How Do We Help Kids Learn How to Be …?

When We Are Struggling To Find The Answer As Adults?

Note: This is “a thought essay”.  It began with my reflections on finding a thread between helping kids learn unschooling rules photo“how to be” and our apparent inability to determine who we want to be as a culture/society. The background to this can be found in Clark Aldrich’s book, Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education. Aldrich suggests that there are 3 types of learning that make up the purpose of school: Helping kids Learn How to Learn; Helping kids Learn How to Do; and, Helping kids Learn How to Be. In this reflection, I’m focusing on the “how to be” purpose.

Prior to the national election in 2016, I had shared with some friends that I thought that the election might be a struggle for the soul of the country.  In the years since, I’ve heard the phrase numerous times.  As we watch the news and listen to the pundits opine, we are watching the “battle” lines harden for what might be the true struggle for our soul.  Each issue becomes a battle ground for a belief system.  The lines between ideas seem to be growing more clear and more rigid as we struggle with who it is we want to be.  As adults it’s challenging to make sense of the information coming at us from TV, social media, competing news outlets, etc.

Last night, PBS New Hour devoted one of its segments to a case being heard by the US Supreme Court in which the justices will determine whether or not a school has the right to discipline a student for language used on social media.  The case involved the emotional response of a 14 year old girl who was unsuccessful in her bid to be a cheerleader.

Folks, this is the world we are leaving for our children… a world with a climate in crisis, with a pandemic which continues to kill thousands, with doubts about the behavior of law enforcement, with rising tensions among the world’s nuclear powers, with Congress struggling to manipulate voting systems to maximize party gains, etc. and the Supreme Court is hearing whether a teenage girl has the right to give the finger to school authorities on Snapchat. 

How do we begin to help kids navigate a course through this minefield of opinions and behaviors? We can’t afford not to.

A Beginning:A

Who is it that we want to be?

What matters to us?

 After 30+ years of failed “reform” programs we have pretty definitive proof that lawmakers and policy wonks cannot be the “definers”. 

I recently saw an article about the need to test the reading development of students in relation to the benchmark of third grade reading performance.  The article described a proposal under consideration in one state to make retention a mandatory practice for kids who fall below “the standard”.  Such thinking is brought to you by the same folks who created the “test and punish” culture that has characterized educating our children since the implementation of No Child Left Behind and who think that having our kids take large-scale assessments this year to quantify the amount of so-called pandemic learning loss is critical.

What if where we are is a result of our own unintentional laziness?  What if we have left the definition of who we want to be to the wrong people?  What would happen if we recaptured our ownership of what is important in the development of our children?  Try this on for size.

What would happen if we made a list of the ways we want our children to be?  What would be on your list.  Here’s a quick shot at mine:

Caring, empathetic, kind, compassionate, thoughtful, reflective, curious, independent, open-minded, involved

You might note that none of these require that kids be grouped by age, or that they learn to read by third grade, or that they learn a fixed curriculum (especially one that was developed in the 1890’s), or that learning be organized into separate silos, rarely connected to real-world situations.

 Would it surprise you to learn that in the majority of schools that I visited while consulting in districts throughout the country, the exposure to experiences designed to foster emphasis on these traits/dispositions was most frequently dependent on the mindset of the individual teacher? 

What does our current approach (largely accidental exposure) say about the value we place on helping generations develop the dispositions and direction that lead to emotionally healthy and contributing lives? What if we didn’t leave the focus on the “ways to be” to luck of the draw in the scheduling process?  It would certainly require a different approach.

Some time ago I read that the health of a society is revealed in how it treats its most vulnerable… the youngest and oldest.  We’re not healthy.  We rank at embarrassingly low levels among wealthy nations in the percentage of folks living in poverty, in the percentage of citizens incarcerated, in opportunities for early childhood learning, in affordable health care, in the number of long-term care patients who have died of COVID related complication without the comfort of loved ones who have been forbidden from visiting those who lay dying. 

Is this who we want to be?  Is this who we are training our children to become? Have we inadvertently trained our children to become the adults that continue to behave so poorly?  What would happen if we took your list (or mine) of desirable dispositions and examined the degree to which the policies, procedures, and practices of our school either support or inhibit their development? 

We love grades.  We must.  We continue to use them. We spend hours refining the systems we use – i.e., should weReport Card use letters or numbers? Should a 65 be a “D” or an “F” or maybe a “D – “, should we give “zeros”?  Why do we use a system that encourages kids to “game” it, to select courses more on GPA implications than by interest, to avoid the risks of exploration?

Here’s a less comfortable grading question. Suppose we were asked to assign a grade to the notion of helping kids learn “how to be”.  What grade should we give our “efforts” …or, wait, maybe we should use our “achievement” instead of effort? How do we do as individual educators? How do we do as a school or district? 

It’s not unlikely that your district or school’s mission statement makes reference to good citizenship or contributing/productive member of society.  How many PD sessions or faculty meetings have been devoted to test scores, increasing the rigor of our offerings or increasing school attendance?  How many have been devoted to how we can help kids develop empathy, curiosity, reflective thinking? 

Look around.  We’re not seeing ourselves at our best.  The response of teachers nationwide during the pandemic has demonstrated how committed so many are to the well-being of our kids.  All indications are that our kids need more than us finding better ways to teach what politicians think is important.  In our hearts we know that our lives, the lives of our kids, and of our communities can so much richer if we can acknowledge that helping our kids learn “how to be” cannot continue to be an accidental outcome of education.

Be well.

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