I've been sorting through old physical and computer files lately. I can't afford to read much of what I process, but occasionally something grabs my attention, and sometimes I find it worth sharing, as a glimpse into the past.
It always surprises me when they say so, but most people these days think of the 1980's as the distant past; it's shocking to me how few people now remember the Berlin Wall, for example. But here's a question I asked in 1989, and I think it's as relevant as ever. I addressed it to teachers, but it goes far beyond education.
I am becoming more and more convinced of the importance of self-confidence in the learning process. There's nothing mysterious about this, of course; I suppose it is quite obvious that it's easier to do anything if you think you can than if you think you can't. At any rate, this is why I was concerned a while back when one of our daughters went through a stage of being convinced—without cause—that she was stupid.
I remember having similar troubles in elementary school myself, but I thought that our children would be immune, because of the openness of their school about standardized test grades (I never knew mine) and the fact that they get letter grades on their report cards instead of the fuzzy comments that I remember.
I was wrong.
Our other daughter, with similar abilities and achievements, had no such difficulty in school, so I did some probing to discover the secret of her self-assurance. I'm sure that her good grades, high test scores, and the praise of her teachers must have some importance, but she dismissed them out of hand, saying, "I know I'm smart because I had third grade spelling words in first grade." Period.
I nearly fell over. In the school where she attended first grade, the children were grouped by ability, regardless of age or grade. Her reading ability put her in with second and third graders for reading and spelling. For reading, this was appropriate; for spelling it was not. Ten to thirty spelling words each week, seemingly random words (no phonetic consistency) that were harder than most of the words she had to learn in fourth grade at her current school. How we suffered (so I thought) over them! In my opinion that was clearly the worst part of her first grade year, one that I would definitely change if I could do it over again. But now she tells me that that was the basis for her positive view of her abilities.
Which leads me to wonder if we are not selling children short. Could it be that they realize that a high score is virtually meaningless if the test was no challenge? That they get more satisfaction out of struggling with something hard than from an unearned, easy success?
What do you say, teachers?
If I got any answer to that question in 1989, I don't remember it. What almost 35 more years of experience have taught me, however, is that (1) Yes, we consistently sell children short, and (2) It's not just a matter of giving children challenges, but of giving them appropriate challenges, because too easy and too hard can each be discouraging.
The question that remains—besides the unanswerable one of how such an individualized program could be achieved in a school setting—is, "How hard is too hard?" My memory of our daughter's experience with a spelling challenge two or three years above her skill level was utter misery that lasted till nearly the end of the school year, when the teacher agreed to back off a bit for her. And yet, and yet, in her mind—and I'm inclined to believe her—it ended up doing her a world of good.
Nobody ever said being a parent was easy!