Because of when you were born.

Several months ago I mentioned Robert Epstein’s book Teen 2.0.  In his chapter on the emergence of adolescence as a concept, Epstein also walks the reader through the history of compulsory education.  He mentions that when Massachusetts established the first public school system in 1827, which required students between the ages of eight and fourteen to attend school at least three months of the year, that if students were able to demonstrate mastery of the material to be taught during those three months, they weren’t required to go.

Epstein makes chapters and chapters worth of interesting points in this book, but this is the paragraph that I cannot forget.  Over time and for various rather complicated reasons, we moved from this kind of competency requirement to a system in which a young person is required to be in school whether or not he or she needs instruction in the areas of instruction offered.  If you’re of school age, you have to go just because you have to go.  Because of when you were born.

This is an extremely weird thing to do, and I’d venture to say it’s part of the reason we get so much resistance from so many kids when we tell them education is important so they better do their homework.  Even the ones who struggle chronically in school have noticed within the first few years of school that once they’ve learned something, they’ll have to get taught it again just because that’s what’s happening that day.  School has a little bit to do with learning, but mostly, it’s somewhere kids have to go.  (Often we dismiss the repeated instruction in the name of practice, but children know the difference between things they need to practice and things they’re being taught more than once for no apparent reason.)

When families opt out of traditional schooling, the machinery of published curriculum often mimics the situation at home.  If a math curriculum teaches and reteaches a concept, then it has to be done and redone.  Again, it’s justified as required practice, but we don’t always remember to check.  How much practice does it take, really?  Does everyone need the same amount of practice?

For now, education-wise, this is what we’ve got.  But there’s a lot we can do in conversation with kids to reduce some of the ill effects.  For a child who’s not in school, we can use whatever materials we choose to offer academic instruction that we deem useful, but we don’t have to insist that every page get done.  Or even every lesson, every chapter, every book.  Once we know a child can write the paragraph the way we want her to be able to do it, we can let her move on.  As it happens, it tends to be lots easier to get a child on board with mastering a clear set of competencies than to get her to comply with a requirement of open-ended unlimited instruction and academic work.  If we say “here are the things we want you to know how to do and once you can do them we won’t belabor them,” she knows exactly where she stands and what there is to do.

For a child who’s attending school, it’s tremendously empowering (and has a similar though not as profound effect as saying “here are the things…”) to distinguish between the things he’s being told to do that are new and instructional and those that are not.  We tend to avoid admitting such things to kids because we worry that it will undermine a teacher’s or school’s credibility or authority.

It’s worth considering whether or not this protection is worth the cost to a child’s morale.  Kids can understand a lot more subtlety than we tend to give them credit for.   You don’t have to say “You shouldn’t have to do that because you already know how; I don’t know what your teacher is thinking.”  You can say something more like “I see why you’re frustrated about doing more addition and subtraction practice.  This is one of the things that’s not working very well about schools.  We want all kids to be able to do the things they need to do, but you’ve probably noticed that different kids learn different things quickly.  You remember how it was really easy for you to learn to swim, and it took your brother a long time, but then it was harder for you to get your balance on your bike?  It’s like that with a lot of things and we haven’t worked out yet how to manage it.”

It’s a long way from where we are to where the education we offer might make sense and work for everyone, or even most everyone.  In the meantime, while we’re working that out, we’ll be wise to venture into these tricky conversations with kids about why things are the way they are, to acknowledge the things that aren’t working so kids don’t have to wonder why their experience feels so removed from what we’re insisting upon.

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