There it is again: “Schools fail…”

A recent Washington Post article by Jennifer Fink got my blood boiling. Her 9 year-old boy is not doing well in school, and her first impulse is to blame this problem on the school. She complains, “The lack of movement and rigid restrictions associated with modern schooling are killing my son’s soul.”

Notwithstanding the screwed up social conscience demonstrated in the words “School is failing boys”, when the opposite is true, Fink’s understanding of what happens in a classroom is just plain wrong. The “modern schooling” she refers to is far less rigid than schooling of the past, and yet boys (in her mind at least) seemed to do better in the past. So unless less structure is hurting boys’ learning, one needs to think about the possibility that school is not the problem and something else is.

Tellingly, Fink mentions her son’s interest in Minecraft –an internet game that boys seem to like… a lot. In fact, I have heard one father/vice-principal describe it as “crack cocaine” for boys. I myself have seen students so consumed by Minecraft and other onscreen games that without exaggeration, I can only describe their behaviour as addict-like. There is no way schools can compete for attention with these games.

Here’s the truth. School is hard. It requires that students engage themselves in activities that are less fun than screen-based games. It requires them to reflect on what they know, and to stretch that understanding to grasp new, often abstract concepts like algebra, or literary symbolism.

Conceptual learning requires that students use their short term memory and rehearse concepts until they are part of long-term memory. The concentration required for conceptual learning means that concepts like algebra or literacy cannot be taught efficiently in a jungle gym. Concentration for learning is naturally subverted by any kind of distraction, including music played through headphones or a lit screen on a child’s desk. The huge body of cognitive psychology from the past 50 years provides enough information to make it obvious what is going on. Students are distracted.

So here’s an idea. Before you blame school for your child’s failure, look at your child’s environment, do a little research, and (God forbid) examine your own parenting. Stop expecting schools to take care of the needs of your child that would best be met while he is wasting time on Minecraft. Give him a ball and glove and send him outside. And tell him that he is expected to pay attention in class.