Sunday, June 19, 2011
Happy And Successful
Did you know that that there is no credible research, data or study that demonstrates a connection between high grades/high test scores and future success, let alone happiness? None. Try it. Go to your favorite search engine and type in any combination of words that might find this kind of information ("high grades," "happiness," "success," "data," "research," "evidence," etc.). You will find nothing supporting the "common knowledge" that academic success is connected to our children attaining the things we most want for them: happiness and success. You will, however, find thousands of links to evidence that there is no connection between traditional school success and life success, and that, in fact, focusing on grades and test scores is often the surest way to make a child unhappy and unsuccessful.
Okay, so we all know there is no overarching definition for important things like happiness or success, that we all must come to our own determination of what that means, right? You can use money, of course, and a lot of people like to use that as a kind of universal marker of success in life, although any thoughtful person, while not necessarily opposed to money, has a hard time equating money with happiness or even success. That said, there is some evidence out there that the further one goes in our educational system the higher one's income, but it's not connected to good grades or test scores, just to completing a course of study and holding a certain degree. And money still won't buy you love.
Our parent educators often start each school year by asking parents to think about their "goals" for their kids; what do they wish for their child in the coming 9 months. "Happiness" is on everyone's list. This is preschool, so no one ever includes "success," but probably the second most common hope is that one's child "learns to love school," which, I think, most of us see as laying the groundwork for future academic success.
For the most part, children learn to love preschool, at least the way we do it at Woodland Park with our play-based curriculum. Children get to freely explore and experiment with their physical and social world, which is exactly how humans are designed to learn -- at any age. There are no lessons they must learn, nor tests they must pass. Simply by playing with their world, interacting with the other people, following their own inclinations and interests, they learn everything they need to know. And they love it because who doesn't love freedom?
Most go on to love kindergarten as well, where things might be bit more locked down, but there's still ample time to play. However, as time goes on many love it less and less.
I recently got to spend time with a couple of my former students, alone, out of earshot of anyone. One is now a middle schooler and the other is entering third grade. They both informed me that they "hate school," the older girl going on to elaborate exactly what it is she hates about school: "Our math class is 50 minutes long. The teacher spends the first 30 minutes talking about our homework from last night, then 20 minutes assigning our homework for the next night. Then class is over." She attends what is considered to be the top public middle school in the city. Her younger brother was more succinct, "We don't get to do anything we want to do, just stuff we don't want to do."
Children don't like school because they love freedom. We are biologically driven to learn, but we are not biologically driven to learn on command. We are not biologically driven to stuff our brains with things about which we have no curiosity. Yet that's what school is for most children: going to a place in which they have few if any choices, where everything is done according to rules and schedules in which they have no say, and then being judged by a system of grades and tests that have no connection to the rest of their lives.
And we somehow expect this to lead to happiness and success. We don't need education reform. We need to re-think schools entirely. We need to stop teaching children and let the children teach themselves. They don't hate education, they just hate school.
(While spending my morning trying the internet searches I described in the first paragraph, I came across Peter Gray's blog on the Psychology Today website. Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College, a specialist in developmental and evolutionary psychology, and author of an introductory textbook, Psychology. I spent a lot of time going through his archives, which is why this Sunday morning post is later than normal. In additional to the one I linked to above, here are a couple more you might like to see: "The Human Nature of Teaching III: When Is Teaching an Act of Aggression?", "Children Educate Themselves II: We All Know That’s True for Little Kids," "Children Educate Themselves IV: Lessons from Sudbury Valley.")