Friday, August 25, 2006

Is Formal Schooling Mere Crowd Control?

I was talking with a mom of young children recently, and she informed me she had decided to homeschool her kids. I told her I admire that decision because it takes serious commitment and dedication.

At any rate, this parent told me that formal schooling is really nothing more than crowd control. I immediately filed that statement away in the "to do" list of my mind so that I could give it further thought at a later date. At the time, I was standing in the produce section of King Soopers, not the ideal setting for deep contemplation.

I've had a couple weeks to think about what she said. And while I agree that there are areas of concern regarding formal (I can't say public, because this mom lumped all schooling together: public and private) education, I think it's an undeserved simplification to say that it's nothing more than crowd control.

I have wondered at times how much of the formal school day is spent actually learning. Figure in the time it takes to get to and from classes as well as the time spent having the teachers deal with "problem" students and other crises, and I imagine that percentage might be somewhat disappointing. And given that there are more than a handful of learning (and teaching) styles, it's inevitable that some students are not being taught in the way that would benefit them most.
A kid in Tuck's fifth-grade class was highly disruptive from the first day. I heard about this kid from other kids in class, too. How can a teacher effectively teach--or a student effectively learn--when a student's negative behavior demands so much attention (fortunately, Tuck has one of the most capable teachers in his school, and he's reported improvement of the situation)?

Formal schooling also does us no favors in terms of learning social skills. After just a few days in kindergarten, Bella has already been introduced to negative behaviors she's never had to deal with at home. For instance, at our house, no means no. No exceptions. No, don't touch me. No, don't tickle me. No, don't take my shoes and throw them around the playground. Other children in her class don't seem to understand the meaning of the word no, and she's frustrated by this lack of respect. As a parent, I am too.

And yet. Formal schooling as a journey isn't just about what kids learn from the books, lectures, and handouts. It isn't all about memorizing dates and names, or the details of wars and presidential administrations. Formal education, lacking as it may be in some areas, prepares our kids to live in the real world. It presents children with situations and scenarios they will eventually confront in life, and because they will have already traveled that road, they'll have the knowledge and experience to deal with them effectively. Granted, sometimes kids are forced to face situations much earlier than is healthy; the subject of last week's column (parents serving their young kids alcohol) is a prime example of this. But if parents are involved in their kids' lives, they can guide them through these difficult situations by sharing wisdom and insight to help shine a light on the path. I'd rather my children go through some of life's hardships while I'm still directly involved in their everyday lives than have them be bludgeoned with them as adults.

Formal schooling has other advantages. If they have dynamic and effective teachers, young people learn that what's good enough for one person is not acceptable for another. Throughout the years, Max has often complained that his teachers required more of him than he felt they did other, less capable students. I explained to him that that's how it is in the real world, too. I taught him that along with natural gifts comes a responsibility to use them to their potential. What needs to be looked at isn't the final result of an assignment or project so much as the effort put into it. One kid's best effort might mirror a half-hearted attempt by another kid. Despite Max's numerous "that's not fair" complaints, he realizes that fair doesn't always mean equal. He couldn't have learned that on a consistent basis by the age of 13 anywhere else.

Formal schooling, by its very nature, requires children to learn to deal with ignorant, loud, obnoxious, mean, lazy, arrogant, apathetic people--a skill necessary to get through life without blowing someone's head off. School is where kids will learn what works best for any given encounter: confrontation? ignoring and walking away? conflict resolution? I've seen this countless times with all 3 of my older kids. One of the kindest things anyone ever said about Max was that he gets along with everyone; yet if you talk to Max, you'd realize he's not one to suffer fools gladly. But he's already learned how to coexist in a healthy way with people he does not like or respect, and that will serve him well for the rest of his life.

But perhaps the most important thing formal education gives our children is the regular opportunity for learning self-control and taking responsibility. While there are a lot of kids who don't seem to grasp the concept that they are responsible for their own actions and choices, our schools are filled with children who obviously do. In school, students are immersed in situations that allow them the chance to participate or not, excel or not, do their best or not. And they learn that their choices directly affect the outcome of any given situation. Mom and Dad aren't there, supervising their behavior or learning, and teachers don't have time (nor should they take the responsibility) to babysit students by making sure they're doing what they should in the form of taking notes, listening, etc. Our students are making their own choices and living with the consequences; I think that's fantastic. If the results are disappointing, then parents and caregivers have a responsibility to step in. Ideally, they're already involved in their child's education anyway.

