Academics Is Not A Dirty Word

The other day I was at the park talking to another mom. The conversation shifted as it often does to talk about where our kids go to preschool and where they will attend kindergarten. She was raving about the school her child attends and encouraging me to do a visit.

“It’s completely child led. The kids don’t have to do anything that they don’t want to do. They create the curriculum themselves,” she gushed.

She went on to explain that each morning the kids gather in a circle with the teacher (of course, she made sure to mention that if a child doesn’t want to sit in the circle than they don’t have to) and create a list of the things they want to do that day. Basically, it is a list of what they want to play.  She re-iterated again and again that it was focused on the arts and not academics.

“I don’t get it. So, like the teachers have no input whatsoever?” I asked.

“Exactly,” she beamed. “The kids get to do all of the choosing. They aren’t forced to do anything. Ever.”

“Okay, but what about if a kid just wants to sit in the sandbox all day?”

“Then they can sit in the sandbox all day!”

Here’s the deal: If Gus was given a choice between playing Power Rangers with a bunch of his friends or figuring out how to spell CAT, he’s picking Power Rangers every time. If I waited until Gus wanted to learn how to read and write, I’d be waiting forever.

I had assumed that the school she was discussing was only pre-school. I can understand how parents get really into preschool that is child led and it makes sense for that age group. However, there comes a point when children actually have to start learning the basic fundamentals of reading, writing, and math. Period. I was shocked to learn that the school continued through sixth grade.  She boasted proudly that many kids don’t read when they get to sixth grade. She was proud that the school her child was going to be attending through sixth grade did not force the children to learn how to read if they didn’t want to and who found it perfectly acceptable to be illiterate at age 12. I, on the other hand, found it insulting to all of the individuals who would give anything for the opportunity to learn how to read that there are people who would take pride in illiteracy.

Sadly, she’s not the only parent I’ve met who holds similar views. Many of the parents whom I run into in Los Angeles turn their nose up at academics as if it a dirty word we shouldn’t say. As if there is something wrong with academics. One mother even said, “C’mon, it’s not like we need to teach our kids to get into Harvard.”

Um…for the record, I’m completely okay with my son going to Harvard. If my son was a Harvard graduate, I would beam with pride. Also, I want to believe my child has the potential to go to Harvard. Apparently, where I live, this makes me a bad person.

I want my kid to learn to write. Correctly and appropriately. I want him to learn his letters and the sounds associated with each letter because I want him to be able to read. I want him to know how to identify shapes and numbers so he begins to learn the basic fundamentals of math. I guess I’m just old fashioned that way.

I see the same trend in regard to attitudes towards school that I see in the attitudes toward parenting in general. For example, we’ve identified the strict boundaries and rules that we experienced as kids as being the cause of stifling our individuality and creating all kinds of problems for us later in life. In the same manner, we’ve taken our own issues with education and lack of successful academic progress from our own childhood, and placed it squarely onto the shoulders of our children.

I’ve said it a thousand times and I’ll probably say it a thousand times more. My job is to prepare my son to be a healthy adult functioning well within the world. This means sometimes he has to do things that he doesn’t like to do. Sometimes he has to do things that are hard for him. And sometimes, he has to do things even if he doesn’t understand why or the importance of doing so.

Okay, this post has gotten entirely too long. More to come. Stay tuned…


This entry was posted in General Parenting, motherhood and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Academics Is Not A Dirty Word

  1. Tianana says:

    WOW! How sad that is. Every job I have ever had, had parts that I didn’t want to do. If I had told my boss that, “I don’t want to do that part of the job”, I would have been fired, and rightfully so. I really feel bad for those kids but I especially feel sorry for the society that will be dealing with them when they get to the point where they are out in the world. WOW! Very sad.

  2. Susana says:

    Well… that trend in educational system, has not arrived to Mexico … yet. But I see how fashion trends, parenting trends, cultural trends, etc. are easily adopted (not judging) from other countries to mine, I think this is just a matter of time… and I shiver with fear.

    What kind of adults are we forming if children don´t learn basic knowledge to THRIVE in the world? how are they supposed to obtain (or retain) a job if they do as they please instead of working as they are expected to? How are they going to follow rules and laws if they were formed to follow their instincts and their wishes?

