Debate Magazine

Creating a Problem Where None Exists

By Stevemiranda

My neighbor and I were chatting after dinner tonight, and she brought up a situation her elementary school-aged daughter had a few years ago in school.

She was struggling with basic math facts—math concepts were no problem, but quickly rattling off the answer to “5+6” or “12-8” was not so easy. The family enrolled her in a tutoring program, which helped her gain speed at mastering these basic math facts.

Mom said that her daughter didn’t enjoy those tutoring sessions but agreed that they were helpful. Like anyone else, she enjoys doing well in school.

I said, “The most important thing she learned from that process is not the answer to 5+6 or 12-8—she would have easily learned that later, when her unique brain was ready for that kind of challenge. The most important thing she learned was the process: when you don’t know something, you can ask an expert for help. Then if you apply hard work, you can learn the skill.”

My neighbor said, “Steve, you were a high school teacher. You know it’s more complicated than that. Kids know if they’re the only ones in class who don’t know the answer, or if they’re in the ‘slow’ group. It doesn’t take much for them to begin to develop an identity as a learner that ‘I’m not good at school.’”

It’s true. When I taught 10th graders, the game was over before the first day they walked into my class. By that age, they’d already decided whether school was a place at which they excel or suffer from shame. It was very, very hard to change the perception they had internalized about themselves.

It became suddenly clear in that moment: the reason for enrolling the daughter in the tutoring program wasn’t about mastering basic math facts. It was to avoid internalizing a sense of shame about basic math facts.

This is a situation in which school is creating a problem where none exists. Kids don’t need to master specific academic information by a certain age. They don’t need grades. They don’t need grade-level standards. Lawmakers and nervous parents may need those things, but kids don’t need them.

The most important thing for kids in school is to enjoy a healthy relationship with learning.

All those lofty goals we have for them? They have those same lofty goals for themselves. They enjoy learning, and they enjoy doing well in school. Our job as grownups is to get out of their way, to avoid inadvertently shaming them, to avoid creating a problem where none exists.

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