Thursday, March 17, 2011

What school does to our kids ...

We had a wonderful four-day holiday in Hungary to celebrate March 15th. We went to some excellent multimedia-concert for kids, went cycling and hiking, did the cooking together. Basically, we had four great days together with the family.

In the evening before going back to school and starting work again, my daughter started to produce some strange symptoms, which we didn't know where they came from at the beginning. First, we noticed that she dropped a lot of things, she seemed fully distracted and some kind of palpable tension slowly started to build up in her. This eventually resulted in blaming herself for everything, saying how useless she was. This is not something that we had ever told her. So why is doing this to herself? - I asked myself.
Then she burst out in tears and asked me to go with her into their room to talk.
The tension building up in her started to take shape as we were talking for quite some time that seemed like long hours. This post would not be enough to tell you about all the feelings, worries, anxiety, questions that came out of her like the steam you want to hold back, but it is escaping. My replies to her are also shortened here.
She was in tears all throughout this long chat, and these are a few things she told me.

First she would not even look up at me, but slowly started to say:
"I'm not sure I can tell you all about this, because I'm worried that you'd be angry with me. My teachers would be angry at school if they had found out."

"We love you the way you are, so just tell me anything you want."- I replied.

"Mum, I want to get the stars for my work (they get stars only for absolutely perfect work, and can get a shiny sticker after collecting ten stars), but I hate writing so much. I just can't do it right."

"Why do you want to get stars and stickers?" - I asked

"I don't know."
"If you don't know the answer to this question, then these stars and stickers are not important to YOU. What is important that YOU know that you are content with your work, or what you would like to improve on. The stars and stickers won't tell you. It's only YOU who knows it."

"Mum, I got only 8 out of 10 in my last science test, and the reason why I didn't know the answer to these two questions was... (and she explained them to me)."

"Well, you just gave yourself a 10 out of 10." - I told her. "You know what went wrong and why, so you have learnt from it and there's nothing more important than this." Then I wrote a 10 on her test paper and signed it: "from mum"

She was still crying when she told me about the next thing.

"Mum, why do we have to put our bags on the desk between the two of us when we are writing tests? I cheated by looking at my mate's work once and was told off . It felt so bad. Why can't we help each other? Why is it not allowed to teach each other? Why is it bad if we whisper the answers to each other?"
So school is teaching our kids that they are not trusted . The teacher is thinking: "you might cheat, so I'm going to prevent that". If this is what they are teaching them, how can they expect the kids to trust their own teachers, I wonder. How can one teach without mutual trust?
Why do they have to write 10-20 tests per subject per term in the first grade? Why not use collaborative learning and teaching tools as it is said that this is the method used by the school? Why not teach kids to evaluate their own work and learn from it, rather than use imposed tests and grades that don't mean anything to anybody?

Having said that, I still think that we have managed to choose one of the best teachers at this school. The problem is that today's state-school educators have been conditioned to such a state of helplessness that they don't even question any of the rituals used in "education"- see, for example, preventing kids from cheating above. They got out of the habit of thinking: "Now hang on a minute. What does this do to the kids? How will they feel if I do this? What effect will this have on their feelings and then their reactions, behaviour? Is this really necessary? " Oh, god, so many un-asked questions.

My daughter, who was the happiest little human being on earth about the thought of starting school and learning how to read and write "properly", looking forward to learning about the real-world things, have fun with her mates last September as you can see it on the photo above...and I could continue her list here through long paragraphs, produces serious stress symptoms that go unnoticed at school. The trouble is, however, that it is not only her. This is a mass phenomenon that is explained by the teachers when asked as "this is the way it is, there's nothing more I could do". There are a great number of kids who drop out of school or move school, where they will go through the same things - lucky, if they don't.
Teachers are kept so busy with administrative duties, marking kids' tests, staying up late to correct every letter that is not round enough in red that they don't have time and energy for real education. So of course, they'll end up saying "this is the way it is, there's nothing more I could do".

Can we pleeeeease wake up and start changing the education system? I am totally aware that this is not going to happen overnight, but pleeeeeease do start thinking.

