Friday, January 20, 2012

Is Traditional Education Harming our Kids?

Those who pay attention to the confused jumble that is the "education reform" movement often hear this cry: that the result of a failing school system is a lack of competitiveness of the U.S. compared with that of other nations. A slipping-away of the supremacy of our country.

You know, okay, whatever. If that's what gets people to lose faith in the current way we do school, I'll take it. But success is all in how you define your goals. The focus of educational change won't be good enough if the improvement of the mental and emotional health of children is a side effect to the great purpose of "being competitive again."

I don't say it's a bad purpose. I say it's the wrong focus. We can achieve the same ends if we focus on creating healthier and happier children, and in the end, we'll have economic competitiveness AND healthier and happier children.

We don't need to reform education. We need to reinvent it entirely. The only recognizable thing I see remaining is the buildings, and the public commitment to education in the form of public funding.

The reason we need to pack it in and start over: kids are being harmed.

Too melodramatic? No, I don't believe it is.

We know that high school graduates are, more and more, ill-prepared for either college or the working world. We know that there is an epidemic of student disengagement. We know that kids weigh more and have more health problems than they ever did. We know that the sleep requirements of teenagers are ignored in most middle and high schools. We know this and more by observing schools and kids and teachers, and we draw our own conclusions about problems and solutions

I don't accept the more popular targets of blame, like teacher tenure, or solutions, like more charter schools. Let's take it a step farther, and question everything about what we know as school. I promise you can go back to your homes afterward and are under no obligation to take on these opinions permanently.

We require that children change themselves in order to fit into school. The result of this can be plainly seen in some children, in the anxiety that school causes, but it can also be under the surface for quite a long time before a parent can see any ill effects, if they are ever seen at all. Nevertheless, a child undergoes a wearing away of identity.

When we don't accept and value small children for who they are, they don't turn their resentment outward. When a parent rejects a child, the rejection turns inward and wears away at their self-respect and confidence, often turning into depression. We have the same responsibility, and if we fall short, we have to accept that there will be similar consequences.

We require kids to learn what WE want them to learn. From birth to age five, children explore, play, discover, manipulate, run, jump. Then suddenly, they sit in kindergarten, told what to learn. Kindergarten is now a training ground for the rest of kids' educational careers, and the message is: "What you want to learn isn't important. Empty your minds of your own passions and interests. Learn what I tell you to learn."

What better way to teach kids that what is inside them is not important? Is there really a question as to why, by fifth or sixth grades, kids have tuned out of school, march from class to class with no expectation of the joy of discovery?

We make kids learn stuff they don't care about. We do it every day, in every age group. Don't be fooled by the appearance of compliance, even cheerfulness. Kids want to be happy; they tend to look on the bright side and eventually separate their passions and strengths from anything to do with school.

This takes a cumulative toll on kids, and results in a detachment between students and the adults in their lives.

Add to this rules they have no say in and make no sense, and authority figures who don't have the time to learn their needs. Sometimes this is turned outward, in rebellious behavior, acting out, bullying. But I believe we also ought to worry about those kids who do not display the negative effects of this educational coercion.

They go along and get along, do their homework, get decent average grades, and feel disconnected from the flow of school. Do these kids put the blame in the right place? No. Not often. They don't know there is anyone to blame other than themselves.

We don't think enough about the loss of self-respect, sense of alienation, even depression, that this system engenders.

The purpose of learning is to get good grades. I sometimes hear the complaints of teachers about kids that care about grades more than they do about learning. "They say, 'Will this be on the test?' And when I say no, they tune out. What is with these kids?"

When kids are told to learn something they don't care about, why should they work to achieve more than minimally required?

Since we structure our system around grades and test scores, we send a clear signal: this is what's important. When kids try to skate along doing as little as required, they are responding: message received.

We see this most clearly in the "high-achievers," who try to accomplish a lot, take four AP courses and have lots of extra-curricular activities and hope to get into the "right" college.

My son once told me of a school assembly where one of his teachers stood on a stage and gave the students this message: "Do your homework! Study! Get good grades!" He wanted to yell, “Yeah but, like, what's my motivation?”

The getting of good grades – something that every parent wants their kids to do – is not a simple issue. There has been a mountain of research that demonstrated the adverse affect on learning that grades impose. If you have two groups of kids, and you tell one of them, "We're going to study this subject. There will be no test. Would you like the hard version or the easy version?" The answer is: The hard version. The second group is told. "We're going to study this subject. There will be a test. Would you like the hard version or the easy one?"

