Thursday, September 10, 2015

Schools Appropriate for Kids or Convenient for Adults?

Are schools set up to meet the needs of children or to be convenient for adults?

Think of a preschooler, any preschooler, describe that preschooler.  Odds are there will be descriptors like energetic, bouncy, loud, exuberant, excited, moody, thoughtful, playful, joyful, inquisitive...

Take that child and place him/her in a kindergarten (which resembles first grade more and more each year).  Tell that child to sit still, be quiet, listen to the adult talk, listen to the adult read, raise your hand, follow directions, line up, be neat, ask questions only at the appropriate moments...

Suddenly, many of the children are having "problem behaviors" because they are acting as if they are five years old, which they are. Humans, especially young ones, are a boisterous bunch. Many of the things we expect of them in school are contrary to human nature and possibly contrary to their individual nature.  Does this make them a problem child?  

 Is it reasonable to ask a child to sit for the better part of a day?  Is it healthy? No. Knowing what we know now about the human metabolism and obesity, should we be doing this? Probably not.  The chairs in a classroom are bought by the thousands, they are durable, easy to clean, and stack.  Are they a comfortable place to sit for the better part of six hours? No.  Just going to Back-to-School night for an hour or two is enough to remind me how awful the chairs are. Is it good for the kids?  Does it meet their physical needs? Nope and nope.

Once seated in those chairs a student must be still.  Fidgeting has discouraged in the classroom, now it has been shown to help the kids with ADHD focus on what is being taught. Some teachers get it, some do not, it is one of those "problem" behaviors, which often indicate a child is a kinesthetic learner, which means that the child learns best by moving and touching things. Kids who are dominant in this learning style can grow up to be excellent artists, mechanics, plumbers, engineers, inventors, dancers, athletes...if they survive the stigma of being the "bad" kid who can't follow directions and do their worksheet quietly, as their brains are starve for appropriate input. Is it good for the kids? Nope.

I worked (very briefly) in one school that had the most silent, still atmosphere that I had ever seen.  Walking through the halls while classes were in session was eerie, not even the teachers were doing much talking or moving about.  Everything was quiet and controlled, until lunchtime, when they herded several hundred students into the large cafeteria for lunch and the students went wild. Every. Single. Day.  Maybe the kids aren't the problem, hmmm?


It is easier for the adult to manage a large group of children if they are all seated and silent.  Do they learn oral language skills? No.  Are oral language communication skills one of the things employers are looking for in employees? Yes.  We are not teaching that, except in occasional lessons, it's an everyday thing though.

Are they encouraged to ask questions?  Surprisingly, no. They are just supposed to do as they are told, questioning the teacher is often seen as challenging the teacher.  The questions they come up with when asked to form questions are staid, because they are rarely asked to form good questions.  They are supposed to passively answer the questions, not actively seek out information in American classrooms. I have taught in several states, they all seem about the same.

Teachers complain the students aren't curious, sure they are, they have just been taught to shut that down in the classroom, because it gets them into trouble. If you give those same kids a scoop of moist forest soil full of critters or a scoop of pond water taken from the edge, they will ask all of the right questions when working in their small groups, but once the teacher asks them to share whatever questions they have the room goes silent.  I have walked around the room writing down the questions kids gush out when they are faced with something unfamiliar in a small group.  Then when I asked for their questions, there was only silence.  Then I pulled out my notes and told them what I had done during their small group observation, and worked with them to answer the questions that I had overheard. They seemed embarrassed at first when their question came up, but when it was taken seriously they seemed proud.  We should take kids' questions seriously, and listen more, they are asking them, just not in front of 25 other people.

During my years in the classroom I read research that stated that teachers ask the most questions in lessons and that most of those questions are rhetorical, never expecting an answer.  The quality of the questions posed by the students was low. I set out to teach my fifth and sixth graders how to ask good quality questions, it was a long, painful process.  They were very frustrated in the beginning, but as time went on they became more skillful.  Sometimes, I had them use the phrase, "I wonder why..." and "I wonder how" (excluding the use of the words --many or much).  The other technique was to ask a type of question that could not be answered with a "yes" or "no" response, or other single word responses.  The question had to elicit a story.  The moment of victory for me was during the sessions of career presentations that parents gave to the classes.  One of the students who had consistently performed below grade level, but who was starting to awaken in the classroom, asked a parent what she needed to do to prepare for her career.  Not "Do you like your job?" or "How much money do you make?", but a real question that required a bit of a story in response. This student then beamed as the next five minutes were devoted to answering his question. 

A few years later when I had moved out of the classroom and into a museum I was asked to judge science fairs and the biggest issue that I found with the projects was that the students' questions weren't any good or they just lifted a project from a book of science projects and didn't really care about it at all.  Some who had a bit of curiosity and interest in the project doomed themselves with poorly worded questions. We need to have the kids ask more questions, but this doesn't happen often, because it will sometimes lead the children into material that is not on the required test later that week.  Do employers need employees who can ask good questions? Yes.

Not every child thrives when they are constantly with others, especially in large groups. Are they allowed a few moments to themselves?  Usually, no. As an introvert myself, I remember feeling relief just being allowed to walk to the office to deliver a message (written on paper, imagine!) or to go to the restroom.  The hallways were blissfully empty and quiet and I felt I could breathe.  Luckily, I was deemed a reliable child and frequently was chosen to do these things, but not often enough. When I was older and stayed after school for extra-curricular activities, I felt the same way, the impenetrable crowds were gone (my school had several hundred more students than it had been designed for) and I could relax.  I enjoyed school much of the time, but nearing the end of the day I often was ready for everyone to go home, it was just too much stimulation.  Kids are not allowed time to themselves, they are thrown in with the herd and stay with the herd, all day. Is it good for the 50% of the kids who are introverts? Nope. Why are they in large groups?  It's cheaper.

School start times are another of my little peeves.  We've known for years that later start times are better for teens, they miss less school, have less car accidents, and get better grades if schools have a later start time.  Any parent of a teen knows that they just don't wake up early, they might be walking around because they have to, but they do a pretty good zombie impression.  Why do we have early start times?  Tradition, sports teams need the after school time for practice, it builds character, and it is convenient for the parents and teachers to have normal working hours.  Is it good for teens? Nope. How about sending the little ones, who tend to wake up at the crack of dawn (if given an appropriate bedtime) to school first? Then when the buses are freed up later, send the teens in to school.

Children who are given choices learn to make decisions.  Very few things are left to be decided by the children. Adults like to be in control, they control the kids walking in silent lines down the halls, they control the student's bodily functions by withholding the hall pass...The kids are assigned seats on the bus, they are assigned tables at lunch and have to earn the privilege to sit with their friends, they are given "assignments" that have little wiggle room in the manner in which they can be done.  My daughter says that the only choice she is given during the day is what to have for lunch, and since she brings her lunch most of the time, that is because I give her a choice.  She laughs at "the land of the free", she can't pee without permission. How are kids supposed to manage their own behavior if they are never given an opportunity to make a choice?  We want great decision makers--well then train some!!  Give them decisions, give them a bit of freedom!  Of course, some will not make the right decisions, but there is an opportunity to learn.  Will some abuse the privilege? Certainly. Let them face the consequences and let the others learn, rather suffocating all of the students.

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