Museums and Educational Style
So, last week my family and I took a day trip to Washington DC to visit monuments and museums. The weather was beautiful, and we visited the Lincoln Memorial, the Air and Space Museum, and stopped briefly at the Washington Monument and the White House.
Superboy's always liked museums, particularly ones that show how things work. He tends to charm museum guides by walking up to an exhibit and asking them about a dozen questions in a row, varying from the general to the specific, from the concrete to the propositional. His ability to remember and draw on these details later, and to make connections to other systems, is quite remarkable.
These qualities, unfortunately, have led to only mediocre success in his first-grade classroom. His teacher, who describes herself as "strict", has noted to me on several occasions his "behavioral problems" of not immediately following along with the group, or taking too long on tasks. In the first two weeks of school, she told my wife (with my son present) that he may have to be held back or transferred to a learning-disabled class. She's also mentioned that he's talked out of turn sometimes, and that he sometimes gets upset about inconsequential things.
We understand her struggles all too well. Superboy does tend to go from topic to topic as it interests him, and if he's interested in something other than whatever an adult is saying he may not listen. He will sometimes spend a long time doing something silly -- for example, being given a task to color in a row of boxes (a fairly typical first-grade task, apparently) he may choose to use a different color for each, and to carefully color the entire box. This sort of creativity will spill over into all sorts of activities (I've been told he's been scolded for not walking correctly). He also tends to get upset if something isn't exactly perfect -- he'll crumple papers if he gets a single question wrong.
Unfortunately, understanding her struggles and doing something about them are two different things. During the time Superboy's in school, we as parents have no power -- I cannot reinforce behavior that occurs in school directly, just as teachers cannot directly reinforce homework. I cannot punish his silly behaviors in school either. We could make obedience a more generally stressed value in our home, which might help, but to be honest I'm not sure I want to raise a child who's generally obedient. If I want a child to be obedient only in particular situations, such as school, he needs to be reinforced for obedience in those situations. Otherwise, he becomes discomfitingly well-suited to the US Army. So, she complains to me, and I listen somewhat sympathetically, but I figure she wouldn't be receptive to "change your entire approach to teaching and disciplining."
And, she is making mistakes. Some of her punishments involve aspects of humiliation (probably the aspect that's most bothered me, I'd rather she hit him), and she's probably fighting the wrong battles. Her marks of his behavior have gotten steadily worse over the course of the year; I'm not sure if these represent actual worsening behavior or her increasing frustration, but it could be both. Humiliation has never been a good tactic with Superboy, as he'll tend to resent it.
So, my son's practically a poster-child for the sort of loose education that most "fluff" (i.e., constructivist math/whole language) teachers advocate. I know he'd do fine in such a classroom, if run by the right teacher. In spite of this, I don't think that's the right way for most students, I don't think much of the actual curriculum of those philosophies, and I don't think it's structure in general which is the problem, but rather the specific structure of the standard classroom.