This little experiment has been repeated often in educational research. Group Two always chooses the easy version.

We think when we want kids to get good grades, that they will work, learn, reach, and grow. Turns out the quest for good grades means none of those things. It makes kids value a carrot instead of learning. They get a hard lesson when the leave school, get a job, or go to college.

I know that we all can point to those instances where kids worked hard at something for school, put themselves into it fully, and were happy to receive as their reward a big fat A, front and center, which is the mark of approval by the person in authority.

Chances are the project or paper is something the student really found enjoyable. There was something of intrinsic value about the work. It is also more than likely that the teacher was someone the student respects and wants approval from. This happens; a stopped clock is right twice a day, after all. Sometimes the conditions a student needs in order to produce good work converge.

I don't question the value of a good teacher-student relationship. Teachers should want to inspire kids to work hard, after all. What would happen if kids got to pick their teachers? Their topics of study? The ways in which they pursued their learning of that topic? I'd be ever so happy with a big A on top of a paper, in those circumstances. And how much greater would the happiness be if this paper, into which was put so much hard work, was put on a blog where it could be read and receive the feedback from a larger audience?

Students are not often given the time and resources to follow their own passions. They have only the carrot of the possible grade to get them through the stifling indifference of studying without heart. I have often heard the counter-argument: “I only learned so-and-so because they made me, and I loved it.” Fine and dandy, but if they make you and you don't love it you should feel free to drop it like a hot potato.

Forget everything you have ever heard about tough love, and the school of hard knocks, and not everything is supposed to be fun, and kids have to learn. Yes, adults have to do things they don't want to do. Sometimes the hit is mitigated by a paycheck, but sometimes it isn't. The ability to do that which is unpleasant happens over time; the older kids grow, the more of the world they come to understand. I contend that training courses for kids on the merits of suffering borders on cruelty.

However, the pursuit of knowledge and skills through their passions and strengths increases the possibility that they will come to a more solid understanding of the real world than if coercion continues to rule over those who have absolutely no power or voice or control over what happens to them.

When kids leave the land of high school, sometimes they get to college. Then they are exposed to the kind of rigorous work deserving of the name, and their unpreparedness for the work can be a bit of a shock.

And who did this to them? Who did this to the kids unable to perform well in the work world? We did. Adults. Those of us who work to perpetuate an unhealthy, harmful system of education.

We structure school in such a way that students have to contort themselves, body and mind, to fit into its tight spaces. We ignore the drive to learn that exists inside every child. We make them chase after carrots, as though they had real value, until they find out that the world that waits for them has no use for carrots, and would prefer students and employees who innovate, make connections, ask good questions, think independently and work well with others.

The results of the damaging practices of public school on the kids we are turning out into the world are clear.

Why are we so stumped at how to respond to the sinking of the U.S. in the global scale of competitiveness? Why do we subject our kids to more tests, more grades, less flexibility, and no lattitude for the innate differences between kids?

We're going from bad to worse. We need to insist on schools that value children for what is inside them. We need to stop planning, processing, talking, arguing and hashing it out. School is harming our children. We need the transformation to be big, and we need it to happen now.


  1. While i agree that forcing competition hurts competitiveness and that learning should keep an openness to kids interests in some sort of compromise between what the adults want for them and what they want for themselves, I see a danger in your approach. The danger is a philosophical one centering on theories of change. I want to be rational, experience and research based when I change things. The trouble with NCLB was its utopianism, all children proficient by 2015? utopia is problematic because no one ever visit heaven and came back to tell us how to get there but many "reformers" and even the Obama crowd has some messianic zeal in them. Plato was the fiercest and most accomplished enemy of the institution and ideas of a democratic society and he said we must start a clean slate by separating the children from their parents and have the philosophers educate them. I want change but it has to be done in a rational, research based and principled because its children and there is no bailout for a broken dream.
    Thank you! @1momzer, ur faithful tweet.

    1. Dear 1momzer, I am curious about this notion of danger. What more harm can be done to children in the name of education than the suffering we are currently inflicting in this teach-to-the test regime? When teachers are not respected and politicians make decisions that impact our lives in the classroom, we need to change course. By the way, one can use "research" to prove most anything.

  2. Traditional education? Excessive testing is not "traditional"..... It is corrupt .

  3. Thanks for responding! It's great to see something longer than 140 characters from Twitter peeps!

    The situations I'm talking about, the harm that children are exposed to, are supported by research. There are also new approaches to education that structure school around the different passions and strengths of kids.

