Friday, July 4, 2014

Low grades, anxious parents

I've finally started the packing frenzy today, and after stuffing four huge boxes full of our things, I looked around in exasperation and it seemed as though I hadn't even made a tiny dent in everything that needs to be packed in the House of Never-Ending Stuff.

So, while I was taking a well-deserved break I flipped through a magazine and came across an article which, loosely translated, could be called "How Not to Panic When Your Child Receives a Bad Grade Chart." Basically it was a guide on how to deal with low end-of-year grades, and how to motivate your child to achieve higher scores on their school tests. It spoke particularly to mothers of children under 10 years of age.

Now, I must say that, particularly in the case of young children, I find competitive, examination-focused learning with precise grades (in Israel, score out of 100) largely detrimental. The younger a child, the more damaging this practice is. I have tutored children of 9 and 10 years old who have lost all interest in learning and suffered from severe exam anxiety. I remember I would try to come up with interesting things to read (in English), and all they could think of was the upcoming exam. The children were not to blame, of course, but I found it all very sad.

"When my daughter received low end-of-year grades," one of the mothers interviewed for the article tells, "I didn't lecture her. I allowed her to take responsibility. I merely sat next to her on the bed as she cried and cried."

Am I the only one who finds it profoundly sad that a third-grader "cries and cries" just because they were graded as only 60 out of 100 by someone? Or, on the flip side, that a child feels conceited and self-satisfied because somebody had given them a high grade? 

Or consider this:

"My daughters asked me why, unlike all their friends, they don't get a reward for bringing home good grades at the end of term. I told them that the good grades are in themselves a reward for their hard work."

How about if learning were its own reward? The reward for learning to read is access to many wonderful books; the reward for learning math is the ability to count one's change correctly at the store. The reward for learning a foreign language is broadened horizons and a key to a different culture. 

When I was in fifth grade, I had a teacher come once a week to tutor me in English. Our work was completely unrelated to school. Basically my teacher and I would gradually read together through interesting texts, until I learned enough to read simple children's books on my own. The teacher would then ask me about what I'd read, and once in a while she would pick a paragraph and ask me to explain what it says. There were no grades of any kind. 

I remember, some years later, trying to plow through Don Quijote de la Mancha, in original. It was hard work, as Don Quijote's language is archaic and my Spanish just wasn't (and still isn't) good enough. But I was doing it for me. My reward was the ability to ask for directions when I was lost in Madrid one day. 

I believe grading has its place, especially for high school and college students, but it shouldn't be all-consuming, and first learning for its own sake must be encouraged and established. Throughout elementary school, I don't recall studying for exams much at all. I always got good grades, but I wasn't fussed. I just read pretty much every book I could get my hands on, including my school textbooks.

Somewhere I read that you can't be a good writer if you only write for an audience, or with the thought of making money, or for any other reason than being simply compelled to write because an idea grabs your mind and doesn't let go. I believe the same principle applies to learning; you can't learn well if you only do it to please others or to achieve good grades.

Of course, in order for learning to be self-motivated, the study subject must be interesting and/or useful, which can't be said about a lot of the stuff that is learned in schools.

Remember the chapter from Pippi Longstocking in which Pippi plays tag with policemen? My daughters keep asking me to read it over and over again, and I'm happy to oblige. It's one of my favorites, too.

"But don't you understand that you must go to school?"
"To learn things, of course."
"What sort of things?" asked Pippi.
"All sorts," said the policeman. "Lots of useful things—the multiplication tables, for instance."
"I have got along fine without any pluttifikation tables for nine years," said Pippi, "and I guess I'll get along without it from now on, too."
"Yes, but just think how embarrassing it will be for you to be so ignorant. Imagine when you grow up and somebody asks you what the capital of Portugal is and you can't answer!"
"Oh, I can answer all right," said Pippi. "I'll answer like this: 'If you are so bound and determined to find out what the capital of Portugal is, then, for goodness' sake, write directly to Portugal and ask.'"
"Yes, but don't you think that you would be sorry not to know it yourself?"
"Oh, probably," said Pippi. "No doubt I should lie awake nights and wonder and wonder, 'What in the world is the capital of Portugal?' But one can't be having fun all the time," she continued, bending over and standing on her hands for a change. "For that matter, I've been in Lisbon with my papa," she added, still standing upside down, for she could talk that way too."


Lady Anne said...

I have read several articles saying that school itself is the reason children don't do well. The first six years, kids learn entirely on their own, with a bit of guidance from their parents, but mostly by "doing their own thing". Drawing pictures, writing stories, learning to share, etc. Parents help here, of course, but the choice of playing alone because I want it all for myself, or joining the others and building a "fort" together is eventually up to the child. No amount of fussing will teach a child not to walk in front of the swing set better than a bonk on the head. (Yes, life can be painful at times.)

