What's School For?

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What’s school for? Marilyn Englander takes aim at a popular answer to that basic question.

I talk to lots of parents about their teenagers’ education. Almost always parents say they want their kids to love learning, to enjoy school. They describe the perfect school as one that will help their kid to “pursue his passion.” These seem to be positive goals, but they point in the wrong direction. It’s undeniably motivating and inspiring for a young person to nurture a passion, but a solid education is essential first.

When I listen to how parents and kids evaluate the quality of middle and high schools, I first acknowledge the powerful force of what I call the Kid Lobby. Any parent --- or teacher ---- can attest to its ferocious power. Kids advocating for fun and comfort are relentless in trying to get what they want. The pleasure principle is the chief catalyst in most people’s behavior until well past their teen years.

Here's what adolescents want: to stay comfortable, to be free from adult nagging (which adults call evaluation), to do what they love and are good at. Sometimes --- in fact, often --- this is characterized as pursuing the student’s “passion.” Allow the student to draw instead of write, to focus on his love of whales instead of learning history, to spend time on sports drills rather than math facts.

But here’s what it takes to grow into a clear-thinking, well-informed, effective adult: solid control of knowledge across the disciplines (above Wikipedia-level), a tolerance for pursuing work that's difficult or not intrinsically of great personal interest, persistence to keep going in spite of frustrations and setbacks, and discipline to work hard every day to move projects forward.


Broad and deep learning, tolerance, persistence and discipline --- not what teens want to work on, but definitely what they need --- to become competent adults, and to gain mastery in a passion.

Pushing teenagers to develop these qualities provokes resistance at first, but teens almost always come around. Learning to be competent is not 100% “fun”, but real learning is astonishingly rewarding, and addictive. Even better than fun.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is a North Bay educator.