“Saint Francis and the Sow” | Galway Kinnell

Beautiful poem and analysis.


Why Everyone Loves the Alpha Girl


“If you are an alpha in high school, in other words, you are not necessarily an alpha for life. The social skills the cool girls (and guys) learned in high school tend not to work very well after they leave. “They’ve gotten so much reward for this skill set and this way of acting among others [that] they become fixated on status as a measure of their worth,” Prinstein explained. “They see everything through a lens of status, constantly thinking about their relationships in a hierarchal way — am I dominant, or not?” Even ten years after graduation, he tells me, the cool kids are still “constantly looking for those signs and signals. But the rest of the world has moved on.”

One thing I appreciate about Home Education is that my kids never have to go through the negative aspects of high school socialisation, as described in this article. My kids may not be oblivious to what happens in schools, as they also have schooled friends and join in a wide variety of extracurricular activities in the community, but they don’t feel obligated to surrender and accept the negative aspects of school socialisation as a life truth or as a creed to live by.

Being the “cool” kids in high school doesn’t get you anywhere in life once you’re out of school. The cool rebellious kids in high school, once they leave school, will either have to reinvent themselves and relearn social conventions to fit into the big wide world and the society they live in, or risk burning out and end up struggling to make ends meet or in jail.

I don’t think all schools are like this though. I went to an extremely geeky girls’ school in Singapore for the top 10% of PSLE scorers (PSLE is the national exam in English, Maths and Science that every 12 year old in Singapore has to take before finishing Primary school the same year). In the school I went too, alpha girls tended to all be the ones who were nice girls and the best at sport and academics. I know it wasn’t like this in other conventional schools in Singapore. Certainly when I entered the workplace I started to learn about the wider world and how unusual the environment of my geek school was, and how growing up in that environment had shaped me into someone who was quite unprepared and unskilled at the ways of the wider world.

I don’t think the kind of school I went to was ideal, because we were sequestered away from normal society for most part of the day – long days at school and tonnes of difficult advanced homework meant we hardly had a social life outside of school with people not from our school.

I think with home education, the best of both worlds can be achieved in some ways, allowing the child to still be aware of the wider world, but not sequestered to any particular school social environment and forced to socialise in negative ways. Yes I find I’ve had to work harder to make sure my kids are socialised appropriately but not to the extent of being socialised negatively, but seeing my kids grow up happy and well-adjusted is one of the greatest pleasures of my life.

Getting Hit on the Head Lessons (#) – Alfie Kohn



September 7, 2005

Getting Hit on the Head Lessons

Justifying Bad Educational Practices as Preparation for More of the Same

By Alfie Kohn

Suppose you have a negative reaction to a certain educational practice but you’re unable to come up with any good reasons to justify your opposition.  All is not lost:  You can always play the “human nature” card.  Never mind whether it’s a good thing to help students become caring and compassionate, for example, or to work at reversing segregation.  Simply assert that everyone is ultimately driven by self-interest, or that people naturally prefer to be with their own kind.  Presto!  All efforts to bring about change can now be dismissed as well-meaning but unrealistic.

Conversely, no logic or data are necessary when you find a practice you happen to like.  Just insist that what you favor is rooted in the natural inclination of our species.  A search of the archives of this very publication reveals that various individuals have taken this tack in support of many different policies, including standardized testing (“It’s just human nature that when performance is measured, performance improves”) and extrinsic incentives (“Human nature . . . has always demanded, for peak performance, a potential reward consistent with effort put forth”).  A lack of interest in school policies on the part of parents, a resistance to change on the part of teachers, even the practice of holding adolescent boys back a year to enhance their athletic prospects (“redshirting”) have all been casually attributed to human nature.

While such assertions are never accompanied by evidence (presumably because it doesn’t exist), they do prove remarkably effective at shutting down discussion.  Those against whom this rhetorical ploy is used find themselves stymied because it’s not easy to defend something utopian, or to oppose something unavoidable.

