Four Ideas for Simplifying Life While Enriching Education
Aside from some fall clothes, fresh notebooks and maybe a new backpack, how might you prepare yourself and your children for a back-to-school season that doesn’t slam you like a late-season ocean wave — smack!! — and instead lays a foundation for sustainable nurturance, sanity and joy in the family for the coming year? Picking up from the first two ideas in Part 1, let’s look at two more ways to deploy simplicity to enrich your child’s school experience. These ideas harness two of simplicity’s major values: quality over quantity, and process over product.
3. Use stories to enrich meaning – It’s not uncommon for children to have the wind knocked out of their natural learning impulses and affinities when they step into the regimented world of a school intent on imparting a series of facts to them — facts that don’t necessarily have much meaning to the child. Have you ever had a conversation with someone in which you were telling them about an experience that was very meaningful to you, and it was clear that they were simply waiting until you were finished with your story so that they could tell you what they wanted to say? That relational hollowness pervades many children’s experience of school.
It goes to the first of the seven Parenting for Peace principles, which is presence; the conventional public school curriculum — and by necessity the majority of teachers — aren’t often present to who children really are and what is important to them. John Dewey saw this problem a century ago, insisting that effective education presents material in a way that allows the student to relate the information to prior experiences and thereby form a deeper, more meaningful connection with their new knowledge.
Even (and perhaps especially) the most engaged, curious children who enter a standard school setting soon discover, as William Glasser wrote in his classic book Schools Without Failure, “that they must use their brains mostly for memorizing rather than exploring their interests, expressing their ideas, or solving problems. Even worse, much of what they are asked to memorize is irrelevant to their world.”
Here is where we parents can jump in. It is from stories, and the feeling intelligence they stir in the child, that authentic learning finds its genesis. Story is often missing in most education, so you can become a story weaver at home to fertilize and enliven a topic your child is covering in school. (As when a wooden spoon can become a scepter for the young child, when imagination is applied to even the most “wooden” curriculum, this brings wings and freedom to the process!)
To help you choose, be aware that during school age years, it is of key importance for the child’s psyche that stories include a positive option even in the face of great challenge or peril. Of particular value are stories about the lives of people who’ve accomplished something outstanding; enriching biographies that would complement world or American history, physics, literature, medicine or mathematics include Copernicus, Galileo, Magellan, Joan of Arc, Jacques Lusseyran, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Victor Frankl, Orville and Wilbur Wright, John Ericsson, Ross Adey and so many more. A chapter of one of those before bed lets children bring that inspiration and possibility into their dreaming life. You could listen to installments during car rides if there are commutes in your daily life.
Consider as a family ritual watching the last segment of ABC’s evening news on Fridays (or DVR it!) when Diane Sawyer introduces their “Person of the Week.” Similarly, CNN features a Hero of the Week, and even offers a Parent and Teacher guide (which I advise using with caution; you don’t want this to become yet another “assignment”!). Here is an example of how television can offer us, if we’re mindful, a resource rather than an impediment — to awaken in children of all ages an echo of transcending limitations into vaster possibilities.
To help provide the kind of nourishing curricular continuity and context found in many Waldorf classes (learning history, geography, art and literature in the context of Greek or Norse myths for instance, and in such interdisciplinary high school classes as History through Music), the bedtime story or weekend trip to the museum can be an opportunity to add a bit of thematic connectivity and relevance to the child’s world. In his seminal book Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman wrote, “In order to survive in a world of rapid change there is nothing more worth knowing, for any of us, than the continuing process of how to make viable meanings.”
Dinner table conversation is always an opportunity to weave cohesion and meaning into what might be disparate subjects your children are studying: “What do you think Plato would say about global warming?” Postman suggested that “the art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. Any curriculum of a new education would, therefore, have to be centered around question asking,” and in his book are three pages of thoughtful questions rich enough to serve as the basis for years of meaningful learning. In the Waldorf high school curriculum a fundamental cohering question weaves through all the subjects, beginning with “What?” in 9th grade, then “How,” “Why?” and finally, “Who?” in the senior year.
Questions and stories can enrich such seemingly straightforward subjects as arithmetic as well. I heard a story on NPR about children and math, pointing out that typically a child can readily enough memorize the numbers and learn basic math processes, but when teachers and parents put those numbers in a context — “There are six apples in the basket and four children each take an apple, how many are left?” or counting pebbles or acorns or cars rather that just manipulating the abstract symbol of numbers — their math and associated cognitive skills are enhanced in the moment and also enriched with long-lasting benefits of greater layers of understanding.
Rather than adding an extra, unrelated activity, this idea invites you to deepen and enrich a pre-existing central activity of your child’s life — school. In other words, smart simplicity.
4. Focus on experience over evaluation – It is easy (for children and their parents both) to get caught up in chasing A’s and gold stars. Long evenings slaving over dioramas, weekends spent coaching for the oral report, tensions tightening over the term paper that isn’t quite as perfect as it might be.
In his book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, Alfie Kohn makes a compelling case for the fact that these classic conventions of child and student evaluation work at cross-purposes to our Generation Peace intentions. Praise, for example, “sustains a dependence on our evaluations, our decisions about what is good and bad, rather than helping them begin to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and offer the positive words they crave.”
Their natural intrinsic motivation, delight, and sense of just-rightness can easily wear away, and they become dependent on the illusory glow of pseudo-self-esteem coming from outside in. One of the most helpful things I ever heard Dr. Laura say (remember her??) on her radio show was that self-esteem is about whether you impress yourself through how you act. Or as the saying goes, “Self-esteem is an inside job.”
We now have a generation of young adults whose addiction to the constant flow of external rewards and positive feedback has become an issue for employers. There are even companies who specialize in providing flashy workplace demonstrations of praise and acknowledgement for employees whose motivation and morale flags without such external bolstering. This is not a dependence that we want for Generation Peace; rather, we want them to feel an abiding sense of rightness, worthiness and “enoughness” from deep within.
Even if your child is at a school that gives grades (and most do), you can do a lot to bring healthy perspective to the importance and meaning of those grades. You can put the spotlight on the experience of doing the project or paper, and turn down the white-hot intensity of the importance of the final product, including the grade it receives.
The mother of two Waldorf school graduates shares her reflections on how this value seems to cultivate an abiding inner security and poise in students. It can be a helpful cue to all parents!
Waldorf is very process oriented. In most schools, the product is what matters — having reports, projects, and paintings to show the parents is a fundamental part of the mindset. Did you ever see the paintings of our kids in the early grades? Not so much, because it was process, the relationship of color and value that they were experiencing. The teachers never made a big deal about the gorgeous lions they knitted, or bags they embroidered, because that was never the point. Parents of kids in any school might try to hold to that and not focus on the final result of their kids’ projects.
There’s a standing joke amongst public school fifth grade parents about how much work their sugar cube California Mission project is. You’d see the architectural creations lined up in the local library or school on parents’ night and too many of them were perfect! It would be so helpful if parents could somehow resist that instinct and let the student experience the construction himself (of course the parent should be interested, just not so focused on the end result). Our culture gets so competitive in public and private schools, and it’s really hard to buck when that’s your world.
If children don’t have safe mistakes to learn from while they’re young, it only gets trickier as they get older. It’s just so sad that there’s so much peer pressure to present “mistake free’” work in this environment.
Wishing you a simpler, saner, richer back-to-school this year!
Adapted from Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers
About Marcy Axness
I'm the author of “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers," and also the adoption expert on Mothering's expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my new book I'm delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences all over the world in the coming months, and I'm happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As a special gift to Mothering readers I'm offering "A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool."