There are kids who like school.
Why wouldn’t they? You get to see your friends again, and clubs start up, and you get fresh new clothes and school supplies. For kids who learn well in the public school environment, it means challenging new material. And if they’re excited about their teacher, sometimes the school year can’t get there fast enough.
Back in the day, I was not this kid.
The system failed me miserably, and here’s why.
The Problem Child
My parents dragged me to school with heels dug in and teeth clenched. It was a constant battle of excellent test grades against an abysmal homework record– always done, but never actually turned in. Reports were half-assed in subjects I didn’t like. Attention in class was directed elsewhere 90% of the time. When it comes up in polite conversation, my father laughs. Mom, with a smile that suggests mild PTSD, only says I was “a challenge”.
The phrase of the age was “if she’d only apply herself”. I’m no genius, but I’m smart– I could have easily done very well in school. But I was as stubborn and frustrated as I was intelligent, and I had better things to do with my spare time: write, or read, or study things I actually found interesting. While I regret some of that now (I should have paid more attention in Latin, and tried learning math on my own), I maintain that the problem was more with a rigid, horribly inflexible school system that teaches at the rate of the slowest students.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no desire to leave behind students who have a hard time keeping up. But that shouldn’t be at the expense of others. It leaves the struggling students embarrassed and the quick students bored. Or frustrated.
This was the pattern with me: I’d try to pay attention. I’d even be interested in the material. Except then we’d spend a week on what the scientific method is or how to recognize a triangle and I’d stop paying attention. I wouldn’t do the homework: I knew it already, why did I need to reinforce that? And while I wasn’t paying attention, they’d move forward, and I’d miss a logical jump or two, and suddenly I was lost.
Or worse, they wouldn’t jump ahead. And I would completely check out, ignore all assignments that we didn’t actually do in school, and end up failing a class I could teach.
My parents tried to deal with this. In middle school, they sent me to a school for gifted students. It didn’t turn out well: because the material was only more advanced, not taught in a different way, this only served to create a huge gap in my knowledge base. When I returned to public school for high school, I was suddenly re-taking classes I’d had at 12 and 13.
I knew it wasn’t working, so over my high school education I repeatedly asked my mother to try alternative teaching methods. She understandably refused: to the outside world I was brilliant but lazy, and anyone would think I was just trying to get out of something I hated. And yet: behind closed doors I was absolutely starving for knowledge. I spent most of my time reading history, building skills (writing, computer literacy, networking, volunteering), and generally filling out the areas where school failed me.
I know it now, but I didn’t then: I wasn’t alone.
There’s a movement gaining popularity among rich white people right now: “Unschooling“. The idea is that children learn naturally, and school itself is unnecessary. Kids learn through exploration and playing rather than a stricter school environment. Proponents argue that unschooled kids are more social. They have a better understanding of adults and a closer relationship to family members. And, for kids like Young Alex, it’s a lot more flexible.
Once you get past the initial shock, it makes a lot of sense. Kids don’t like it when you force them into a desk and make them do worksheets. At a young age, you’re not learning much you won’t learn through experience anyway: addition, subtraction, days of the week, how to recognize currency.
The problem comes when unschooled kids get older, and have to learn things like algebra and world history, or good writing and reading skills. Everyone has their natural inclinations: what if your unschooled kid doesn’t like math, and doesn’t learn that skill for the future? What if they can’t stand writing and end up completely illiterate? Not to mention how lonely it could end up being if you can’t afford to send them to other peer activities.
In fact, for young children it’s impossible unless one of their parents can stay home all day.
But what if your kids are old enough to take care of themselves?
In high school, I was completely ignorant of the term “unschooling”. I didn’t hear about the movement until I was well into college. Nevertheless, the solution I proposed to my parents was very similar to that idea: let me stay home, give me goals to work towards, and let me learn the material at my own pace. They could test me, I said, they could tell me what I had to learn, if only I was allowed to learn it my way.
In short: standardize the results, not the process.
I still really like this idea. If I ever win the lottery, I’d use it to found a school based on that idea. Give the kid an assignment: say, a module on the civil war would include a report on the economic causes, on the military strategies used, the immediate outcomes. Give the kid something to study, a deadline, and let them study it.
But that’s risky.
Yes, it is.
I recently heard someone call my generation the “trophy generation”; we always got a participation award, and our parents liked to show off how perfect we were. It’s no surprise that now, out of college, the group of kids who were always told they’d be above “flipping burgers” are now entitled and under-experienced. We’re the generation who thinks anything less than 100% on an exam is an F, any feedback short of praise is criticism, anything less than perfect is complete failure. We are so black and white.
So a little risk, a little responsibility for ourselves? Not a bad thing to teach. Let the kids scrape their knees and fall down a little. Make them work hard to catch up. Sure, this wouldn’t work for everyone. But the system we have in place doesn’t work for everyone either, and no one seems to have a problem with that.
Education is important, but it doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone who encounters it. People are unique– every one in all 7.046 billion of us– and we need to be able to adapt to that. At the moment, we aren’t doing a very good job.