Here’s another option for those who would rather not have to offer a substantive defense of their views:  In response to a humane and respectful educational practice, they can say, “Yeah, but what’s going to happen to these kids when they learn that life isn’t like that?”  Invoking a dismal future, like invoking human nature, can work both ways – to attack practices one opposes and also to promote practices one prefers.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard someone respond to the charge that a certain policy is destructive by declaring that children are going to experience it eventually, so they need to be prepared.

This kind of reasoning is especially popular where curriculum is concerned.  Even if a lesson provides little intellectual benefit, students may have to suffer through it anyway because someone decided it will get them ready for what they’re going to face in the next grade.  Lilian Katz, a specialist in early childhood education, refers to this as “vertical relevance,” and she contrasts it with the horizontal kind in which students’ learning is meaningful to them at the time because it connects to some other aspect of their lives.

Vertical justifications are not confined to the primary grades, however.  Countless middle school math teachers spend their days reviewing facts and algorithms, not because this is the best way to promote understanding or spark interest, but solely because students will be expected to know this stuff when they get to high school.  Even good teachers routinely engage in bad instruction lest their kids be unprepared when more bad instruction comes their way.

In addition to forcing educators to teach too much too early, the current Tougher Standards craze has likewise emphasized a vertical rationale – in part because of its reliance on testing.  Here, too, we find that “getting them ready” is sufficient reason for doing what would otherwise be seen as unreasonable.   Child development experts are nearly unanimous in denouncing the use of standardized testing with young children.  One Iowa principal conceded that many teachers, too, consider it “insane” to subject first graders to a 4½-hour test.  However, she adds, “they need to get used to it” – an imperative that trumps all objections.  In fact, why wait until first grade?  A principal in California uses the identical phrase to justify testing kindergarteners:  “Our philosophy is, the sooner we start giving these students tests like the Stanford 9, the sooner they’ll get used to it.”

What we might call the BGUTI principle — “Better Get Used To It” – is applied to other practices, too:

*  Traditional grading has been shown to reduce quality of learning, interest in learning, and preference for challenging tasks.  But the fact that students’ efforts will be reduced to a letter or number in the future is seen as sufficient justification for giving them grades in the present.

*  The available research fails to find any benefit, either academic or attitudinal, to the practice of assigning homework to elementary school students.  Yet even educators who know this is true often fall back on the justification that homework – time-consuming, anxiety-provoking, and pointless though it may be — will help kids get used to doing homework when they’re older.  One researcher comes close to saying that the more unpleasant (and even unnecessary) the assignment, the more valuable it is by virtue of teaching children to cope with things they don’t like.

*  Setting children against one another in contests, so that one can’t succeed unless others fail, has demonstrably negative effects — on psychological health, relationships, intrinsic motivation, and achievement – for winners and losers alike.  No matter:  Young children must be made to compete because – well, you get the idea.

I realize, of course, that many readers regard these practices as desirable in their own right.  They may believe that competitive struggle brings out the best in children, that grading students is a constructive form of evaluation, that standardized tests accurately assess the most important aspects of learning, or that, after a full day in school, kids ought to take home more assignments regardless of whether the data show any advantage to doing so.  My beef here isn’t with people who hold such beliefs.  It’s with those who admit these practices may be damaging but defend them on BGUTI grounds.

Even if a given practice did make sense for those who are older – a very big if – that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for younger children.  Almost by definition, the BGUTI defense ignores developmental differences.  It seems to assume that young children ought to be viewed mostly as future older children, and all children are just adults in the making.  Education, in a neat reversal of Dewey’s dictum, is not a process of living but merely a preparation for future living.