Choosing a child's educational direction is a personal decision; a parent has to do what s/he thinks is truly best for the individual child. Many people I've talked to believe homeschooling is just wrong; I disagree. I think homeschooling, given the right parents and the right circumstances, is a terrific option. I feel the same way about Montessori and Waldorf schools. No option, however, is perfect. And not all options are right for all students.

As in everything else involving kids, I think it comes back to the parent or primary caregiver. Know your kids, their strengths and weaknesses, and their abilities. Keep in touch with every aspect of their lives, even when doing so makes you feel like Sisyphus.

I believe we're luckier than the hopeless Sisyphus. Sooner or later, our labor will pay off. And our kids will reap the rewards.


Judith said...

As usual, your column was right on the mark.
My hope is that others will get weary of what happened in the past and move on to the importance of the future. Our children won't survive without the continued care of adults.
Not just our children, but put energy into those who don't have someone who can't or won't advocate for them

Judith said...

As usual, your column was right on the mark.
My hope is that others will get weary of what happened in the past and move on to the importance of the future. Our children won't survive without the continued care of adults.
Not just our children, but put energy into those who don't have someone who can't or won't advocate for them

Anonymous said...

Very well said, Rebecca. I have been fortunate enough to experience both homeschooling my children and them attending public schools here in Windsor. Formal schooling did and has prepared them for the real world and dealing with people on a daily basis. Home schooling gave them one on one attention and allowed more family time with learning incorporated in all activities including vacation time. The reason I choose to homeschool really had nothing to do with religious beliefs, curriculum, or the ability of teachers. It all came down to the administrator at the school and how unprofessional this person was/is. Windsor has a wonderful reputation for education, but the sad thing is, one school in particular has an administrator that has no business working with elementary school children. She is rude, unprofessional, gossips, and from my perspective has no skills for working with young children. She changes her mind as often as the wind changes directions and I would have to say in a school or situation like this, homeschooling is far better than three years suffering through and hoping each day your child doesn't have to deal with this persons inability to lead a school. Even with the outstanding teachers this school has, it is evident that there is tension and little or no morale due to its leadership. Formal education can be wonderful and so can homeschooling, if done properly.

Anonymous said...

Well put, Rebecca! I have friends, family members, and neighbors homeschooling their kids and in my experience, they never miss an opportunity to rub it in how much "better" it is than my kids attending public schools. I don't compete - I just look at their kids and worry for their future - for all the reasons you stated. Some of those kids, while smart kids, are really smart-alecs who will suffer for that attitude in the real world workplaces. I too have been very unhappy with some school personnel, and I took what action I could (no one was in danger in this situation) to remedy the situation - and got it done. Sure, there are more battles to be fought, but where in this world are there not. I have held jobs where everything wasn't to my liking and I had to choose my courses of action and the consequences. Sometimes I left, sometimes I had to learn to accept and deal with it. As much as we would like to - we can't rescue our children from every non-perfect situation. They must learn how to deal with an imperfect world where things don't always go their way. And trust me - watching my "babies" walk into their schools fills me with worry but I know that this is the only way for them to learn some of those really valuable LIFE skills. They know I will be there to support them, fight for them if necessary (and I have a special ed kid - I know what it means to have to fight for them) and help them find their way, but ultimately, I would be wrong to do it for them. I can only teach them so much - they must earn the confidence to survive on their own. It's a hard thing letting go of our babies, but not preparing them for real life and real situations is worse. So again, Rebecca, well said and thanks for saying it!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post, but I think you're falling into the "socialization" trap. Saying that homeschooled students don't get the opportunity to experience "real world situations" is fallacious.

Just as all public/formally schooled students aren't bullies and thugs, not all (or even most) homeschooled students live sheltered lives, unable to deal with real life situations.

I think the difference, though, is that homeschooled students are (generally) surrounded by caring adults who want to help them process/deal with those situations, while kids in school situations are competing with other students to get the one or two teachers' attention to help them with their problem (or their problem child).

Interesting as well is your description of what your youngest child has already learned in kindergarten. No where in my adult life have I had to deal with a person throwing my shoes across the room/playground, though I have had many who push my emotional boundaries!

I agree with the overall premise--that educational choices should be up to the individual family, and that bias/prejudice/judgement towards how other families choose to school is something to be questioned and discussed. Never ceases to amaze how ready most folks are to segment ourselves into us v. them cliques, no matter what the issue.

