Monday, November 09, 2015

"I'm Working Soooo Hard And Learning Soooo Much!"

As the parent of a school aged child, I was steadfast in my commitment to not "help" her with school unless she asked for it. Many of her classmates' parents thought I was a jerk for not tearing through her backpack and notebooks each night in search of forgotten homework or for not making her bring textbooks along on vacations or for answering, "I don't know," when they asked how she was doing in school. Of course, I took an interest in the things she wanted to talk with me about at the end of her day, which usually had something to do with her social life or, increasingly as she got older, the theater or one her literature or humanities courses.

This guy set himself the task of retrieving a piece of wood and a pair of stick ponies that were under the swing set without asking his classmate to stop swinging. It was a project of about five minutes, during which he tested his theories on how to go about it, while making a study of the swinger's arc, momentum, and trajectory. It required planning, timing, calculated risk, concentration, and perseverance.

Her grades were not bad by and large, and when she brought home a stinker, it was typically because she found the subject or the teaching of the subject uninspiring, a totally valid excuse in my book, especially since there were alway some classes on her schedule that did inspire her. And in those classes, the grades didn't matter to any of us either: it was enough that she was excited about learning, rendering grades all but irrelevant. I'm proud of having stuck to this approach, especially now, as my child is setting out on her university career where she is saying things like, "I'm working soooo hard and learning soooo much!" That's exactly what I would wish for her.

It sometimes seems like it's a rare commodity, this love of learning, especially among middle and high schoolers, who more often than not trudge through their days, being told what, how, and when to learn. You don't have to be Freud to figure out why so many of them hate school. As Peter Gray, the author of Free To Learn, writes: "School is prison."

If there is a goal for our schools, it should at least be to do no harm. I would be happy if they did nothing else. Every child is born with a passion for learning. Every child I've ever met, when left to her own devices, demonstrates a joyful, eager, unquenchable capacity to learn. The science is clear: humans are designed to educate ourselves through what we call play, in pursuit of our passions, yet our schools could not be more perfectly designed to squelch that instinct and replace it with a sort of nose-to-the-grindstone, stress-fest, full of evenings of homework and weekends of tutors, all in the name of tests and grades, which everyone knows is the currency needed to pay your way into a "good" university, which in turn is a downpayment for a solid middle class job, never mind that those jobs are disappearing right along with the middle class. We're destroying our kids -- for nothing:

And for what purpose, all this pressure? The presumed holy grail of all K-12 education in the United States is hardly a love for learning or an authentically engaged citizen. It is, against all odds, a "yes" message from one of a handful of expensive, brand-name universities that only a fraction of each year's three million high school graduates will be invited to attend . . . Whipped into a panic by hypercompetitive admissions practices and by hype, kids, parents, and educators pursuing that holy grail sacrifice terribly important things: time, money, health, happiness, and childhood itself. Without our even realizing it, our driving goal has become all about preparing for the college application, not preparing for the college experience or life beyond. Performing, not learning. Amassing credentials, not growing. Not even really living.

And it can't really even be called education. It's more about learning to perform to a standard (as filmmaker Vicki Abeles points out in the excellent Salon essay from which I quoted above) than actually learning anything.

There is nothing that saddens me more than to see a child's light extinguished to be replaced by the dim flicker of joyless rote: it's hard work only because it's such an unnatural way for anyone to learn anything. Much better is when we're working hard because we're passionate about what we're learning, which is how it happens in our little play-based preschool.

People often ask how children from our school do when they enter more traditional kindergartens. The short answer is that they do just fine. In other words, they don't struggle because we've not sufficiently pre-ground their noses. What I do find is that parents often struggle as they watch their child's love of learning be slowly replaced by homework, textbooks, tutors, tests, and grades. I take my motivation in knowing that we are giving them the best early years childhood we know how. As Sydney Guerwitz Clemons said, "We don't starve to prepare for a famine . . . We fatten them up to the best of our ability and hope they survive."

Our children, however, deserve more than mere survival, and, make no mistake, it's not just the schools doing it to them: parents are doing it to our kids as well, filling up what little time they have left with lessons and teams and classes, pressuring them on grades, tearing through their backpacks looking for forgotten homework. We can stop doing it and we can insist that our schools stop doing it.

An Ivy League education is wonderful, but most of us live rich, satisfying lives without it: we can't let 13 years of our children's lives be about that. Our children deserve more than hard work in the test score coal mines; what they deserve is the freedom to work soooo hard because they are learning soooo much. Our children deserve a childhood.

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