But the issue here isn’t just preparation — it’s preparation for what is unappealing.  More than once, after proposing that students should participate in developing an engaging curriculum, I have been huffily informed that life isn’t always interesting and kids had better learn to deal with that fact.  The implication of this response seems to be that the goal of schooling is not to nourish children’s excitement about learning but to get them acclimated to doing mind-numbing chores.  John Holt once remarked that if people really felt that life was “nothing but drudgery, an endless list of dreary duties,” one would hope they might “say, in effect, ‘I have somehow missed the chance to put much joy and meaning into my own life; please educate my children so that they will do better.’”

Another example:  It’s common to justify rewarding and punishing students on the grounds that these instruments of control are widely used with grown-ups, too.  And indeed, there are plenty of adults who do nice things only in order to receive some sort of reward, or who avoid antisocial acts just because they fear the consequence to themselves if they’re caught.  But are these the kinds of people we hope our kids will become?

This leads us to the most important, though rarely articulated, assumption on which BGUTI rests – that, psychologically speaking, the best way to prepare kids for the bad things they’re going to encounter later is to do bad things to them now.  I’m reminded of the Monty Python sketch that features Getting Hit on the Head lessons.  When the student recoils and cries out, the instructor says, “No, no, no.  Hold your head like this, then go, ‘Waaah!’  Try it again” – and gives him another smack.  Presumably this is extremely useful training . . . for getting hit on the head again.

But people don’t really get better at coping with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were young.  In fact, it is experience with success and unconditional acceptance that helps one to deal constructively with later deprivation.  Imposing competition or standardized tests or homework on children just because other people will do the same to them when they’re older is about as sensible as saying that, because there are lots of carcinogens in the environment, we should feed kids as many cancer-causing agents as possible while they’re small to get them ready.

To be sure, we don’t want students to be blindsided by destructive practices with which they’re completely unfamiliar (although this seems rather unlikely in our society).  But how much exposure do they need?  Must they spend months preparing for a standardized test to get the hang of it?  Sometimes preparation can take the form of discussion rather than immersion.  One need not make students compete, for example, in order to help them anticipate – and think critically about – the pervasiveness of competition in American culture.

Perhaps the preparation argument even fails on its own terms by virtue of offering a skewed account of what life is like for adults.  Our culture is undeniably competitive, but cooperative skills are also valued in the workplace – and competitive schooling (spelling bees, awards assemblies, norm-referenced tests, class rank) discourages the development of those skills.  Similarly, adults are more likely to be evaluated at work on the basis of how they actually do their jobs than by standardized test results.  Nor, for that matter, is there much after graduation to justify the practices of same-age groupings or 50-minute periods.  In short, we’re not making schools for little kids more like “real life”; we’re just making them more like schools for older kids.

So if these practices can’t be justified as pragmatic preparation, what is driving BGUTI?  One sometimes catches a whiff of vinegary moralism, the assumption that whatever isn’t enjoyable builds character and promotes self-discipline.  Mostly, though, this phenomenon may be just one more example of conservatism masquerading as realism.  When children spend years doing something, they are more likely to see it as inevitable and less likely to realize that things could be otherwise.

“You’d better get used to it” not only assumes that life is pretty unpleasant, but that we ought not to bother trying to change the things that make it unpleasant.  Rather than working to improve our schools, or other institutions, we should just get students ready for whatever is to come.  Thus, a middle school whose primary mission is to prepare students for a dysfunctional high school environment soon comes to resemble that high school.  Not only does the middle school fail to live up to its potential, but an opportunity has been lost to create a constituency for better secondary education.  Likewise, when an entire generation comes to regard rewards and punishments, or rating and ranking, as “the way life works,” rather than as practices that happen to define our society at this moment in history, their critical sensibilities are stillborn.  Debatable policies are never debated.  BGUTI becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Finally, there is a remarkable callousness lurking just under the surface here:  Your objections don’t count, your unhappiness doesn’t matter.  Suck it up.  The people who talk this way are usually on top, issuing directives, not on the bottom being directed.  “Learn to live with it because there’s more coming later” can be rationalized as being in the best interests of those on the receiving end, but it may just mean “Do it because I said so” and thereby cement the power of those offering this advice.

