Nine Lies about Academic Achievement that Parents and Teachers often Seem to Believe—but Don’t Really.

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.

Why? Fear.

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:

  1. Life is a race to the top
  2. Academic achievement is the ticket to the top. (test scores/brandname colleges)
  3. It is all about ability, and there are 3 kinds of kids: gifted, normal and those who learn differently.
  4. 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.)
  5. You can get a head start by starting the race early: preschool, birth, pre-natal.
  6. The sooner you get started in the race, the greater the likelihood you will end up high on the pyramid—and be happy.
  7. Parents have the power to get their kids to turn out the way they want them to.
  8. Education is about shaping your child or a bit like getting your child through the eye of the needle.
  9. 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.

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17 thoughts on “Nine Lies about Academic Achievement that Parents and Teachers often Seem to Believe—but Don’t Really.

  1. Well thought out post and you raise some very interesting questions. It does seem some times that the”left hand” does not know what the “right hand” is doing…or maybe is too afraid to ask. How can we balance the need for self discovery with the need for standardized education?

  2. Thank you, Steve. This is a wonderful question, and so glad you asked. You just pointed to myth number 10, a big one, which maybe at the core of our culture’s fear-based-blindness:

    10. Self-discovery and standardized education are at odds.

    We seem to feel that children don’t want to learn, acquire and practice adult standards. But when you think about it, that doesn’t make sense. Of course they do. They just want to be in charge of their own learning and avoid embarrassment.

    How do you balance on the knife-edge of what seems to be a dichotomy? Stop seeing it as a dichotomy. How? That is what good teaching is. There are many great methods, and the hallmark of all of them is that they keep the student in the driver’s seat.

    (I am talking about early-childhood and elementary teaching. If a student goes on to high school loving learning, with the disciplines to serve that love properly, such students can handle all sorts of “imposed” standards—in fact they welcome them.)

  3. Yes! Thanks, Rick, for being an essential voice in reconnecting us to what we all intuitively know to be true. The misalignment between what we most deeply value for our children and ourselves — and what we are actually doing in K-12 education reform — is at once our greatest challenge and opportunity.

  4. This is a great message. I am torn by these conflicting ideas every day as an educator and as a parent of kids in elementary school. I may soon be dropping out as a teacher and become a home schooling parent/teacher.

  5. Don’t drop out. All kids need educators! (Well, of course you can. but how are you experiencing the problems?

  6. Yeah! Don’t drop out … at least not forever. I am speaking as one who has taught in many different environments. In some I have screwed up so phenomenally that talking about it is like talking about gastro-intestinal problems. I’d like to be the kind of guy that doesn’t have these problems, even though if I didn’t, there would probably be a lot worse things wrong with me, and being able to confess to other teachers/diarrhea-sufferers and hear them confess back really always seems to be the factor that determines how long I stick to a job. I applaud your initiative in shifting the practice of your art over into a different theater, where maybe the fruits of your labor will be easier to enjoy. What may happen, though, is that having regrouped and recharged, and having enjoyed the opportunity to hone your skills in a safer setting, you will get an inkling to hurl yourself back at the windmills of mass education. I would say, look for a team of folks you respect on some level, and pick a boss like my Dad who will back you up and give you room to innovate. AND respect yourself. Shop arround. As someone with a knack for teaching, the local public school is not the only option — nor is the local private, community college, university, corporate training firm. If your client/school/contractor treats you badly, assert your rights or seek out a better situation. If they want professionalism from you, they need to start from the premise that you are a professional.
    I’m off topic, aren’t I. Dad, this particular entry is the best I’ve seen, even though I think that flies in the face of what I and others have said before which is that you are at your best when you build each piece around an anecdote. But you really drilled down to the heart of the matter this time. It’s almost like you’ve buried your lead beneath two or three volumes of writing. Or maybe this is your new book — “how can we create the kind of nurturing environment for ourselves that allows us to create a nurturing environment for our kids?”

  7. It just begs the question how do we determine the right learning environment for our children??? My daughter is 7, just finished the 1st grade and we had an awful year. I sought counseling and the counselor has suggested I move her to the Montessori school here. My daughter is very artistically driven but is almost always punished for this outlet. When I suggested to her teacher she be allowed to doodle while she taught, (which was suggested by my daughters therapist), I was shot down with the, if I let one I must let all attitude. We had many numbers of behavioral problems and I feel like my daughter is bored and just not being taught in a manner that fits her. I feel like she is being stuffed in a box and she isn’t stupid. All her teachers are always impressed by her broad vocabulary…she is well spoken for a 7 year old. We don’t force her to use big words like abrasion, we just don’t talk to her like she’s a baby, and we break it down to her level when she asks what a big word means. My daughter has a complex thought process and is always surprising me with her problem solving skills. There are things she does that make me pause and say, I would never have thought of that. It is frustrating as a parent to keep having to get onto her because she isn’t making it in a traditional school, but besides home-schooling, which I don’t always think is the best option, what other choices do I have???

  8. Shana, This is very painful to read. It’s a beautiful, terrible example of why things must change.
    1) What would be so bad if all the students doodled while the teacher taught? It would most likely help them remember. What are they doing instead> taking notes? they are in first grade!!!
    2) Keep calling the teacher and principal’s attention to what is not working. Keep insisting that they see your child for who she is. She should not be bored!!!
    3) What about the montessori school?
    4) where is this? what’s the school
    5) You are in good company. I have this crazy fantasy that a whole bunch of parents will march right down there and insist that they start delivering education
    6) I wish I could say something useful. This is so frustrating!!!
    I am sorry. Keep supporting her.
    Is there a gifted and talented program around? I feel so powerless to help your daughter.

  9. Shana, I don’t know if you have already tried this, but one thing you might try to do is request a particular teacher if your school allows this. I am a teacher and I am aware of other teachers who do not budge on certain things, but I and other teachers like myself aren’t like that. If you can find the right teacher, you can find one who is flexible and understands how to make this work when you suggest it. If it were me, I would allow her to try it out and see how it worked, probably sit her in the back if she is a distraction to others. If she can show participation through oral responses, etc. then it clearly is a good benefit for her. If possible to request, ask parents who had a 2nd grader last year which teacher they had and find out their experiences. At our school, you can request and change requests by demand as a taxpayer even into the first week of school. If the class if full to the max, ask the administrators if there are any exceptions and perhaps explain the situation, such as she is need of someone trained in GT practices, etc. If it cannot be resolved, you might ask who is next on the chain of command (superintendence, school board members) as you are not yet satisfied with the answer you have received. Sometimes persistance can help.

    Thank you for your article, Rick. It is very affirming to read and fuels the fire for my passion to teach authentically, which when done well, hits all needed targets. I love the saying, shoot for a high target because if you miss, you may still hit near it, but if you have a low target, you may not even meet that. I enjoyed that exchange between you and your son, I thought there was something unusual about the writer’s tone of voice. It all made sense when I realized it was your son!

  10. Also, Shana, on another note, if you haven’t already, you might check your district’s policy related to parent requests/concerns that aren’t resolved to your satisfaction. In our school, there is an option to write a grievance which when one feels called to it, can be a way to solve your problem to your satisfaction. Best wishes to you and your daughter!

  11. Thanks Rick the above myths are as Byron Katie would say are uninvestigated beliefs (a belief is a chronic thought). This is a great list of assumptions about education that underpin the daily efforts of educators and parents everywhere. Yet clearly they are untrue!

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