My boys’ conferences were yesterday and I was already preparing for a hard time from Dani’s teacher. It’s not that I dislike her. It’s that she just doesn’t understand that her job is not about creating perfect kids, it’s about teaching.
Dani will not conform. He plays around, is easily distracted, draws cartoon characters all day long, never knows where he is in the lesson, and can’t sit still. Classic A.D.D if you ask me. But it’s more than that and I think that this is where schools go terribly wrong. If the kid isn’t society’s definition of PERFECT, then he needs a label. A new label. He needs to be redefined to fit another perfect model. The perfect model of A.D.D. perhaps, or worse. Schools are horrible proponents of stripping children of their identities so that they may be taught in a specific way. And if they cannot be taught, they then become candidates for “behavioral modification” or drugs.
So she says to me, as if I didn’t already know, “Dani’s not stupid, y’know. He’s very bright. He just doesn’t pay attention.” And if he paid attention, he’d be perfect. Right? And you’re job would be a hell of a lot easier.
So, I say to her, “from the time we had our last conference, I have reinstated the math tutor, I have reprimanded him, taken away the computer and all other electronics, I have hugged him when he gets an A, and sat with him nightly over homework to help fend off the Ds and Fs. I have preached the importance of paying attention and getting good grades and have admonished him for telling “lies” and trying to avoid work. On your part, you have made sure he takes all the right books home and you’ve gotten on him for not following along in class. I agree. He can be lazy. He is scatter-brained and he doesn’t have the capacity to remember what you asked of him two seconds ago.
“But let me ask you, after all that effort on our parts to make him a better student and he is STILL the same, what then is the lesson here? Is it that WE are to blame for not getting on him enough? Is it that HE is to blame for being so lazy and not paying attention to US? Or is it something else? Might it be that no matter what, he is simply Dani and that it is his nature to not conform to our way of doing things? There’s only so much effort you can put into forcing the left-hander to write with his right hand.”
She wasn’t convinced.
I told her about randomness and the theory written up in Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk, How Randomness Rules Our Lives. How the psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, lectured to a group of pilots, years ago, on positive reinforcement and how it is supposedly applied to making better students. He initially said that positive reinforcement causes people to achieve and become better at certain tasks, but negative reinforcement does not. But when Kahneman mentioned this during the lecture some of the flight instructors said that it wasn’t true and contradicted their experience.
“‘I often praised people warmly for beautifully executed maneuvers, and the next time they do worse,” the flight instructor said. ‘And I’ve screamed at people for badly executed maneuvers and by and large the next time they improve.”
Kahneman took this contradiction and realized that it was, indeed, true. That the reason for it could be attributed to something known as “regression toward the mean.” That is, “in any series of random events an extraordinary event is most likely to be followed, due purely by chance, by a more ordinary one.” When we reinforce a good behavior or reprimand a bad one, it appears that our criticism or reinforcement is causing the behavior of the student to change. But in actuality, it is not. The student exhibits his own level of experience and knowledge at the rate he, personally, has the capacity to or, in my son’s case, the willingness. Of course, positive versus negative reinforcement will have an effect on the student’s emotional well-being, but not his ability to perform tasks or skills.
In Dani’s defense, he is simply a Dreamer. He’s dreaming up fight scenes, and animation moves, and traveling to Japan to save the kingdom. Obviously inappropriate behavior during class. And quite frankly, it bothers the hell out of me when I ask him to clean up his room or do the dishes only to have to remind him a MILLION times. And don’t think I don’t feel pain for him that he can’t understand how to divide fractions. But on the flip side, he is creating amazing things. He has self-taught himself a computer animation program and is making actual cartoons. His vision, skill and love of drawing is amazing. And his stories of adventure are characteristic of a soon-to-be writer or artist.
What’s more, he has a huge capacity to learn. When he wants. He’s merely opposed to it as it is offered in this particular setting.
He is ten years old. He is beautiful inside and out. He is creative. He is a dreamer. And in my book, he is allowed to be all those things. I understand that schools must set a standard of behavior so that teaching and learning can occur. And I do understand that if Dani wants to go on to college some day or get along in the world, he will eventually have to play by others’ rules. But any teacher that is going to tell me that “he’s not stupid” as part of her description of him, is not someone with any sensitivity or knowledge as to who children are and what they’re all about, inherently.
Perhaps, I am just a disgruntled mother.
I secretly wanted to say, “Well, Mrs. M., it’s not that you’re stupid, but I just don’t think you’re cut out for this job.”