contemplatingLately I’ve been feeling very belligerent about the expectations that society seems to be slapping on elementary school these days.  The belligerence is probably due in part to while we’re great at many things, there’s no way Mushroom or BalletBoy would even begin to measure up to a lot of the things that I see are required.  By that, I mean the sheer volume of math problems, the mountains of homework, the pressure of test prep, the essays, the constant writing assignments, the research expectations, the projects on the side that we all know parents are often really the ones stuck doing.

And it’s not just the “official” requirements in schools.  Everywhere I look it seems like people are asking their kids to read books that are far ahead in both grade level and emotional content.  So many people use materials for school that are meant for grades ahead because they believe their kids need the challenge.  And I’m sure some kids do need that challenge or want to read those books, but other times it seems like it’s part of a desperate race to get ahead.  But for my kids, there’s just no way.  No way they could do that without cracking somewhat and no way could I do it to them.

So with that comes a lot of emotional defensiveness.  It feels like making excuses.  We do a lot more content and in a much more orderly way than public schools.  We have so many more chances to work on leadership, social skills, and compassion than public school kids.  The kids are very much on level or ahead for math, but they’re just slower workers.  I’m trying to foster a love of writing and a writing voice, not monkey train them to turn out formulaic essays.  It’s better to learn to love learning and foster curiosity than to push for more if it will lead to higher anxiety and greater resistance to work.

The thing is, that’s all true.  It shouldn’t feel like excuses.

And it’s not about “lowering expectations.”  It’s about having different expectations, ones that are higher for attitude and independence and confidence.  Expectations that we learn about something instead of merely pushing skill learning constantly.  Expectations that mastery is more important than speed.  Expectations that it’s not a race or a single path, but a long, individual process.  Expectations that continue to rise with age and development, that challenge kids to not stagnate, but to continue to grow.

Thanks to the increasing push for higher skills in elementary school and even before, there has been a lot of research about younger children and academic expectations (this link mentions just a few sample bits), much of it negative toward the current trends.  We know that, for example, there is no difference in the end result for children who begin formal reading instruction at age 5 or age 7, except that children who begin younger have a greater dislike for reading on the whole (I would guess that for homeschooled students who show readiness early, such an effect wouldn’t apply, highlighting one of the many benefits of homeschooling).  I’ve seen almost no research about the upper elementary grades, but I feel it only stands to reason that the push for thesis essays and cited research papers by upper elementary in many schools probably has similar effects.  We’re building a house of cards for skills with many kids.  It looks glorious and tall, but when they get to college, more and more students need remedial classes and more and more professors complain that students are unprepared to keep up.

Society has created a strange dichotomy of expectations, one we’re currently sitting in the crux of during fourth grade.  On the one hand, upper elementary schoolers Mushroom and Ballet Boy’s age are expected to be able to solve more difficult problems and write to a much higher standard than ever before in order to be considered good enough.  On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to be producing students with better skills down the line, making the gap between the successful and failing students more disparate than ever.  So I say we need to step away from that and ignore it.

Here at the rowhouse, I’m continually retraining myself to ignore everyone else’s expectations, which I do a good job of bluffing everyone about, but which is not always easy.   I have to keep repeating to myself that schooling happy kids who love to learn is paramount and all the skills and content have to fall into place after that.  That’s my expectation.

8 thoughts on “Expectations

  1. I’ve always thought the idea that we will solve all problems with high school kids by pushing the reading age to 5 then 4 then 3, is quite perplexing. Why does it all come down the line to little kids?

    I have to say, though, I find your blog to be rather inspiring in terms of what you do and what expectations you have for your kids.

  2. It’s always good to hear about someone else that isn’t pushing to be ahead. I’ve had to slow down and re-evaluate my expectations just because I realized no matter how hard I push if my daughter’s not ready it’s not going to click. So she’s learning to read a little late, and writing is following that. She also has no problem doing the procedure for most math problems but having basic addition facts memorized is just going a bit slower. The more I hear about other people following their child’s pace, or just slowing down the better I feel about my own choices.

  3. I have a friend who insists that her just-turned-9-year-old daughter will start ‘fifth grade’ in January and her 7-year-old is going into ‘third grade.’ I don’t get it. I tell my kids that they’re in the grade they would be in related to age. I love working more slowly than some of their peers, getting to go over the nitty-gritty details and delve deeper into topics that they’d only gloss over in public schools. Like you, I see no need to push. College will be there for them when they’re ready, and I’m not in a rush to get them in early just to meet the demands of society. But you’re right. It shouldn’t feel like you’re failing just to keep them at age/grade level. It’s stupid.

  4. I’m sure you know this from your years as a teacher, but there’s *labeling* something a “research essay with a thesis and citations” and there’s actually *doing a reasonable job* at writing such a thing. I teach college courses, and while most of my students say they’ve written a paper like that before, 90% of them cannot actually do it. Many don’t know how to cite things properly, most don’t know how to find sources more reliable than Wikipedia, and almost none can draw together multiple sources into a cohesive argument rather than a description. They try hard, but no one has taught them to do this without having each step spoon-fed to them. Reading about elementary school kids supposedly doing this actually made me laugh out loud (and made people in the office here scoot a little farther away from me).

    I strongly suspect that these “essays” are mostly three pages citing the internet equivalent of the World Book Encyclopedia to “prove” that hedgehogs are a mammal or something like that– the same papers 5th graders have been writing forever, just named in a flashy way. By going slower and deeper, you’re increasing the chances your kids will actually know how to do things like paraphrase something complex without struggling by high school, so they’ll be ready to learn to write an a paper with a *real* argument in it when they’re 16 or 17. Their future college instructors will thank you for it!

  5. A friend of mine e-mailed me your post because she thought I would enjoy it, and she’s right. I’m glad to be introduced to your blog. I have the same philosophy, and I homeschool my two boys, who are 7 and 4 years old. I know that my eldest would not be served well in school. He’s leap years ahead in science, but reading and writing is not an interest. My four-year-old would suffer in pre-K for various reasons, and I’m so thankful I can keep him at home and give him what he needs. So good for you and good for me! 😉 I look forward to reading more of of your work, and I appreciate the science resources that I found on your site.

  6. I love this post, thank you! My 3rd grader was miserable with the amount of “have to” I had scheduled into her day with academics, social and enrichment activities and we’ve been scaling back the last month in all areas and everyone is happier and she is reading more on her own and exploring projects and crafts unprompted. Sometimes letting kids have time to learn what they are interested in at their own pace has merit. It kind of kills me to say that as I’ve been thumping the classical drum for the last few years and rolling my eyes at anything that smacked of “unschooling”. It is good to eat humble pie now and again, yes?!

  7. Hah – i always feel you put me to shame with what you do with your boys! I suppose that might say more about my failings than public school’s success though 😦

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