Jan
28

Stressed Childhoods/Squelched Imaginations

Students are so overscheduled they can’t think straight in Race to Nowhere, a recent documentary I screened with a community group of questioning parents and frustrated educators last weekend. Between the pressure for kids, earlier-than-ever, to compete to get into the “right” college and on educators to teach to the tests that may or may not measure “achievement,” we now have an education culture that more often than not squelches the imagination of its best students — the ones whose creativity we need more than ever.

The film examines mostly high-achieving communities, and uncovers what Stanford professor Denise Pope captured almost a decade ago in a study turned book called Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. The way we are doing school and the cost to our students, she revealed, is out of wack from our real goals of education. Race to Nowhere (click for trailer here if you don’t see it below) reveals what too many parents know — the demands on our kids to succeed have led to grueling routines, sacrificed sleep, cheating and stress, depression and anxiety. The result is that students “do school,” chase grades and college application impressiveness, going from one activity, homework assignment and memorized-before-forgotten information gulp to another. The question is, what are our students actually “learning” about how to live their lives? “Things that actually get our students to think are pushed aside,” says one dedicated teacher from the film, who left her job as a teacher because she could no longer abide by her own district’s test-taking demands.

This last week has seen related conversations percolate about how parents and kids deal with competition, discipline and being the best, thanks to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which makes the case that our “weak-willed” and “indulgent” culture, compared perhaps to China or at least the demands of some Chinese-American moms like Chua, has our kids growing up ill equipped to compete in a fierce global marketplace. While Chua’s arguments for “tenacious practice” and no excuses are worth being reminded of, Race to Nowhere shows how out of balance we’ve become. And keep in mind, as this week’s TIME cover story about Tiger Moms points out, that many educated Chinese are seeking out the more “relaxed” American style of education–wanting to move away from rote memorization to more right-brained learning “because they know they must produce more creative and innovative graduates to power the high-end economy they want to develop.”

Just like our too-busy adult culture today, a too-busy, overscheduled, and digitally addicted childhood ends up squelching creativity, indviduality and passion. We need an education system that inspires and engages and allows families to spend time together. Kids need downtime and free time to process and to imagine and to play, for social and emotional health, as well as the creative future of our culture.

Right now it’s a race that is running us. It reminds me of the time I was in Japan and met up with a top English teacher there. She laboriously tutored kids into the night, almost every night, after their full day of classes. Turns out she could not communicate with me in English at all! Japanese kids were memorizing and studying a faux-English language that didn’t really exist just so they could pass a test! More and more American kids are doing six hours of homework a night and forgetting everything they learn by the next week.

Every teacher and administrator I know is overwhelmed with standards and testing. Every parent fears their kid isn’t doing enough to make it to the next school or threshold. Watch Race to Nowhere to remind you of other truths: that elementary kids don’t need to do homework to thrive, that there is honor and smarts in kids who don’t excel academically, and you can be successful if you don’t go to the best college. The filmmakers describe the film as a call “to mobilize families, educators, and policy makers to challenge current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens.” I call it a sanity check.

More from Adam? Check out his Innovation On My Mind blog.

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