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Why Kids Aren't Happy in Traditional School

By Ruby A. Ausbrooks
Ed.D., master teacher and secondary education consultant

An Excerpt from the book by Donald Asher : Cool Colleges for the Hyper-Intelligent, Self Directed, Late Blooming, and just plain Different

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Why does one person sail through schooling while a sister or brother suffers through the grade structure as if each year were a jail sentence?

Why do so many smart people flounder through public school like fish caught in a net? Or accumulate a record of detentions and instant recognition by the principal responsible for discipline?

Even those who discover or create a niche for themselves often hate school. One young woman, now a college junior and who was almost a stereotypical cheerleader and member of the in crowd, says her high school years were wasted.She got through it by concentrating on the social life and taking a course load that got her out in three years.

Recent research on individual differences and how we learn allows us to speculate on part of the answers.

Some people have different learning clocks. A student may be ready to read, say, at eight years instead of sixso she spends three years feeling stupidor she’s ready to tackle algebra at ten, but she has to sit through years of stupefying boredom.

Some students have a dominant sense of learning, just as important for dealing with daily life as being right- or left-handed, that doesn’t fit the popular mold. We no longer force left-handed people to write with their right hands, but we think nothing of forcing auditory learners, who learn by listening, or kinesthetic persons, who learn by doing, to sit silently for hours with books their only source of instruction.

If we’re doing some things wrong, we’ve been doing them wrong a long, long time. Egyptian papyri bear the copying work of school children: letter forming exercises, lists of nations, phrases of moral instruction. In the archives of Duke University there is a bit pf papyrus with margin notes that mention Argos, Troy, and Helen.

An educator friend whose experience includes both upstate New York and Nevada, points out schools have used many of the same methods for centuries because these methods work. There have been always, he says, students who don’t like or fit the system; that’s the way people are.

A former high school principal and superintendent of schools in Illinois, Bill Hayes, had this comment,

Schools are very narrow minded and short tempered in dealing with someone who disagrees with the way they have their system set up.

Sometimes, the people who don’t like the way things are effect changes when they get their chances. Sometimes they give up.

For a number of years, I was a teacher, director, and curriculum coordinator in a cooperative high school that served five separate school districts. The students who came to our school were creative, talented, and bright. Some of them were angry. Most had one thing in commonthey didn’t fit the stereotypes.

Our school had a number of young men and women who suffered from a lack of goodness of fit. When I remember some of them, their individualities stand out like sapphires sparkling in a fuzzy web.

Angela wanted to be an auto mechanic after she graduated, and she was already working through an apprenticeship despite a ton of pressure from her family and friends who insisted that girls didn’t repair cars.

Our school had an unusually large number of musicians, so large that for my own satisfaction I did the numbers.According to the statistical software I used, the probability was less than .005 that, strictly by chance, one school would have so many young men whose tests indicated music as the primary interest in their lives.

People who are born musicians hear music and rhythms in everything around them, the sound of air brakes on a truck, the beat of tires hitting pavement grooves, voices blending in a crowded hallway. These students might thrive in a school where there is as much emphasis on music as there is on sports in the traditional secondary schools. History can be learned through studying and listening to the changes in musical tastes over decades as well as through memorizing data. Playing in a band is the usual compromise.

Stephanie appeared, at first, to fit the stereotype our culture constructs for young women. She was thin to the point that I wanted to grab her and start spoon-feeding her chicken soup. Her long blond hair shined and waved around a thin face what was expertly made up.Her clothes bore the approved labels.

One of the most fascinating things about Stephanie was that through the influence of a former boyfriend she had developed a hobby.She raised goats for showing in competition. Trophies and aware ribbons adorned her room at home. This was what consumed her interests and time.

Steve was a talented mechanic who was left in charge of two older brothers while his parents, both truck drivers, made long-distance runs form ocean to ocean. The brothers, serious burly men who would

tolerate no problems from their younger sibling, where the guardians who came to parent conferences. They looked overpowering, tall, scowling, and obviously able to lift tall buildings. I hesitated to say anything that might be used against Steve once the family returned home.

Steve, however, was real pain in the neck. He hated schools, teachers, “busy work” assignments, person in authority, a lot of his fellow classmates (“these dumb jerks”), and who knows what else. Steve invented a device that simplified unloading large trucks. A trucking company purchased Steve’s invention for a good sum, which Steve used to set himself up in business after he got out of school, and today he is a successful business man. I doubt that he ever learned to tolerate busy work.

Except for a few magnet or theme schools sprinkled sparingly like exotic spice, traditional high schools are designed to fit no one, although many students do fit will enough that they prosper.Goodness of fit is a real-world phenomenon that really does matter. There exists somewhere a public high school for performing arts, a school of science and mathematics, a school for creative writers and artists, a school of applied sciences. Somewhere. As yet, none except that for applied sciences is in my neighborhood.

Adults choose, if they can, to work and live among people of similar lifestyles and interests. It makes nights more interesting, morning more worth getting up for. Artists like access to galleries, musicians to concerts and opportunities to make music with other musicians. Golfers prefer neighborhoods with golf courses. Hikers look for open countryside. Athletes want handy gyms, handball and basketball courts.

Selecting a college is the first opportunity most of us have to find a goodness of fit. College is the single most important leap, outside choosing a life partner, in creating the kind of life we really want. Somewhere is the college that fits our learning styles, personalities, and interests, where there never again need be more square pegs pounded into round holes. Reprinted with permission from Cool Colleges: For the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different by Donald Asher. Copyright © 2000. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley; CA.


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