    I would never contend that adults have no role in influencing kids on what they could/should learn. However, their role is secondary. Kids passions come first, if only because it is far more likely to open doors to learning. Adults are in the background, watching, taking note, and offering resources and guidance. ONCE TRUST HAS BEEN ESTABLISHED between kids and adults (something that doesn't get much time of day in school districts), kids are more likely to learn something just because you, the adult, say they should.

    I think NCLB was wrong in more than just the idea that perfection can be achieved by 2014. It was wrong for 12 other reasons. Narrowing the curriculum, the mad panic schools have undergone in 10 years to get those test scores up...passions have been rendered nearly irrelevant.

    The best thing we can do now is take a back seat to kids.

  4. Sandra yes...I call it "traditional" sometimes..."Industrial" other times. I wanted to differentiate between public educators and institutions who are really trying to make a difference to kids and the ones that are, well, really, what can only be said as.....not.

  5. @Lisa - It is helpful to find the word that describes the deformity that is encompassing public, private, and may extend to homeschooling. A bill was filed here in Florida that would affect standardized testing requirements and homeschoolers. The notion is that no child is exempt. Under these conditions, the models that have promise are deformed to meet some educrat's idea. The influence of the application of "disruptive innovation" coming from a select corporate community is deeply troubling. Each of us select a portion of this to focus on. I agree that conversations such as this one, which moves toward defining what students, parents, community members, and taxpayers WANT versus a singular focus on what they DO NOT want is vital. My view is that a failure to articulate well hinders. I believe there is adequate research to support what qualifies and quantifies as effective.

  6. What if the policies that are fostering boring compliance and uncritical thinking actually intend those outcomes? What if our public schools are purposefully designed to create obedient workers and soldiers? In that case, the system makes sense. It is clothed in democratic rhetoric that belies its hidden intention. Maybe what we see as unintended consequences are not unintended at all?

  7. Oy! Thanks a lot, Ken! That's an idea that's gonna fester.

    To be honest, it's not a notion that is entirely surprising or new to me. I just see the teachers and administrators around me and think of them as well-intentioned but wrongheaded. I think it's possible that there is an a prevalence of Stockholm syndrome among those invested in the system. Maybe it's treatable?

  8. Sandra, I would be interested in knowing your ideas about strategy moving forward!

  9. Kids at the high school level do things for grades to boost their GPA because the college and university system require them. The decision for entrance is based on the grades, not the students' learning. Students work for the grade and then need remediation when the head off to college. Parents care about grades more than learning because they want their child to have an opportunity to go to a "good school.". In order to focus on learning the system needs to be changed to a focus on content and performance standards, not the A,B,C grading system.

  10. Patricia, I think some colleges are changing how they look at admissions. Homeschoolers are getting into good schools! Also, I agree that performance standards are better than the current system of grading, but IMHO not "best." Best is a passion-driven school, where kids are not driven by standards but by the drive to learn that is inside them. That's how we create learners. Once kids are learners, once they trust that TPTB will let them learn what they need to learn, they'll be much more open to the idea of learning something because we (adults) say so!

    Thanks for reading!

  11. I am with you on much of this. If I mIght add a bit of perspective, being in this game going on 18 years, teachers knew this would happen when the standards movent began. It is no suprise to me that you feel this way - in teaching we call it the pendulum swing. I knew we would go back to the whole child movement eventually. One of the biggest problems right now is there are two muddled entities fighting out Ed- reform. The original standards group who turned out in large numbers to support NCLB. This group is made up of politicians trying to continue the flawed practice of standardized testing and the publishers of the tests who can profit from selling the tests to those politicians and a fringe group that are latching on to other money making opportunities like online schools. In Florida there is a bill out to remove physical education as requirement for graduation which I probably don't need to say Is not what is best for kids but good if you own an online HS. The other group of reformers are looking at better pedagogy and delivery and balk at the idea of a standardized test pushing that type of reform. With that being said there is so much that needs to change - project based learning, skills based grading, modeling, etc. my experience so far in brining these ideas to my fellow teachers have met with a lot of resistance which also makes the case for why schools need reform. I fear that 1O years of NCLB beatings about covering massive amounts Of content is going to be really hard to get out the system, especially after teachers have been working so hard to live up to NCLB's expectations. The only way to get through that much content is drill and kill and now that we are seeing what we already knew would happen - and the fact that certain wealthy persons like Bill Gates and corporations like Pearson need content to be a collection of factoids rather than skills because they are easy to write tests about; teachers are left with no true leadership to inspire them to make another radical change in their delivery and pedagogy. I am making that shift slowly but surely, but my only
    Leadership comes from following those before me on Twitter. We need our leadership to buck the pressure of this corporate takeover, or no matter how many schools we "transform" we will be in the same place in ten years. If the rich reformer group was peddling real strategies to improve learning we would be springing forward - but they just won't listen.

