Square Pegs in Round Holes
Why do we make it so hard for our kids to love school?
"What would you most like your daughter to get out of being here in school?"
The guidance counselor looked at us expectantly. I responded that our 5-year-old, who had flourished in preschool, had always been excited about learning and was now interested in reading. Our main hope as we registered her for kindergarten was that public school would not dampen her curiosity about her expanding world.
The counselor's response—"I know exactly what you mean!"—encouraged us. The town, after all, had a reputation for good schools. That's why we moved here. We were off to a good start.
As it turned out, though, our experience since that optimistic beginning three years ago has been mixed. The school has many creative, caring teachers. But the educational journey hasn't been as idyllic as we had hoped.
All schools strive to shape children into whatever it is the adults in charge deem important. In high-achieving public schools with a reputation for excellence, a primary goal is high performance. We weren't prepared, though, for homework to begin in kindergarten. We were even less prepared to hear some parents insist that there wasn't enough homework—that more was needed to ready their children for the competitive life ahead of them.
By January of her kindergarten year, with the pressure to produce strings of letters and numbers out of sync with her own priorities, our rebellious daughter decided reading was no longer fun.
In 1st and 2nd grades, the excitement came back, though only intermittently. Recess remained her favorite time of day, the only time she could do as she pleased. We discovered that even a good school has difficulty building on the many interests every child has when those interests don't match more narrow academic demands.
I would be less surprised by this—and maybe wouldn't have expressed my initial concern about school's excitement-destroying potential—if I hadn't twice experienced something similar two decades earlier.
When my oldest son was in 1st grade, he suddenly stopped drawing. He explained that he no longer enjoyed it because he wasn't good at it—but that didn't matter, he told me, "because I'm the best reader in my class."
When I discussed this with his teacher—the one known as "the best 1st grade teacher in school"—she told me that I should be glad my son knew his strengths and weaknesses, and that his pride in being "the best" demonstrated appropriate competitive impulses.
That he stopped doing something he had enjoyed simply because he wasn't as good as others seemed a problem only to me.
A year or two later, a different kindergarten or 1st grade teacher told my younger son that the kite he drew in response to a draw-a-kite assignment was "wrong": His nifty dragon design didn't match the expected diamond shape.
The difficulties escalated. Too many of his teachers over the years considered my younger son's intensive self-study in art, music, and drama less important than the standard curriculum they felt obligated to impose. Today, this son is a writer and artist, but his talent flourished despite his school years, not because of them.
In the end, my older son had it easier. His developing interests more closely matched traditional public school demands. Yet, even he encountered excessive pressure to produce and compete. He recently reminded me that he had loved his high school world-history class, taught by a teacher who expected students to pursue topics in depth.
In contrast, the mania to prepare for the college-level Advanced Placement test in his U.S. history course displaced the focus on deep knowledge and critical thinking the budding historian sought. He got through it well enough and even went on to major in history. But he knows well that the drive for credentials is very different from the drive to learn.
My sons' experiences beginning two decades ago are much on my mind today as I watch my daughter make her way through 3rd grade. I sometimes wonder if moving to a town with a reputation for good schools was a good choice, or if she'd do better some place less focused on traditional academic achievement, or in one of those private schools we can't afford that might tailor her education more closely to her needs.
High-stakes testing adds to my concerns. As my history-student son discovered, aiming simply for high scores can hinder learning. The MCAS test—the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System—now permeates our public schools, changing curricula, altering schedules, worrying children and teachers alike.
We've assured our daughter we won't allow her to take the MCAS this year, but she feels the tension nonetheless. The last thing our 8-year-old child needs is even more pressure to conform to narrow demands devised not by teachers who know her—teachers who generally recognize her strengths, even if they can't always adapt to them—but by bureaucrats and ideologues seeking to transform her into a cog in their machine.
Yesterday my daughter informed me that "kids today know more than you did back in the olden days, when you went to school." They have computers now, it seems, and other advantages I missed out on.
I told her that maybe she's right, but I remain skeptical about whether today's higher-tech world truly brings more knowledge, or whether instead it merely helps complicate the lives of children already pushed too far, too soon.
Despite my wariness, I suspect my daughter will emerge from childhood as interesting an individual as her older brothers, her creativity and rebelliousness intact. I just wish the process could be easier for her than it was for them.
Dennis Fox, an associate professor of legal studies and psychology, is on leave from the University of Illinois at Springfield. This essay first appeared in the Boston Globe. His work is posted at http://people.uis.edu/dfox1.
Vol. 21, Issue 39, Page 31Published in Print: June 5, 2002, as Square Pegs in Round Holes