Last week we took a long deserved vacation to the beach. My wife and two young children piled into the car and headed to Destin for a week of sun and fun. When we got there the kids immediately clamored to head to the pool. This got me thinking about one of the major tenets of the reform movement, expectations. This would be the perfect opportunity to put the practice of high expectations into play.
The kids had taken a few swim lessons and multiple trips to swimming pools but were not swimmers yet. Here we were at the beach with access to a pool daily for the next seven days, so I all had to do was expect them to become swimmers by weeks end and they would. I mean they had all the tools, all the access, all they needed was someone to just expect them to do it and they would. Kids their age were swimming all over the world. It was time for me to stop holding them back and let them fly.
Well that’s not exactly how it worked out. The more I pushed and tried to enforce a rigorous work ethic the less they wanted to be in the pool. The more I left them alone and just left them to play with their cousins, the more progress they made. My son, who is three, in order to keep up with his cousin developed this little kick along the bottom thing that when coupled with arm movements occasionally would lead to him swimming a foot or two. When I tried to get him to practice getting his butt up so he could actually swim, he’d suddenly lose interest. My insisting didn’t help.
My daughter, who’s five, couldn’t get enough of jumping to me or reaching out grabbing my hands and kicking to me. However, if I moved too far past her comfort zone or demanded she swim to me without grabbing my hands she’d furiously resist and start to shut down. I even said to her, “I expect you to do it.” Her answer, “I expect not.”
By the end of the week they did not learn to swim. They did have a good time and they did show signs of progress. Their love of the pool and water sports in general grew and they got a little more confident in their abilities. So if I look at it in a purely test related, pass or fail evaluation, the outcome was a failure. If I look at it from an overall perspective and in light of where it leaves them for the future, I’d say success.
Despite my expectations they are not at a point where they are ready to swim. That’s not underestimating them, its just fact based on observation. In fact we are kind of at a cross roads. I can force the issue and run the risk of having them associate swimming and high stress together for the rest of their lives or I can continue to expose them to the opportunities to learn and encourage them when they make progress. Its my humble opinion that the latter way will lead to a life time of water enjoyment while the other way will make swimming an endless chore. I have no doubt that they will eventually be swimmers but when they tell the story of how that came to be, it will be their accomplishment and not my demands that will be the focus.
That’s the thing about the core tenets of the reform movement. They seem to be formed without actually ever observing any children. It’s like a bunch of adults got together in a room and started deciding how children are supposed to learn and then went out and found evidence to support their theories. So I guess they did observe children, they just did it after the fact. Common Core standards are a prime example. How many child development specialists were consulted? How many classroom teachers? As the Public Educator outlines here (http://thepubliceducator.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/common-core-and-the-suspension-of-child-development/) expectation are not always enough.
The thing about children that adults seem to forget is that they are always learning. Learning is a natural state for them. They might not necessarily be learning the things you deem essential but they are never sitting in a state of not learning. The other thing to remember is that lessons are not isolated. That skills learned through one medium can be applied to other areas and lead to unpredictable places. We adults just need to provide an environment of safety and encouragement. I know that sounds over simplified but the evidence is out there if we just observe without our prejudice.
When I was a child and learning to read I was a comic book junkie. Comic books were not viewed as desirable reading, but I reaped several benefits from them. They stroked a desire to read more that has never left me even as I got older. They were usually rooted in some form of mythology which inspired me to look at the source material for my favorite stories. The characters in Xmen are named Ariel, Prospero and Caliban. All names of characters in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Through my love of comic books I developed a love of Shakespeare.
Comics helped me develop a larger vocabulary and understand the basic constructs of storytelling. The tales are usually moralistic and through them I received a reinforcement for the moral code instilled by my parents. All of this with no expectations and no great demand for rigor. My parents could have expected me to read nothing but short instructional pieces of writing but they recognized the power of reading and developing a lifelong reader. They gave me the freedom to explore and fall in love.
The evidence is not just my own either, look any adult practicing a life long calling. They didn’t get there through drill and kill. Take a look at Todd Marinovich vs Peyton Manning. Marinovich’s father drilled him to be a QB, Manning’s gave him the opportunity to exercise and grow his talents. Which one is going to the Hall of Fame? Look at any person who’s parents tried to mold them for success and you’ll discover a revolution in progress.
Bill Gates’ story itself is a contradiction on the expectations tenet . Nobody sat him down and said, “Learn this computer so you will be college and career ready.” He just happened to be a student at a very wealthy private school that had a computer that he had access to and was allowed to explore at his pace. Through this exposure and lack of enforced rigor he was able to develop a life long passion that has served him well. It seems to me that this is the model we should be attempting to replicate instead of the “no excuses” model.
As a parent I’ve quickly come to realize that we are constantly creating plans that attempt to manipulate who our children will become. Few, if any, of these plans work in the anticipated manner. The longer I go down this path of parenthood the more I start to realize that the only things that consistently seem to work is to model the desired behavior, provide an environment where they can safely explore and not be concerned with failure, and love them unconditionally. I know that competition is important as well but it seems to arrive naturally once they’ve reached a certain level of competency. I don’t need to impose it.
There are nuances to each of those tenets but I think they hold up pretty strongly. I think most teachers know it too and are already practicing them in some form. They may not come with a great slogan or be presented by a bright shiny young person, but when applied, I think their success rate is their best marketing tool. As John Dewey once said, “The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these. Thus the teacher becomes a partner in the learning process, guiding students to independently discover meaning within the subject area.” I believe that applies to all of us as well.