I don't remember his name, but I'll never forget his face—especially that look in his eye—when he started to read.
After college, I was volunteering at an elementary school on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Now mind you, this was the 1990s, before the Lower East Side was trendy and filled with contemporary condos and pricey restaurants. Students at the school were mostly African American and Hispanic. They came from low-income families. It was a high-needs school, and I was there to help.
My primary task was to set up a computer lab using software and computers that were donated to the school. I wasn't necessarily there to teach or tutor—but clearly there was a need—and I was a Princeton graduate so I guess they figured I was “smart” and could do a good job. So, I was given a reading textbook and told to help tutor this young boy who was several grade levels behind.
I could tell that trying to read from the textbook was torture for him. He had no enthusiasm for the material. He was unmotivated. And clearly, his confidence was shattered. He even told me, “I will never learn to read.”
I wanted to help him. I asked, "Is there anything you want to read?" His face lit up. "I would love to read my comic books!" I may have been a goody two-shoes, but I had to break the rules on this one. We weren't going to make any progress with the textbook. This child needed some motivation, and clearly comic books were it. I encouraged him to bring some to our next session.
When he did, he walked into the room with almost a skip in his step. He was eager to get started and his whole demeanor was different. This child was motivated; you could see it in his eyes. We worked together through only a few pages, but he was willing to sound out words and try to understand them. I would read and explain some big words to him, but working with him to read his comic book had a palpable difference from working with him to read the textbook. His enthusiasm made the time fly, and we were both startled when time was up.
With a smile on his face and a confident strut, he left the room saying, “I'll see you next time, Miss.”
A Desire to Learn
My new friend and I were about as different as could be—he was a struggling student from an underserved area of an urban environment; I was a one of those “smart” kids from the upper-middle class suburbs. But we had something very fundamental in common: a desire to learn.
Everyone has a drive to learn. Researchers in cognitive science argue that our most significant and central instinct is our drive to learn, and it starts in infancy.[i] Motivated by that innate desire, young children worldwide become proficient at an array of skills during their first few years of life.[ii] If everyone starts with the drive to learn, how do we end up at such extremes? Oddly, the structure of school has a lot to do with it.[iii] Yes, you read that correctly. The place where we are supposed to be educated is not effective for the majority of students, largely due to one of the most salient features: tracking.
The Inequities of Tracking
Tracking is the process of sorting students into groups based on certain characteristics. These divisions begin early; we start prepping certain kids to be the “smart” kids from the moment we assign first grade reading groups. Based on similar reading characteristics, little learners are clustered together. Kids who read at a certain level are placed in a group with other kids who read at a similar level.
However, tracking is an imperfect process at best. The difference between a student who is tracked into the top-tier reading group and the second-tier group may actually be relatively small.[iv] Additionally, with all the outside tutoring companies available now, how can we confidently say that metrics like standardized achievement tests actually indicate differences in ability? It could just be that some students are better prepared for the test, regardless of ability. Given this imperfect process, we should question whether separating students for instruction is truly fair.
As parents of school-age kids know, tracking is a prominent feature in school. It is so ingrained in secondary school culture that no one questions it. Everyone just assumes it's the best instructional strategy to serve all students. News flash—it's not.
The major assumption is that students will all learn best when grouped homogeneously, or in other words, when grouped with students who have similar abilities and characteristics. According to Jeannie Oakes, who conducted a detailed study of tracking with 25 schools and over 13,000 teenagers, "no group of students has been found to benefit consistently from being in a homogenous group."[v]
Unfortunately, the studies reveal a story about tracking that is even more grim. Tracking is not only ineffective but also harmful to those who do not track high. According to Oakes, students are actually treated differently by track; this unequal treatment results in a profoundly divergent experience for the average- and low-track students which impacts their attitudes toward school and themselves.[vi] Students in lower tracks have lower aspirations for the future along with negative feelings about themselves as students and general feelings of unworthiness. Tracking can even impede learning for those who are not tracked high; high-tracked students receive a higher quality learning experience than their low-track counterparts.[vii] There are notable differences in the classroom climate, the opportunities for learning, and the types of knowledge to which students are exposed. Ultimately, everything that matters to a student's school experience is different based on their track.
