"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
October 8, 2014
Home ... School
by Emily S. Jorgensen

I once read a true story about a psychologist who lived in a neighborhood where the local kids would often play in his yard. This annoyed him. So he offered to pay them a dime for each time they would come play in his yard.

(This is an old story. I’m sure it would take at least a quarter now. Also, I am sure the idea would freak out their parents once they heard about it and they would be forbidden from ever talking to this man again. Because why would he want kids playing in his yard so much, anyway?)

Then, after a few weeks, he told them he wasn’t going to pay them anymore. So they showed him. They stopped playing in his yard if he wasn’t going to pay up.

This story was used in a psychology class I once took as an example of how externally rewarding a behavior that is already naturally rewarding — i.e. playing in the yard — actually removes the natural reward and makes it a chore.

My oldest daughter has always loved learning. By association, she has usually enjoyed school. She doesn’t especially like the demands of school — the rules, the schedule, the procedures — but she loves learning new things and sharing the experience with others.

She has always been a grade ahead in math and years ahead in reading. Spelling tests are a breeze, and science is fun. Except for the Science Fair. That’s mostly torture. Because the Science Fair has very little to do with learning and very much to do with showing you know how to follow rules.

She has always liked the learning — which, in my mind, is the point of school. To learn.

This is why I have always disliked the practice of giving grades in elementary school. (I don’t especially like it for older grades either, but I see it as a necessary evil. That’s a topic for another day.)

When my daughter first started attending an academically rigorous charter school in first grade, I was surprised and unhappy to find that every assignment got a letter grade. Everyone I would talk to about it — about why I thought grades at this age were inappropriate — would nod sagely and then ask with a knowing air, “So her grades aren’t so good, huh?”

What? Were you even listening to what I just said?

Her grades were fine, I would assure them. And then I would change the subject, because apparently I was talking to someone who bought into the idea that grades are somehow magical indicators of success in life.

I don’t like grades because they are the dime for playing in the yard. Children are inherently curious people, and at young ages, eager to learn and please adults. They don’t need the impetus of grades to compel them to learn. And I think supplanting their natural desire to learn with a desire for good grades is a tragedy.

This is why we have never really cared much about our children’s grades. We treat them as one of many clues that help us keep tabs on whether they are being responsible for themselves (by following school rules and turning in their work) and whether they are trying their best.

Taking responsibility for themselves and trying their best, in my mind, are far superior indicators of whether they will be successful in life than are good grades.

It is true, if one of my children’s grades plummet, I am going to ask some questions. But, they will all be questions that center around the value of personal accountability, and are never designed to shame, guilt-trip, pressure, or call into question their intelligence.

I tell you all this because it is necessary back story for what we experienced this year with our oldest daughter.

She came home from the first day of sixth grade saying, “I hate school.”

I was a bit concerned.

After two weeks she hadn’t changed her tune. After three weeks she hadn’t changed the permanent scowl on her face.

So, I emailed the teacher. Her response was that we could talk about it in parent-teacher conferences in two weeks, and had I checked her grades yet?

No, I hadn’t, because of the aforementioned reasons.

So, I checked them. They were abysmal. That is when I sat my daughter down and looked her in the eye and asked her what was going on. I was not happy with what I learned. I offered right then to yank her out of school and homeschool her. She thought that was the best idea she had ever heard. Could we do it right away, please?

When I went to the school to check her out, her teacher’s response was kind but also betrayed her bias. She said she wanted what was best for my daughter and hoped this would be it. That was nice. She also said she was sure that this way I could keep a better eye on her and make sure she did her work.

And that was exactly the reason I was pulling her out of this classroom.

Can you imagine if your boss at work changed every year? And so did three-quarters of your co-workers?

And on top of this, that the majority of procedures changed at the same time? All daily scheduled meetings were now at different times this year; the proscribed lunch hour was at a different time, the times you were allowed to use the bathroom changed, as did the color of pen you were allowed to use, the place and time you were allowed to turn in your work, even the method by which you were allowed to approach your boss changed? Every year?

This is what it is like for an elementary-aged student to start off each new school year.

On top of all this, my daughter had a teacher this time with a preponderance of rules. Rules on top of rules. For example, one cannot simply raise one’s hand in this classroom. One must do so with one of six accompanying hand-signals, indicating whether one wishes to ask a question, make a comment, answer a question, use the bathroom, get a Kleenex, or turn in a paper.

This teacher seemed to think that what my daughter needed to succeed was even more structure. Structure I would surely give her at home. It was obvious to me that the teacher assumed I was yanking her out of school because her grades were bad. That had nothing to do with it. The grades were just a symptom of the problem.

Rather, what she needed was far, far less structure. Indeed, after enrolling her in an online school offered as a public school in Utah, all I do for her at home is set her to work in front of the computer and answer about five questions a day. She does the rest.

She likes to learn and she has learned to work hard. I don’t have to cajole her, or bribe her and scold her. I occasionally remind her of a time constraint or of a forgotten assignment.

I am deeply troubled as a parent and an educator about the increasingly larger role our society is placing on the numbers in education: the percentiles, the grades, the standardized test scores. Certainly none of this is designed to protect the intrinsic rewards of learning — the sated curiosity, the question that sparks interest, the mystery waiting to be answered, the draw of cognitive dissonance that makes us want to find out “why?”

Rather, we are piling more and more importance onto the extrinsic rewards; the fake ones that are like paper money that are only worth what we believe them to be.

I once worked for a professor at BYU whom I greatly admire. Besides teaching classes, one of his duties was to the admissions committee. He personally read hundreds of applicants to BYU each year.

He once discussed this with me. I was gratified to know, that at the time at least, there were no “magic numbers” that necessarily gave a student a spot or prevented them from having a spot at the school. The admissions committee looked at the whole person represented by each applicant.

This professor had a quote outside his office. I haven’t been successful in tracking it down to credit its author. But, it went something like this, “The value of an institution should not be judged on the quality of student it accepts, but on the quality of student it graduates.”

I am not one of those moms who want to homeschool all of my children to prevent them from being brainwashed or to protect them from gunmen bent on taking down a roomful of children. I have known moms like this.

In fact, I really don’t want to homeschool at all.

But, in this case, it seemed like the quality of student in my house that would graduate from this sixth grade class would be one that hated learning.

I do not want learning to ever become a chore for my children. Yes, I know the necessary work for learning is sometimes boring, sometimes difficult or frustrating, and sometimes a chore. But when a child discovers he can do something new, like write his name in cursive, or that he know something no one else in the family does, like how far away the earth is from the sun, or when he can finally do long division, (just like my big sister!) he has his reward. The joy of knowledge is the reward.

The job of any institution of learning — the elementary school, the piano studio, the karate dojo, the dance company, the Sunday School, the home — is to help the learners become more than they were before. To make them want to learn less means that institution has failed.

So, sixth grade teacher, you can keep your dime. I just want to play in the yard because playing is fun.

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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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