This was just a plea from a mum, one of the many mums around in Hungary.


  1. A test is not a collaboration; it is testing what an individual knows. Giving answers to others IS cheating, during a test.

    However, collaboration before and after is wonderful; sharing information and helping each other figure things out is what it's all about.

    But how can the teacher know what each individual student knows and understands if EVERYTHING is about sharing answers? Is this what Billy knew and shared, which is Sally's contribution, and it's obvious that Nathan and Georgianna inputted absolutely nothing. . . . .

    There is much that needs fixing in our schools, but sharing information while taking a test that will measure what each individual student knows about whatever topic is being tested, is cheating. Save the sharing for collaborative projects, and prove what YOU know on the test and let others do the same.

  2. Thanks, Mamacita for your comment. I don't think we disagree on what is cheating and what is not cheating. What I'm questioning in this post is how testing is carried out. Yes, children do have to learn to take responsibility for what they are doing - e.g. looking at their mate' answers. I can see a lot of value in that. Kids realising that they did something wrong happens without punishing them for something they haven't yet done.(I have experienced this several times in my teaching career.) I regard the use of bags as a signal of "no trust" as an indirect punishment. This is how a child perceives it at that moment.

    I see more value in children being able to reflect on the experience themselves rather than immediately signalling "no trust" towards them. This is not what I would call education. In this case we are educating them to feel unsafe, not trusted, and therefore they will not be able to return this trust.
    Education is about providing opportunities for kids to experience things, and learn from those experiences, thus developing self-awareness and control over what they do. THEIR control, not someone else's, the teacher, in this instance.

    I'm also not sure about the importance of test, especially at this age. If a teacher who spends minimum 15 hours per week with a child doesn't know about their performance, it's sad. I'm not interested in grades, because they don't tell me anything. It is only a way to compare a child' performance in a subject area at a specific moment in time to ..... I can't even finish this sentence to make sense to me. REAL sense. One could finish it by saying "compare kid's performance to each other, to standards" What standards? And why would they be important in my child's development? (Just a few minutes ago I read an interesting post on Albert Eintein, what his performance was like at school here

    Some time ago I wrote another post on assessment and this is what seemed to have done the job for my students. Having said that, this is not something that should work for everyone. It has worked for my students, and I'm glad it has. As a teacher, I don't have to give constant test to the children or adults I'm teaching to know where their strengths are and what areas they need to work at.

    So it turns out that we don't see testing in the same light. But that's OK.


  3. Testing for us teachers is assessing individual progress--for kids it is merely competition. Their aim is not to get info/reflection on their progress but to place themselves on a hierarchical system of the group.

    As long as they are preoccupied with this position of theirs within the system they will not develop a kind of need for reflective self-assessment. They will not develop internal motivation unfortunately. They will not develop control over their learning. Carrot and stick will never enhance autonomous learning.

    As for individual performance, kids often do poorly on test due to anxiety. Their brains simply switch off. Considering this individual testing is by no means a reliable method of assessment.

    Another factor is, kids' pace of cognitive development is so diverse. How could their performance be compared? Against standards or each other???

    My experience shows that some kids who do sports develop a healthy kind of sense of achievement, they have an insight of thier own development, consequently they might become slightly more autonomous people. Maybe...

  4. Thanks, Barbi. Totally agree with all your points above. Your comments are insightful and reassuring. My experience of and knowledge about child-development tells me exactly the same.

    I've had a teacher colleagues saying that "a child needs to know where they stand in the hierarchichal system of the group", hence the need for testing and carrot stickers. When I asked her "why?", she could not explaing, though. The sad thing is that she didn't say this becuase she's a dreadful person or teacher. She was just not used to not thinking in this way...Can we do anything about this? I believe the process has started, as slow as it may be, but it is happening.
    The teacher I talked about above has also started to open up and raise question now that her child had to go through some totally ridiculous entrance exams for grade 5, and may not be allowed to another school. Is that fair to the child? NO.