Some of us are lucky. We become the “smart” kids and, as a result, we receive a good education. But for many, school extinguishes the desire to learn and the education offered to them is subpar at best. Who are the “smart” kids anyway, and why do they get all the benefits?
The “Smart” Student Experience
School is a highly structured experience; it will invariably work better for some than others. However, students who track high often exhibit certain pro-school competencies such as compliance, organization, and the ability to sit quietly.[viii] These are self-regulation skills, sometime called executive functioning skills, and “smart” kids often have them in spades. Just like me, they passively learn the ropes and accept what school has to offer.
Through her research on tracking, Oakes found a consistent pattern: there is a perception that "a student in a high-achieving group is seen as a high-achieving person, bright, smart, quick, and in the eyes of many, good."[ix] It should come as no surprise, then, that she finds teachers actually behave differently with high-track classes. Given their skill set and strengths, high-tracked students are more compliant and thus easier to teach. To borrow a phrase from a teacher friend, high-track students are "automatons." I have seen this firsthand as a researcher and experienced this firsthand as a student. “Smart” students are superb at regurgitation and following the rules; they are excellent sheep.[x]
Given their inclination toward compliance, “smart” students are exposed to critical thinking, allowed to work independently, and provided the freedom to engage in self-directed, active learning.[xi] Furthermore, in high-track classes, students spend a greater percentage of class time engaged in learning, with students reporting that their teachers are concerned about them. Overall, the “smart” student experiences a positive classroom climate, spends more time on learning, and is offered better learning opportunities.
If you fit the herd mentality, the school experience will go pretty well for you. That was the experience I had; the research I've discussed here accurately represents my middle school and high school experiences (with the exception of my eighth grade math teacher who just wasn't convinced that girls could excel at math . . . but that’s another story). I had no reason to believe my educational experience was any different from other students in my class. Ah, the naivete of a young and inexperienced mind . . .
The School Experience—for Everyone Else
Everyone has intelligence. The problem is that stereotypically, school has a limited definition of intelligence. According to Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences, human intelligence is multifaceted,[xii] yet most K-12 schools cater to a limited number of intelligences.[xiii]
Gardner argues that everyone has the same potential within their brain, but different facets of intelligence are activated for different people based on their experiences.[xiv] You might have a strong capacity to think through problems logically and conduct mathematical operations; this is called logical-mathematical intelligence. Or, you may have a strong ability to learn languages along with the capacity to use spoken and written language to accomplish certain goals; this is called linguistic intelligence. Since assignments generally focus on math, reading, and writing, logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligence are the most valued at school. “Smart” kids generally possess these capacities. Everyone else may or may not.
Your greatest capacities may be in music, spatial patterns, or the capacity to understand yourself or others. You may even have excellent body awareness and the ability to use it to solve problems—an intelligence present among most athletes called bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. If so, is a traditional school a fit for you? Not usually. But does that mean you should suffer an unequal learning environment? Absolutely not.
Sadly, as I mentioned earlier, teachers behave differently with different track levels. While “smart” students reap the benefits of these different behaviors, students at lower levels are negatively affected. In my line of work as an educational researcher, I have seen this behavioral change happen right before my eyes. It's almost a Jekyll and Hyde situation; the same teacher is positive and helpful during one period, but critical and negative the next. And the only difference between classes is the track level.
