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.