I love No Child Left Behind.
In May of 2002 I visited our local public school, hung out on the playground and just generally lurked. As the kids were waiting to go home at the end of the day, I asked a kindergartner, “What are you looking forward to in first grade next year?”
“Homework,” he said. The girl standing next to him said, “I know!” and the other kids nearby nodded, smiled and gave their assent.
It’s part of a fun, little research project I have been doing ever since I asked this question and got this response from a kindergartner thirty-five years ago.
Last September, however, when I asked Emily, “How was your first week of kindergarten?” she said, “Kindergarten is stupid. I can’t read. I can’t write, and they won’t let me talk.” Based on how things have been going in the last ten years I do not predict that she will answer my question about next year with “homework.”
I love No Child Left Behind because before NCLB it was harder to see what was wrong with American education. After NCLB the evil is staring us in the face. Children are born learners whose love of learning is being killed.
Humans are learning machines whose natural-born curiosity drives them to map the world onto their brains. Their drive to know, understand, create, and contribute is apparently inexhaustible.
No Child Left Behind showed us: it is not inexhaustible. It is possible to kill a child’s love of learning. How do you do it? Easy. Manage them. Treat them as if a love of learning is something we need to “instill.” The evil of NCLB is not standardized tests or even “teaching to the test,” but acting as if kids wouldn’t naturally want to pass tests if tests is what the world is offering up.
A mountain of research assembled by Daniel Pink in Drive (2010) shows that if you reward people for doing things they naturally like to do, you kill their love of it. Johnny has just learned to read. He finishes a book and picks up another one. After a while you tell him you will give him a pizza for every book he finishes. A while later, you tell him the pizza-for-books program has been cut. Does he go back to doing what he loved? No. He stops reading.
This experiment, replicated in a wide variety of ways with humans of all ages, shows how extrinsic motivation—getting other people to do stuff with rewards and/or punishments—kills intrinsic motivation. Families where helping around the house is something everybody does because the adults assume that helping others is what people naturally-love-to-do-because-humans-naturally-love-to-make-a-difference-in-the-lives-of-others don’t generally have trouble with “instilling” (that nasty word again) social responsibility in children. In families where children are “taught” responsibility by being given rewards (like allowance) for “chores,” children learn to hate chores.
I can “expect” something of you in two different ways. “I expect you to do your best” can mean that I know you and know you always to do your best. However, “I expect you to do your best” can be heard as “I am holding you accountable for doing your best,” and “there will be a day of reckoning if you don’t.” One way you feel appreciated and respected as a member of a community where we count on each other. The other way kills that feeling.
It’s not so much a matter of what is said as what is in the adults’ heads and hearts. When an adult cares more about something than the child, it absolves the child of responsibility.
Kids love to be led; they hate to be managed. They know they need to be led because, duh, older people know more than younger people. They hate to be managed, because that means they are not trusted. Under management conditions they can learn to mistrust themselves and to hate the thing that provides the evidence of mistrust—homework, chores and being thoughtful of others. They can even learn to hate math, even though mathematics is so doable and so obviously necessary for making it in the world.
The natural, self-respecting reaction of a human being who is being “held accountable” for doing something is to hate the thing they are being “held accountable” for, and maybe even hate the mistrustful person who is doing the counting.
All people love work, until they feel managed.