Looking Out For Their Future Selves

I just wanted to respond more fully (and more thoughtfully) to the comment Chris left on this post, in part:

But I do think that most of the problems with our educational system can be traced to the fact that kids have no say over their own treatment.

I’ve been thinking about a comment left on Kitchen Table Math.*  The commenter noted that he has to balance the interests of his child’s current self with the interests of his child’s future self.  Which I take to mean, that even if our children can’t imagine their future adult selves, we have to do the imagining for them and keep both the current and future adult selves of our children in mind as we make decisions.

Now, I hope that someday my children will appreciate the value of good table manners and knowing how to “use their words.”  But those are the easy decisions.  Education is full of tougher decisions.  We need to balance our assessment of skills and knowledge our child’s future self will need (or want) with their current interests in not being bored or frustrated, in not learning poor study habits or to hate school, and in having time for other pursuits.

As my daughter’s teacher told me, it is less important when children learn how to read and more important that they love reading when they get there.  In other words, what’s the use of a child learning to read “early”, if they never voluntarily read again?

Which I think illustrates the danger that we [the decision-makers] will focus too much on some notion of their current or future selves (or frankly, on the next standardized exam) at the expense of some other interest of their current or future selves.  Which is a subject Chris raises at  A Blog About School: namely, that we ought to look at the effect of educational programs on children beyond does it work to raise standardized test scores (or compliance with school rules) in the short term?

The other danger is that we will confuse forcing them in the direction we’d like them to go with acting in their “best interest.”  Insert your anecdotal horror story of parents trying to live through their child here.  There’s no reason to think that institutions or other adults can’t confuse pursuing their own interests with acting in a child’s best interests in a similar way.

I happen to be a proponent of Montessori education, and one of the concepts I like is the idea of following the child.  Following the child, as I understand it, involves the idea that if teachers (and parents for that matter) mindfully observe the child, the child’s choices will reveal the child’s inner self as well as the child’s developmental needs to us.  Following the child is rooted in a recognition that children have an innate drive to learn about their world (which can be nurtured or extinguished) and a respect for the child’s individual personhood (that is, recognizing that even young children have personalities and preferences and a need to be treated with dignity, even if we can’t allow them the full autonomy generally reserved for adulthood).  When something isn’t working in the classroom, a teacher following the child considers whether she needs to reevaluate the prepared environment or whether she is pushing the child to do something either too hard or too easy, or has otherwise chosen the wrong approach.

This kind of “follow the child” respect seems to be at odds with centralized decision-making, at least of the current sort we have now.  Calls for more accountability to increasingly detailed statewide or national standards are an implicit rejection of recognizing children as individuals with their own preferences and their own developmental timetables.

Chris goes on to say:

I would just like a system where the people in power were more mindful of the hazards of that role [of acting in the best interests of a disenfranchised group], and where the power was more in the hands of the people (parents, teachers) who I think are most likely to see the kids as individuals, not as data points, and thus to come closest to treating them with the dignity that enfranchised people receive.

I would like that too and I tend to agree that parents and teachers are most likely to act in a child’s best interest (if they have the authority and means to do so) because they are most likely to see the children as individuals.

I’m not sure how we get to that system, but perhaps it starts with us asking questions like why can’t parents and teachers have more control over educational programs?

*I would like to properly credit the KTM commenter but I don’t seem to have the necessary 21st century skills required to search blog comments!