Management Kills Education

by Rick on November 15, 2013

Musa age 3. Abdallah age 5.
Musa age 3. Abdallah age 5.

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.

victory lap
victory lap

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.

a work of art
a work of art

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.

Ilyas: the next member of the team.
Ilyas: the next member of the team.

 

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managing kills education | the nourished child
March 3, 2014 at 1:57 pm

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Rick Armstrong November 15, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Your contrast between children’s love of learning versus how to kill learning is apt and powerful. Intended or not, the focus of NCLB and its successors are testing and content lists, never “how students learn” nor “effective teaching”. Being national initiatives, each endeavor is locked in place for another generation of students.
Due to the clarity and focus of this essay, you might consider providing it to Jerry Becker for electronic publication.

Rick November 16, 2013 at 10:10 am

thanks, Rick. I just took your advice.

Rick November 16, 2013 at 10:13 am

Larry Arnstein emailed me these great thoughts: I loved Management Kills Education.
I always felt very lucky about the atmosphere in my home and my elementary school. I always felt learning was fun, and by the time we ended up (somehow) at Deerfield, it was too late for them to knock that out of my system, although God knows, they tried. Never forget when I went up to Bryce Lambert after class and privately asked to know why he was making us memorize some particularly pointless thing, dates of birth and death for dozens of poets, all of whom lived and died at roughly the same time. He said something like, “Life is pointless. The sooner you get used to that, the better.” What a message about learning! And life! In 8th grade we were learning grammer by diagramming sentences, which I loved, and out teacher told us that if we got through all the stuff she was teaching us in time, we could start learning Latin! I really wanted to start learning Latin! And I’m a little sorry that 2nd year Latin at Deerfield was such a disaster, because I think I would have liked to learn more of it. But I really think Deerfield did you and me no lasting harm, and in fact I think it did no lasting harm. God knows, there were a bunch of really good teachers, it’s just that their teaching methodology was uh, primitive.
I don’t think I ever looked forward to a class as much as I did Bob McGlynn’s senior English. Just to hear the man talk. He was the first, (and probably the last) person I ever heard use the word “eclectic” in a sentence, just as though it came naturally to him, which in fact it did.

Beverly Pell November 16, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Rick,
Thank you for this post, and for sharing your experiences and gentle wisdom on your blog. I look forward to reading your book. Because my kindergarten children had tested somewhere in the “gifted” range (WISC), I made the choice to school them at home. Now, at ages 18 and 16, they are still curious, creative and have moments of genius. They will be lifelong learners, because I allowed them play, follow their passion, and helped them learn to manage–instead of managing them. It was very difficult at times to give up the reins, but worth it to see where they are today.

Marty Dutcher November 16, 2013 at 8:15 pm

Well-said, Rick. Some of the most enlightening research in education, learning, and motivation was written up decades ago (e.g., look up Deci and Ryan regarding Daniel Pink’s writing on motivation).

I remember wondering, when I was in college in the early 70′s, why ten years earlier the local environmental biologists I knew were saying, “Hey, we are beginning to destroy the Chesapeake Bay.” That was in the mid-1960s, for God’s sake. Anyone who was paying attention could see it happening, little by little, but nothing much was done about it for 40 years. A forward-thinking Maryland senator, Bernie Fowler, and my good friend, Tom Wisner, would gather those concerned about the quality of the water at the same spot on a beach every year. They would walk out into the water until they could no longer see their toes. Each year they measured the distance, and watched it decrease. Even with that publicity and public activity, nothing happened. If there is anything the new neurology has to offer us (which it does in many ways, I believe) is that if change happens slowly enough, no one notices. I think that is the case with the advent of modern teaching methods (they are management methods, yes?). Our children both less and less challenged as well as have fewer and fewer opportunities to learn through experimentation (attempt something, fail, get feedback, make an adjustment, try again, and have some successes) be it in science, math, or social skills. What is now normal is so far from our children’s human potential. By the way, I may have mentioned this to you but your readers would love watching “The Myth of Average”, at “projectvariability.org”, an amazing TEDxTalk. The speaker, L. Todd Rose, wrote a wonderful book titled, Square Peg: My Story and What It Means for Raising Innovators, Visionaries, & Out-of-the-Box Thinkers.

Keep up your posting – it energizes me.

Rick November 17, 2013 at 1:38 am

Thank you, Marty. And thanks for the references.

Christopher Duncan November 17, 2013 at 6:09 am

I like this a lot, Rick. Succinct, clear, accurate, and persuasive. Yours is a powerful observation useful in all realms when working with children and youth. Most schools when they have worked to assist my daughter in handling her mental health challenges have extrinsically managed her. She has unravelled every time.

Traci Selby November 17, 2013 at 6:28 am

Great article, thank you for sharing! I agree and have witnessed this effect on many children, especially those who have transitioned or had to move to a public school setting. Their curiosity and love of learning does get squashed, there seems to be no initiative to engage children with different methods that might utilize the whole approach to learning again. Children need to have ideas presented to them so they may question what, where, when and why and then given the opportunities to explore their questions and find their answers. I so wish the sensorial and hands on approach could be utilized more in these type of settings. I do not see children having the opportunities to be successful learners when they are being taught “this is the way it is”- and not being shown or modeled how one might find answers in different ways. I feel children growing up in this time in our world need to know different methods and given the opportunities to use these skills as they need to be successful.

Rick November 18, 2013 at 7:57 am

Yes. Does anybody, these days, simply take the voice or “authority” at face value? Is there any authority that can be simply safely followed without risk. Sure, our own judgment is flawed, but what about the other guy? How do we struggle toward the truth?

Shirley November 20, 2013 at 9:12 am

That is “the” struggle, isn’t it? When we say we want to foster a love of learning, I think that’s what we’re trying to preserve in our children…the will to keep struggling for truth. The minute we give our will over to someone else, and follow, – do what we’re told, it takes us down an easier path, for sure, but not necessarily the correct one, or the one that’s right for us.

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