Imagine a sac of frog eggs in a pond, the kind of frogs that lives their “adult lives” on land. Toads? I forget the difference. Anyway, the tadpoles in the eggs grow, they develop, they hatch… into the water. Again, they grow, they develop, they absorb their tails and climb OUT of the water. They know the water! They jump into it. They play in it! They procreate in it! They know how to USE the water for their own good, but, their expertise of water comes from having lived IN it and having looked AT it from dry land. Their perspective from the water is just as valuable as their perspective from dry land. Their goal in life is NOT to stay in the water thinking that the water brought them out of the eggs and gave them a pretty good life with a tail. Their goal is not to look incessantly for more water, better water, or the water most popular with all the other frogs! In fact, without the perspective of stepping out on dry land, the frogs would never know how to distinguish better water. They would not be able to respect those who have come from different waters. They would not even know that more water existed, and they certainly wouldn’t see that, in general, they are responsible to live their own life “happy,” not the life of other frogs. The distracting search for bluer water limits our capacity to grow into the frogs (or toads) we were meant to be. After all, a frog’s goal is “relationship” with other frogs in an exciting world into which we frogs may bravely step (or swim).
Now, what does this have to do with My Education Education? Everything! Allow me to analogize. We Americans are born into a pond of free and democratic education. Like for tadpoles, our “eggs” are short-lived. They are called Kindergarten. Now, I wanted to say “the Elementary Grades Years,” but, truthfully, the innocent shell that protects young lives with humanitarian, humanistic “play” and natural, meaningful and authentic learning dissolves and breaks even EARLIER than Kindergarten. That is, the “baby tadpoles” have very little time to “develop” their “tadpoleness” in the egg before the egg is shattered for more “water”- the water of Outcomes Based Education, or “academic readiness,” or “customized curriculum” or higher ERB scores. Our tadpoles stay too briefly in the haven of “play is our work.” In the short-lived life in their shell, our children must learn what it means to play TOGETHER, to play SAFELY, to play ALONE, to SHARE, and many more things that seem like natural human behaviors for which any curriculum of their interest is a secondary excuse. Teachers and “better waters” will not ever be able to “dump” these kinds of lessons into children in such a short time!
Would we ever think of ejecting the poor tadpoles from their shells before they were ready to take on the “water” of education all by themselves? Certainly not! But we DO push elementary school children to read by grade 1, to write and spell with little meaning or purpose. We push them to get into the highest level of classes for which the school system has a label: AG, HAG, Explorers, Robins, etc. Parents begin to push their children to accomplish MORE Accelerated Reader stories. Instead of wondering why Johnnie can’t pay attention along with his advanced Math peers, his parents get him a prescription for ADD/ADHD medicine. Could it be Johnnie’s brain is fried? Could it be Johnnie’s teacher is not allowing him to process the Math in a developmentally appropriate way? So human tadpoles are pushed into the water (and out of their shells) way too soon and are literally and figuratively flooded with more and different and “better” water: the next trend in Education promising the get the youngster “ahead.” Parents are told this new water is better. Their children will swim to the front of the pack if they just drink from the chalice of this next curricular or extracurricular panacea! And only the tadpoles at the front of the pack get to jump into the next best body of water, where the population of tadpoles is smaller and more “competitive.” This poses a threat to parents, as the tadpoles in this new body of water can all swim as fast as or faster than their own children. And so, parents help the tadpoles find more water to jump into, to “distinguish” their children from the others at the front of that pack. Some push the tadpoles to do sports, music, online classes, tutoring, “enrichment,” and more. So, our tadpoles never learn the world of any body of water because we parents are trying to push them through and out of one body into the “next best.” And then, by the time parents figure out their tadpoles are just like the other tadpoles even though their children had worked so hard at standing out, the tadpoles begin to lose their tails!