  12. I'd really like to see an outline of what your school would look like: what the schedule would be; how many staff would be hired and for what purposes; what classes (if any) would be held; how students would learn to read, do fractions (boy, do they HATE fractions!); etc., etc.

    I understand your premise in a one-to-one or homeschool environment, but don't really get how it would work in a practical sense in a public school setting particularly at the lower grades.


  13. There are any number of models structured around the passions of children. It's hard to picture because most people have never experienced it and can't imaging school based on anything but age-based batch teaching.

    See my post, On Vision and Change. Lots of folks smarter than me have spent lots of time working on it. I think the Schoolwide Enrichment Model from Joe Renzulli is a good one. Reggio Emilia, Italy has a great model for young children. Project Approach has built something off of Reggio, designed for U.S. kids. (Reggio is very much a project of its place.)

    In HS, Mass Customized Learning takes a pretty good stab at unbuilding the walls of school and rebuilding it again. The only problem I have with MCL is that Steve Bowen loves it so one has to figure somethings wrong...but all you really have to do to make MCL work in my vision is to have kids drive the standards, not standards driving kids.

    I really like a model used in So. America, forget the city, called Lifelike Pedagogy. Very much like Project-Approach.

    The thing is: very often people who have been raised in, have watched their kids in and have observed traditional education think that "individualized education" means everyone having a different curriculum. But the game is so much different once you factor in kids who really really want to learn what they are learning, or who are really really enjoying what is happening in school.

    It sounds utopian, but the only thing stopping it is the inability to picture it because of the pictures we already have in our heads. But there ARE answers. There ARE models.

    But the other thing we need to remember is that public education is harming our children, so we have to figure it out.

  14. I've read all your posts and still don't see how such a school (let alone an entire country's worth) works on a day-to-day basis.

    1. Have you looked into any of the models I've listed above? You want me to hand-deliver the answer, but, forgive me for being blunt, I don't see you responding to the harm that I see in schools today by trying to find a way to make a change work. Instead, you're only saying that you see it as impossible.

      We have to make this change work. The reason is that kids are being harmed. You want me to prove it to you, but all I can say is when you realize and accept that we are harming kids, solutions happen.

      Look into Deb Meier's books. Look at Angela Maier's the Passion-Driven Classroom. Look into the Schoolwide Enrichment Model. You don't have to look very hard. Better and better answers will come as we all accept the urgency of the situation.

    2. @Nancy,
      I don't think Lisa is talking about "A School." She is talking about providing school models that can work for students that government currently refuses to support and school systems can't adopt because they don't value high-stakes-testing and a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

      There are numerous schools that value children's passions, but it makes no sense to think that you could put an outline in a blog comment. Fortunately, I've collected information on these models and put links where you can learn all about them. If you're interested you can read about them here

      The problem, that needs to change, is that the government refuses to fund models that honor students in these ways. Currently these models are only for the rich and those who make policies for other people's children. This needs to change.

  15. Lisa C.- I have looked at those sites in the past, but not recently. In general they seem to me to be highly theoretical and difficult to scale up. If you can't point me to an ongoing public school system -and, yes, I mean a building or set of buildings with staff and and schedules and budgets - that does not rely on a few individuals to maintain its vision, then I don't think it counts.

    Lisa N. - I just checked the link you gave and was hoping to find such a school in the Jeffco Open since it was listed as a pK-12 system. Come to find out, it's a "choice" school - whatever that means in a legal sense in Colorado - which looks a lot like a charter school to me. The parents are highly involved because only 300 kids get selected to attend. Their schedule shows blocks and classes just like all other schools. It's hard to believe that all their students truly passionate about Hamlet even though that is one of the offered courses.

    I haven't checked all the others - yet- but many are high school level, an age at which young people are much more capable of making informed decisions than a 6-year-old. The Island School looked promising, but again it is much more than a school. It offers health services, social services, counseling and more and so involves the whole child with her family.

