The Traditional Calculus

In a trend largely predicated on the notion that (1) starting earlier and working harder will yield better testing outcomes and that (2) achieving better test scores will prepare children for a more productive and successful life, many American elementary schools are now offering programs for younger children such as K3 and K4. This is a grand social experiment predicated on the popular notion that more is better. But is it?

To begin with, I’m not so sure that focusing so narrowly on cognitive development is healthy or productive in the long run, especially at such a young age and especially at the expense of other equally important and valuable non-cognitive developmental needs like character building. Some might argue that the process of becoming successful testers teaches character, but I must say that from my experience I learned more about life outside of the classroom than I ever did inside of it.

To my mind one of the greatest challenges we face in educating the next generation is to find the way to overcome the lethargy of having been raised in a time of relative plenty that has been practically devoid of adversity. Sure the economic uncertainties of late have been dramatic, but how much has really changed? We’ve had much harder times on earth and when measured against those, what we’ve experienced of late is little more than a blip, a moment of mild discomfort.

While I don’t believe that true grit is only developed under times of pressure, uncertainty, adversity or scarcity, such restrictive circumstances do tend to force the issue. In the absence of these factors, what can be done? Plenty! For starters, we have to be willing to take our hands off the process and let our children experience difficulty and yes, even failure on a controlled basis.

Small challenges and little failures are like dumbbells to the weightlifter. They build muscle and prepare you for larger trials and tribulations. Such knowledge and experience cannot be gained by means of traditional cognitive development. It comes from practical, personal contact. If we shield children overly from that personal struggle, we deprive them of that opportunity.

There is, of course, a balance. Such experiences must, as much as possible, be on a controlled basis. And that is the responsibility of parents, teachers, mentors and the like. In summary, I believe that test scores are an important indicator of cognitive development, but if we rely on that as the primary means of shaping the minds and hearts of those into whose hands we’ll be placing the reins of humanity in the days to come, we’re missing the point!

3 thoughts on “The Traditional Calculus

  1. David R

    There are so many elements that factor into a young person’s development with emphasis that varies dramatically from one age to another. In the determination to develop workers for a productive society, our schools tend to overlook, with the best of intentions, probably the majority of actual needs for balanced development. Thanks for opening this large subject! Teachers aren’t the only ones who need to upgrade their understanding of these things.


  2. Coco

    The controlled part of this is an adult on hand to help the lesson of failue or the challenge be a lesson the child learns something from and doesn’t scar their ability to regroup and try again. So often I’ve seen the adult invested as if it were their experience. The tendency is to cushion the result or in some cases add to its weight. The “controlled” part does require an adult on hand that has matured emotionally. Good post!


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