    After this… have I seen it all?

  3. Mama Melch says:

    This reminded me of a TAL I listened to awhile back:

    I don’t think I would ever choose that style of education for my kids, but if someone wants that for their kids, great. What I despise, is anyone thinking they have the one solution that will work for all kids. I would be especially interested to see how kids moving from that type of school environment adjust outside. 7th grade seems like a really difficult age to try to make such a huge switch. I’d bet they go homeschool. Have you seen any data?

    • Mommy Psychologist says:

      Thanks, Mama Melch. You are correct in that a significant majority choose to home school. I’d love to see actual data on how this type of schooling plays out in the long run. One of the commenters above referred to studies and I asked for the links because I’d love to see them. I’ll pass them along in your direction if I get them. I did a bit of my own research today and the only thing I can find is anecdotal.

  4. Jennifer says:

    I think its important to allow children to approach academics in a manner that appeals to them, in preschool and kindergarten, but that’s very different than eschewing academics completely. I think you’re right on the money when you say that its parents who’ve had issues with academics themselves who are now rebelling — they forget that they still have lived a life with the benefit of academics. Sure, the competitive focus should be done away with, and learning issues/styles should be respected, but to do away with basic education and hope that your child can eventually function in an educated world is illogical.

    • Mommy Psychologist says:

      Thanks, Jennifer. You said it better than I did. There’s no doubt that our education system is sincerely flawed and that we have to find a way to accommodate all of the learning styles and not to just reward a specific type of learning. However, the idea that the core principles of academics should be done away with in favor of the child’s innate desire to learn is not consistent with what science tells us. Namely, that this intrinsic desire to learn is not always there and in addition, in the instances in which it is, it tends to be very limited in scope.

  5. Mommy Dearest says:

    First off, I’d like to say I am a primary teacher with a Bachelor of Education. While the mother you spoke to does make this whole type of learning sound silly, “unschooling” is a good option for some children. This is a movement in education where a child’s learning becomes intrinsic and they learn about what they are passionate about and become an “expert” in that interest. Statistics on this type of schooling suggest that children learn what they need to get by, and that over 90% of unschooled children decide to go to university and are accepted. There is a problem with our current education system, and the one size fits all approach it uses. Yes, it’s true that most people out in the work force can’t tell their employer they don’t want to do something. This is the whole point of this type of education – to allow children to foster their own learning based on their passions so they can go out in the world, excel in their chosen field and be their own bosses. It’s not so black and white, and perhaps some parents can’t properly articulate the reasons why they want this type of education for their child, or why it is good.

    • Mommy Psychologist says:

      Thanks, Mommy Dearest. Do you think you could provide the references for the studies you refer to? I’d love to look up the studies.

    • Sara says:

      I am an educator as well and the studies I have read say that a student’s reading ability at the end of third grade is an indicator of their reading ability throughout life. Not that people can’t learn to read later in life because they do but it is much more difficult. I would not feel comfortable with my kids not being able to read at 6th grade. (you can search for Dibles and University of Oregon for those studies)

  6. Tara says:

    That is just bizarre. I don’t understand – are those schools somehow exempt from meeting the state minimum standards for academic achievement?

    • Mommy Psychologist says:

      Thanks, Tara. This school and schools like it are private schools. And yes, private schools are exempt from many state regulations regarding education.

  7. Chris says:

    I think there’s a balance to be struck, and that there is definately something to be said for educaiton being more child-led. I say this from my own experience, which was the other way round from what most people fear. I was born in early september, so I was old for my year, and also pretty intelligent as a kid. I taught myself to read before I started school. When I started, I could already do many of the things people my age were supposed to, and those I didn’t I picked up pretty easily. The feedback I got was “great, you can do everything you’re supposed to, you’re exactly where you should be”. Because of this I wasn’t challeneged, I wasn’t shown things that might interest or develop me beyond where I was “supposed” to be. Because of this I became lazy, and later on when things started getting harder I felt that if something didn’t come easily to me or if I didn’t get it straight away I couldn’t be bothered with it. This is something I still struggle with now aged 28.

