In school, being a successful person and having good social skills are completely different categories. The former is what report cards report, and the latter may sometimes also be reported—in a comment, perhaps, or in a “Social-emotional” section at the end. In our culture high achievement/happiness/success are on one hand and being a good person are on the other—two separate strategies for living your life. Achievement is an individual enterprise; caring for others is a moral mandate. Montessori schools are different.
A couple of weeks ago we had our most eloquent depiction of this cultural phenomenon. Harvard came out with a study of 10,000 young people reporting that the vast majority of children say their parents preach caring for others but actually value high achievement. Many experts immediately jumped on the bandwagon.
Katie Hurley’s “7 Ways to Redefine Happiness and Raise Caring Kids” (Huffington Post 6/25/14), Jessica Potts Lahey’s “Why Kids Care More about Achievement than Helping Others” (Atlantic 6/25/14), and Sue Scheff’s blog post “Caring is Contagious: It Starts at the Top” (6/28/14), all reinforce the dichotomy.
Matt Weber wrote:
The Making Caring Common Project has released a new report, “The Children We Mean to Raise”, examining the messages adults are sending about values, and how children are interpreting them. Highlighted on Good Morning, America and Today, and in the Atlantic, the findings show that a high percentage of children are more concerned with achievement than with being a good person.
In fact, the Harvard Study itself (Making Caring Common) starts with the assumption that achievement and “caring” are dichotomous.
But all these writers and the study miss the point. They all agree with the way Jessica Lahey puts it: the “new study from Harvard University reveals that the message parents mean to send children about the value of empathy is being drowned out by the message we actually send: that we value achievement and happiness above all else.”
Maria Montessori saw things differently. In her work a century ago with poor children in Rome she proved that one critical determinant of academic success was the quality of the social environment. When kids collaborate they learn more. Contributing to someone else’s learning is intimately related to maximizing your own achievement.
These are essential elements of all Montessori schools today. In fact they are essential elements of all good schools. Learning is a communal endeavor. “Each man for himself” is as bad for schools as it is for a military unit. Individualizing individual achievement undercuts achievement.
Listen for this dichotomy in these statements at parent-teacher conferences:
Mother: “Johnny is really smart, he gets really good grades, but he keeps hurting other kids. I keep telling him to care about others, but he doesn’t listen.”
Teacher: “Alicia is so smart that when she is in a group working on a math problem, she is always the first to find the answer and gets really frustrated that the others are still struggling with things she has already figured out. Sometimes she takes the paper from under their noses and just writes the answer on their paper. It is always the correct answer.”
Father: “Graham is really smart. I know he shouts out the answer in class, interrupts other kids, and sometimes talks over them when they are talking, but heck he is such a good student. He gets straight A’s.
These are three snapshots of how blind the adults are to how the culture we create causes the behavior we hate. I could paper my office with such snapshots.
What’s wrong with these pictures? It’s obvious, isn’t it?
The truth: we are all in this together, and schools absolutely must teach that. No. Correction: Schools must model that reality. Schools can lead the way in counteracting the brainwashing of our Western culture that selfishness is normal and “caring” for others is at odds with maximizing self.
Social challenge is the primary, not the secondary, engine of becoming smarter, …and kids know that. When a classroom and a school models that reality, the adults find they get no argument from the kids. Of course not. Why are kids happy to go to off to school in the first place? It’s not so they can learn the multiplication tables or learn “i before e except after c.” It is to be with other kids. Humans are wired to put a priority on learning how to collaborate, how to turn difference into mutual learning, how to augment our brains through creative, challenging interaction with other brains.