Curriculum Opinion

Finding Purpose in School for Bored Kids

By Deborah Meier — April 03, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

You’ve opened a can of worms—or something like that. There’s so much in your last letter to take on that I’m at a loss about where to start. Our readers—especially teachers—really got excited talking about disciplining the unruly.

Is there more brutal violence today than in yesteryears? I’m always suspicious of such claims—although assuredly guns are more deadly—but I don’t want to argue that point. Nor the lesser one, that forms of disrespect of authority are worse than ever. But I contend that schools are a safer place for kids and teachers than the neighborhoods they are located in. Maybe we can settle this with hard data, maybe not. I may just be one of those lucky people who experienced virtually no overt violence toward adults in the schools where I worked. The worst was a five-year-old who kicked me hard enough to do real damage.

But the essential reason kids are unruly, I would argue, is boredom, feeling dumb, and feeling “dissed”. They respond with intolerable rudeness. They enrage us by just not taking the work we prepare, and our concerns for their futures, seriously.

You state that “classrooms should be for students who want to learn.” “Learn,” or want to learn what we want to teach them? There wouldn’t be many left if the latter was required. The only thing we’ve convinced kids (and families) is that, without a diploma, they are economically and socially at a serious disadvantage. The major arguments on behalf of the academic objectives of schools are patently unpersuasive. We spend millions trying to convince disbelieving youngsters about the “practical” purposes of history and math, which leads us to undermining both. One of my sons, a math major in college, has trouble helping his 16-year-old daughter with her trigonometry homework. It doesn’t make sense to him. None of the members of our family—which includes an architect, data processor, college professor, head of information systems for a major nonprofit, school teachers, artist’s agent, and social worker—for example—have used calculus or trigonometry in their adult lives.

Yes, a historical mindset (wondering “how come?” and “who says so?”) is vital. The TV commentators covering the primary season drive me crazy with their lack of historical knowledge or perspective—yet I’ll bet they all took the required number of history courses, went to the best schools, and could pass a test on basic historical facts. They just lack historical curiosity. In fact, an argument could be made that the nations that know their history best seem least willing to learn from it! There is no “evidence-based” research for or against such claims—and the kids know it.

I do not think that high schools like The MET (Big Picture) are “watering down” young people’s experience, although they do not teach any academics and the kids spend nearly half their school time as mentees to interesting adults—generally in non-academic settings. My friend, MET co-founder Dennis Littky, and I argue about it. But the evidence? The kids in the 50 or so small MET schools seem more engaged in learning, more respectful of the adult world and of adults, have regained their curiosity about the world and about how others live in it, and are more eager to go to college than students at almost any other “reform model” I’m aware of. And get in. It’s weird and true. At my old high school (CPESS) we were more traditional—in our way—but we lost some kids whom I think might have made it at the Met. We did a watered-down version of the MET starting with 7th grade kids. A majority, when interviewed many years later, reported that those experiences were key factors in their lives, often more responsible for their getting into college and taking schooling seriously.

We need to offer many opportunities for citizens young and old to re-enter the world of “academia”—the humanities and sciences “for their own sake” or for second-career purposes. We live longer lives than ever. K-12 schooling should have whetted one’s appetite for more. Preparing youngsters to be “good” adults requires settings that represent the serious work of the world in truly serious and engaging ways.

We cannot afford to “teach down to those who are restless.” A powerful point, Diane.

What the Nation at Risk and other such pronouncements bypassed was talking about purposes. Ask kids, ask parents, ask your own friends—and I’ll bet most give the same answers my kindergarten kids gave me: schools are to prepare you for schools; and, without proof that you did well in school, your future employment is limited. That’s a set-up for “talking down,” I’d contend.

Isolating kids for whom this is not enough of an answer to temper their distrust, fear, anger, disappointment, and sense of disrespect (occasionally worse) will have at best minimal impact. The numbers will grow. Take the one “bad” kid out of a teacher’s class and, lo and behold, another takes his/her place. The history of special ed is a reminder of where this leads. Still we’re agreed that some form of “special ed” was needed, and so, too, some ways of separating kids from others for a time. It happens now in most schools. Most separate themselves entirely by the time they reach 16 or 17.

Then we spend millions coaxing them back!

Making schools more systematic, programmed, and “scripted,” using more carrots and sticks is one answer. One reader, Kim, described it well in one of her posts. It reminded me of how surprised I was that B. F. Skinner’s “Walden Two” was a description of his utopia. I assumed it was meant as a frightening vision of the future. Kim and I may never agree on “best practice,” but how does one settle such matters? How about Dennis’ way? Yours vs. mine? Can we tolerate living with such incompatibilities? Accepting the trade-offs?


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