We want our egg-laying hens to range free, we want our flowers to hear nice music, and we speak harshly of people who keep cattle penned in closely, with little room to roam.
Yet we have created a structure wherein we take young children, remove them from their homes day after day, seat them rigidly with fixed posture, and force them to listen for hours on end to an adult—one who may, or may not, be understanding of their torment.
Some children do well in such an environment. But many do not. School, to them, is little short of prison, with the days’ boredom interrupted periodically by criticism, disapproval, and reinforcement of failure. Three or four times a year, their inadequacy is recorded and released to parents and guardians, who then use those report cards to further demean them. Is it a wonder that so many young people dread school?
Yet they do enjoy learning. Watch them in the park, in the street, at play, at sports. Children strive, compete, exert themselves, think, plan; they are pensive, thoughtful, exuberant, and innovative. But not necessarily at the times or in the educational structure we have created for them to learn.
This should not surprise us. School, after all, was created as a convenience for others. Parents need someone to house, feed, and protect their children during the workday. Society needs to educate and socialize its future citizens, and those adept at transmitting knowledge and skills need the authority to keep their customers located in one room, and in one place.
As noted, there are children for whom the school setting is ideal. They do want to exercise their creative faculties and their minds in the comforting paths we set for them. In some cultures, such children are the norm.
But clearly, there are those who cannot adapt to the physical and temporal strictures we have imposed on them. Such children might flourish in a different setting, at their own pace. Maybe they too would emerge as scholars, leaders, intellects, if we could provide them with a learning experience suited to their growth, patience, and maturing patterns.
We cannot, of course, create a different schooling pattern for each child. We haven’t the resources to provide a teacher/companion for them all, nor can we have young people in large numbers roaming the streets and entering a structured educational pattern when they happen to feel ready. That being the case, the failure to learn could be as much a fault of ours, as it is of theirs.
A little humility, then, is in order, and an end to the inadvertent demeaning that accompanies our hand-wringing. “Failure to learn” is not the correct phrase: “Poor fit” is much more apt. Different tasks, different goals, different skill outcomes would produce a whole new class of successes and a surprisingly large, and different, group of “failures.”
Very few of us are adept at the monkey bars, fewer could learn to survive in the jungle or in the desert. If society dictated that everyone had to learn auto mechanics, many of us would find ourselves on the wrong side of the learning gap.
No, I am not equating all learning goals, outcomes, and skills. We do know what children need to survive, function, and contribute to modern civilization. But we must not assign the word “failure” to people whose inherent skills may lie in playing the harpsichord or navigating the seas using the instruments and knowledge of the 1600s, rather than in successfully parsing an English sentence or memorizing the details of the battle of Thermopylae.
It helps to think back a few centuries, when the accomplished young gentleman had to demonstrate martial as well as intellectual skills, when young men (only!) devoted a period of time to travel, and when apprentices spent years in penury acquiring a skilled trade. Learning, self-dignity, self-worth were associated with far more than just the successful mastery of a rigid set of classroom courses.
Poor fit, rather than failure, characterizes much of modern society. Just a few generations ago, people developed positive self-image, a career, and worth in the eyes of society by becoming musicians, calligraphers, printers, and mechanics. Every one of these opportunities has shrunk, and with rare exceptions such positions now demand more intellectual than manual skills.
When elevator operators were no longer necessary, building owners benefited, but no jobs appeared to help those who had the people skills, the watchful eyes, and the desire to help that characterized elevator operators. Displaced operators rarely found positions that gave them a salary, a purpose, a role in society, and self-image and worth. Poor fit, rather than inherent failure.
Whether poor fit or failure, we have not sat idly by. We have attempted numerous initiatives, strategies, and policy changes over the last few decades: role models, phonics, new math, bilingual education—the list is long.
None of these attempts were complete failures, and none were complete successes. Most important is the fact that there are millions of children who still need help. This is why our best minds and our most nimble education researchers must begin to think out of the box, and perhaps beyond the classroom.
We must carefully analyze the traditional K-12 educational process. What is it that takes place in the active, maturing mind that we identify as “learning,” and what are the essential elements of content we feel are necessary for the functioning citizen? Are there alternative structures leading to the same outcomes? Can we devise an educational process that provides the same kind of intellectual development as the K-12 curriculum, but which is not related to age, but rather to student interest, motivation, and focus?
As part of this re-examination of educational processes, we need new ideas, flexible thinking, mini-experiments that are scientifically valid. We must look at the totality of a young person’s life, extracting learning opportunities and measurable outcomes, which can be organized and guided so that those who fail in our structures might succeed in some other.
We must think about children as individuals, rather than members of an undifferentiated whole. Children have different likes, talents, desires, and potential, and must be treated as such.
In the end, we must find strategies and educational arrangements for teaching young people according to their needs, rather than according to ours.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Not Too Adept at the Monkey Bars