Thursday, February 13, 2014

Children Just Don't Understand

CCSS reformy stuff ignores what we know about child development when it comes to the ability to grasp certain concepts and think in various abstract ways. But it also ignores what we know about children emotionally. In particular, it ignores what we know about how children deal with failure.

In adults, failure can trigger one of a couple of positive adaptive behaviors.

The one the Masters of Reforming Our Nations' Schools seem to be thinking of is the one where, after failure, you dust yourself off, dig down into your rigorous grit, you suck it up, and you work harder.

This is the response lionized by Horatio Alger. It's the kind of grit displayed by men like Arne Duncan, who, when he needed work, dug deep into his rolodex for a solution, or Bill Gates, who, when confronted by a US Congress that spanked him for his throttling of the software biz, dug deep into his bank account and bought the influence he would need to protect his interests.

And it is, to be fair, a really good response to failure and adversity. The stories of people who overcame failure on their road to success are legion, and many of them are actually true. So the grit response is a good one to have.

Also popular is the rejection response, the understanding that you have just failed at something not worth succeeding at. People who become really wise about this learn to recognize situations that do not deserve their attention and never become invested in the first place.

Both of these responses are tools we use for measuring and defining our own success, thereby protecting and maintaining our own emotional cores. These response both help us ultimately succeed and let us hold onto a solid sense of self.

And they are both beyond the emotional repertoire of a child.

We know about one of the worst effects of child abuse. The average abused child does not think, "I am going to dig down and find the grit to hold on through this miserable situation." Nor does that child think, "This is happening because my abusive parent is a horrible person who makes bad choices." Sure, there are some young children who do latch onto these thoughts. And Mozart composed music at age 5.

No, what the average abused child thinks is, "This is happening because of me. This is my fault. I am bad."

Why do we try so hard to protect children from certain sorts of experiences? Because in some situations, children learn the wrong lesson. And a young child who's forced into a situation where she is made to fail does not think, "Well, I'll just have to be grittier next time" or "Wow, these adults sure have unreasonable expectations of me." A child's default assumption is that the world she is experiencing is the normal, right, the Way It Is Supposed To Be. Those elementary students do not conclude "This test is stupid" or "This assignment is stupid" or even "I have serious questions about the pedagogical methodology of this summative assessment." Those students conclude "I am stupid. I am bad."

An adult square peg confronting a round hole will think, "Well, this hole must be messed up" or "I am going to get my hammer and square this hole up." A child square peg will think, "Oh no! I am defective. I am wrong. I am a bad peg."

The MoRONS imagine that children can be tested into a state of gritty rigor, that you get a six year old to do three impossible things before lunch by simply demanding repeatedly that she do them. They are so wrong in so many ways. The stress and anguish and frustration and rage being felt by teachers and parents across the country, especially at testing time, comes because we know that every weeping child is weeping part because they feel not just like a person who's having trouble with a math problem, but like a person who is somehow unfit to live on this planet. These are the tears of little people who believe they are looking at what Life Really Is and discovering they are unfit for it.

This is reformers great triumph-- to trigger massive existential crises for six-year-olds.

I don't know the answer. I can only imagine my rage and frustration if my children were in this system at present. I wrote a decade ago that I have some sympathy with homeschoolers, because what some of them want is to protect their children from bad government choices, and teachers can no longer guarantee that kind of safety in our classrooms. Today I feel that times 100.

Even the most mediocre teacher understands that if most of the children in your class have trouble with a test, it's not them-- it's you. But small children don't understand that. And apparently neither do the Masters of Reforming Our Nation's Schools.

How sad that one of the biggest challenges of the teaching profession today is to get students through mandatory bad government/corporate testing without having their spirits battered. How sad that in a nation that has more than enough resources to provide children with the kind of safe nurturing childhoods that some neighborhoods and nations only dream of, we actually deploy those resources to insure that our children don't get that.

Yeah, I can hardly wait to see what the USDOE has in mind for Pre-K.

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