I, too, despair at watching my president stoop to schoolyard nastiness.
—David Leonhardt, New York Times, June 30, 2017
Schoolyard Nastiness! Why do we take it for granted? And why do we expect the adults in our government to behave any better than they did in school? We shouldn’t. If school were preparing our young people for full functioning in a good democracy, you would see kids working on their anti-tyranny repertoire like this group of third graders at Johns Hill, a public magnet school in Decatur, Illinois.
Having finished their writing assignment, they are sitting on the floor at the back of the room playing a game with 20 white dice, each of which has a different word on each of its six faces. Bailey has just made a sentence: “The cute wife gave a soft laugh.” But two of the other players dispute it as a valid sentence. Janice insists that “soft laugh” doesn’t quite work. Henry, the scorekeeper, tends to think Janice has a point and suggests that Bailey could make it work if it were “The soft wife gave a cute laugh.” All four immediately agree and Henry puts a seven in Bailey’s column on the scorecard.
Henry rolls the dice and starts a new sentence. Janice says, “The subject’s fine, but what’s the predicate?” All four of them suggest possibilities to Henry who eventually comes up with “I like to hear your face laugh” before the sand finishes running through the three-minute timer.
The game progresses gracefully through constant conflict: “You can’t flip the dice to other sides to find other words.” “I’ll give you 4 points for the first four words, because that’s a sentence, but the rest doesn’t make sense.” “Bailey’s in the lead. 7 + 10 = 17.” “You don’t know that; we haven’t totaled everything yet.”
The ability of these children to conflict gracefully is remarkable. Rarely have I seen a group of adults disagree as often as these 8-year-olds in such a friendly, mutually supportive way. Each child is a decision-maker in competition with three other decision-makers, and nobody gets mad.
How to resolve differences, how to collaborate, how to learn from others, how to get a group to create something of value…, leadership! Research shows, and good educators have always known, that skills like these are the primary skills for success. There is no correlation between any standardized test score and any measure of adult effectiveness. Useful intelligence requires high social-emotional learning, and the children know it in their bones. Before our individualistic culture pollutes their brains, they seem to know that collaboration produces better results than acting alone. There is no point to being “smart,” if we can’t make good decisions, and good decision-making requires mobilizing our emotional self and our relationship self, and developing our anti-tyranny repertoire.
The core of the problem is that, when it comes to school, we don’t even talk as if these skills are critical for intelligence. We call them “soft,” “non-cognitive” skills, even though we know that these skills are hard and require high-cognitive brain work. Furthermore, we don’t assume that school is the best place to learn and practice them. Yet, what better way to learn these skills than to take kids away from home for half the day to face challenges together under the tutelage of professional educators.
It’s time to call it the Hard Curriculum, and act as if we know that the Hard Curriculum is what makes the difference between success and failure in life as well as government. If education is simply about increasing knowledge, school is now obviously obsolete. Want to know something? Ask Siri; she knows more than your teacher.
If schools were held accountable for what really matters, we would count the number of questions, the number of decisions, the amount of risk-taking, the number of disagreements, and how often students change their minds. The important, difficult issues that need to be discussed in school do not have easy answers, so our kids need to get good at arguing, and come out of school knowing that conflict is a fact of human life and an opportunity. We need all educators to make their classrooms places of collaboration: lively conversations, thoughtful arguments, buddy programs, cooperative learning groups.
If it feels sometimes like the American democratic experiment is failing, maybe, it is because schools are being held accountable for sorting kids by irrelevant numbers rather than preparing them to be leaders in a democracy. What we see in the schoolyard is what we should expect to see in our government.