    Lisa and Lisa - That's the problem: there is no replicable model except possibly Finland. Even there, though, they don't act on the premise that all kids are capable of learning wisely via their own passions. In the schools linked in Lisa N's article (that I've checked so far), none give "and here's how ALL our kids are doing twenty years later.." types of data. I don't know their drop-out rates or failure-to-complete rates. Are they comparable to other schools or not? I don't see data on how well ALL their kids do on any national tests, even if they aren't high-stakes. Without knowing that type of information - "our kids love to learn" isn't data - it's hard to say whether or not the schools are living up to even their own goals.

    Lisa C - Yes, you're probably right; I don't believe that wholesale change of the type you are suggesting is either possible or even a good idea. Society has not developed to the place where we can trust all parents to prepare their children to be good citizens who learn well, care about the world at large and want to do well for themselves and their community.

    I think that many anti-ed reformers - like the ed reformers before them - are creating straw people with their arguments against high-stakes testing/NCLB/one-size-fits-all curriculum. There are lots of good things happening in traditional public school settings because teachers care about their students and hold them to high standards (externally imposed or not) - just as good teachers always have. Children need adults around them to provide guidance and instruction, sometimes even "sage on the stage" kind of instruction because there are actual facts and processes that need to be learned for passions to kick in and become the motivation for in-depth learning.

    1. Nancy, do you believe public education is harming our kids?

    2. Nancy,
      I don't know what the Jeffco Open is. I also didn't give you a link to "a" school but rather many schools and models that are passion led and working around the world. Most of these schools are not charter schools. Most of them also are not eligible for public funding because the government has strings attached that require us to poke, prod, and analyze children rather than nurture, customize, and inspire them. To me that is the heart of the problem. You are wrong about the level of these schools. They are PK - 12. You are also wrong about scaleabilty. These models are working around the world.

      I want to push back on your desire for a "replicable" model. I don't think we want all schools to be the same. We want a variety of options for children. For some traditional school make work perfectly well. For others Montessori, others one that uses the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, others that focus on a trade, or entrepreneurship, or on farming and animal life, etc. etc. The reality is that these schools do exist. The fight is removing government shackles by untethering government funding from the nation's obsession with testing and one-size-fits all.

      Regarding Finland's model...
      This is not replicable in the U.S. because their demographics are what contribute in large part to their success on the NAEP tests (which are also questionable btw). They have a homogeneous population that speak the language and they don't have our poverty levels. As you likely know, our low test scores are often a result of the fact that students who don't speak English are required to take tests they can't read and poverty is one of the highest correlating factors to low test scores. If we just tested Native English speakers and eliminated the results from students of poverty, you would see a huge jump in test scores here.

    3. Look at the MET, and the Big Picture Schools. That is a model based on passions and has a fairly long history now.

  16. Confused by this conversation. There is not systems of public education other than the one system that is driven by traditional education. There are plenty of networks of schools, and they have shown over time their success and ability to change education. To ask for test scores is backward and lacks a deep understanding of what really matters. Schools for years have used other examples of what successful learning is... either college success or career success or better yet, happiness. By the Way Jefferson Co. Open school has a book written about it, which includes many many personal stories of students. No public school has data of the success of their students after school life.

  17. Lisa, have your read this article from the Davidson Institute website:

    I've been following the optimal match theory of education for over a decade. I hope more research will be done and it will not turn out in practice to be much like the failure of differentiated instruction and the schoolwide enrichment model.

    Both of those models have turned out to be a method of keeping higher achievers doing busy work that stagnates their growth in order to focus support and resources on lower achieving students.

  18. I'll take a look at the page you linked...I admit I wasn't aware that the SEM was a failure; I've often read very good things about it.

    But then again, I think all students have the potential to be "high achieving," and I doubt I'd support any program that didn't keep ALL kids doing worked that they loved and approached with energy.

    Making a distinction between "high achievers" and "low achievers" is another habit that harms children.

  19. @Anonymous,
    What do you mean that SEM and DI are a failure? Says who? By what measures? Helping young people discover and develop their passions, talents, interests, and abilities and learn the way they learn best is always a success...unless you are using a faulty measurement tool.

  20. At my school the teachers are our greatest asset, and alumni always recognize how they get to know you. Also, growing up with other people your age and of other ages is integral to maturing and developing social skills that are necessary for the rest of your life.

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