A Common Sense Argument

Fourteen people in a room. All of them educators. 12 of them parents.

How many of those 12 do you think told a similar story of learning for their kids in schools?

If you said all 12, you’d be correct.

And if I asked you to guess what that story was?

You’d probably get than one correct as well.

Boredom. Irrelevance. Disconnected. Pressured. Chasing after grades. Doing school.

And the feelings of the teacher parents to tell share those stories?

Sadness. Frustration. Helplessness. In some cases, despair.

I continually find it amazing that there exists such a gap between what we know is best for kids and the experiences we create for them in schools. I’ve written about these “Elephants in the Classroom” before, but in recent days I’ve been reminded just how harmful it can be for kids when we ignore common sense.

Case in point, the article this week in the New York Times documenting the difficulties of high school kids in Lexington, MA, a Boston suburb.

“Students say depression is so prevalent that it affects friendships, turning teenagers into crisis counselors. ‘A lot of kids are trying to manage adult anxiety…’ 95 percent of Lexington High School students reported being heavily stressed over their classes and 15 percent said they had considered killing themselves in the last year.”

95 percent.

To it’s credit, the school and the town are “tackling the issue head on.” Counseling sessions, parent trainings, free periods, happiness seminars, and more have become a part of every student’s experience. But trying to change the culture of “success,” especially in the shadow of Harvard and MIT, is really, really hard. Ivy League acceptances are lauded and are a deep part of the narrative. Piles of homework are also a mainstay, as are AP courses and the expectation to participate in extracurriculars. As in many schools, there is only one definition of “success” that matters…whether kids agree with it or not.

It’s a lot to change.

That’s what I heard from those educator parents as well, a deep frustration that there’s really only one story that leads to “success.” And that that story is what drives almost every decision in their schools. And that because there is only one story, competition is fierce. Kids lose their joy for learning and for school in the process.

Reading through the comments on the Times’ piece shows the depth of the problem. And, perhaps, they also offer a glimmer of hope that things might be changing. It may be, finally, that enough parents (and others) are beginning to see the traditional narrative and the traditional culture of school as incompatible with modern life. It may be, as one of our Change School leaders said in a session last night, that Millennial parents who felt the irrelevance and stress in their own school experience are more unwilling to let that same experience happen to their own kids. It may be, that a shift is near.

And that’s a good thing, no doubt.

But common sense would also suggest that we educators drive that shift, not parents. We are, after all, the learning experts, right? We know, don’t we, that real learning doesn’t result from worksheets or multiple choice tests or scripted AP lessons that curriculum and testing companies have made billions in profits selling (both the curriculum and the narrative.) We should know that stress and depression are not conditions for great learning to happen. And we should know that there are many paths and many definitions of “success,” many stories to tell of what an “education” might be, that opportunities for learning abound in this world, most of them outside of the classroom.

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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