My son is 4 years old, and he’s in preschool. He has a mop of black hair, a fixation on getting a birdy as a pet, and an interest in cold, white treats as a primary form of sustenance. (Ice cream for breakfast? Yes, I want ice cream for breakfast.) We are, of course, concerned that he won’t get into Harvard with this resume.
When we visit his classroom, his teachers rush to point out that he won’t be learning what we, as frantic urban parents concerned our son will be outcompeted by all other 4-year-olds, desire: drills in alphabets, numbers, and perhaps some pre-calculus. In a scene reminiscent from a restaurant in Chinatown where the owner buttonholed me at the door and announced, “No wonton soup, no General Tso chicken, no tourist food,” the teachers form a tight circle and inform us that they are using “play” to “teach the skills that underlie learning.”
The immediate upshot of this educational strategy? My son has to learn to sit still. When he wants to touch the ice cube during science, he shouldn’t shove Melissa next to him out of the way. (This is also his tactic for footraces. He starts by pushing the person next to him backwards. It usually works on me.) Until he can remain in his chair, wait his turn, and ask for things he wants, he’s never going to be able to factor polynomials. In other words, he needs social skills before he can hone intellectual ones.
That seems logical. However, it’s not going to stick. In short order he will be in kindergarten and then numbered grades through his adolescence. In those classes he will be taught to be self-reliant. Those polynomials aren’t going to be factored with friends; he’s going to have to do them alone. And if he’s as smart as we desperately hope, he’s going to be shielding his algebra test paper from his classmates’ view.
Yes, he may be on a soccer team and work on group projects and have a lab partner because the school can only afford one Bunsen burner for every two students. But none of those situations, except for maybe soccer, will teach him how to work with others to achieve a goal (literally) versus how to make sure the group doesn’t drag his grade down (he being the smart one, of course).
Sometime later, he will—hopefully—emerge from college and head to the work world. There, he will be expected to, for the first time since he was 4, wait his turn, work with others to achieve objectives, and be social. Unless those preschool lessons leave an unprecedented impact, I fear we have set him, and all his peers, up to fail.
What we need is both classroom work and associated measurement of ability to work with others. Group papers, group research projects, group problem solving, and yes, my personal boogey man, group factoring of polynomials. I’m not really sure why I have such terrible memories about that.
I can hear the cries of protest from parents and students alike: “But what if one of the people in my group doesn’t do their piece of the work?” “How can you measure me based on the random group I’m put in?” “How will my child learn if someone else solves the problem for them?” “That’s what they do in other countries; in the U.S., we value individual learning and creativity!”
All specious arguments, especially the last one. Perhaps other countries may pay more attention to group work, but they usually do so in the same way we do: mechanistically. Whether you engage in rote learning by yourself or in a group, neither is ultimately helpful. Fundamentally, the majority of classrooms ignore that creativity can be just as much about how to solve a problem with people as it is about how to solve a problem with a calculator.
At work, every day, most of my time is spent dealing with people who are not very motivated to help me achieve my goals. That’s because they have their own work to do. I have to figure out how to align my assignments with theirs. And that’s a skill that takes a lifetime to master. Getting started at 4 is good, keeping at it while in the safety of the educational system is better. So stop worrying about standardized scores and start complaining that your children are being taught the wrong goal. It’s not about learning polynomials, or getting the best grade point average, but about achieving a different kind of GPA: Group Performance Ability.