Note: This is the third article in The Myths of Education series. Read about Myth #1 and Myth #2 or watch a 3-minute video interview.
Myth #3: Our Approach to Education is Best for Our Teens
Some babies walk at 10 months and others don’t walk until 17 months.
Right from the start, we have a 70% performance gap, yet we know this is normal so we don’t insist on rating babies’ walking skills. We understand that by the time they reach first grade, we won’t know — or care — who failed to walk at 12 months.
Why don’t we apply this perspective to the rest of our children’s lives? After all, we know that when these children are 35, no one will know or care how they performed in high school. It won’t be relevant to their success in work and in life because many teens have gifts and strengths that school doesn’t develop and — like babies’ walking — may emerge later.
In a recent study, I found that a child’s gifts may actually be at odds with the way he is expected to learn: the very gifts that will help him in life, hurt him in school.
The conflict between teens’ gifts and school demands is a good reason to question whether our approach to education is best for teens. Yet there is an even more fundamental reason to re-think this myth.
Our Approach Can Be Depressing
I discovered that our parent-educator-community-system is structured with what Martin Seligman identifies as the three crucial components of depression:
1. Repeated defeat
Every day, students meet defeat in the form of grades, tests, try-outs, rankings, honors and awards. And children whose gifts conflict with the way they are taught face defeat daily as they struggle to fit a mold that doesn’t bring out what’s best in them.
2. Lack of control
In most schools, teens don’t control what to learn or how to learn it. They also have little control over who to learn from, and when or where to learn.
3. Explaining defeat as a problem with “me.”
Depression occurs when we explain defeat by telling ourselves “it’s a problem with me; it’s my fault.”
So how does this affect teens? Let’s look at what adults teach teens: “Smart kids get good grades.” “Hard-workers get good grades.” “The best athletes make the cut.” “The best students go to the best colleges.” “There are only a few ‘gifted’ students.”
What message does a child take from this? “If my grades aren’t good, I must not be smart because bright kids do well in school.” “If I work hard and don’t do well, there must be something wrong with me because kids who work hard get good grades.” “If I’m not selected for the “gifted” group, I must not be gifted.”
Or, in other words, “There must be something wrong with me.”
Besides explaining defeat as “due to me,” we make it worse if we believe defeat happens in all parts of our lives and that it will continue. For many teens, school-related activities consume most of their waking hours on weekdays, and even a good chunk of the weekend. So it’s not surprising that they can believe defeat occurs, and will continue to occur, throughout their lives.
Three Ways to Stop Teaching Depression
If you became depressed while reading this, stay tuned for the good news. First, our kids are resilient and many of them find ways to stay happy despite the system. Second, we can change our approach. Here are a few things you can do:
1. Watch your language
- You can stop talking about grades as if they reflect something important about every teen’s abilities. Gifts, strengths, and talents combine and develop in complex ways that tests, papers, and grades cannot begin to measure.
- Stop talking about college as if there are only 10 or 30 or 50 “good ones.”
- Start talking about the bright, successful, thriving adults who were not good students.
2. Evaluate Less, Celebrate More
- Cut back on the number of ways a teen is evaluated by someone else: tests, try-outs, grades, honor roll, and awards. Don’t worry that teens won’t learn resilience if they aren’t defeated daily. People who feel more positive emotion are more resilient, say Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada (pdf here, Marcial Losada PPND articles on flourishing and on work teams).
- Identify and celebrate every child’s gifts even if they conflict with the curriculum.
3. Give Teens More Control
- Give teens more choice over how and what they learn so that they become more engaged in learning.
- Create opportunities for student-driven learning. I found that even teens in the bottom of their classes love to learn-when they learn on their own terms.
One last point: if you do nothing else, at least start by telling the teens in your life, “It’s not you!”
Images: Images belong to Christine Duvivier and are used with her permission.
Duvivier, C. (2007). Appreciating Beauty in The Bottom 80™. Philadelphia, PA: Capstone Project for University of Pennsylvania MAPP degree.
Duvivier, C. (2009). Myths of Education: Bottom Students Are Not Hardworking, Motivated, or Bright (Part 1). Positive Psychology News.
Duvivier, C. (2009). When Being the Best Student Isn’t Best for the Child: The Myths of Education (Part 2). Positive Psychology News.
Fredrickson, B.L. & Losada, M.F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.
Turner, D. (2007.) Active and Constructive Responding – With A Twist. Positive Psychology News.
But what if it is him? What if a teen in the bottom 80 is there because he is not working to his or her full potential?
As a teacher, I think that grades do reflect ‘something’ important – just not everything important.
I think much of what we need to do is build self-efficacy. What is it about those success stories of people who were not great students that can inspire that hope and belief in our teens (AND their parents), so that they don’t give up, crash/burn?
