How to Exercise Authority
Of the 20 schools I visited last fall, two stand out. Any parent would know in the first five minutes of each visit what I knew: I want my child in school A, and I will fight like hell to keep my child out of school B. One was a place of education and one felt like a prison. I will call one The Learning Academy and the other Brand X.
In The Learning Academy all kids were on a mission, they seemed lit from within with the joy of learning. In two hours I saw no bored or unhappy students, and they were all engaged in challenging academic work. Each classroom exuded creativity—in every corner of every classroom.
In Brand X I saw three students in the hallway and one in the principal’s office “being disciplined.” The incidence of enthusiasm was so low I had to search for it and never found it. There was a debate at the doorway of one classroom about whether or not the child actually had to go to the bathroom—the teacher lost. I saw three students ambling to or from the bathroom. It felt like so much energy was going into keeping bad things from happening, that there wasn’t much energy going toward good things happening.
I left The Learning Academy singing “…and I think to myself, it’s a wonderful world.” I left Brand X not singing. Need I say anything about the test scores at each school? What would be your guess?
We wish we could say that Brand X was an aberration, but we know that’s not true. We know that Brand X is actually the norm along a continuum from not-that-bad to horrifying.
The fundamental difference between the two schools is also at the core of the debate aroused by Amy Chua: the exercise of adult authority in the lives of children. People are talking, writing, blogging and tweeting about it so much because we are in the middle of a cultural shift and searching for a new way. Americans don’t want to be authoritarian anymore, …but what?
“We’re supposed to just let kids do their own thing? That kind of sixties-liberal crap was bankrupt long ago.”
“To prepare our children for a harsh, demanding, competitive world, …well, I don’t know, but at least Amy Chua has a point.”
“You have to make demands, push them to practice, have high expectations, say No a lot, and….”
“How can you have responsibility without control?”
But the opposite of something bad (like authoritarianism) is often something worse.
Our confusion about the exercise of authority interferes with our proper delivery of the only three things kids need after food and safety: 1) love, 2) decision-making and 3) accurate feedback on their decisions. So many mistakes I have seen parents and teachers make in the last thirty-five years stem from this confusion, and in my last year in the blogosphere I can see these mistakes articulated in writing. Do we hold kids accountable or back off? Do we love them as they are or push them to try harder? And so on and so on…???
Is it possible to exercise our adult authority in such a way that we don’t interfere with our children’s authority? Can we take full responsibility for the education of our children without controlling the love of learning right out of them? Is it possible to be the authority in such a way that we actually increase our children’s authority. Is there a way that everyone’s authority can keep going up all the time?
Yes. The key to the door of our authority prison is this: Don’t underestimate children. Act as if this child has a genius, a teacher-within with whom we can form a partnership. The Learning Academy’s culture is built around seeing children for what they really are: creative, decision-making machines whose central purpose is to self-actualize, to become authorities.
Kids trying to accomplish something actually want feedback positive and negative. They welcome hearing Right! Wrong! Yes! No! What makes BrandX a prison is that the students experience “success and failure as reward and punishment.” In The Learning Academy students experienced success and failure as information. (Jerome Bruner via Joe Bower).
Seeing children as creators liberates the adults to be what the kids want: Someone who loves me as I am and will tell me the truth.