All Kids Love School

What? Really?

My seatmate on a plane to Chicago the other day was Frank, and as you can imagine, we talked about schooling and education. After a while he said, a little timidly: “Well, I don’t think school is for everyone, do you?”

I had to think.

My first reaction was that school should be for everyone. But then I thought, why? People go into a wide variety of endeavors and the straight academic fare of school was often not very helpful. Not only was it not very helpful, but it also made some feel valueless, stupid–like losers. Frank had just said so. He was a real estate investor, and had learned all the mathematics, the problem solving skills and the creative genius one needs for his business after school. In fact, he had to overcome what school had taught him.

To be successful what does Frank need to do? Analyze and synthesize market data. Read market signals. What is the mood? What do people want? How are people reacting to national socio-political economic conditions? He must hear what his seller says and understand what he really wants and why, in order to arrive at a price that is both profitable and fair.

He has to be able to evaluate his investments over time. He needs to see value and potential where others don’t see it, because if he only invests in what is obviously a good investment he will never create the opportunities that bring the big return. He has to calculate the cost of getting the capital from different sources—investor equity, bank borrowing, cashflow from operations–each source has a different cost. Then he has to have returns that exceed this cost. He needs to calculate this not just once, but repeatedly as the environment changes. He not only has to be really, really good at mathematics, but also to understand the human side of economics.

To be a good real estate investor Frank has to be learning all the time, he has to think creatively every day. This is actually what Frank likes about his job, but he learned it out of school, because school was not about learning and creative thinking, but about getting right answers, boredom and failure. His schools hadn’t taught any of the disciplines mentioned above as creative endeavors. When schools are failing, this is how they are failing.

So I said: “The way some schools are, I agree, school is not for everyone, and I think it is regrettable. I think school should be for everyone.”

In August, I visited three independent schools.  These schools were alive with learning. They were running Horizons National summer programs for inner city kids. I saw kindergartners, elementary school kids, middle schoolers (some looked almost like adults), all doing academics—and loving it. Huh? Doing school in the summer and loving it?

All kids could love school if we did it right. Independent schools are successfully charging more than $20,000 for the education they deliver for students during the school year. There is practically an inelastic demand for these schools because the educators in them send the students home every day loving learning. Horizons National is proving that these delivery systems work for everyone, not just the chosen.

When prospective parents visit, wondering if they should spring for as much as $30,000 a year to send their little loved one to school, they see happy children who have their noses in academics and loving it. This is all they need to see to decide to spend the money. This kind of education is being provided for about one percent of the 50 million children in school this year. Why not everyone?

Some might answer immediately: “Obviously. It costs too much and therefore is not for everyone.” Surely, poor public schools need more money, and yes, Americans should invest more in education, but all the money in the world won’t change anything unless we engage children’s innate love of learning.

Ken Robinson is right that our schools are designed by academics as a training ground for academic behavior. Those who do well go on; those who thrive go on to get PhD’s; so school becomes a social sorting device. But how many PhD’s does the world need? Robinson is right: we need a revolution.

But what about accountability? Right, let’s talk accountability. Here’s what I would hold schools accountable for: all kids love to go to school. Sure, maybe it is impossible for kids to love every minute of every day, but couldn’t every day include lots of minutes that they love? Let’s start talking about what it would take for every student to love to go to school.

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8 thoughts on “All Kids Love School

  1. I have known many people like Frank. As an undergrad in Ann Arbor, some of the smartest people I knew never matriculated. They read. They discussed ideas w/ friends. They were very curious. They sought out great films, good books, university productions/exhibitions, etc. For them, learning happens out in the real world. Some of them were home schooled or attended an alternative education school called Community High in Ann Arbor. I think we need to abandon the notion that teaching is something that adults “do” to children.

  2. My brother and I went to the same schools, and had many of the same teachers. I LOVED school, he HATED it. How did this contact with the same school and same teachers turn out to be such a different experience?

    Michael started off extremely curious. He wanted to learn everything he could. He taught me to read – he was 6 and I was 4. What changed? We moved from the east to the west coast, and Michael went from private parochial school where he was learning in both English and French, to a public school in Oceanside, CA, where he was probably a grade ahead of everyone. Instead of differentiating for his abilities, the teacher made him sit still and quiet while she made him backtrack through a pile of stuff he’d already learned. What does a rambunctious, bored 7-year-old do? Of course, he found ways to amuse himself – to the distraction of his classmates, and the fury of his teacher, who sent him to the principal for punishment. (And in those days, it WAS punishment – Mike was paddled for his “misbehavior”.) When my mom explained that Mike was bored, she was asked if she was a teacher. Since she wasn’t, she was told that the “teachers knew what was best for their students”. Apparently what was best for Michael was snuffing out the bright spark of his curiosity, because that year extinguished whatever love of learning he might have developed.

    Michael is “extremely bright” – it says so on almost every one of his report cards for the next 10 years. His teachers recognized it. Our parents recognized it. We all recognized it. Unfortunately, Michael had “learned” that being “extremely bright” meant sitting still in a classroom while others plodded along trying to catch up. It lost its cache’.

