A Quality Read: How Children Succeed

Now that I have two kids in the early grades of kindergarten and first, I’m beginning to think more about education in regards to my children–something that has a direct impact on who my own kids are becoming, their futures.  I mean, I’ve always thought about these things, but I’m even more aware of them now that mykids are are part of the education machine.

My two are very different children.  One of them has the soul of an indigo child: she’s compassionate, empathetic, a thinker; she’s rational (to a fault at times), well-behaved, and she can’t wait to start school because she “just wants to learn.”  She is the child for whom I wrote my snowman/standardization piece awhile ago.  My other child is a free spirit: she’s super energetic, cannot sit still; she’s artistic, loves to draw, and can keep herself entertained with absolutely nothing tangible at her disposal.  Before she went into kindergarten last summer, she stated she couldn’t wait to go because she would “get to draw ALL the time and have recess.”  They’re two different kids, but they are both avid learners.  They’re curious and they love to read.

As I’m reading How Children Succeed (FINALLY getting to catch up on normal-people-reading after years of only reading for school!), I’m thinking about these two kiddos.  In his book, Paul Tough opens with a chapter about how the nature/nurture argument contributes toward how kids fail.  Essentially, he focuses on the nurturing component of raising kids and discusses long-term effects of attachment parenting (secure vs. anxious attachments).  He examines copious research studies that conclude what educators can intuitively assess in children–those with more challenging lives have more difficulty in school.  However, he also highlights research and case studies that show how this does not have to be the case if educators can address and teach children skills that help them learn to manage their behaviors and practice self-monitoring.

The second chapter builds on the first with a focus on character education and our growing understanding of motivation and the skills necessary to function as adults today (the grit, self-control, resilience buzzwords).  Tough follows a trail of data from a couple of schools to examine how instituting character education programs ultimately impacted future lives of students.  In one situation, the school hammered some character traits, but despite these efforts, their students weren’t performing once they entered college.  That same school began to “grade” specific character traits and focused more mightily on character as skills as important as academics.  This focus, over time, improved their students’ college completion rates.

It wasn’t until I read this article today (“What the Solution to the Education Battles is Going to Look Like”) that I began putting these two chapters together with my own thinking.  I’m always wary of the term “character education,” because much like Tough states in the book, it implies some sort of religious and/or political undertones.  I do believe that as a parent, part of my responsibility is to teach my kids how to have perseverance and grit–those same qualities examined in Tough’s book.  Why do I think this is important?  Because I worry about my kiddos, just like I worried about my students (and how, today, I worry about teachers).  There are certain skills we are just beginning to recognize that contribute to an individual’s disposition and overall quality of life that cannot be taught from a book, worksheet, or other instructional tool.

Toles discusses two “aspects” of educational systems, one focused on training and one focused on acculturation.  While his definition is narrow and ill-defined (probably a result of the chosen media for expressing his thoughts), I can see where he is going.  By training, I think he means passing on skills that are specific to job markets at a given point in time.  Training, to me, is what we do when we impart something such as typing skills through drill and kill practices.  How do you become better at typing?  You practice.  (Tough also discusses practicing to become better in terms of IQ in chapter 3 of his book.)  Other training skills might include memorizing correct spelling, anything that involves memorizing really, repeatedly practicing multiplication tables (again, memorizing), developing presentations, etc.  These are basic things that make you marketable in some job markets, and they reflect the lingering influences of the 1920s when the sole purpose of education was to train American children for work in factories.

I still think many of these basic skills are important.  I know we’re all focusing on teaching today’s kids for jobs that don’t exist yet, but starting from some foundation is at least a foundation upon which kids can create / learn new “training” skills we can’t even imagine yet.  The problem with “training” is that it has become the focus of many educational institutions.  This is where we divulge into a standardized testing argument and talk about test preparation.  What is test prep if not training for a test?  Suddenly, academic content that should reach levels of acculturation (to be discussed in a moment) becomes based on discrete and disconnected facts that we must “cover” in order to make sure students are prepared for assessments.  I think we do quite a bit of training in our classrooms.

Acculturation, as Toles states, is “A great dream. Dream on. When we make the case for educating a well-rounded citizen who appreciates art and thought and general knowledge, show me the America that appreciates and reflects those values, and I might be persuaded. We have built, and live in, a different American culture from that.”  I would expand on this definition quite a bit to include not just arts, history, etc., but those very characteristic skills I discussed earlier–the dispositions and practices that make Americans Americans.  Grit, perseverance, self-reliance, civil service, etc. These same qualities that Tough discusses as the markers for increased success in college (which I would connect to “life after high school” and not just college).  As our American culture changes, these characteristics may shift, change, revise themselves over time, but what ultimately determines success for each child is a focus on both character AND academics (training and acculturation, as Totes calls them).

So, I’m back to thinking about my own two kids and the kind of people I want them to become.  I imagine nights with them coming home with homework and sitting at the kitchen table together to work.  I see them struggling with problems, and I think to myself about how I can help them develop these character traits while they are struggling.  How can I help them fail successfully and learn from their mistakes?  How do I teach them to be of good character WHILE learning?  And, more importantly, what will they intentionally/unintentionally learn at school (see hidden and null curricula) that will reinforce or undo what I’m trying to do at home?

On a grander scale, how can our system of education develop future adults who understand and are gritty and persevere in the face of adversity–particularly within a system that attempts to standardize what success looks like?  I have a saying that you can’t expect a goldfish to be a monkey, which to me simply means that we always have to remember people have their own talents and challenges.  So, when our entire system is built on a measure of success that asks all children to be monkeys, how can we help goldfish feel like they are also successful?  Is there a way to balance academics AND character with equal emphasis on both qualities as they are hand in hand in predicting children’s future success–or, as Toles alludes, is the system far too removed from quality to enable that kind of learning?

As Toles questions, “Just what the heck ARE our schools supposed to be accomplishing?” And to that end…just what the heck are parents supposed to do to supplement their child’s growth and development at home?

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