Disconnected in the Classroom Yet Not in Life
Qualities celebrated in the classroom for the past half century (obedience, stillness, concentration, peace and quiet) are no longer practical or adaptive. In the wake of how family members now interact and the abundance of visual stimulation, children’s thought processes and problem solving skills have radically evolved. Many schools have yet to catch up. Stuck in a curriculum of a bygone era, scores of schools are trying to manage an abundance of “difficult” and stressed children.
I recently chaperoned a fourth grade “team building” field trip. The group of twelve students was given a fun yet complex challenge which involved devising a way to cross a pit by obtaining a rope swing positioned out of arm’s reach. Although the notion of brainstorming as a team was clearly both frustrating and alien, the point worth noting is that the four children who ultimately came up with the solution were the ones frequently labeled as disruptive, distracted and challenging in the classroom.
Why is it that many children who struggle in the classroom, are actually quite competent in life? Yet spending the day in an environment that promotes skills in which they may not excel, is it no wonder so many of them have become discouraged?
Striking conversations with anyone from two to ninety-two, my son, has an inborn (and often complimented) knack for relating to people. If he forgets the “rules” at school however, and talks to a friend in the hallway, he is scolded and disciplined. Although often distracted and restless at school, give him a book (of his choice, non-curriculum typically horror) or an electric guitar and he’s alert and engaged for hours. During a recent train ride, he began performing a small game of illusion. Shortly thereafter, two co-passengers were marveling at his slight of hand. He delightedly continued the demonstration. Upon exiting the train an elderly man tapped him on the back commenting, “Keep up your magic – you are good at it.” I suggested he bring it to school. He declined fearing he would “get in trouble.” It can be confusing when the behavior for which you get accolades in life, may get you reprimanded in school.
Children, of course, need academics. There is a time and place for magic, rock and roll, creepy novels and lively dialogue. What is frustrating, however, is that for twelve years significantly more time is spent in school than is spent in the real world.
One need only look at the myriad of books concerning attention and learning difficulties to see how a disconnect is growing between our children and standard education protocol.
Many kids who feel this classroom disconnect are quite vocal about their feelings. Others, however, cope by becoming overly compliant in and effort to be what they assume school (and often parents) expects them to be. It is easy to slip through the cracks when there are no behavior issues and one’s grades are adequate. This “coping mechanism” occurred with our older son. We were nevertheless, fortunate to have perceptive teachers who recognized the anxiety lurking under the obedience.
In today’s world, the ability to do at least three things at once is perceived as a necessary skill – not an inability to focus. Qualities that have historically been judged as disruptive, lazy or unmotivated – such as an opposing opinion, a wicked sense of humor and daydreaming – are now often viewed as free thinking, clever or creative. Educators ought to recognize these qualities as positive traits to be worked “with” rather than addressing them as problems to be “fixed”.
In a recent NY times article titled, “Families, Every Hug and Fuss Taped, Analyzed and Archived, a typical family was described as being: “A fire shower of stress, multi-tasking and mutual nitpicking” It is well documented that the brain is shaped by experience. If kids have acclimatized to such a frenetic environment, perhaps there has been a fundamental shift in how they process information; consequently giving them a new, unique, and not necessarily negative perspective on how to succeed in today’s world.
The capacity to perceive the positive in every child is critical. One young boy on the field trip took charge by assertively directing, organizing and motivating his team. While very animated, he was also quite impressive. His mother mentioned his passion for banter. Clearly his use of language was paying off during this challenge. She then asked his teacher if he talks this much at recess. He sternly responded yes then added, “Often too much.” Zap. A positive became a negative. An impressionable and subservient parent may take this information and reprimand her son for talking too much at recess. (Can one really talk too much at recess?) This is dangerous. Imagine the same scenario but a different response. What if she had been told that her son’s verbosity was a skill that would do him well in life; that it is indicative of him being a natural born motivator. Better yet, what if the child was told this?
Sadly, the “quiet” classroom” frequently continues to be viewed as the successful one. Many teachers worry, when the principal makes their rounds, that a noisy or chaotic classroom is a bad reflection on them. I’m told that “silent lunch’ is a punishment given from time to time for “bad behavior.” Silent lunch?? With the abundance of accessible research and studies confirming that young children not only need but also thrive, both socially and cognitively, in open-ended social settings, this is appalling. The opportunity to engage in spontaneous discussion over a meal with one’s peers is critical to development, especially when the rest of the day is spent over worksheets and in teacher-directed activities.
Educator Vera John Steiner was on to this phenomenon twenty-five years ago. Steiner, in an effort to uncover how creative people think, researched the early childhoods of many of the world’s most imaginative minds. The majority of poets and authors she researched recalled that as young children, “The magic of words not being discovered in a solitary way; they felt most alive in sounds and rhythms in the midst of noisy movements sharing lines with each other.” The practice of silent lunch is as absurd and offensive as the dunce cap and should be rendered extinct.
The school environment should offer, not deprive kids of the chance to get to know their strengths. If schools overlook the present climate of change and also continue to rely on worksheets, textbooks, rows of desks, rigid instruction, lack of visual stimulation and little time spent in the natural world, no doubt the incidence of troubled students will continue to rise.
It takes more than mere academic training to effectively channel students who would rather climb the desks, spontaneously sing out loud or discuss the latest horror film. The personalities of some students can “push buttons. An ability to understand and cope with different types of temperaments can influence how a teacher perceives and thus connects to their students.
As educator Rick Lavoie points out, “In order to motivate all the students in a class, a teacher must utilize a wide variety of approaches, strategies and techniques.” This may mean permitting students a degree of control by allowing them to make choices and decisions and by also being unafraid to lose the occasional battle.
When told by the instructor on the field trip that he had broken one of the rules of the challenge, one student respectfully yet assertively challenged the technicality of the rule. Was this backtalk or self-assurance? Was it worthy of discipline or consideration? The instructor, recognizing the validity of the boy’s assertion, allowed him to proceed. Visibly more self-assured the student went on to lead much of the activity.
Such team building activities teach a plethora of skills both cognitive and social. It would be beneficial to see them as part of a regular curriculum rather than simply a annual field trip.
Parents know their children best and can be their strongest advocates. In order to insure the best possible learning experience, a child’s environment, temperament and way of thinking need to be taken into consideration.
Consistently and passionately disliking school should no longer be seen as “normal.’ Times have clearly changed. When my son tells people his feelings about school, many an adult will laugh it off as if this is typical, assuaging him with comments like “Don’t worry kid, the weekend will be here soon.” Children know better than anyone how to live in the present moment – let’s not rob them of that luxury.