In the same way teachers and students perceive high-tracked students as good, lowered-tracked students are perceived as not as smart, and not as good. So, rather than exposing students to engaging learning strategies, teachers see these students as less intelligent and expect only simple memory tasks and basic comprehension.[xv] This means lower-tracked classes are boring. Additionally, since lower-tracked students are seen as not as good, teachers spend more time on behavior modification than on instruction. Overall, in the lower-tracked classrooms, students receive less instructional time, fewer engaging activities, and the classroom climate is often more hostile and unfriendly.[xvi] It is no surprise, then, that lower-track students end up with lower aspirations and lower self-esteem.[xvii] In fact, it is not uncommon for low-track students to become so disengaged with school that they drop out.[xviii]
The Silver Lining
So . . . most schools are messed up. I feel confident saying that. Sure, some schools are trying to change the paradigm, but they are few and far between. Generally speaking, the school experience is pretty awful, and I am not the only one to say that. It’s the pervasive feeling among our youth. To be an advocate for his generation, 17-year-old Nikhil Goyal wrote One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School and spoke directly to the adult community about how the school experience feels for young people. His conclusion is not much different from mine: “School is really screwed up.”[xix] In no uncertain terms, schools are failing,[xx] they are not serving their function efficiently or effectively.[xxi]
The major mechanism we have established to cultivate the next generation of our citizenry produces an excessive number of students who are frustrated, unmotivated, disinterested in learning, and lack confidence in themselves and their abilities.[xxii] I struggle to write that sentence because it is so appalling, it is almost impossible to wrap my head around.
Besides leaving a great number of students in the lurch, schools are generally ineffective at achieving one of their primary objectives: fostering learning.[xxiii] It's sad, but true. I study learning for a living. In the field of educational research, we know so much about the best ways to foster learning, yet schools struggle to embrace them. In fact, schools seem to ignore some of the best learning principles.[xxiv] As the voice of the younger generation, Nikhil Goyal so nicely summarized it this way: "Lecturing does not equal learning."[xxv]
Despite all of this, there is a silver lining: we don't need schools to learn. (Did she really say that? She did.) First off, there are plenty of people around the world who have found ways to learn without compulsory schooling.[xxvi] A great example is James Bach, author of Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success. Bach dropped out of school, worked in the software industry, and is now a computing expert. His book is an excellent example of how—when school did not serve him well—he sought education elsewhere and found success.[xxvii]
Second, learning is all around us, infused into our daily lives rather than contained within the walls of a school. Just by being awake and aware in the world, we are constantly taking in tacit knowledge, the kind of knowledge you gain through experience. Did anyone ever sit you down in a lecture hall and explain appropriate restaurant behavior to you? Probably not. You learned how to behave in a restaurant through experience. Taking that a step further, you learn from other people you encounter, from the pervasive technologies you have at your daily disposal, and from the multitude of experiences that you have outside of school.
You see, learning has less to do with school and so much more to do with you than you probably realize. School teaches us that the amount of content you can hold in your brain establishes you as a good student. While good grades can open doors and provide you with opportunities, it's the non-cognitive factors that will really take you places.[xxviii] What I mean by that is a student who is motivated, enthusiastic, and believes in herself will outpace her peers in achievement and learning. A famous study of the impact of a well-designed preschool intervention found that two-thirds of the benefits of participating in the program could be attributed to non-cognitive factors.[xxix] Throughout this book, I touch on motivation, enthusiasm, and confidence, and demonstrate how school lacks the ability to promote them, as well as how young people can gain these characteristics in other ways.
Let’s All Be Learners
While we cannot change the structure of school overnight, we can start to change the way we see ourselves. Rather than being students, let's be learners. The term “student” carries a great deal of emotional weight. Basically, there is an unspoken hypothesis that success in life is contingent on being a superior student.[xxx] This concept makes many young people feel as though they are the sum total of their GPA and transcript, an unhealthy way to live. Essentially, young people's identities revolve around themselves as students. Think of yourself as a student. You might think of yourself as a good student, a bad student, a mediocre student, etc. Regardless of how you see yourself as a student, there's some sort of judgment.
