What National Standards Can’t Fix

Child-centred learning creates switched-on students eager to explore their world.

Bouncing excitedly onto the front seat of the car, her face glowing, words burst from her mouth, “I came second in the spelling test today!” “Why didn’t you come first?” her mother quipped curtly in reply.

From the back seat I saw the instant mask of shame wipe all excitement from her face as if her mother had slapped it. A sullen silence engulfed us for the short trip home, the incident colliding with similar scenes from my childhood. I understood then why I told my son’s first teacher that I would teach him to read at home.

I had offered to hear children read when he started school. The competition-laden atmosphere caused the trained teacher in me to recoil when I joined several mothers at a staff room table, noisily coaxing five-year-olds as they stumbled over words from the same books I had first learned to read. Had nothing at all changed in twenty-five years?

Unfortunately yes, something had changed: a pushy competition to see whose child would be the first to read, and kudos for the teacher to have all children reading in the fastest possible time.

Perhaps it came as no surprise when my son lost all interest in learning to read, for how could he possibly develop a love of learning in such a driven and anxiety-ridden atmosphere to get it right, where the sin of making a mistake could so easily shame him to the core? What difference did it make if he didn’t learn to read until he was ready – the same as he didn’t learn to crawl or walk or talk until he was ready?

Unfortunately, all too often when a student is slow to learn, it reflects badly on the teacher, for we as a society have given them the power over our genes, home environments and readiness to learn, to work miraculous feats to ensure children’s learning works in exact concert at a certain age to an expected benchmark of achievement.

Some parents need their children’s high achievement to reflect well on them. This can also apply to teachers who push their students to achieve outstanding results. And now with schools subjected to commercial-like accountability, the same marketing pressures as companies drive them to attract the most favourable ratings to impress parents and communities alike. The prestige of high student achievement can be very profitable for a school because it draws more foreign students through the doors.

But buried under the pressure for children to achieve higher academic standards is an education that would better facilitate their ability to think and feel, develop their creativity and love of learning, and prepare them for a life as a human being rather than as a cog in the wheel of economic growth. Sadly, the introduction of National Standards will further remove our children from an education that would equip them for life.

Rather than an assessment of how many students perform to benchmark standards so we can fix the gaps in their education, National Standards is another insidious tool to show parents that their children do not measure up. As one woman wrote about her dyslexic son in a letter to the New Zealand Listener, “There was nothing positive about my child in that report… How would you feel to be told you are failing, report after report, year after year? This can surely only deepen the sense of shame and fear experienced by many dyslexics.”

After teaching some of the worst classes in our schools, I can attest that children with learning difficulties become demoralised by years of criticism and failure. They either become disruptive in class, or give up and drop out – or both. Dyslexia aside, too often children’s failure to achieve is a reflection of problems within the home. And there is not the remotest of chances that National Standards can fix this – unless we use it instead to raise the benchmark of parenting.

The parents of one of my year seven boys in a Queensland school thought he was “dumb” and that he should not go to high school the following year. When I took over the class he had scribbled “eh…eh” all over his books instead of doing any work. When I said I would like to talk with him, his eyes narrowed with hatred. However the talk revealed that multiple sclerosis kept his truck-driver father at home. The boy, I’ll call Simon, wanted to help with the household jobs and was upset that his father refused his offer, leaving him to feel “useless”. Finally tears filled his eyes when he said that he missed his mother who worked long hours and got home late.

However, the talk was enough to show Simon that someone cared about him, and he began joining in class discussions, revealing himself to be an intelligent and abstract thinker. Not only did he begin to focus on his work, but he became such an avid reader that he topped one of the end-of-year standardized tests.

That year Simon, and the rest of the students in this class, taught me why many children have learning difficulties and behaviour problems. Purportedly, it was the worst class in the school. After what Simon had revealed about home life, I began asking the children collectively about what was happening in their lives when they couldn’t settle into their work for the day – despite the aerobic exercises and run around the oval before lessons began. Their answers gave me a sorry picture of the real problems I was dealing with.

‘Janet’ constantly got out of her seat to pinch and hit the boys. Her stepfather teased her about wearing a bra and repeatedly tormented her by pulling the elastic on the back to make it thwack against her skin.

‘Aaron’ was often angry and hit out at other boys. His mother told him he was a “fat slob”. He broke down in tears when he told me he tried to diet and nothing worked.