If a practice can’t be justified on its own terms, then the task for children and adults alike isn’t to get used to it, but to question, to challenge, and, if necessary, to resist.

Copyright © 2005 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page.
 www.alfiekohn.org — © Alfie Kohn


How to Shift From School Think to Engaged Learning | The Right Side of Normal


I’ve not been writing a lot lately. Mainly because I’ve been very busy! Well I kind of changed our home educating style a fair bit. I have been focusing on fun, on engagement, more real world experiences with other people; less book work, and when we do do book work, no more boring worksheets or textbooks. So we’ve been spending A LOT of time outdoors going to meetups, classes, workshops, all of which are of their own choosing (it is amazing how diverse my childrens’ interests are… They chose to go to activities relating to gym, swimming, martial arts, violin, piano, orchestra, drama, singing, musical theatre, art, science… ) and just doing fun, engaging, practical things. The kids really learn a lot better like this and it’s far more inspiring for them at this point than reading books. A pity we can only do so much. They would love more and have more interests actually, but because of budget and time constraints, we can only do so much…

Well this article above appeared at the right time. It resonates with me now and the direction we are taking.

Before we even got to this point though, we did a lot of experimenting along the way. I specifically worked with areas my children were weaker at. I made sure we worked on their reading abilities and handwriting, and logic abilities through games, puzzles and maths (direct maths instruction is something I have not ditched… I cannot say if I will in future ditch it or not, but at this point I still believe it is a subject best handled by incremental and gradual instruction and practice – perhaps I just lack confidence in my children’s abilities to work up to the required skill level by the time they do their exams)…


For things related to anything other than maths, we simply go to lots of interesting workshops and activities outside, read classics – abridged classics from the Classic Starts series work best in our experience. I initially had gotten the idea of learning through reading classics from studying the Charlotte Mason approach, but unlike the Charlotte Mason adherents, we found our own way to make it work for our children, who are not that very strong in languages and not naturally inclined towards words or books. And we do some copywork after each reading – we try to get 1 chapter a day done and then do about 30 words of copywork after each chapter read – I let my children pick what they want to copy out. I do this for my 2 younger ones.

My older one has been doing a Charlotte Mason styled online school but the poor girl really struggled with understanding the texts, such as Ivanhoe, to the point of tears. Maybe the reading material for the course seemed too difficult for her to be able to gain enough pleasurable joy and value from it, I don’t know. It was painful watching her do it and her narrations lack maturity and understanding … She still persisted for a good 8 months or so, and I applaud her for that, even though there was little progress or improvement in her ability to read those texts and her ability to understand/narrate them. For once I have finally had to admit to myself that this is perhaps not ever going to be very suitable for her as a method of learning. I should preface this by saying that she had struggled with a speech and communication disorder since she was a toddler, and that probably had something to do with this. As a lifelong book lover myself, I always held out some hope that it could be possible to unlock the inner potential for the love of books in each of my children, even though they all showed symptoms of the same speech and communication disorder from young – something which seems possibly hereditary, as some members in my husband’s family show the same symptoms themselves and in my own family, my siblings particularly struggled with academics and book work – my sister was dyslexic too. So with all this in mind, I was somewhat prepared for what can happen.

But I am not one to lose hope. I look for ways to help my children love books. The way to do that somehow is to get them engaged in the stories in those books. And if a particular rendition of a story makes it difficult for my children to take to or comprehend, then I look for another rendition. I still believed in the value of reading and appreciating the depth and complexity of the storylines in timeless classics though. That is how I ended up going for Classic Starts versions of classics – they are abridged, but retain some nuance of the language in the original books. Then after the book is finished, we watch the relevant movies or if there is an opportunity to partake in a relevant workshop, a gathering, or visit a museum or event relating to it, we do that.

