Good, Better, Best

There has been much controversy over the Common Core, the attempt to set uniform standards in education by establishing a curriculum that children need to master at various grade levels.  The goal has been to raise the level of achievement in subjects such as reading, math and science in which American children have fallen behind.  There is a strong competitive aspect to this project in that American education is competing with the educational systems of other countries that according to various test results achieve greater success.

Another competitive aspect relates to the testing that has been used in the implementation of new standards which involves schools competing against other schools and children competing with each other and within themselves.  Complaints have been heard from both parents and teachers that children are being stressed and that teaching has been constricted by the focus on material to be tested.

This raises a broader question about the purposes of education and how children learn best.  Certainly in an earlier era education was more rigorous with higher expectations and more demanded of students.  In some instances there was greater reliance on memorization and repetition.  Teachers had considerable authority, and clear standards of behavior were set – in general greater discipline prevailed. 

Changes in educational approaches in many ways reflect changes in thinking about child development that have also had an impact on child-rearing practices.  There has been as much criticism of the changes in child-rearing as there has been of changes in education.  Too often the discussion is set around extremes, such as too strict or too permissive.  In some ways, new ideas tend to be incorporated and expressed in exaggerated forms.  In the present discussion the issue has revolved around whether children need to work harder or whether they are being stressed and made anxious by the new demands being made of them.

An interesting aspect to this question is to what degree children internalize standards that are set for them and how do they process the demands that are made by parents and teachers.  Have they set their own standards for themselves or are they simply reacting to those whose approval they may seek.  This may be something that parents can think about in regard to their own children.   

This question was raised by the parents of a nine year old girl who were concerned about what seem to be her own demands of herself.  She appears to have a great need to excel over and beyond what others expect of her and does not correctly assess her own level of achievement.  Although this is true in academic work, it appears to also relate to other activities such as sports.

The parents described a current issue involving tennis lessons that the girl appeared to be enjoying.  Recently, the teacher was absent and another teacher took over for that lesson.  Other girls at the lesson were above the level of this child, and she had difficulty keeping up.  As a result, when the lesson was over she told her parents she didn’t want any more lessons.  When the parents told her she did not have to return to that teacher and could go back to the lessons she had enjoyed with the first teacher, the child decided she wanted to try another lesson with the new teacher.

The parents’ understanding of this was that their daughter saw that she actually learned more with the new teacher and now her need to excel was in conflict with the desire for the lessons that were a source of enjoyment earlier.  The parents had a difference of opinion about this.  Mom, an excellent tennis player herself, thought that the child would eventually have more pleasure in the game with greater skills.  Dad was more concerned that her need for excellence would rob her of the fun she had been having at first. 

This is a familiar conflict with particular relevance at a time when a general criticism of young people is their inability to accept the kind of work that goes into mastery, whether in academics or sports.  For this child, her need to be “perfect” can lead to the opposite:  applying herself to the detriment of any pleasure in the experience.  To what extent is the need to work at something in conflict with the ability to take pleasure in learning something new?

In the most basic sense, this is the question being raised by the objections to the common core.  Is it possible to set standards that require hard work on the part of  youngsters while at the same time giving them pleasure in learning?  Obviously the answer lies in finding a good balance between the two.  This is difficult to do in an educational system that serves large numbers of children who are at different levels of ability.

Ultimately, it falls to parents to make this determination about their own child.  The example given is of a child who may need protection from tipping the scales toward applying herself unrealistically.  Other children may need help in finding pleasure in learning in order to develop the motivation needed to apply themselves.  Both work and pleasure need to be part of learning.