    Glad we agree :-))


  5. Thanks for writing such an interesting post, I've never read your blog before, but I'd like to leave a quick comment.

    I've read a lot about testing and assessment from a teacher's perspective but as a non-parent it's interesting to hear this narrative of your child's experience. I think that a lot of individual testing is just for administrative purposes and as Barbi mentions, how is a stress-inducing activity likely to allow a child to demonstrate what they are truly capable of?

    Also, it is mentioned by Mamacita that testing should be private, secretive and individual. The thing is, when is this actually reflected in real life? So many exams merely test memory and most of us complain that our memories are useless, I know mine is! So we develop strategies to cope, we make notes, use mobile apps, set reminder alarms, whatever it takes. I would argue that the most important learning skill is the ability to apply strategies to complete a task. Why should a child have to remember facts or equations, for example, when they can just search google, or read a book to find an answer?

  6. Welcome to this blog, Richard, and thanks for your comments.

    You raised a major issue, I believe, one that I think is one of the biggest problems of today's education. Not much of what happens at school reflects real-life skills. I wrote about this in previous posts too, I'm glad that there are more and more people thinking along the same lines :-). (see for example

    Thank you!


    Here's a very nice correspondence between a teacher and a parent, true story and everything. I really hope I'll be able to have a similar sense of humor about these things, when and if they may happen.

  8. :-)) This was absolutely phenomenal, Flavia! Thanks a lot for the link! We had the best laugh with my husband in months.

    We did similar things when both our daughters went to the kindergarten. We thought, as David pointed out, that kids need to have a proper breakfast with all the family, if possible, taking time to eat and be together in the morning. So of course we would always be 5-10 mins late from kindergarten, where they locked all the doors. We tried to explain several times why we need more time with our kids. The answer was, believe it or not, that "we give them breakfast anyway at the kindergarten". We would point out phychological reasons, child-development, emotional dev, ..., you name it. Nobody would understand. Eventually, we were forced to resort to common sense, when we saw that we were locked out again right in fron of us, i.e. my husband jumped over the fence and helped kids over too.
    Oh well, a few weeks later they locked the door 15 mins later :-)), i.e. at 8:45 in the morning.

    The funny thing was, however, that we were told that we were given this privelage because we had done so much for the kindergarten, i.e. help paint their playground, planted flowers with the kids in the kindergarten, setting up a blog for them, etc. Not because they had had a rule that didn't make sense. Makes me laugh, though it should make me sad, ... well no, I'm gonna stick to a good giggle.

    Wish all school principals would understand the situation like the one in this great correspondence in your link. This, unfortunately is not the case. We are doing all we can, though, to help teachers and the school management see things with a more open mind.

    But I'll tell you who my fav is: his name is George Couros,, The Principal of Change. Check out his blog, follow him on twitter, attend his presentations at (virtual) conferences and you'll learn a lot.

    Also this weekend there is the 4th Virtual Round Table Conference. It's free and it's a great opportunity for development. Don't miss it, if poss!!!

    Take care.

  9. Thanks for the link, Flavia xD and for the breakfast story Erika.

    Maybe my knowledge is outdated but as Piaget's theory of moral development says the final stage of moral development is "relativity", kids learn that rules can be changed if necessary with consent. We ARE ALLOWED TO change rules if we make them more applicable to increase efficiency if you like, and if both/all parties agree. Let us suppose the goal is common, all members understand it.
    Maybe Piaget's theory does not apply to institutions :S

  10. Barbi, could you write a post on Piaget's theory and maybe with some practical hints as to how to apply it to institutions? That would be fab!

    Poor Falvia, e-mailed me yesterday that she wrote a "HUGE comment", but it disappeared when she tried to post it. Do always copy what you have written onto the clipboard before you press the "Post Comment" button, just to make sure you have it saved somewhere.

    So Barbi, if you have the time, looking forward to your post :-))

    Thanks a lot for both of you for being with me so many times through this blog!

  11. Really a nice post! According to The Good Childhood Report 2012. The report highlighted that unhappiness increases dramatically with age – from 4% to 14% from the age of 8 to the age of 15! I think it would be good for parents to take a happiness test for their children to check their children overall happiness level. Thought I'd share, Cheers!

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