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
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.