Rethinking School

How to Take Charge of Your Child’s Education

Susan Wise Bauer

Susan Wise Bauer is qualified to write about school and education. She is the author of 13 previous books and co-author of another, all on learning and education. She was home-schooled and home-schooled her children. She has practical experience on how educational systems work. If you and your child are struggling within the system, Susan Wise Bauer has practical recommendations to improve the fit between your child and the system. As she states: “Schools exist to serve children, not the other way around.” She also shares recommendations on homeschooling if that is your choice.

Bauer’s reference of Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher prompted me to read it. It is a children’s book about a nine-year-old girl who is being raised by relatives in a town in the mid-west. She is attending a large school there and is having difficulties because she is advanced in math and behind in reading. When these relatives can no longer take care of her, she is shipped off to stay with relatives in Vermont, where she attends a one-room schoolhouse. How she is treated and loved changes dramatically. I recommend it for children – and especially for adults.

The following excerpts are chosen from Rethinking School to introduce you to Susan Wise Bauer’s perspectives.

American K-12 school is a modern product of market forces. Its grades and subjects are largely arbitrary. It isn’t a good fit for all (or even most) students. It prioritizes a single way of understanding over all others, and it pushes out other important things that children under eighteen should be doing (like daydreaming, exercising, drawing, working, and sleeping)….. This has nothing to do with the way that actual human beings acquire knowledge. Realize that the way we do school is entirely unnatural.

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Artificial systems, like our K-12 educational system, are powerful. They evolve just as inexorably as natural systems. They acquire a life of their own and become the framework that organizes our existence.

If your child is struggling, there may simply be an incompatibility between the child’s maturity level, and the grade/year of school in which they’re placed. Even the most rudimentary observations of the natural world reveal that biological organisms mature at widely varying rates. But we generally don’t extend this same consideration to our children…. The prime symptom of immaturity – working at a grade level too high for physical maturity – is nonverbal frustration.

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Asynchronous development (not being at the same grade level in math, science, reading, writing, and maturity) is the norm, not the exception. The tendency is to focus on the child’s slower areas. This can obscure natural gifts, requiring children to spend untold hours laboring away at subjects they dislike, at the expense of learning in which they excel.

You need to be not just intellectually, but emotionally mature – and emotional maturity can’t be rushed.

In 1963, the psychologist and reading specialist Samuel Kirk used the term “learning disability” to describe students who could not be clinically diagnosed with an organic dysfunction or injury, but who nevertheless were simply not performing at the expected academic level. In coining this term, he gave us a way to classify learning differences that enable us to stop thinking about how the system might need to change – and encouraged us to focus on the student, not school, as the problem.

A child with a vision function problem can pass a traditional eye test at the optometrist with flying colors, but still struggle to see text properly. The difficulty can show up as short attention span, daydreaming, or lack of interest – and is often misdiagnosed as a learning disability. Screening by a visual specialist who is a member of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (www.covd.org) should always come before a child is labeled as dyslexic, dysgraphic, or having ADHD.

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Differences can be strengths, given the correct context.

In almost every case, a classroom therapy is essentially: Teach in a different way, teach skills explicitly, target the area where the student needs more work and support. Technically, that’s not treatment. It’s just good teaching. Good teaching is responsive to the student, flexible, always experimenting, equipped with a full toolbox of strategies that make sense to different kinds of brains, and creative enough to find multiple ways to present information and trains skills. Yet no matter how gifted the teacher, it is practically impossible to offer this kind of teaching to a large, understaffed classroom of widely differing learners, particularly in a school where the curriculum is inflexible, test-centered, and/or tied to strictly defined outcomes at specific grade levels.

Change your thinking: Regard the label “learning disability” as signifying “This child needs a different approach,” rather than “Something is wrong with your child.”

A diagnosis can be worth pursuing but only if you determine not to think of your child as “dyslexic”, or “dysgraphic”, or whatever the label turns out to be. Labels point to solutions. Labels cannot become part of who the child is.           

  Homework has been shown to be ineffective for elementary students. That’s right: all homework given to your children fails to reach its goal. Homework is helpful for middle-school students only in much smaller amounts than is usually assigned. Children are not miniature adults. Requiring them to learn how to deal with adult levels of pressure is not good teaching – or parenting. Yet that’s what we’re doing.

“It’s not just that homework itself has no academic benefits for little kids, and may even be harmful,” writes teacher Jessica Smock. “It’s also, that homework is replacing other fun, developmentally appropriate, and valuable activities – activities that help them grow into healthy, happy adults.” The value of self-discipline and hard work can be (and is) taught to children in many different parts of life. It doesn’t take homework to develop these qualities. There is a correlation between homework and “performance on standardized tests”. That may benefit the school system as a whole, but it certainly isn’t preparing the child for real life.

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