‘Linda’ drew horses all day, hardly aware of what was happening in class. Her father often called her names like “clumsy oaf”.

‘Margaret’ cried herself to sleep each night after her parents separated and her father rarely allowed her to see her mother, whom she acutely missed.

‘Craig’s’ mother had sent him to live with his father when his behaviour became unmanageable after their divorce. He threw his books around and slammed his desk lid in a tantrum when he didn’t get the highest test score in maths that his father expected. And he refused to join in creative drama because it was not a “real” subject, according to his dad.

‘Susan’ had trouble focusing on her school work and sometimes became disruptive. She missed her drug addicted mother whom she rarely saw, and her stepmother didn’t know how to help her.

A third of the children were from broken homes and all, except one, were unhappy about this and still grieved the loss of a parent. None, to my knowledge, had counselling for this.

These stories involved one class for seven months in 1986. Ten years later and in New Zealand, paperwork and endless staff meetings had replaced pastoral care, and the problems children brought to school had increased to such an extent that a wall of shame-filled silence blocked any answers they could give in reply to my concern over their behaviour. Sadly they had learned only too well that adults cannot be trusted, and if so, cannot do anything about the magnitude of their problems anyway. So they had switched off. As one adult told me recently about his childhood experiences and school, “You put your head down and avoid being noticed.”

But by then I knew about the things locked in behind their silent walls, for I had worked for two years as a counsellor with adults wanting to heal childhood abuse. The following writing from clients reveals what can lurk behind that wall of silence. No real names are used.

John’s father anally raped him at three and his stepfather physically abused him. He wanted to fail his university course to get back at his parents and wrote, “All my life I have been aware of this strong sexual energy – combined with infinite violence – and deliberately avoided the two coming together. In effect, suppressing so much of myself because I know, somehow, what I am capable of and how great the need is. I will not hurt anybody ergo, I will not help myself. Self hate and all that.”

Linda, whose grief over her marriage break-up collided with the unresolved grief of her childhood, said of her father:

“He was so angry most of the time. He didn’t know how to deal with children. He didn’t like Mum and he was always worried about money. He grew up in a sombre existence and didn’t know about fun and how kids should be… He used to take his anger out on the kids – me especially… He yelled so much. If we disagreed with him he’d just roar. We were scared of him. We used to keep out of his way as much as possible. I remember Mum and Dad having terrible arguments about things…lying in bed yelling at each other.”

Samantha, whose father tried to poison her when she was two when she didn’t stop crying, revealed a lifetime of on-going abuse, including sexual abuse by her grandfather. Often the anxiety became so great as a child, she left the classroom to fast pace around and around the school. She wrote about her grandfather:

Tears that flow within my soul like droplets of cold rain,
penetrate my inner glow.
How could the light that once was bright be so brutally put out?
I toss and turn late at night
but your face emerges in my dreams.
The river of white that flows around
is the sperm meant for Life.
How could you use this natural thing
To hurt the ones you’re meant to love?

Paula Bennett wrote of the appalling new statistics on abuse against babies released last week, “It is unacceptable that our youngest, most vulnerable children are being treated like dogs.” However from my experience working with abused and traumatised children and adults, we treat dogs considerably better and more humanely than we treat our children.

For some children, not performing to National Standards will be excuse enough for further abuse and punishment – not to mention adding to the heavy cloak of shame they already wear, and all for not ‘measuring up’ – to a Standard.

What many parents and politicians often forget, or don’t realise, is that children’s learning is not only compromised by abuse, but when they don’t get enough sleep (some very young children don’t go to bed until eleven at night), are undernourished, neglected, abandoned, watch too much television, arrive at school without any breakfast (vitamin B helps them to concentrate) with only chippies and a fizzy drink for lunch; when there is chaos in the home caused by drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, crime, post-traumatic stress disorder, mental illness; or when parents are emotionally unavailable because of depression, grief, illness, financial worries, work problems, overwork, or trouble in their relationship.

Buckminster Fuller said, “Look into the eyes of a newborn baby and you will see the spark and the soul of a genius.” These words had a huge impact on Robert Kiyosaki who asked in his book If You Want to be Rich and Happy, Don’t Go to School: “If everyone is born a genius, what happens?” Unfortunately he discovered that “the genius born in every child is greatly diminished before the child even begins school.”

First published in Scoop, May 20, 2010


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