Nine Lies about Academic Achievement that Parents and Teachers often Seem to Believe—but Don’t Really.
Why do Americans want one set of things for our children and then behave as if we want another? Parents and teachers I talk to want their children to be self-confident learners who are good at working with others, and they want school to help with this.
Of course we want our children to read, write and learn the language of mathematics, but we want much more, too. We want them to learn the requirements of our family and our society and to become active participants—leaders, actually—in an increasingly democratic world. We want them to grow up with self-discipline, respect for others, critical thinking, self-confidence, resilience, a love of learning, and the internal motivation to make something of themselves. We want them to be people who take responsibility and make a positive difference to others, their community, and the world, …and the world needs people who think creatively—now more than ever.
When it comes to school, however, we often behave as if all we care about is test scores and what colleges our children attend. In urban systems our expectations drop even lower to things like “Our goal is for all students to be at or above grade level.” We are even blind to the obvious fact that such a goal is impossible and self-defeating.
When we are confident and courageous, we act as if authenticity matters. We trust the part of us that knows that success and happiness depend on pursuing your own calling and finding your own niche in society. We realize that great colleges are looking for leaders, people who think creatively and make a difference. We, therefore, act as if we believe in the genius of each individual child and encourage them not to lose sight of their own personal mission as they find their fit in society. We create environments at home and at school that value inquiry and are open to the wisdom of silly questions. Achievement is put in its proper place as a subset of learning. We have a sense of humor.
In an atmosphere of fear, however, our minds are taken over as if by an evil empire dominated by a social pyramid where life is a race to the top. In this model it is quite reasonable to be afraid that some children will be left behind. In fact in this model the vast majority of children will be left behind, and only a few will make it to the top—it’s a pyramid, right?
We seem to believe the many myths of this model–lies like:
- Life is a race to the top
- Academic achievement is the ticket to the top. (test scores/brandname colleges)
- It is all about ability, and there are 3 kinds of kids: gifted, normal and those who learn differently.
- The race starts in kindergarten with kids at ZERO (even though by the time they walk into their first kindergarten classroom and are asked to sit in a circle, they have already been researchers, scientists, detectives and problem-solvers for over 43,000 hours.)
- You can get a head start by starting the race early: preschool, birth, pre-natal.
- The sooner you get started in the race, the greater the likelihood you will end up high on the pyramid—and be happy.
- Parents have the power to get their kids to turn out the way they want them to.
- Education is about shaping your child or a bit like getting your child through the eye of the needle.
- Worst of all, academics is something you wouldn’t naturally like, and therefore you have to sacrifice your imagination, your inquisitiveness and your self to get through the eye of the needle to the next level of academic achievement.
When we shift to the dark side we forget that even if all we wanted for students were high test scores, they would still need a fully developed, creative, self-confident, problem-solving brain to get there. We seem to forget that most colleges are looking for creative people who love learning, are good at working with others, and comfortable in their own skin, …and a sense of humor wouldn’t hurt.
We come by the pyramid model honestly. It used to be generally understood that in a competitive world you had to be better than the competition. Today, however, it has become common knowledge in business that the best way to be successful in a competitive world is not to compete. How do you do that? Be unique. Good businesses find their own “hedgehog concept” and their own market niche. Good schools help students find and develop their interests, passions, and loves.
The best way to fight the fear is to see children as they really are. They already have the force within them. All those hopes and dreams we have for our children? Children are already on it—from birth. Even those natural A-type, competitive kids who seem to want to win all the time, can learn that the best way to win AND be happy is to develop your own internal standards.
When home and school change the name of game to nurturing a child’s genius, all kids win. Many of the disciplines of nurturing a child’s genius are spiritual disciplines that free us from our fear.