NOW, the parents must push their adolescent tadpoles even harder since the “teens” are now more interested in the tails of other tadpoles and even their own, again, literally and figuratively! If you know anything about these creatures-adolescent tadpoles, that is- they stop eating and literally digest their own tails while they “go through the changes.” So, in reality, adolescent tadpoles actually ignore the water in which they live and focus on “more important” issues. (Wouldn’t it be nice to navigate through FAMILIAR waters during this period instead of hopping into new waters every 3 to 6 months? In Middle School, we may as well say the same thing. Middle Schoolers stop feeding on the “water” of Education and focus on what they were put on this planet to do: you fill in the blank here… individuate, move into Formal Operations Thinking, pick at their acne, develop a secure identity, etc. Whatever it is, adolescent tadpoles need time to grow into their own bodies, lose their tails and connect with fellow tadpoles to muster the strength for their upcoming leap OUT of the water, physiologically able now to manage a bigger world with legs, breaking apparatus, new and stronger muscles, etc. Biologists say that it is usually hunger that drives a tadpole adolescent out of the water. Think about the “water” we humans dump on our adolescents, like drinking from a fire hydrant! More classes, more tutors, more “extra-curriculars,” camps, etc. How often do we even know if our children are “hungry” for the water we pour down their throats? And, by this time, some of our adolescents have become quite skilled at a few things- through practice, drill, opportunity, privilege, self-motivation, parental threat, etc. There may or may not be the joy of jumping into the water like a young adult frog experiences or even the sense that frogs can and should hang and swing with other frogs with joy and by nature, but at least our children can jump into some of the “better waters” better than other frogs. Suzuki violin, the School of Science and Math, UNC School for the Arts, Governor’s school, “gifted” programs, rounding out our resumé to be eligible for the “best” schools and scholarships! Some of our young adult frogs can play in some really awesome water where others can’t. And this pushes the parents and now the frog itself to seek out newer… but related… waters, a process which has now formed into such a rigid formula, neither froglings nor parents can see any other approach to going through life’s waters. You see, now, we don’t want to push the frog too much into new waters where she might get caught up in a relationship with the other frogs at that level, or, heaven forbid, she might disregard jumping into the other waters that now define her as “distinguished.” Pushing the young frog even harder distracts him until he can be pushed into the next best body of water. Ultimately, these frogs only know the waters because they have merely lived IN them. Without the perspective of living OUT of the waters, the only path of “life” for these frogs is to paddle in the water with a “select” group of other frogs who believe they are just as superior. Even though the analytic capacity is limited for the frogs who only live in/on the water, their own community of “fast paced” frogs considers them to be “the best.” At the very least, having a perspective outside the waters gives a frog a broader and more accurate assessment and analysis of self and the world. Remaining on the treadmill for so long sometimes makes the frog lift that special middle finger in rebellion to the very academics that the community believes will bring him the best success and say “that’s enough” or even worse!
I’m sure you can finish the analogy all the way up to Post Graduate University level waters or Education. I’d like to, but my blogging coach tells me my posts are too long. The fascinating thing? When during any of this process do we humans get out of the water with the goal of evaluating whether it is the right LIFE to live: constantly in the water with nothing to define us but the water itself and in constant, insecure comparison with others. We are not the water into which we were born, but this process, what educators so beautifully call “The Race to Nowhere,” ends up stripping us of our humanity while at the same time breeding a cruel arrogance, jadedness, blindness and even an obsessive/compulsive sense of entitlement in student, parent and academic/educational institutions. In short, we confuse the “best education” as that one and only tool that defines us rather than seeing an education as ONE of many tools our children may use to live the happy and upright life they are uniquely equipped to live.
I’d love to read your comments, reactions, and stories. I not only need to learn how to step out of the water (or off the treadmill) for my own children and the children and parents I serve, but I believe we can reconnect with our humanity by sharing our own stories. In my consulting work, I see administrators, teachers, parents and students alike who perpetuate… no, depend on… the race to nowhere totally blinded by the fact that they are even running! I, too, have found moments in my parenting when I realized I was on the treadmill and merely justifying my own circumstances and imposing an impersonal value set onto my child. This, like
any parenting commentary or recommendation, provokes resentment and defensive behaviors. Humility and transparency are in short supply in most of my educational consulting experiences. But, in an anecdotal contrast,
I had clients whose son would have been Valedictorian of his class if he had NOT taken band. He had played the game well and “won the race.” But, the parents and the boy battled whether it was worth it! He LOVED playing his instrument, but Band was not an honors class in this county. He truly wanted to take Band, not just because his best friends were there, too. His band director was an amazing role model for the boy. He and his parents chose to take band, and he was Salutatorian. What say you, readers? Dare we drop our guard, our pretense… and share? From pre-school to the finest of Ivy Leagues, we educators are ALL guilty of tuning the treadmill for the next wave of tadpoles! Which of we educators will be the first one to pull the plug!