It’s this last point — about the parents & families — that I’d like you to address. Oftentimes kids without intrinsic motivation have parents with similar belief systems about learning. Do you find that?
Thanks for entertaining my questions – and thanks for your article.
You touch on vital matters. Academic success is not the main predictor of other success. But surely the issue arises much earlier, not least with parents but also with educationalists, focussed on ‘how well is my/this child doing?’ I don’t agree about giving teens more control (certainly I think we have given them too much freedom/neglect). I do absolutely agree they need more responsibility. Have you come across Robert Epstein’s work? (drrobertepstein.com).
And as Louis suggests we need to hold them to account much better. If you want the grade, do the work.
Yet I sense that much of what you write of is much earlier in life.
There are many children, especially girls, who languish, unproblematic at the back of the class. The principle of triage is not to go for those who scream (they have life) but for those who are quiet (they are near the edge). Our systems respond to the problematic rather than to the fragile.
I think we should expect more not less of teenagers, and support them in expecting more of themselves. But as professinals, as parents and as communities we should practice triage – I know, a hard call. I don’t think this is an issue to be solved by education.
You’ve just described first year teaching concisely: repeated defeat, harsh judgment of your performance, and the problem is explained as “me”. Maybe if educators, parents, and the whole system wasn’t on balance depressed, that would free up a lot of mental space. As it stands all sides are finger pointing. Everyone is wrong; student, parent, teacher, admin, world. You learn to play defense, cover yourself from attack. Teaching becomes not so much helping the kids as avoiding failure and humiliation.
Most of those who care experience burnout. I’m struggling with it at the end of my first year as a special educator. What I have noticed is that grades rarely indicate understanding, but rather that the student played the game gamely. They tiptoed into school. They completed all their assignments. They memorized enough to succeed on tests. Those kids “succeed”. They are batty inside but they get the prize: their diplomas.
School actually does a fair job of preparing kids for the irrational world of work. We just don’t measure the right stuff in the best way YET.
You raise a great question. I can only scratch the surface here, but for a more complete answer, you may want to take a look at my study (there’s a presentation and a paper) at http://www.positiveleaders.com. I think what I would ask is: how do we judge what the child’s full potential is? Yes, he or she may not be studying as much as we’d like or performing in school the way we’d like, but the full story is more complex. For example, this could be a child with tremendous intrinsic motivation. School is often focused on extrinsic motivation (grades, for example, are external judgments). Also, the teen may have a mind that doesn’t work well with words/language but is still fully capable of learning. When we look at the full picture of a child (perhaps we might rule out someone who is completely clinically depressed as they may have temporarily lost all motivation), we can see that he/she learns, is motivated and lives up to potential– but perhaps not in ways that show up in school.
When kids are fully-engaged, I see them live up to their potential– but it may be on different terms than we typically think of in our approach to education.
Thanks for a great question– and one that we could spend hours discussing,
Hi Angus, Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I wholeheartedly agree with you that we should expect the most from teens. However, for me, that means fully developing their strengths and gifts — and not necessarily performing at the highest levels in school. For me, it also means encouraging the teens to learn in ways that suit their intrinsic gifts and interests(may or may not be in a school environment), increase their self-motivation, and apply themselves in engaging activities.
Thanks for your comments, Angus,
Dear First-year Teacher,(Sorry, don’t know your first name)
I am so sorry to hear about your experience this past year. Thank you for sharing your perspective!
I agree completely that it would help to stop finger-pointing and bring together all parts of the system– including parents, teachers, administrators and other community members– to create better approaches.
Thanks for sharing your observation that grades don’t necessarily reflect a depth of understanding– I have heard that from teachers and students before, although it is not something that I have studied.
I hope that the coming year is an engaging, rewarding, and satisfying year for you in whatever you choose to pursue!
Louis, I just re-read your comment and realized I didn’t address your questions about what we can learn from the successes — and what to do when families seem to lack motivation. The people who didn’t do well in school, but ended up with great lives did so on their own– by utilizing their own gifts. What I hope is that we do more to help all students develop their gifts and strengths so that more of them can have successful, satisfying, meaningful lives.
As for families, if I understand your question correctly, I believe you are asking about families who do not care about school and perhaps do not seem motivated about many things…?
To me, these are the cases where school could make the biggest potential difference for a child– if we could find ways to help the child be engaged and if we could help him/her to develop innate gifts and strengths. When kids feel valued, absorbed in activity, and feel they can make a significant contribution, it makes a huge difference in their motivation and their enthusiasm, as I’m sure you know well as a teacher.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments and questions, Louis,
full agree great job putting this article together.