By Alfie Kohn
Even “Race to Nowhere,” with its poignant depictions of the emotional cost of traditional schooling, doesn’t tell the whole story. For one thing, students suffer intellectually as well as psychologically because the pressure to succeed academically leaves little room for exploring ideas. (Achieving is very different from learning.) For another thing, this destructive pattern doesn’t stop when kids get to college.
The solution, I think, is twofold: Reconsider our attitudes about success (and long-term goals for our children); and change the school policies that create or exacerbate the problem.
Many parents push their kids with the best of intentions, but some are so busy basking in the reflected glory of their children’s accomplishments that they overlook the damage being done by the pressure to live up to their expectations. “Few parents,” said the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, “have the courage and independence to care more for their children’s happiness than for their success.”
Whole childhoods are sometimes sacrificed in a relentless regimen of preparing kids for Harvard, a process I’ve come to call “Preparation H.” Gambling their mental health and love of learning in the hopes of acceptance at an extremely selective college is a bet that no caring, rational parent should take.
Ultimately, though, educators (with parental support) must be willing to change the entrenched educational practices that are turning so many teens into basket cases.
-- Gratuitous competition teaches students that everyone else is an obstacle to their own success. (Awards and class rank could be eliminated tomorrow without jeopardizing admission to college.)
-- Absurd quantities of mostly pointless homework force students to work a second shift after having spent all day in school. (Happily, I’ve heard from many teachers who rarely or never assign homework and report fabulous results.)
-- Advanced Placement courses often just accelerate the worst sort of lecture-based, textbook-driven, “bunch o’ facts” teaching. (Realizing that harder isn’t always better, a growing number of high schools are eliminating A.P. courses.)
And there’s more. Some 830 colleges and universities have stopped requiring the SAT or ACT. Courageous educators are replacing letter and number grades with less destructive forms of assessment.
One thing is clear: We can’t be content with just giving kids “coping strategies” that leave the structural problems intact; we have to change the structures themselves.