given to students before we would expect them to take responsibility. That quote reminded me of a very significant difference between schools and prisons (and I know you are trying to stir the pot, that you do not see schools as prisons). If I am in prison, it means I broke a law which had a serious consequence. If I am in school, it means that I simply exercised my right to be educated. That, in my opinion, is where we should begin this conversation. When free education began in the US, after the Revolutionary War, the purpose for education was contextual. From Thomas Jefferson’s proposal of the two-track system of the learned and the laborers to the Puritans in Massachusetts who provided schools for children to learn to read the Bible and receive information about their Calvinist religion. And then, in 1851, the state of Massachusetts passes the first compulsory education law. Education became a right for citizens, funded by tax-payers. I think the time has come in our country where education should be a privilege, something that you have to continually earn and appreciate. If education was really seen by our country as a privilege, I don’t think we would hear comments like the one your middle school student shared with you. Like many rights, it is one that we have taken for granted in our culture of entitlement.

  4. Thanks, Dave. When I taught third and fourth grades, I had 9 rules in my classroom. Number 9 was “have fun.” My students were skeptical but I think that most of them enjoyed at least parts of school. We know that it’s popular for middle school and high school students especially to “hate school.” And there is evidence that the longer students are in school, the less they enjoy it. But are those feelings REAL or are they just part of the culture? Do they hear those feelings and see them affirmed by each other often enough that they then think that’s what they feel?

    1. I would say they are real. I hated school from the beginning, until I could finally leave and then I never looked back. I only stuck out the last two years because I wanted the grades to get into the University of my choice. Noone likes to be forced to attend a place where they have no freedom and teachers control the most basic things such as when they can speak or use the bathroom, forced to take part in activities against their wishes, often shouted at and humiliated for no particular reason by teachers on a power-trip, and crammed into a room with 29 other young people they don’t necessarily like for hours every day. It is no wonder that many become resentful and disinterested in education. It is only the need for exam results, or the threat of their parents being punished if they don’t attend that keeps most young people there. You get the occasional good, inspiring and likeable teacher but the institution of school really needs to change.

      1. dude i’m in high school right now man everything you just said is true see they give us stuff to work on and we don’t than we get in trouble if we do we get more work we do need school true but the way we learn needs to change. I should not be scared to go to class because a teacher is in a bad mood and wants to take it out on me and make fun of me. we need to change.

        1. At my school we have lunch detention if your grade is lower than a c. If you don’t show up within 5 minutes you get 4 hours of in school suspension, or if you talk you at all during lunch detention you get 4 hours ISS. I feel this is almost the same as a prison, we are in a very small school and over 100 student have Lunch detention in just the 8th grade, this is absurd. I feel if the teachers and principal just listened to our feedback and requests and maybe even read this article, I think it would be a better place. All this depression of students needs to end, stop making school a place to suffer and make it a place to learn. Learning does not have to be miserable. It can be fun and enjoyable.

  5. When your students start asking why school is like a prison, it’s time to introduce them to alternative theories of pedagogy, with selections from educators like Francisco Ferrer and Maria Montessori. When kids start to develop a critique of the day-to-day absurdities that are forced on them, it is the teacher’s rightful duty to provide access to writing by thinkers who sought to address their grievances. And after you’ve shown them a glimpse of other ways that a school can be structured, readings on why school is exactly the way that it is should follow. While Foucault (who the title of this piece immediately made me think of) is probably way too advanced for 7th graders, a guided introduction to his ideas about this subject is definitely warranted. After that, you’ll need to get into theorists who focused on the general project getting things to change from the bottom up. Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King Jr, and Vladimir Ilych Lenin come immediately to mind.

    Though of course, no school system that feels like a prison will ever approve such a course of study. Because a prison wouldn’t either. That teachers’ unions do not generally include such necessary additions to the curriculum (much less actual reforms to the school’s carceral regime) in contract negotiations also shows how teachers’ unions are like prison guards’ unions.

  6. You are incorrect in saying that “no one ever said that school has to be like prison”. Peter Gray, a prominent psychologist who has the Psychology Today blog “Freedom to Learn” wrote in 2013 that “School is Prison”. It is prison because not only is it mandated by law that students will attend, but there must be a top-down structure with an authoritarian milieu in order to guarantee that students don’t ever lose sight of the fact for a second that they are at the bottom of a Totem Pole and that teachers will be aware that they are just one step up from the bottom, as well. You can try to sugar-coat this hard fact and you, being an exceptional individual willing and able to circumvent the bureaucracy and rigidity to some degree can make it feel less oppressive and demoralizing, however the trappings will always be in place and the restrictions on freedom, free thought, and autonomy will remain despite your best efforts. The law is the problem and ironically, the law is what defeats the entire purpose of schooling – which by definition cannot be education.