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.")

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Liz said...

Amen, Teacher Tom.

Jeanne Zuech said...

Tom - as always, you got me thinking about what school feels like for the students with whom I share my school year and reflect on my role...thanks :) great links, too!

Annicles said...

This is why I love being a Montessori teacher. My 6-11 year olds are choosing how they learn and what they learn, within certain boundries and it essentially play for their age group. We have no-one who hates school because they have no reason to hate it. In my opinion we should be teaching them how to learn. In the humanities subjects especially, it matters what they learn at this age as how they learn it. Later they can cram for tests. Now they should just love history, or maths or whatever they are working on. All I know is, it works.

Floor Pie said...

I spent a lot of time in The Boy's first grade classroom this year. There's absolutely no substitute for seeing it for yourself, first hand. Those assumptions go right out the window.

Everything happens so fast. Things rapidly shift from working to not-working to being AMAZING to not-working again. The teacher is like one of those circus performers spinning plates. Sometimes, she drops one.

Yes, everyone's in the same place at the same time, being taught the same lesson. But the kids are still growing wild. You can't tamp them down. They tune out and draw. They flip ahead in their math books and start working on tomorrow's problems. They seem to be paying no attention at all, then crawl out from under a desk, raise their hand, and say the smartest thing you've heard all day.

And they're *happy.* Not every minute, of course, but who is? They struggle here and there, each at different parts of the day. But overall, they seem happy to be there, among their friends, with favorite parts of the day to look forward to.

Of course there's tons of room for improvement. We can advocate for it all we want, but it's not likely to happen anytime soon.

So what can we do that will actually make a difference NOW? Get involved. Be in the classroom, help with homework, nurture their passions, teach them coping skills to deal with the stuff they hate about school.

Be an advocate, but stand back and observe, too. Your assumptions may be off. Your child may actually be succeeding where you expected him to struggle, and vice versa.

Above all, be on your child's side. Let them know that school is one version of the truth; not some monolithic all-encompassing reality. There's value in learning how to navigate an imperfect long as you don't have to do it alone.

Aunt Annie said...

Dammit, Floor Pie, where's the 'like' button for that comment? lol

My aim as a secondary school teacher was always to make the children feel happy and excited to come into my classroom. And I was amazed by the numbers of other teachers who didn't think that was important.

Yes, there is stuff that has to be learnt which is not fun to learn, but there are ways around it if the teacher uses his/her brain creatively- method can be fun even if the subject matter isn't.

But fun takes longer. Today many teachers will cite time pressure and a huge syllabus to cover as reasons for drilling it into children instead of allowing them to think and explore. To me, there's an element of laziness in that approach. Kids remember better if it was fun, so you don't have to say it over and over. Laughter is a huge aid to learning.

Thanks for talking about this, Tom.

Launa Hall said...

One of my education professors said that we should never forget that our students (in public school, anyway) do not have a choice of whether to come. Our goal should be to treat the children as if they do have a choice, and create an environment where they would elect to come, day after day.

A few days ago, Tom, you mentioned that some of your readers get itchy when you write about politics. I just wanted to speak up and say that I love it when you talk education politics. Reading your forthright opinions is helping me to make mine known, too.

Teacher Tom said...

I'm not trying to suggest our schools are horrible places at all. As parents we must absolutely work to make the most of what we have, working from within to bring about change. As teachers we, of course, strive to have our students love school.

That said, as children pass through school, increasingly the objective becomes about grades, scores and following rules, carrots and sticks, instead of curiosity and learning. Many children do learn to love the game of it. I was one of those. I was a master test-taker and GPA-builder. But there is no evidence that connects these skills with actual learning.

I would never want to discourage parents and teachers, but I do think that we as a society need to take an honest, hard look at this institution called "schools." To me it looks like what we have now is a "faith based" system. I think we would be better served by one that is "evidence based."

Sarah Airhart said...

If WA would finally pass the charter school initiative we could have the schools we dream of Tom-there is a way to educate children at a deep and meanigful level that allows children to fully engage, be inquisitive and have dare I say 'successful' outcomes-cause you have to prove that what you do 'works'. And I seem to remember you are not a charter school fan but these schools should be public-all children, all families deserve access to them-not just the ones that can afford it-just my humble opinion-but it is the best way to get what we want to see in to the 'system'.