Are Kids Failing in School or Are Schools Failing Our Kids?
The third grade teacher posed five questions to her class: “What is your favorite color? What is your dream job when you grow up? When I grow up, I hope to live in…. What is your favorite sport? What is your favorite pet?” The students wrote down their answers on a piece of paper. Then she handed out a one-page form that asked the same five questions and under each they had two choices with boxes to check: Red or blue. Doctor or carpenter. Chicago or London. Tennis or fencing. Rat or fish.
When they were done, she asked them how they felt when neither box was right for them,
and the eight-year-olds reported many bad feelings: unsure, anxious, irritated, uncomfortable, powerless, pressured, frustrated, angry, disrespected, confused, annoyed, not seen, limited. A wide ranging discussion ensued about choices and limitations, being the self you are and the self you want to be.
This school is different from the one I went to. I remember sitting in the middle of rows of wooden desks full of my classmates all facing the teacher in front of the blackboard with a yellowy sheet of paper in front of me. In the middle of the page were four pictures: a dog, a cow, a pig, a chicken and above them was the instruction: “Circle the one that doesn’t belong.” I circled dog.
The teacher asked for answers and someone said, “Chicken.”
“That’s right,” she said. “Did anyone circle anything else?”
I raised my hand and said, “I circled dog.”
“Dog? Why?” she asked.
“Because a dog is not a farm animal.”
I tried to defend my decision, but the teacher simply said: “No. The chicken is the only one with two legs. The others have four.” I felt frustrated, misunderstood, disrespected, embarrassed and limited.
Teaching right answers, correct spelling, and useful skills is, of course, one of the functions of school, but the business of school is to open minds. The problems our children will face–let alone the ones we face today–require creative thinking. And yet, regardless of mission statements, too many schools are shockingly similar to the school I went to. Replace the wooden desks with tables and still, today, the name of the game in most schools is Maximize Right Answers and Minimize Wrong Answers.
Sir Kenneth Robinson calls for a revolution in education claiming that mere reform will not do the trick. I agree. Efforts at school reform, which have been ongoing since I left elementary school 50 years ago, will continue to fail, because they do not get at the root cause of the problem: the very understanding of the business of education. Schools will continue to mis-educate until they redefine their core business as: “Leading each person’s genius out into the world to function effectively and gracefully within it;” for genius is the seat of creativity and meaning. Until then, they will continue to be systems for sorting losers from winners, rather than workshops for creative, confident minds.