School gradually forces every bit of this creativity out of a child. In America, the school boards decide what the children must learn, and the teachers "teach to the test". There is no time or space for wandering off on a tangent to figure out how or why something happened. Just memorize the material, and keep moving in a straight line.

No wonder American kids, by and large hate school by the time they are in the fourth grade.

Anonymous said...

The current mode for being down on formal education, even at the primary level, and attempting to disavow exams, reminds me (sadly) of the current vogue for claiming that vaccines cause autism and similar nonsense: It is most vehemently embraced by people whose own lives are largely devoid of memories of a society without the availability of widespread basic education, or one haunted by fear of such diseases as polio and whooping cough. Those memories fade, and people start to think, "Hey! We don't need to get "experts" to educate our children, and we don't need to set baselines for achievement! And we don't need vaccines--those diseases won't come back!"

While of course it is right and wise to examine, on a regular basis, what it is we want out of education and how we are assessing its progress, I'm cautious about the current vogue for saying that anyone can educate a child in any way he or she likes, and it will be good enough. This is especially concerning among certain groups that actively encourage parents to remove children from formal schools and school them themselves, regardless of the parents' own literacy levels, teaching abilities, or basic intelligence (frankly--it's not like one has to be bright to reproduce). While in many cases this will produce engaged, interested, well-informed children, in just as many cases it may not--and the very idea that all children being homeschooled, with progress assessments left to...well, honestly, I don't even know what, will _not_ result in marked disparities of ability and knowledge among large groups of children who otherwise would at least have been measured by a common baseline (however low) strikes me as naive, at the least.

Again, I'm not saying that there isn't some real thinking to be done on these issues. But I think we should consider very carefully how we demonise things like formal education and/or examinations just because they may cause our children to feel bad sometimes. There's a real danger of throwing out babies with bathwater.

Anonymous said...

Ha! I've read Pippi before but never caught that Lisbon was the capital of Portugal!


Mrs. Anna T said...

Anon, the points you made deserve a post in itself, but just to make something clear:

1) I don't think homeschooling is for everyone. It is a personal choice based on lifestyle and what is good for each individual family and child. However, I do think it would be a good thing if homeschooling were as socially acceptable in Israel as it is in the US. I think it is a good thing if parents have the *option* of homeschooling, so that they don't feel like hostages of the system.

If, for instance, someone wants to put my child on ritalin, and every school says the same because my child will not function in the current school system without meds, I *want* to have the option to pull my child out of school and teach them at home without meds, *if* at all possible.

2) My issue with the current grading system isn't only that it makes some children feel bad. It's also, among other things, that it makes some children feel excessively good for completing some arbitrary guideline which might be totally unchallenging *for them personally*. Basically, the feeling that, once you get your high grades, it means your education is "complete" and you have nothing else to learn.

I don't demonize formal education, but some scars will never heal. They will never, never heal. There are memories which still torture me, even though I am an adult now. You may call it "teasing", I call it torture. And there was no escape. No escape.

Gothelittle Rose said...

Anon, you may be unaware that the statistics collected on homeschooling, from the smaller studies to the larger, required collections of data, show that the higher achievement level holds true regardless of parental education or household wealth. In addition, there is no 'gender gap' or 'race gap' in homeschooling.

"Unschooling" certainly isn't for everyone, but most homeschooling families don't do "unschooling" as a whole system. We don't have more than anecdotal evidence in this area, because it is so rare, but what we have suggests that it actually has a higher success rate than the public school system.

I've found that people often fail to consider this when criticizing homeschooling. They may find one homeschooler out of 100 who (for instance) can't find a particular country on a map, while ignoring or being unaware of the fact that only 20 out of 100 public schoolers can do the same.

Lady Anne said...

Ah, the subtle difference between "teasing" and "torture". I went to a boarding school from the beginning of the fourth grade until the end of the ninth grade. I went back into a coed, public school when I was 15, which as you may remember, is a special torture all by itself. I was using text books I had finished two years ago, so I was smarter (well, way ahead of, at any rate) all of the other students, and bored out of my MIND. I didn't know how to act around boys, knew the answers to all of the tests, teacher's pet, and generally miserable. I refuse to go to any high-school reunions, because, as you said, the scars never heal.

Our middle daughter was an exceptionally intelligent girl - and like her mother - bored in school. Fiddled around, skipped classes, the whole business. We took a leap of faith, and allowed her to drop out of high school after the tenth grade (legal here then, but don't know if it still is) on the sole condition she attend the local community college. Once she got into classes that interested her, she made the dean's list every time, and graduated with her AA degree when she would have been just getting out of high school. But we did a LOT of praying in the meantime!

Mrs. Anna T said...

Lady Anne, I believe a responsible teen who is miserable in high school should be given the opportunity to drop out and study for the high school exams on their own, while having time to pursue other interests. I personally was much happier in high school than at any other time of school, but that was because the torture by other kids had stopped and I had my own circle of friends.