Helping Chidren Learn Self-Awareness and Self-Reliance

Kids don’t get very many chances to find out about themselves or choose for themselves at school. They wake up and get put on a bus at the ass-crack of dawn, often spending more than an hour commuting to school. When they arrive, they sit in assigned seats in carefully arraigned rows to prevent them from interacting overmuch with their friends. They are shuttled silently and in a line from a class on one subject to another, with a mental costume change expected promptly, and no idle chitchat in transit.

If they’re lucky, they get to choose their own seats at lunch. For some kids today, even their recess has become a dirge of walking on a track like a donkey in a smithy. At the end of the day, they ride in assigned seats on the bus home. Rich kids then get paraded about to all sorts of classes, lessons, or clubs, finally arriving home to waffle down some dinner and do an hour or two of homework that may or may not be useful in academic, social, or developmental ways.

No matter what we teach in schools, and whether or not it directly relates to the life our children go on to live and the adults they become, this system is bad, wrong, and broken.

I had the opportunity to go to an alternative style elementary school in Philadelphia called Project Learn (PL). While PL had many flaws, and I would not suggest it as a viable model for large-scale use, there were several aspects of it that gave me an opportunity that every child deserves. We should do our best as a society to create the kind of environment that PL did so that every child can have these opportunities:

At PL, while everyone “knew” what grade people were in, classes were referred to based on the teacher’s name rather than the grade level. Instead of an impersonal fact like date of birth determining  grade, a combination of age, maturity, and acumen were used. Because most of the homerooms had children from more than one year, and quite a few students stayed in the same homeroom for two years before moving on, it was impossible for the bullies to tell if a student was matched with a homeroom teacher because of symbiotic temperament or academic proficiency.

Likewise with academic classes. Math classes happened at the same time school-wide, and students were placed in a class based on their abilities. This was an incredible choice that allowed PL to teach all classes at much higher levels than in a typical school. They did this with language arts as well.

As a school teacher (and this was at the current 6th ranked school in the country mind you) I found that in each 22-child sections of science I would have huge disparities in ability. A teacher is forced to either let the smart kids get bored, or let the dumb kids not learn. What ends up happening is a lame reduction to the mean where teachers hope most kids get it, stress about the ones who don’t, and try to give extra challenges to the smart ones without turning them into pariahs.

A final choice that PL made, and one that I believe would make the most difference if adopted by more elementary, middle, and high schools, was an elective course structure. Starting in 3rd grade, students got to choose several elective classes based on their interest (and the teacher’s offerings). The whole school did electives at the same time, and many (but not all) of the elective classes involved students of different ages. There is so much going on here that is beneficial, but here are a few highlights:

Children getting to choose a class increases their buy-in and agency, giving them invaluable practice making decisions and sticking to them for a semester. Working in a class with students of other ages lets younger ones model their behavior based on peers who have matured, and lets older students pretend to be adults and practice leadership.

Teachers love electives. Electives give teachers a chance to share their passions with students, explore new ideas and topics, and design new curriculum. This keeps their lessons in their other areas fresher, and constantly broadens their knowledge base; allowing teachers to model the process of learning for their students. Job satisfaction is also increased because teachers often get stuck in a rut. Many elementary schools are feudal. Career teachers slowly accumulate gravitas and authority as they build political factions around them and compete in a zero-sum game with other tenured teachers. Electives uproot this by encouraging change, adaptation, and giving teachers a constantly random set of students to teach.

Electives also give more legitimacy and accountability to pursuits that would often be placed in “clubs” at the middle school and high school level. I personally participated in and loved the school newspaper elective.

A school administrator could also develop an electives slate that catered to a regional or local need. I can imagine an incredibly effective course offering in a blue-collar town that helped prepare middle and high school students for vocational jobs by giving them a chance to learn what options they were most passionate about. Likewise, in a school district with high teen pregnancy there could be electives focused on things like childcare or parenting.

In order to become more self-aware and self-reliant (both values that I ascribe to and believe to be an integral part of the American Dream), we need to do a better job helping our children learn and practice those skills. If a student never gets to make a choice, and is often held back/left behind in regimented classes, they won’t learn to dream.

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