    Just a reminder that “child led” doesn’t just have to mean letting kids play in the sand pit all day if they want to.

    • Mommy Psychologist says:

      Thanks, Christ. I agree with you 100%. I by no means believe that schools should incorporate the child playing an active role in their learning. IN addition, I think that teachers also have to be flexible and adaptive to how children learn and the truth is that children learn very differently. I have to say that in this instance “child led” did mean that the kids were allowed to play in the sand box all day. In fact, upon further questioning, she informed me they could stay in the sand for all 7 hours if they so desired.

      • Mommy Psychologist says:

        I had to reply to my own comment because I just realized I called you Christ!!!!

    • Lisa says:

      I struggled with this as well. I am 27 and as a Masters student I am realizing for the first time that I have never worked hard before in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve held jobs and done well in school and always believed that what I was doing was work (because I always got a pat on the back and a “good job”) but now I realize there’s a difference between getting something done and actually working at it. I was merely completing tasks without ever trying hard to learn or improve. I am self conscious about my laziness and get easily frustrated when I don’t immediately understand something after reading it off of a page. But I was lazy as a child too and I don’t think I would have pushed further if left to my own devices. I would have sat in the sand box.

      I think each student should be given their own set of challenging academic goals that they have to work to achieve. (This would probably require a better student/teacher ratio.) The standardized set of goals for each age group means some kids feel like failures and others never learn to work. Unfortunately education is set up as a competition, and if we didn’t have standardized goals we couldn’t rank people. If we couldn’t rank people we would have to *gasp* evaluate them qualitatively based on their skills and achievements, something every employer already does.

  8. Jamie says:

    This sounds almost like it could be a Montesorri school. I’ve done a lot of research on Montesorri and I like the concept, but the way this woman describes it sounds awful. I wouldn’t want my kid to go there either. Usually the teacher gives the child some direction if they are making poor choices. The kids do learn how do read and tend to excel when they change to a traditional school. If she is talking about a Montesorri school it seems that they have taken the concept a little too far.

    • Mommy Psychologist says:

      Thanks, Jamie. A true Montessori school understands that there are preferred activities and non-preferred activities. Unfortunately, there are many schools that call themselves a Montessori, but actually are not based on any of the strong techniques and practices that are involved in Montessori education. In a Montessori school system, contrary to what many believe, the teachers are actually very involved with the students. In fact, I think in some instances they are probably more involved as they are constantly observing the child, the child’s interactions, and the child’s interests.

  9. MyOnlySunshine says:

    I find this whole debate extremely interesting. I live in a large metropolitan city, and had trouble finding a pre school that wasn’t solely academics based. As in flash cards and test practice at age 3. I wanted my daughter to just be a kid, and I didn’t want to pressure her to “perform” that young. I wanted a curriculum that was play based that still had some structure to it. We finally found such a preschool. In my daughters case, the children identified what they were interested in, and the teachers catered to that within a somewhat structured schedule. E.g: at the beginning of the year, the kids offered suggestions and voted on a “theme.” Her first year it was trains. All of the investigations they did were train based. Some investigations were more science, some early literacy, but the kids themselves picked which they were most interested in and the teachers catered to each child’s needs and interests. I wanted a place where my child could learn to love to learn. Regardless of how she learns, the desire for knowledge and the love of learning in and of itself was and is a crucial value that i want to instill in her. There was still structure – set age appropriate rules and circle time and a schedule, but routine works for my child. She thrives on it. We liked it so well, we enrolled her in Kindergarten and she will likely be at this private school through Grade 8. And I know I’m lucky because we have that option to place her in a private school. My husband works for the public schools in my city and I do recognize how fortunate we are to be able to choose the best type of education for my child since education isn’t an shouldn’t be a one size fits all solution.

    • Mommy Psychologist says:

      Thanks, MyOnlySunshine. I have zero problems with a school not being 100% academically based. In fact, I don’t think schools should focus solely on academics. That is not my intended point at all. My son attends a private preschool which incorporates a very well rounded curriculum that allows for both play and structure. I also feel fortunate that I live in a large city where there are so many opportunities for different types of schools.