    When I became a teacher, I thought often of Michael, especially when my students would act up. It always made me think of what I could be doing differently. How can I engage them in this lesson so they enjoy it? My daughter is now learning to teach English in Thailand, and she wrote that the school cautions against “edutainment” – people who sign up to teach only to have the opportunity to live in a foreign country rent-free and do nothing but entertain the kids, delivering no content. Education is obviously not meant to be entertaining, but there is a certain amount of “edutainment” that can be produced in a lesson to “hook” the learner. One kindergarten-first grade teacher I know has lots of different hats – 26 in all! Yep, they each represent a letter of the alphabet, and she wears a different one every Monday to introduce the letter of the week. The kids cannot WAIT to get to school on Monday to see what Ms. Docto is wearing! My kids’ chemistry teacher started off a Back-to-School Night presentation the same way he did his first lesson with the kids – with a flashpowder “explosion”. Everyone asked, “How did you do that?” We were all riveted, especially when he told the kids that they were going to learn how to do that and more. The kids couldn’t WAIT for chemistry! Their French teacher had them listen to and translate French pop and Rap music, and their World History teacher divided the kids into a medieval hierarchy with kings, nobility, tradespeople, and serfs, and had them create a Medieval village. Education? Certainly! Entertaining? Certainly! Was it all entertaining? Absolutely not, but there was enough “entertainment” to ENGAGE the students, and once they’re engaged, they’ll learn.

    Engaging the kids isn’t that hard. It takes a bit of thought, (okay, sometimes a LOT of thought!), and a bit of creativity, and there are lots of resources out there that can help with the creative side. Maybe that should be a required class in all teacher education programs – Creativity 101. You can’t find that in a textbook or teacher’s manual. You have to think outside the book, but once you do it a couple of times and feel the rush you get from having your students lean in and wait breathlessly for what you’re going to do next, you’re hooked! YOU can’t WAIT to see what they’re going to do with the next lesson!

  3. Children learn a lot more than academics at school. they learn socialization, structure, group dynamics, observation, presentation, peer acknowledgment and discovery, a sense of the individual qualities of themselves and others to name a few. I applaud parents who do a good job home schooling, especially when it is coupled with interaction at a community, cultural, church or other center where children can appreciate what they have in common and what distinguishes them from others. Granted that there are successful non schooled individuals. But schooling, like species and societies is evolving. Good schools of today are no longer the 3-R by rote institutions many of their predecessors were. Also, frank may be using more skills he learned in school than he realizes. My vote is that with perhaps some exceptions, everyone needs school in one form or another.

  4. But what actually makes a child love school? I don’t think kids love going to independent schools because they have a lot of resources. I think that kids love going to independent schools because loving school is the norm in the communities in which they live. Independent schools attract teachers and parents who are passionate about education, and who infuse that passion into all that they do. Parents who invest $20,000 in their children’s educations are going to do what they can to see that their investments live up to their potential. They will make sure that their children are getting the most that they can out of each hour that they are in the classroom because each hour is literally costing them between $15-$20. On the flip side, ironically, most independent school teachers are paid less than their public school counterparts. But, good teachers teach because they care about education, not money. Therefore, they place more value on being part of an educational community than they do on receiving a higher salary. Teachers teach in independent schools because their hard work, creativity, and innovation is valued and appreciated by the members of the community.

    That all being said, I don’t know what the answer is. Let me know when you figure it out!

  5. Louisa,
    I am so grateful for your comment, because you are voicing what most people seem to think. If the success of successful schools is based on the realities that affluent students love learning, affluent parents are passionate about education, attract passionate teachers, and make sure their investments (their children) pay off, then the situation is hopeless. But Horizons National programs, successful inner city schools, and other shining lights prove that a culture of passionate learning can occur anywhere with any group of kids, and that this culture of learning is what attracts teachers (many of whom are motivated to make a difference with those less fortunate) and parents of all stripes. I think you got to the heart of the matter in the second half when you talk about what a teacher wants; i.e. to be a member of and a contributor to a learning community. I am suggesting–no, I am claiming–that everyone wants to be part of a learning community, and that if a school commits to being a learning community, not only will almost all humans buy in, but this will be the thing that gets test scores to go up–for everyone. My claim is that where there is pervasive failure, there is failure of the educators to create a place of learning.
    Louisa, Marty, Lorrie, Bill, thank you for your contributions. I still maintain that all kids can love school if school is a place of learning because all humans want to learn–even those (of all SES) who have been burned out by school.

  6. Rick,
    I agree wholeheartedly with your comment that if schools are places of learning, then kids will love being there. So why aren’t they? I hear all the time politicians, teachers, parents claiming that, “Our schools are failing.” But what does that even mean? Realistically, schools are buildings. A truly failing school has a leaky roof. So when people talk about “schools failing” do they mean principals are failing? Teachers are failing? Teacher prep. programs are failing? All of the above?

    I feel consistently overwhelmed by the fact there seems to be no actual problem to solve. We use jargon like, “Our schools are failing,” to convey the message that something is amiss, but what is the real problem?

    At the end of the day, is it good enough to just be a good teacher in a classroom where my students want to spend their time or should I be doing more? What more can I actually do?

  7. Louisa,
    I have been working on your “I don’t know what the answer is. Let me know when you figure it out!” since you wrote it over a month ago. I found some answers which I put into “Teacher as Learner,” my November 3rd post. I felt a breakthrough with Martin Haberman’s “The Pedagogy of Poverty.” I’d love to know if you agree.

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