Deb K said...

Rebecca, I agree that parents know their children better than anyone and should carefully choose the right education for them.

I have had my children in private Waldorf School, public school and homeschool and for right now homeschool is what is best for my kids and our family.

My fourteen year old son attended public junior high for two years and has decided that he wants to have more time to read, write, and learn graphics programming (not offered at school). By homeschooling, he is afforded the opportunity to spend time doing things he loves, honing his skills at what he will probably do for a living (writing or computer programming). He volunteers for the library, takes a Latin class (also not offered at school), is reading “The People’s History of the United States”, studies Algebra and Geometry, spends many hours reading for pleasure and plays the violin in orchestra at his old school. My daughter is also following her bliss by taking dance and acting classes and performs in several plays every year. Homeschooling makes it much easier to have “extra-curricular activities” because you can homeschool the same stuff it takes the public school to do all day, in just a few hours every morning. This leaves the rest of the day for the child to pursue their dreams, be involved in the community, spend time with friends and family, enjoy a walk in nature, or read a book for pleasure. They have time to explore and enjoy ”the real world”.

Rebecca said “Formal education,…, prepares our kids to live in the real world” I have never had a job or been anywhere where I spent the whole day with people all the same age as me, where I had to hold up my hand to ask to go to the bathroom, had to get a hall pass to go get something I forgot, or had to perform endless multiple choice tests to secure my FUTURE. In the “real world”, my children learn to get along and interact with people of all ages in “real world” places.

Being locked in a brick building with people all the same age (and immaturity) as yourself for most of your day, does not seem very “real” to me. It seems unhealthy, boring and confining.

Rebecca wrote that formal education, “Requires children to learn and deal with ignorant, loud, obnoxious, mean, lazy, arrogant, apathetic people…” and “School is where kids will learn what works best for any given (social) encounter..” Trust me, obnoxious people are everywhere. My children learn to deal with difficult people in places like the park, play practice, Latin class, the grocery store, homeschool events, Library Teen committee, play dates and parties, club meetings, walking down the street. Most of the time, I’m not there to “rescue” them. They are on their own learning how to advocate for themselves. Just because I homeschool doesn’t mean I’m attached to my children. They have a life of their own. I’m just the guidance counselor / chauffer. I too am often told how kind and thoughtful my children are. Actually there seem to be many children that are homeschooled because sitting in a desk all day would be impossible for them or they struggle with social skills just like some people struggle with math. These kids are especially hard to deal with but my kids have had to learned how to handle themselves.

Rebecca wrote, “young people learn that what’s good enough for one person is not acceptable for another”. It seems like this is easily learned at home if there are siblings in the family. I’m not one of those parents that try to make everything fair between my kids. My son did not get an allowance until he was 12 but my daughter started getting an allowance at age 9. If I gave money to my son at age 9, I would find it in the drive way or on the kitchen counter. But at age 9, my daughter had a very tidy room with a place for everything and everything in it’s place. They are different and have different privileges. They don’t always like it but they understand it.

So mostly what I wanted to say is that I believe a parent’s job is to help children find their passion and to provide opportunities for them in those areas. My hope is that my children find jobs doing something that they truly love. I think having a broad general education is important but that can mostly be achieved by reading lots of good books (not text books). Isn’t it true that you tend to remember something you enjoyed doing more than studying for a fill-in-the-blanks test. I don’t think that everyone has to be good at everything. Is it really important for a dancer to know how to do calculus or to have excellent handwriting? I don’t think so, and making kids feel bad because they got a C in Algebra is destructive and inhumane treatment. (Especially if that child is destined to be an opera singer…really, who cares if she can do Algebra if she can sing ”Whence Happily She Came” (from La Boheme)?!!)

I believe homeschooling can teach children to be self-directed, community involved, socially skilled, well educated adults with a love for learning still intact. But of course this can happen in all educational situations – the parents are the key.

Saying that kids learn social skills or anything else only at school is just not true. The world is full of learning opportunities and formal education is just one of the many ways to learn and grow.

Rebecca Valentine said...

I think Deb made some great points,. I do, however, want to make clear that I never said the only place kids learn social skills and how to deal with the real world is through formal schooling. In my column, I explicitly state that I think formal schooling is not the ideal place to for children to learn social skills. But I do believe there are benefits to formal schooling, just as I believe there are those to homeschooling. As Deb said, parents are key.