My high school oral communication class is a requirement for graduation, and Leo is repeating the class because he failed at his first attempt. Let me rephrase that. Leo is repeating the class because the first time he took it, he didn’t try. He rarely turned in assignments. He didn’t study for exams. And when he did give a presentation, he was usually winging it.
The second time around, things are different. Leo works hard, turns in his assignments, and gives solid, well-researched presentations. When I asked him about this change Leo responded, “I’ve decided to try this year. I think I might want to go to college, so I need to get my grades up.”
While I am proud of Leo’s efforts and ambition, I am concerned, too. Leo is a junior, and his academic history certainly doesn’t lend itself to college. It would be one thing for him to bring up his grade in my class; it would be another for him to recover all his lost credits and bolster his GPA enough to get into college.
“You know,” Leo continued, “I’m actually pretty smart. Up until sixth grade I had never made less than an A in any of my classes.”
This remark hit close to home. I have a sixth grader who has never made less than an A. Like Leo, he is funny, personable, and talkative. Could he end up like Leo?
“What happened?” I asked Leo. “When did you start becoming….ummm, not an A student? And why?”
“I dunno. By seventh grade, I was just tired. I just didn’t care anymore. I just quit trying.”
At this point my stomach started to churn. Leo was really starting to remind me of my son.
Leo Isn’t the Only One
I remember the night we took Johnny to his kindergarten open house. Wearing an enormous Spiderman backpack and a giant grin, he marched into his classroom, eager to meet his teacher and his new friends. As we walked into the school building, he looked up at me and said, “Mama, I can’t stop smiling.”
My heart broke a little. Like his older brother and sisters, Johnny had a fabulous childhood. While I homeschooled my two older kids, Johnny and his sister finger painted, played in the back yard, or snuggled in close and listened while we all read together. By mid-afternoon all four kids were usually outside playing.
But by the time Johnny was ready for kindergarten, circumstances had changed. All the older kids were enrolled in public school, and I had gone back to work full-time. Johnny was my first child to attend public school from kindergarten on. He would be the first to have such a long day at such a young age.
I felt a lump form in my throat as I looked around his classroom and saw rows of tiny tables and chairs, but not a single toy. Where was the little kitchen with the miniature pots and pans? Where were the blocks? The plastic zoo animals? The dolls? The toy trucks? Where were the play-centers?
Having red-shirted, Johnny was already six years old. But he was still just a little boy. Surely his days of play weren’t behind him. Or were they? From the look of Johnny’s classroom, he would be spending the majority of his days doing anything but playing. As he stood there beaming with pride and excitement, I wanted to cry. He would realize this soon enough.
Fast-forward six years, and Johnny sounds a lot like Leo. On the one hand, he’s happy at school. He likes his friends, and he enjoys their time together at recess (all 15 minutes of it). Johnny thinks his teachers are cool. He rarely gets into trouble. He loves P.E.
On the other hand, he dislikes actual school—the lessons, the homework, the constant rigor combined with a classroom full of apathetic peers. By nature Johnny is inquisitive. He likes to learn. But the school day is hectic and exhausting. There’s little time for enjoying what he’s learned and even less time to enjoy being 12 years old. School has become a source of nearly constant frustration, and Johnny is tired. At the age of 12, Johnny is weary of school.
Academic Apathy Is An Epidemic
Johnny and Leo are hardly the exception. While most of my students don’t have to repeat my class, many of them are also weary. If it were just my class, I might be tempted to assume I’m the problem and start looking for a new career. But I know from talking to students and colleagues that weariness and apathy are common. In fact, they are epidemic.
I have written about this in the past. We cannot avoid holding students, in part, responsible for their own learning. But what if the problem didn’t exist? Or what if it was far less prevalent?
There has certainly been much attention paid to the problem. In fact, apathy has become a sort of cottage industry. There have been countless books, articles, and workshops, all written and designed to increase student engagement.
I believe we are over-thinking it. What makes me an expert on the subject? I have a master’s degree in education and more than ten years’ experience in the classroom teaching high school and middle school students. More importantly, I am the mother of four children who have been educated both at home and in public school. I am not sure that any of these credentials make me an expert, but one thing my experience as a mother and a teacher has taught me is that education needs fewer experts and more common sense.
