Wednesday, August 28, 2013

They Don't Hate Education, Just School

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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Anonymous said...

Teacher Tom, I just want to say I have been reading your posts for almost a year now and I just love your insight and thank you for all you do. I have three girls. My youngest, 3, is so excited about everything to do with learning. She spends her day painting, playing with play-dough and having her build-a- bears go on different adventures. She is starting a play based preschool this year three mornings a week. My two oldest had the same spark as she did at the age, but has slowly disappeared over the years. My middle daughter is in 3rd grade and my oldest just started middle school. We live in a “great school system”. They go to a high ranking school, but my girls hate school. Every morning one of them try to convince me they are sick. My middle daughter measures how good a day was by how many tests she had to take. They are burned out. We looked into private school for them, but it looks like much the same way of teaching as public. So what as parents can we do to change this?

Anonymous said...

As a parent and educator, I've observed that most school situations are set up primarily for the convenience of the adults working in the school than the education of the children. Moving around and interacting with each other and touching stuff is organic and somewhat disorderly. Desks in rows keep kids "contained". Recess requires adult supervision. If you have teachers manage it that is expensive, because their expertise should be used for "teaching". If you have para-educators manage it, it still costs money and it's not viewed as providing "results" on tests.
What the powers that be don't realize is that as you have so often pointed out, freedom and choice and opportunity to explore, experiment, create, and interact with peers, parents, and teachers is the heart of what inspires kids to want to learn more and follow their passions.
My children love to learn, and attended a play based preschool. When they were in elementary school what I most often heard as the highlight of their school day was recess. I also heard how school was boring. Now they are teens and they gripe about the ridiculous assignments which seem to be pointless that they are required to do. They definitely seem to learn more out of school that pertains to their passions than what they learn in school.
Good grades and test scores do have some economic power. For one thing auto insurance is cheaper for teens with good grades. Also with the cost of training programs and college, the chances of receiving scholarships are higher. Plus good grades give you a wider selection of schools that will accept you. And perhaps the discipline that comes from jumping through hoops in school and being a "good" student will help you in making good choices when you do have adult freedoms.
Personally....I'd rather see a revolution in our educational system. I've thought for years that early childhood educators ought to be influencing higher educational practices rather than the other way around. Now we face testing for preschoolers and it's horrifying!