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Daphne Goes to School

It was a hot day on the upper west side of Manhattan. I had just dropped my freshman stepdaughter off in her dorm room at Columbia University and was experiencing a rare and marvelous moment of directionlessness. Daphne, age five, stood at Broadway and 114th at a table with her father and held a sign saying “Lemonade 50 cents.”

I said, “Wonderful. Lemonade. Perfect thing on this hot day. How much does it cost?”
“Fifty cents,” Daphne replied with a smile.
“Fifty cents. That’s cheep. Can I have a glass?”
“Certainly,” said Daphne.
I gave her a five-dollar bill, and she reached into the zippered purse around her neck, giving me back two quarters.
“But I gave you a five,” I said.
“Do you have four dollars?” asked her father, reaching into the purse himself without waiting for an answer. He gave her four ones, which she gave to me with a big, proud smile. She seemed so thrilled by the whole experience that the actual mathematics of the affair was by no means her primary interest.

Adding and subtracting money is not in the standard curriculum until 2nd grade, because “educators” don’t want five and six-year-olds to be challenged beyond their capability. The assumption that we will hurt or discourage Daphne by over challenging her is embedded in our schools and has not been adequately examined.

The next customer gave Daphne a dollar bill and Daphne pulled out two coins. She handed a quarter and a nickel to the man, who said, “I need two quarters.” Daphne responded appropriately with a big smile on her face.

Nothing succeeds like success? No. Nothing succeeds like play. Children try and fail, shoot and miss, over and over when they are having fun, when they are about some business that they find intriguing, valuable, meaningful. The critical factor is a social climate where it is O.K. to make mistakes.

When they enter kindergarten, children are ready for anything except boredom. Covering the curriculum is easy if the activities are rich and complex and the atmosphere playful. However, if each five-year-old has to master a long list of bits of skills by the time they enter first grade, and if these unnecessary restrictions continue through third grade, we will have burned them out by sixth grade. It is remarkable that most children are still respectful of their teachers by then, since the approach of the standard American school is so disrespectful of children and their considerable abilities.

In “Playing to Learn” Susan Engel at Williams College writes:

“Our current educational approach — and the testing that is driving it — is completely at odds with what scientists understand about how children develop during the elementary school years and has led to a curriculum that is strangling children and teachers alike. …
“Simply put, what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college, but to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on.”

My stepdaughter got into Columbia University not because the multiplication tables were drummed into her, but because she had the good fortune to go to a school that understood what Susan Engel understands. The teachers knew that learning place value and borrowing is only part of learning to subtract a two-digit number from a three-digit number, and that learning to subtract is a miniscule element of mathematics. They never ceased to challenge her with as much complexity as they could. We all knew that music, dance, physical education, art, theater, environmental education and community service are essential for full brain development and not optional “enrichment classes.” We know that recess and “down time” are critical, not optional.

Daphne’s mother was happy to tell me that she was one of the lucky ones to get into one of the “good” public schools in New York. I wish that “good” meant the same to everyone; i.e. a place of high learning, a cooperative place where it’s safe for each child to develop and discover his or her own peculiar, unique genius.

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5 Responses to “Daphne Goes to School”

  1. Martin Fletcher September 13, 2010 at 5:37 pm #

    “Nothing succeeds like play.” I’m interested that you called the exchange with Daphne play. My 11 year old and I were in the supermarket yesterday and we were looking at cereal boxes. We were comparing box sizes, serving sizes, doing math, discussing marketing, etc. When we finished, I noticed a self-satisfied smile from Griffin. Is that play? It seems like it.

  2. Rick September 13, 2010 at 6:12 pm #

    Well, you and I would call it play. What nails it is that Griffin acted as if it were play. He was playing. He was using more of his brain and more of himself than if he were sitting at a desk trying to remember the formula for volume. It the context of the store, all you had to do make sure the curriculum were also covered is say, “Now Grif, what is the formula for volume? Have they taught you that in school yet?” Designing the next generation of computers can be play–in fact, isn’t that the atmosphere that good tech companies try to engender?

  3. Dawn September 15, 2010 at 4:41 am #

    This post is so much in sync with what I saw in the public schools in my area. Teachers are so pressured to cover everything that students are actually discouraged from asking questions which somehow “go beyond” the object of the lesson. We’re actually teaching them not to think critically when we place more value on time limits than divergent thinking.

    I also couldn’t agree more that “the critical factor is a social climate where it is O.K. to make mistakes.” Students should not be made to feel like there’s such a thing as a silly question, and the focus should be on learning from mistakes. Instead of being in the “hot seat” when they don’t answer in a way the teacher likes, the whole class should be able to think through the process together, and bounce around different ways of looking at something.

    Thank you for calling our attention to a situation that’s hardly ever talked about.

  4. Rick September 15, 2010 at 5:11 am #

    Yup. The difference between education and mere schooling: Is the name of the game getting the right answer? if so, education will be inhibited.
    The defenders of the status quo (which has been demonstrated over and over to be bankrupt) come back with: “but they need to know what’s right and what’s wrong. They need to know facts.” as if that’s where the disagreement is. It’s not. It’s whether or not education will develop the whole brain so that children can function fully in an ever changing world? That is the question. We must start by treating all children as if they already come to us with a brain. We are stewards of those brains for the time we are with them.
    Thank you.

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