Friday, April 13, 2012

Memories of Education

I was reading some of FMH's posts on her son, and thinking on some of the curious and unfortunate aspects of the US school system as a whole.*

Since schools must provide services for learning difficulties or disabilities,** but not to the 'academically gifted', the net effect is that the kids who have an easy time are frequently... bored.  Really bored.

We can all understand the logic.  Everyone should achieve a minimum level.  We can all also understand that being that kid is really boring.  

I grew up in a wealthy school district that did, in fact, provide services to the bored kids.  Though it seems quite unfair in retrospect ("You did great, so here's more work!!) I liked having challenging work.  I suppose I enjoyed the working ahead, too, though it had strange effects later; I took college classes at the local college before I could drive.

I very especially remember being set to tutor the kids who were having a hard time.  And that? I did resent. I'm not sure I can articulate why, even now.  Partly because I was learning no new content.  I was learning how to explain things to people who just don't get it, which is indeed a valuable skill, but a ten-year-old doesn't usually appreciate that.  I remember feeling it was tedious and exploitative.  It was also like playing at mental gymnastics, like a game of Taboo with a group of well-read people.  After a few rounds it gets boring again.

From a teacher's point of view, it's naturally very effective.  They are making the most efficient use of their resources to help everyone get to the same minimum level.  I understand.  And yet, I retain the idealistic view that schools exist to help children reach their intellectual potential - not to drill in a minimum set of facts about Japan's history and the life-cycle of a caterpillar and how to add.  If you can already add, isn't it time to learn something new?

(I'm not blaming the teachers.  Teachers are over-worked, under-paid, and stuck with a class full of little darlings all day.  If there were more! better paid! teachers, this would be easier.  If schools had more money, they could do more individually-tailored education.  And so on.)

I know that our school systems operate very far from the optimum.  We will probably never be able to afford private schools.  I will do as my mother did and make sure my kids get the education they need.  I just wish it didn't have to be so hard for everyone.

* For those of you from other countries- it is in theory run state-by-state and in practice frequently run district-by-district, so each county or city may vary wildly from the next.  It's hardly a system at all.  
** Not that  they always do a good job.  And they try to weasel out of it at regular intervals.  And there's always more need than money.


  1. hoo, boy! When Mr. Jenny takes the kids to his parents and you come here to drink whiskey and chew the fat, you just get Sugar STARTED on this topic. Short version: she agrees with you. In colorful language.

    I mostly went to schools where I did not have to do that kind of thing, and what do you know? It turns out that I learned more about being a good teacher by BEING TAUGHT than by forced-march tutoring. (I did do some tutoring, too, but by choice. It was fun, because it was BY CHOICE.)

  2. Education is really difficult. There are so many different kinds of learners in one classroom, and quite a lot of ground to cover every year. I remember being bored in class sometimes, waiting for the slower kids to catch up. It's not fun being one of the slow kids either, wanting to ask questions but feeling like you're wasting people's time. I'm lucky my older son got into a charter school that has more individual learning, maybe he won't go through that.
    I'm reading a book right now, "Nutureshock" that discusses some of these issues. Apparently one problem with gifted programs is they test kids at kindergarten, and testable IQ really isn't stable until 3rd grade or beyond. Then "normal" kids are struggling in advanced programs and bright kids are stuck in normal schools. I have to wonder about labeling some kids as "gifted" too. It creates a fear of failure, and fear of trying things you might not be good at. I remember feeling so threatened that the new girl in school would be smarter than me, and I'd lose my "smart" label. It shouldn't have mattered.
    I'm surprised they had you tutoring at ten years old. I tutored first graders when I was in high school, and then some chemistry in college. I really found it useful in college, it helped cement concepts for me to explain them to others.
    I think ideally schools would exist to get kids to reach their intellectual potential, but too often teachers are just trying to get by, with too many kids and too few resources. Not to mention various behavior problems!
    I guess there's always homeschooling... if you have the luxury of sacrificing an income for that many years.

  3. I remember being put into groups as a kid, and the teacher expecting me to "help" everyone else. I usually ended up doing all the work because I wasn't about to let my grade suffer because other people didn't know what they were doing. That bit.

    With the "tutoring" - that happened too, especially in math classes. I always felt like I was waiting for everyone else to catch up, until I started a special school for nerds, and was suddenly the person trying to catch up. Then though, the teachers actually held office hours/study hours (it was a free residential high school, back when spending money on education was considered something good in state budgets).

    When I was teaching though, it was HARD to keep up with all the different abilities within one class, and heck, that class was supposed to be the "advanced" students. I could suddenly see exactly why my teachers were using students as tutors back then.

    My older son's class has occasional PE sessions with the "regular" classes - to help improve peer interactions and so the "regular" classes act as a model for the autistic class in terms of peer-to-peer play. I'm absolutely for that, but I don't know how the parents of the neurotypical kids feel about it. I wonder if it bothers them.

  4. Pharma Microbiologist8:00 AM

    I know. I have a 8-year-old who's intellectually about two years ahead of his peers, but socially he's almost younger than them. So no point of skipping grades.

    His teacher is trying, but my son's not getting what he need to live up to his potential. At all. I feel kind of powerless. Of course we do lots of stuff at home, but you should just see him when he's gotten to do something challenging in school, he comes home full of joy and can start solving interesting math problems in his free time, just because he wants to.

    I live in Sweden and there is very little here for the kids who are ahead of their peers. My son also loathes working toghether with other kids in projects, he feels he gets stuck with all the work.

  5. Ooof. I'm not even sure how to think about this issue, let alone what to do in the case of educating my many babies. My very poor New Mexican elementary had a gifted program. They took us to visit...the local jail. Awesome field trip.

  6. I was forced to tutor, both at my poor, public primary school, and at my horribly expensive private high school. I hated it because it was social suicide.


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