Stop Telling your Kids that School Will Prepare them for Life

My oldest son, Joseph, is very extroverted. Gabriel, his younger brother by two years, is the opposite. On any aptitude or intelligence test, I would bet that the older one scores higher.

Joseph is creative and bright. Very bright. At nine, he asks questions like, “If atoms are the smallest things, what are they made of?” He gets enthralled by documentary series on human life and wonders if babies in the uterus have consciousness at 20 weeks. At age four, he reasoned that if he could only have one half of a frosted pink cookie, he’d settle for the top half.

Yet our school system has deemed him a mediocre student because 1) he gets bored quickly in class; 2) he speaks his mind when he should politely lie; and 3) he needs more attention than his more introverted classmates. So he has less success in school than he otherwise might.

His mother worries about this. Five “infractions” a day on his behavior log isn’t uncommon. Two infractions seems like a success to me. But Gabriel, the one you rarely hear from? He gets zero infractions. He is a model student.

We want our children to be prepared for life. That vague statement justifies all sorts of worries and frustrations that get too easily overblown. We want the behavior logs to come home gleamingly empty. We want our kids to learn to play the game better.

So they can be prepared for life.

But that’s not life. In what job, for instance, would 20 to 30 workers have to sit in neat rows listening to their foreman or manager drone on for 40 minutes at a time before getting to work? In what industry does that work end up in heaps of unread papers — or worse — papers marked in some color to indicate failure, intended only to cause shame and worry before they are forgotten. What workplace requires its employees to stand and wait in straight lines, else they get sent to senior management for an extra-serious scolding?

Classroom management, that bugaboo of so many struggling teachers, often blinds them to the potential genius of the unorthodox. The thinking goes that first, order needs to be established. Only then can a teacher gain students’ attention adequately.

But there are perverse incentives in that model. The kid who is extroverted, who wants to ask questions and share ideas, is punished. The introvert? The kid who won’t talk? Gabriel? He is rewarded and praised.

Every single one of Gabriel’s teachers in his short four-year public education career has said he is a perfect student.

Because he is shy.

Joseph is unafraid. He displays more courage during a week in 4th grade than I have in my lifetime. He asks tough questions. He tells his teachers when they have come up short. He makes requests and recommendations. Sometimes he is impolite about it, but always sincere and never malicious. He is ever eager to learn.

One of his regular infractions is assessed because he responds inappropriately when he isn’t called on. “It’s not fair. Mr. X doesn’t call on me when I know the answer.” There may be pedagogically sounds reasons for not calling on Joseph when he knows the answer. But that’s not the real world. What boss would continually ignore the worker who had solutions in favor of the ones she knew didn’t have them?

I won’t worry much about Gabriel the introvert for the next 11 years when it comes to school. But how will he do in the real world? I have no idea, because — accommodating as he is in the school system — he hasn’t yet learned the skills that I know are needed in the “real world.” School doesn’t teach those skills.

To be fair, Joseph hasn’t learned them, either, but he innately has much more of the competitive problem-solving moxie that a cut-throat world demands. He has a curious, gritty, persistent disagreeableness that characterizes so many real-world high achievers. If those attributes could be exploited by a school system, then the sky would be the limit for him.

But he may end up in jail.

Okay, that’s an extremely pessimistic forecast, I know. But I often wonder how many brilliant minds have been wasted because they didn’t conform during the critical years of adolescent education. To be sure, conformity is a skill in itself to be developed, and a useful one at that; but what if Joseph is set to develop that skill a little later on than developing the skills associated with his extroversion?

John Holt wrote in his landmark How Children Fail, that our antiquated school system is a place “where they make you go and where they tell you to do things and where they try to make your life unpleasant if you don’t do them or don’t do them right.”

That was 1964. Things haven’t changed as much as we’d like to think. There are very few truly innovative schools that depart from the tradition of teacher versus 25 students. Yes, curriculum changes and teaching styles come in and go out of style. Facilities are arguably better, and computer-based strategies abound, for the better.

Still, with all of the advances in society, our conception of what an education system should be remains what is was when we were kids. And when our parents were kids.

A system where introverts are often praised and extroverts are managed.

And it looks nothing like real life.