I Want My Kids To Win At School
This is the first of many sporadic posts surrounding my planning for being a parent in the next couple years. If I have a tendency to do anything, it’s to overthink things. Parenthood is no different. Fortunately, if done right, I do think having a plan, or at least an intentionality, to parenting could lead to some great outcomes for both me and Marisa and for our kids.
While I have no doubt that actually being a parent will surprise more than it will follow expectations, the insights I can glean from my own memories as a kid (I was very sneaky and very weird), and things I’ve seen from parents as I’ve gotten older, should at least allow me to go into the next 20 years with eyes wide open.
When I Was A Young Buck
Growing up, I was the prototypical “lazy A” student. My ability to stay at the top of the alphabet wasn’t necessarily because of interest or true understanding, and it certainly wasn’t due to any impressive amount of work. It was more that I thrived in an education system that favored memorization in math and science, and rewarded those that could write decently well earlier than most. Add on a hilariously hefty percentage of my grade that came down to “class participation” and I charmed, wrote, and memorized my way to the top.
The shortcomings of that strategy started to become clear in high school, and much more so in college. Charm and class participation were still useful, but suddenly each class wasn’t a brand new adventure; turns out these classes were actually going to build on the fundamentals I was supposed to have learned in previous school years. Math and science were the first and biggest victims.
I may have skated through multiplication tables, algebra, geometry, and biology, but lacking any true understanding of the underlying concepts left me running on ice once I reached calculus and organic chemistry.
A successful run through middle school led to a successful-enough run in high school which led to the opportunity to be less successful at a great college. The “intangibles” of leadership, personality, and the ability to get truly stellar recommendation letters always kept my academic house of cards from falling.
What Happens When My Kids Start School
This brief, and perhaps a little depressing, retrospective we just went on together puts me in a tough spot when it comes to thinking about my kids and their education. It means I’m clear eyed about how “success” in school doesn’t necessarily mean an acquisition of knowledge. For me it was more a lesson in how to figure out the rules of the game you’re playing and how to win that game; a valuable lesson no doubt, but the two outcomes - social awareness and knowledge accumulation - shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
I’m pretty sure this means my kids are screwed. If I’m sitting here and regretting my early A’s, or at least very aware of when they were empty A’s, then these future whippersnappers are doomed. I no doubt want them to win the game laid out by our education system, but unfortunately their Dad is also going to be focused on whether they are actually learning anything. Glowing reviews from teachers just aren’t going to cut it.
The two questions I’ve been toying with lately are: how do I ensure that the places I faltered they won’t, and how do I accommodate for the very likely situation of them having a completely different set of strengths, weaknesses, and interests than I did? Because to strategize based only on what’s already happened is a recipe for disaster. Like when after WWI the French built a big ol’ wall between them and Germany and said “won’t fool us twice!” What did Germany do in WWII? They went around it.
When It Just Doesn’t Click
The more I’ve thought about my kids and school, the more all of it seems to come down to one very basic event that will happen to every single kid, including mine: at some point in some class they are not going to understand something.
Based purely on my own experience, it seems our education system is set up to make sure most kids obtain some baseline level of knowledge. A teacher’s job, lord bless them, is to walk into a classroom to a group of kids that have wildly different motivations, learning styles, and aptitudes and impart to as many of them as possible a certain set of skills and knowledge. To make it more complex, those students’ motivations, learning styles, and aptitudes will also fluctuate as the subjects and time of day fluctuate as well. What an absolutely gargantuan task.
“Most” necessarily does not mean all. At some point something just won’t click for a student. When I was in school and that happened, there were a few options to overcoming that:
That student, if they were outgoing, could muster up the courage to ask a question in class. The teacher could then choose to answer it, and if they did, that answer might clarify things or it might not.
They could choose to go to extra help (if offered) and hope that the teacher, with time to focus on one person, could explain something in a way that clicked (not guaranteed).
They could bury themselves in the textbook and hope that by re-reading the insanely tiny text over and over again, they could grind their way into understanding.
They could hire a private tutor. This was basically the same as extra help with a teacher, just a heck of a lot more expensive and with no guarantee that they were any better at explaining things. Sometimes this was just a college kid making some cash on the side.
Online Education, But Not University of Phoenix
Those options are now very different. The internet has democratized information (also misinformation but we are NOT going there). It’s also democratized access to talent. Aren’t we all looking for our kids to have “the best teachers”? Great news: we’re fast approaching a world where the single best explainer of 5th grade-level math will put an entire year’s worth of lessons online. If he truly is the best, he will either be able to charge or use advertising and make a ton of money (as he should).
This guy will have some ingenious analogy about a guy going off a jump on a motorcycle that will make the Pythagorean Theorem click for millions of kids. Even adults will be like “Jesus this finally makes sense”. And guess what, if that guy’s explanation doesn’t land for my kid, the second or third best explainer in the entire country will have videos as well. I’m increasing the odds of consistent “aha moments” exponentially.
I’ve learned this through my own experience: there is now a whole genre on YouTube of people explaining concepts we learned in school but in entirely new ways. Do you know anyone who is incredibly fast at mental math? It’s most likely not that they have memorized every single math problem in the world. It’s probably because they aren’t working off memorization at all.
They got lucky and had someone explain that because math is a bunch of rules, there are combinations and shortcuts. Like did you know that if you add up all the digits in a number and it equals 3 then that entire number is divisible by 3? Wild stuff. Did you know one proven exercise to get better at writing is to read pages from great books and then try to copy it down from memory? Even more wild.
Getting The Juices Flowing
Just as my Dad made me do multiplication table exercises to get me ready for 3rd grade, one strategy could be to find the “best teacher of” videos for that particular age and range of subjects and have my kid go through them before the year starts. That way they aren’t bombing down a double black on the first run of the ski season, but instead getting their mechanics warmed up on a blue.
We’d be getting in some “aha moments” before the school year so things are not only familiar, but have been taught in a way that gets to the fundamentals of the problem. I just need to make sure they aren’t brats in class and constantly saying “well I learned this a different way.” Play the goddamn game!
In their younger, and theoretically their most important years, I can probably do a decent job of figuring out what they aren’t understanding based on what they’re getting wrong on homework or tests. Or I’ll be that annoying Dad who’s emailing the teacher and asking what little Timmy seems to be missing.
Then the goal would be that as they get older, they will have cultivated (fingers crossed) enough love of learning, or at least a recognition of this method as a straightforward way to get better grades, that they would seek out explanations on their own when they hit a wall instead of just rereading a textbook over and over.
In the end, the goal here is about giving my kids the chance to be interested in everything and anything. My disinterest in math most likely started with a few bad experiences early on - frustrations that weren’t addressed. I labeled myself “not good at math”. How many kids give themselves that label and write themselves off from entire subjects for the rest of their life? How many of us adults continue that narrative in our own lives today?
This is about the pursuit of a well-rounded education, providing every opportunity for my kids to find out what they are above average at. Some subjects will certainly be harder than others, but some core understanding of those subjects shouldn’t be the casualty. “Aha moments” seem like they should exist in abundance - I’m all for spending time finding their source.