Debate Magazine

It’s Like We’ve Purposely Designed Schools as Engines for Crushing the Self-confidence of Children

By Stevemiranda

I tell prospective families at PSCS that our first focus as a school is not on delivering a prescribed academic program. I recently came across an opinion column in the Boston Globe that reminded me why this is so important:

A long-term study by sociologist John Clausen tracked children born in the Great Depression for six decades and found that those whose lives turned out best—who obtained more education, had lower rates of divorce, had more orderly careers, achieved higher occupational status, and experienced fewer life crises such as unemployment—shared something he labeled “planful competence,” a combination of dependability, intellectual involvement, and self-confidence.

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At PSCS, we make a really big deal about making sure students call the school if they’re going to be late. If they’re going to be only five minutes late, we want them to call. If they’re going to be one minute late, we want them to call and let the school know. There are multiple reasons for this—as a community school, each member of the community is part of what makes up the whole. Just like a spoke on a bicycle wheel or a key on a piano, when one is missing it really matters.

But there’s another reason. We want students to understand the importance of being accountable. We want students to graduate into the world with a well-developed sense of dependability.

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We don’t force students to adhere to a prescribed academic program for many reasons, but a major one is that the world is simply too interesting, and knowledge too diverse, to know precisely what intellectual information someone should need to know. When school districts set out to cultivate “lifelong learners,” and then run students through a battery of required classes using grades and punishments and rewards, they’re ignoring the overwhelming body of research that shows that nurturing intrinsic motivation is a much more powerful strategy for learning.

Students at PSCS are not required to take any academic classes. Instead, we surround them with talented people who are excited about teaching and learning, and partner with them as they choose their own path. After spending 10 years teaching in big box public schools, I have observed that this is a much more effective strategy for cultivating intellectual involvement.

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If Clausen’s research is accurate, and self-confidence is a factor in helping people live successful lives, then the worst thing we could do to kids is place them in an environment in which they have little autonomy, in which they compete with their peers for academic and social status, and then give them a formal assessment on a range of mandatory activities regardless of whether they have any interest in them. It’s like we’ve purposely designed schools as engines for crushing the self-confidence of children.

We can help students build self-confidence by having them start with their areas of strength. We honor their unique gifts by allowing them to immerse themselves in activities that bring them joy and make them feel strong. When students are coming from a place of safety and security, asking them to step outside their comfort zone and challenge themselves with something new is relatively easy.

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Our first focus at PSCS is on creating an environment in which students feel safe, secure, and part of a caring community. We surround students with talented adults of high character who are exciting about learning and excited about life. The job of the staff is to help students figure out what they love to do, encourage them to spend as much time as possible turning that passion into achievement, and then stepping outside their comfort zone and trying new things. The school curriculum is first and foremost about our core commitments: practice integrity, engage the community, act with courage.

It’s a philosophy grounded in the most robust findings in the behavioral sciences of the past 40 years. If you want to see what this looks like, we have a visitation day scheduled for Wednesday. You’re welcome to join us.

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