What if we simply changed the term? Try thinking of yourself or your child as a learner. When someone identifies themselves as a learner, it shifts the judgment away. Instead of thinking of ourselves as good or bad learners, we think about how we like to learn. Try it. Think about what type of learner you are. Some people are visual learners, some are kinesthetic learners, and others learn really well from listening or reading. Now, what type of learning do you like? Do you like to learn how to make stuff? Do you like to learn how to play guitar? Do you like to learn about the history of our nation? It truly doesn't matter how you learn or what you like to learn. What matters is that that judgment shifts away. Let's all think of ourselves as learners.
Let’s Rethink What School Teaches Us
When you learn something, the wiring in your brain changes.[xxxi] Education shouldn't be about getting good grades—it should be about learning. Luckily, the ability to succeed in life is not determined by what happens within the four walls of school; instead, it comes from personal attitudes and behaviors such as motivation, enthusiasm, and self-confidence. That’s the stuff that you can gain without school. To paraphrase Mark Twain, we shouldn't let school get in the way of our education.
Sadly, we are not radically changing the system of school any time soon (but that certainly won't stop me from trying). It's just a little reality check. If we are going to produce a citizenry full of lifelong learners, we have to find a way to reframe the story that we are told. We're tacitly told that grades matter, but grades do not equate to learning. I am going to argue that learning is a far more powerful goal to aim for. If we shift our focus toward the attitudes and behaviors that are strongly linked with learning, we will see that the story we are told is incorrect. We as parents, educators, and students need to rethink what school teaches us.
Let's unlearn the ropes a little, shall we?
[i] Gopnick, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (1999). The scientist in the crib: What early learning tells us about the mind. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
[ii] Gardner, H. (2011). The unschooled mind: How children think and how schools should teach. New York: Basic Books.
[iii] Bauer, S. W. (2018). Rethinking school: How to take charge of your child’s education. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
[iv] Oakes, J. (2005). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality (2nd ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
[v] Ibid. See page 7.
[viii] Bauer, S. W. (2018). Rethinking school: How to take charge of your child’s education. New York: W. W. Norton & Company; Lahey, J. (2015). The gift of failure: How the best parents learn to let go so their children can succeed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
[ix] Oakes, J. (2005). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality (2nd ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. See page 3.
[x] Deresiewicz, W. (2014). Excellent sheep: The miseducation of the American elite and the way to a meaningful life. New York: Free Press.
[xi] Oakes, J. (2005). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality (2nd ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
[xii] Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books; Gardner, H. (2011). The unschooled mind: How children think and how schools should teach. New York: Basic Books.
[xiii] Bauer, S. W. (2018). Rethinking school: How to take charge of your child’s education. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
[xiv] Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.
[xv] Oakes, J. (2005). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality (2nd ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
[xviii] Rumberger, R. W. (2011). Dropping out: Why students drop out of high school and what can be done about it. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
[xix] Goyal, N. (2012). One size does not fit all: A student’s assessment of school [Kindle version]. Roslyn Heights, NY: Alternative Education Resource Organization. (see loc. 423).
[xx] Schank, R. C. (2016). Education outrage. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.
[xxi] Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, Ky: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
[xxii] Rumberger, R. W. (2011). Dropping out: Why students drop out of high school and what can be done about it. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
[xxiii] Schank, R. C. (2016). Education outrage. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.
[xxiv] Gee, J. P. (2007). Good video games + good learning: Collected essays on video games, learning, and literacy. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
[xxv] Goyal, N. (2012). One size does not fit all: A student’s assessment of school [Kindle version]. Roslyn Heights, NY: Alternative Education Resource Organization. (see loc. 5996)
[xxvi] Gatto, J. T. (2009). Weapons for mass instruction: A schoolteacher’s journey through the dark world of compulsory schooling. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers.
[xxvii] Bach, J. M. (2009). Secrets of a buccaneer-scholar: How self-education and the pursuit of passion can lead to a lifetime of success. New York: Scribner.
[xxviii] Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
[xxxi] Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.