  10. Mommy Dearest says:

    Sorry, I just realized that my statistic didn’t refer to all unschooled children. It is a statistic from the Sudbury Valley school, which is a democratic school that is based on the concept of unschooling. There haven’t been many studies done on unschooled children. You can find the information about Sudbury Valley School graduates here:

    In Ontario, where I from, 34% of high school graduates go on to university and 20% go on to college programs. Study info can be found here: Many of the students who eventually do earn a degree or diploma can’t find work or in satisfied. I know many people in their 20’s and even 30’s who are in this situation. This is telling me that our education system is not working, and higher education is not always the solution.

    In my experience, children lose their love of learning at around age 8, after three or so years of traditional schooling. Ontario has begun a new kindergarten program that is play based, and does away with pencil and paper type learning. No more desks, worksheets or long “circle times”. Curriculum is based on the children’s interests, and learning is extended through conversations during their play. This is a start, but what about the rest of the grades?

    The documentary, “Searching For Superman” really demonstrates the problem with traditional schools and the way they are currently run. I think we are on the verge of an education revolution. I want to be part of it.

    • Mommy Psychologist says:

      Thanks, Mommy Dearest. I was wondering where the statistics came from because there have been relatively few controlled studies looking at unschooling. I really liked “Searching for Superman”as well. Unfortunately, I think that the problem with education extends much further than within the school. I think parents expect school to do many of the tasks that should be the responsibility of the parents. I think there is a lack of parental accountability that is contributing to the issue as well, but it is easier to point the finger at the schools. This is not saying that I don’t agree with you in that our schools need a massive overhaul. Count me in on the revolution, too:)

      • JoyfulJ says:

        I completely agree with you that parents have abdicated way to much responsibility to the schools, part of it is our cultures ingrained belief that learning can’t happen (beyond age 3-4) except in the class room. But our children show us that learning happens in life. Every day. I’ve learned more in the 5 years since becoming a mother than the whole 20 years before that and I haven’t spent a moment in school during that time.
        I believe strongly in the benefits of unschooling. It is extremely versatile. It doesn’t have requirements that puts unnecessary burden and stress on children. I think we require way too much of students. And as is shown by that game, “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?” so much of what people think is necessary isn’t as attested by the fact we forget most of what we learn, only remembering what we use regularly and what we are interested in learning.
        If we use it regularly then we are going to learn it, if it is of interest then we are going to learn it, If we need it to live we are going to learn it. If not the we are wasting time that could be spent on what we really need.
        Yes a huge part of unschooling is constantly exposing our children to new and different experiences. Making sure our children are exposed to as much as possible so they have every opportunity to have their interest peaked by something that might become a passion or lead to a passion. Seeking your own passions is always a good example to lead your children into seeking their own.
        Unschooling isn’t for every family, though every child would benefit from even part time unschooling.

  11. Mommy Dearest says:

    Oops! I meant to write, “are dissatisfied”!!

  12. Ali says:

    I sat on the alumni scholarship board for my University. We had to read through the scholarship applications, rate them and interview the top candidates. I will never forget the one application from a kid who had been home schooled his entire life. His essay talked about how difficult the transition had been from no expectations, no tests, no schedule to a rigorous academic program; keeping up with assignments and different professor’s expectations was exceedingly difficult for him. I think what a lot of parents in school such as the one you describe forget is that school is more than just learning the three R’s. It’s about learning to manage expectations, dealing with different people, waiting your turn in the lunch line, etc. I’m not thrilled with core standards and curriculums, but at least my kids will be able to deal in the real world. And when, if, they get to college, they can handle papers and final exams. They won’t be lost little souls who can’t function because no-one made them or taught them how.

    • Mommy Psychologist says:

      Thanks, Ali. This is an excellent point that you bring up. There are so many other areas of school that are important too that far exceed the academic skills we learn. I’ve always wondered what kids who are home schooled do if they plan on attending college. College is overwhelming enough as it is. I can’t imagine going into it without any sort of experience in a traditional school setting. The time management part alone would be hard to even begin to figure out if you had never had to do it. Let alone all of the other social pieces of college. Love that you brought this valuable piece into the discussion.

