When did education become a Race to the Top? I mean, what a horrid metaphor for education. A race? Everyone is on the same track, seeing how fast they can go? What are we racing toward anyway? What’s at the top?
As a mom of a child who is nearing kindergarten age, I can’t imagine sending him on this soul-sucking journey where his joy and innate curiosity are drowned out by stress and pressure to learn.
I can’t imagine him sitting in a seat quietly with a pen in his hand.
Or having little time to play or engage with peers.
Or being told what to learn and how to learn and when to learn it.
I can’t imagine a full day of stimulation without means to transmute it only to come home and have more work to do.
I mean, we are talking about four and five-year-olds here! Yet the same could easily apply to our primary, middle, and high schoolers, too.
By this design, what messages are we downloading onto our children? Surely we will be priming them for the production-paced world our society has created. Surely we will be priming them to “fit in” and blend with the crowd while deauthorizing their own intuition and bliss.
But do we want them to fit into that narrative? To do more than be? Because what countless studies have shown is that our society is in a mental health crisis, and it starts young.
Everything I know about real learning has nothing to do with benchmarks and standards in which kids soldier on in the name of academic success. Development marches at its own pace. Every child - every human - has their own desired way to learn, think, feel, and see the world. When children are encouraged to amble along their own path, they have better long-term academic outcomes. And even more proud, better mental health.
“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions,” says Sir Ken Robinson, British author, speaker and international advisor on education in the arts to government, non-profits, education and arts bodies.
Not All Children Have Standardized Minds
Story after story, parents share that the traits considered “difficult” in the school setting are also their child’s superpower. I will tell you one here.
A young girl named Gillian could not sit still in school. She continuously got up, was distracted, and didn’t follow instructions. As a result, she was constantly in trouble for her inability to be “good” in the classroom environment. One day her mother was called to the school where they discussed this child having possible hyperactivity and potentially benefiting from medication.
But then something remarkable happened. During this meeting, a teacher arrived who knew the little girl. He asked all of the adults, including the mother, to follow him into an adjoining room from where Gillian could still be seen. As he left, he told Gillian that they would be back soon and then turned on an old radio with music.
Alone in the room, the girl immediately got up and began chasing the tunes. In the other room, the adults watched on with curiosity and perplexity. The teacher said, “See Gillian is not sick. Gillian is a dancer!” He recommended that her mother take her to a dance class and that his colleagues allow her to move her body from time to time.
After her first dance lesson, Gillian told her mother, “Everyone is like me. No one can sit there!”
In 1981, after a career as a dancer, opening her own dance academy and receiving international recognition for her art, Gillian Lynne became the choreographer of the musical "Cats."
The point of this story is to say that every child is unique. It is time to start seeing them for who they are, not what they lack. The misunderstood black sheep are among the ones who create so much beauty in this world.
A Different Educational Landscape
Our kids who are daydreaming or squirming in their seats or not listening or who show poor impulse control are being told that they are not behaving in ways that conform to the classroom. But perhaps their brain is not built for the standardized classroom.
When children have educational experiences that are not geared to their developmental level or in tune with their learning needs and cultures, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and confusion. The pass/fail mentality insinuates there is only one way to think, behave or learn. But it is not our children who are broken, it is the system built upon unrealistic academic and behavioral expectations at such a young age.
When we look to other countries, we see an entirely different educational landscape, and it seems to be working. Let’s take a look at Finland, a country rich in intellectual and educational reform that has initiated over the years a number of changes that have completely revolutionized their educational system. They have improved in reading, math, and science literacy over the past decade in large part because they understand and respect a child’s development, and they trust teachers to follow their intuition in leading their class.
Finnish children normally enter preschool education at the age of six and comprehensive school at the age of seven. These kiddos spend most of their time engaging in either free or structured play; not filling out worksheets, reading sight words, writing, or arithmetic.
Instead, they focus on life’s foundational skills of communicating with peers and making friends, managing emotions, channeling creativity, and exploring the outdoors. The goal here is not to prepare children for school academically but to cultivate healthy, happy, and curious children. In doing so, ironically, they prepare children for academic success.
But the differences don’t stop there.
Every Finnish citizen is guaranteed free child care and free education and the preschools are high in quality. Here in the US, many children do not have access to preschool, let alone good ones. Because quality is scattered, it often comes at a higher cost, further disenfranchising the poor.
School days in Finland are shorter, on average only five hours. Those five hours are not broken up by subject because lessons are interdisciplinary, which means that children are often covering multiple core subjects at once. Because this is less repetitive than seatwork, children are likely to be more engaged in their learning.
Throughout Finland, kindergarten teachers and parents meet during the fall to make an individualized learning plan, shaped by each child’s interests and levels of readiness. I repeat each child’s interests and levels of readiness. Isn’t that amazing?
While students in the US. are expected to start reading in kindergarten, even if they are starting school with no early reading skills, Finnish children often don’t read until they are seven or eight years old, and it is often done through the guise of play.
Also, unlike the American school system, there are no standardized tests. No need for the Scantron because the Finnish system is focused on an innate love of learning rather than an obligation to regurgitate facts on a test form.
And one of the biggest differences is the Finnish teachers. There is a vast difference in qualifications, pay, and support. While most US teachers are alone with a large class, Finnish teachers spend much of their time working together. It really gives the “community” feel to the school community.
Our children are not meant to fit into a box. To think standardly. Behave standardly.
They are meant to know themselves and love what they find. And that happens when we have a system built to nurture that.
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