I started doing this with my 2 younger children – both very close in age so I could do things with them together easily. We would read a chapter a day in a Classic Starts novel… Do some discussions and narrations of what we’ve read. They’re often very interesting and the children have learnt so much about history, the world, communication and the human psyche from reading these books. Then after that a short copywork session of about 30 words in total.

It works. It really does. My middle child – never was a keen reader – but now actually reads the odd book or magazine out of her own free will and interest. My youngest – well he *asks* for particular books in subjects he likes and he sits down and reads them! He read chapter books himself at the age of 7.

I am probably going to start doing something similar for my teenage daughter. Yes she may be a bit behind compared to her peers with regards to languages, and she may not like reading very much, but I have started reading chapter books to her at bedtime like I’ve done with my 2 younger ones. We discuss a little. And she’s doing alright. It needs to start from this. Baby steps. And (no matter how long it might take) she will one day be fine. I have decided, by the way, that I will not be in a rush to get her to do her English IGCSE exam. She could do it at 16, or even older. I will not have her do it next year at 14, nor even at 15 years old, which is unlike what many home educators I’ve seen online do.

Yes from the many online testimonials, it seems many home educated children do their IGCSEs early, even English (which requires maturity). Now I’ve seen it for myself – this girl in my daughter’s online class writes about the classics books the class are assigned to read in an exceptionally mature style (for her age, whatever it might have been) with astute observations. I mention her specifically because I had the opportunity to view every student’s responses (including my daughter’s) and her’s really stuck out to me. Turns out later it was revealed she was only 12 years old. Now if that was my daughter, I would let her do IGCSE English at 14 or 13 even. But my daughter is not this way, and that’s okay. People have different strengths. I wouldn’t push my daughter to do her English IGCSE before 16. Not unless she shows readiness and maturity to do well in it. This past year I saw her slog and struggle through her Charlotte Mason English online lessons, and looking at the quality of her written work (marked by the teacher) – many of which I found pretty painful to read because her lack of maturity and ability to write essays for academic purposes was very apparent – it strengthened my opinion even more that it would not be wise to rush into the English IGCSE in my daughter’s case. In fact my daughter is nowhere ready to do her Maths IGCSE either. She is still struggling on grasping the basics of percentages and has always struggled with Maths a little. My 7 year old son could (unwittingly) answer questions about fractions that she couldn’t… Questions that are supposedly easy for someone at her level, but not yet expected of someone my son’s age to be able to work out. This has caused her to declare recently “I suck at Maths.” Me and my husband said to her that she doesn’t “suck”, and that people have different strengths, and it is true she is weak in it somehow, but we believe it is better to focus on what she can do and not what she can’t. If she isn’t strong in it, that’s okay. She just needs to get a C in it to go into higher education or college.

She told me recently that although she wouldn’t mind going for another year in the course, she’d rather change to a correspondence course so she could free up her time to do other things she preferred… I said okay to that. She prefers doing practical hands-on things and play acting, singing and imagining new scripts  drawing beautiful pictures. She is creative, not that into book learning, and possibly going to benefit far more from following a vocation rather than academics. It’s no wonder she said this.

Everything that happened happened for a a reason. For a long time I tried things out, looked and waited. Everything we did together taught me something new about my individual children. They love workshops more than reading a book (even if I let them choose whatever books they wanted). They love listening and watching a story acted out rather than looking at words on a page. They love tactile, sensory experiences. They love being with other people and learning from doing, rather than learning from books.

I started off home educating thinking my children would like a certain thing done a certain way, then later find out they didn’t. I have to admit, they turned out to be perfect specimens of a mixture of my husband and myself. They have inherited my husband’s learning style, but they’ve also inherited my love of a good story and a good tune.

I’ve found a way to work with them (through lots of trial and error, belief and disbelief and endless unexpected discoveries) that brings out the best in them for learning… And it couldn’t be any further from what this article recommends.