  13. Sara says:

    I think this must be (at least partially) an LA thing. Here in Boston, parents are definitely pushing their kids (to get into Harvard), and reading by the end of kindergarten is very important. I think it’s the same n both public and private schools. I don’t know of any children that are home-schooled. That would be way out of the mainstream. So, a kid who does not read in sixth grade in Massachsetts would probably qualify for special education services. What parent would not want their child to experience the joy of reading, or being good at spelling or math? Now, I will say that I sometimes feel that homework is unnecessary for my first-grader. She hates it and I question if it will make her dislike school. But it is important for her to feel competent and fit-in with the other children, and she can do it quickly and easily. I just think it is more of a busywork-task for me than a meaningful learning activity for her. Anyway, my husband would infinitely prefer my girls to get the best formal education possible. There is no movie industry here and the creative artists are mostly starving. I’m not sure wherenthisntrend gotnit’s footing. I’d just nod my head at the playground and wear dark sunglasses so these moms can’t get any idea about what I’m really thinking – that they are stark-raving mad,

  14. Melissa McAllister says:

    What model is the school based on? Have you actually seen it in person or are you just making judgements based on what a stranger said?
    It sounds to me like a democratic school like Sudbury Valley as PP mentioned. You might be surprised to see how in a democratic situation children are actually inspired to study and work hard without poking and prodding from adults. They learn from each other, the school staff and outside mentors/classes.
    The environment is rich with responsibility (they run the school democratically and every child and adult has an equal voice) and drive to learn and create. It isn’t a bunch of illiterate 12 year olds in sandboxes as you speculate.
    There tends to me a natural hierarchy that forms with the younger kids looking up to the older ones and all of the children looking up to the adults who treat them with such respect and dignity.
    As it turns out, you don’t actually need to force kids to learn anything if they are in an environment that is truly conducive to learning.

  15. desmoinesdem says:

    I know a lot of homeschoolers, including some “unschoolers,” and my children have attended a Montessori school. I have never heard anyone suggest that it’s fine for kids not to learn to read if they don’t want to read.

    You’ve set up a straw man argument here, I think–aside from a handful of weird LA parents, no one is saying it’s fine for kids to stay illiterate. Pushing academics too hard in preschool is a very different story. I agree with the Montessori approach, which emphasizes hands-on learning and “practical life” skills at ages 3 and 4. Some kids are early readers, which is fine, but there’s no proven benefit to pushing reading and writing on 4-year-olds who are not ready.

  16. Violina23 says:

    I’m late and catching up on this discussion, but yes, I think it has to be a balance. Yes, children should be able to pursue their interests and specialized education, and I agree with the complaints that everything in education is often”one size fits all”, and that’s a mistake. For example, not every kid will thrive in a 4 year traditional college. Why we don’t embrace trade schools and alternate paths for people who aren’t as naturally academically inclined is beyond me.

    But that being said, there is a core level of proficiency that people need to learn to function in society. Reading, writing, basic arithmetic… I don’t think those should be optional. And I think it is important to expose children to the breadth of what education has to offer: science, history, music, art, literature, etc. Some kids will never know if they don’t experience it or challenge themselves to try it.

    I don’t know, maybe it’s easy for me to say, I was always academically inclined. Part of it was wanting to please my parents, maybe, but I couldn’t imagine anything other than trying my best. It was ingrained in me at such a young age to always aim for the best that I could be. My husband, however, was one of those kids who never had to “try” to do well in school & high school — but got a big reality check when he hit college and his “wing it” philosophies towards studying & work didn’t quite cut it.

    I think, as a parent, the biggest thing I’d worry about with these completely child-led paths is that without any semblance of structure, I’d fear that the child would grow up expecting the whole world to work the same way. I read an article that was supposed to be a sob story about how kids out of college are struggling to find jobs, but when I read the article closely, the kid had rejected a 40K/year job because it wasn’t quite as fancy as the job they expected after getting their degree! The reality is, like you said, sometimes you have to do things you don’t like, because the BIG picture is worth it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Mommy Psychologist TM