After all, one of the goals of education is to teach our children to think. But thinking can’t be taught. It has to be developed, and we develop thinking naturally—by being human and by doing the things humans do. We become thinkers by experiencing things.
This is where our schools and we as parents are often failing our children. In a misguided effort to raise the bar, we are depriving our children of many of the experiences they need to develop healthy, open minds, and a love of learning. While a return to some of life’s (and education’s) simple pleasures won’t solve all of America’s educational woes, I am convinced that these things would be a good starting point.
1. Give Children Back Their Childhoods
Our kids are increasingly busy. Often even very young children are enrolled in sports, enrichment programs, extracurricular activities, and academic preschools. We buy them games that do the pretending for them and electronics that do their thinking. For many kids, watching TV is a full-time job. Eager to keep them active and entertained, we are depriving children of the chance to enjoy once-common and important childhood experiences.
As parents, are we giving our young children enough time for free and creative play? Do they pretend? Are we reading to them? Singing to them? Do they get time to be quiet? To be silly? To be alone? Or is most of their time spoken for in activities and formal learning?
In our quest to give our children an advantage, too many of them are missing out on what it means to be a kid. A lack of play in early childhood can have a significant effect on a child’s later ability to learn. With play on the decline, it’s no wonder so many kids are mentally checking out by high school.
2. Make Learning Age-Appropriate
Since the twentieth century, America has moved away from a classical liberal arts education model to what some call a factory-model of education. In 2001 No Child Left Behind ramped up standards and increased the federal government’s influence over local school districts. While No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act, a new law enacted by President Obama in 2015, were both designed to close the achievement gap, many parents and educators have expressed concern that these measures have actually done more harm than good and effectively eliminated many treasured and effective childhood learning norms.
For example, memorization used to be a key part of early education. Under the classical education model, young students in the grammar stage are encouraged to memorize—songs, poems, nursery rhymes, lists of presidents, or types of flowers. It doesn’t really matter, because memorization is not only pleasurable for young children, the practice is useful no matter what is being memorized.
Obviously, there is great value in memorizing one’s multiplication facts, but even when information is not retained, the act of memorizing sharpens the mind and trains it to sort, categorize, and focus. Not only that, but memorizing poems and nursery rhymes helps children recognize sound patterns that can make learning to read easier. Yet rote memorization is often discouraged, even for young children, in favor of higher levels of thinking and reasoning.
Unfortunately, in an effort to help students achieve higher-order thinking, schools have cut back on play time and often skip these important early lessons. Instead, kindergarten has become the new first grade third grade.
When schools gloss over important developmental benchmarks and children are expected to learn too much too soon, they become weary and frustrated. Maybe not right away, but by the time they’ve traded in their Spiderman backpack for Trapper Keepers, the pace and frustration have taken their toll.
3. Pay Attention to the Research about Recess
Volumes have been written about the benefits of recess for the social, physical, academic, and emotional development of children. Yet many children are still not getting enough recess. Often what little recess they are given is used as a bargaining tool and taken away as a form of punishment. We cannot expect our students to learn and thrive when they are being deprived of something so crucial to their development.
4. Make Sleep and Downtime a Priority
We are all so incredibly busy. Sports, homework, advanced courses, and enrichment activities—all of these things are good, yet all of these things and more are robbing our children of precious sleep and necessary downtime.
There is no simple solution to this problem. Getting our kids enough sleep would mean cutting back on many of the pastimes that we consider a normal and even vital part of childhood. It would mean less homework, perhaps lower academic expectations, and even a change in how we structure the school day.
Still, when we consider that sleep is crucial to a child’s emotional and intellectual well-being and that only 35 percent of U.S. middle schoolers and a disturbing 9 percent of high school students are getting the optimal amount of sleep, there can be little doubt that sleep loss is a contributing factor to the epidemic of apathy and many other educational problems.
There are no quick fixes to the problems facing American education. But we can start by escaping the notion that the answer is always more—more techniques, more technology, more work, more rigor.
The one thing our children do need more of is respect. Parents and educators must respect childhood and give children freedom to experience it. We must respect where our children are developmentally and meet their needs at each phase. We must respect their needs to be active and to socialize. And we must respect their need for rest, sleep, and quiet. If we can’t give our children more of these things, no amount of educational reform will save them.
Leo’s name and the detail of his story have been changed to protect his privacy.