Infantilization of a Generation

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Infantilizing of a Generation

(This is part 3 of a 5 part series on why our school system is horribly broken)

“Something about this struck me deep down in that moment.  I couldn’t put my finger on the specifics at the time, but something just seemed horribly wrong.  And I just snapped.  ” – From my story below (I know quoting myself = classy)

 In the book “When Helping Hurts” the authors talk about how treating people like a charity case makes them more likely to act like a charity case.  In other words – by addressing physical needs without addressing someone’s worth we make people feel worthless.

When Helping Hurts Banner

I believe schools are making a similar mistake with a majority of their students.  Day in and day out most students are constantly reminded that they are not as smart as “those” kids.  In addition to this they are reminded by school policies that they can’t be trusted.  Stay inside the box and stay on task because we can’t trust you to use your own judgement.

Would you feel like an important person with real value if you sat through that message 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, year after year?

I Just Snapped

I still vividly remember this negative messaging in action during World History class.

I went to a small Christian school and there were basically two groups of students: the “smart” class and the “other” class. Due to scheduling these two classes were often separated from each other even for non-honors classes.  I took Art instead of Band, and I ended up being grouped with the slower students for a few classes.  One of those classes was World History in 10th grade.


About two-thirds of the way through the school year our teacher got frustrated that we were not covering as much material as the “smart” class.  She started talking down to the class and complaining about our short-comings.  I noticed a bunch of heads start to drop and just accept this criticism.

The problem was her criticism was not justified.  Our class was twice as big and students did current events at the start of class, so we spent twice as much time on current events.  The school didn’t have enough money to buy all new textbooks so she was actually teaching out of a textbook that the “smart” class had and we didn’t.  This teacher also regularly showed up 2-5 minutes late for the start of class.

We were behind mainly because of these factors – factors outside of the students’ control.  Yet many of the students in the class were just accepting the teacher’s criticism as another example of their shortcomings.

Something about this struck me deep down in that moment.  I couldn’t put my finger on the specifics at the time, but something just seemed horribly wrong.  And I just snapped.

For reference you need to know that I was usually a model student and very polite to my teachers.  But something about this moment just broke through all of my filters and restraints.  Before I realized what I was doing I had started to tell off our teacher listing all of the reasons I listed above as the real reasons for our slow progress.  When I was finished I was sure I was going to get detention.

Instead there was an awkward silence and the teacher just started teaching the lesson.  I guess she realized I was right and figured it was best to let the subject drop.

I still think about that moment regularly.

Now that I have had time to process it I realize that I was so angry about this because I could literally see people whom I knew were very bright drop their heads and believe that they were a problem.  They did not believe that they had caused a problem, but that they were a problem.  And I knew that this was just wrong.

This teacher was usually a good teacher, but she and many of the students had subconsciously bought into a lie.  The lie is that the “other” students need help and aren’t as able as the smart students.

These students may have been worse at school, but there were a lot of bright and talented people  in that room.  School is set up so that students who don’t do well on tests and struggle with traditional learning are problems.  It is set up so that even good teachers often have to treat valuable talented people as problems.

If you were these students would you think you had a lot to contribute to the world?  Or would you want to escape the world by watching TV, playing video games, or smoking pot?

Picture via:
Picture via: flicker – Al Ibrahim 

The process of demoralization and infantilization is insidious because it is self-reinforcing.   Students are given negative messages because they do poorly (comments, looks, grades, etc).  This negative feedback often negatively impacts the student’s future performance which in turn invites more negative feedback.  And then the process repeats itself.


The Alternative

“What makes a child gifted and talented may not always be good grades in school, but a different way of looking at the world and learning.” – Chuck Grassley

Instead of spending 8 hours a day telling students who aren’t good at school they are “other”, why don’t we spend 8 hours showing them how they can help people and add value to the world?  Every student should know he has the power to drastically improve the lives of people around him if he or she chooses.

We need to stop treating students who don’t do well on largely meaningless tests as less valuable.  Instead we need to let them know they can add immense value to the people around them.

Next Post: Tests, Tests, Tests

Education Tunnel Vision

Blinder Vision

Education Tunnel Vision

(This is part 2 of a 5 part series on why our school system is horribly broken)

“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.”  — Peter Drucker – Men, Ideas & Politics

With education reform initiatives we keep focusing on improving our schools.  Having better accountability, better testing, better teachers, and around it goes.  These initiatives like to pretend that student issues can be fixed simply by fixing schools.

In my opinion this approach is the equivalent of trying to fix a car with a broken engine by cleaning the car and replacing the tires.  Yes it looks nice, but it still isn’t going anywhere.

Bad Grades – More Than Just a Classroom Issue

For many students the biggest issues affecting their grades are outside of the classroom.  Life is connected.  Poor health, absent parents, and crime ridden neighborhoods can destroy a student’s academic performance.

Trailer Park

“Much of new information about childhood and poverty uncovered by psychologists and neuroscientist can be daunting to anyone trying to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children.  We now know that early stress and adversity can literally get under a child’s skin, where it can cause damage that lasts at lifetime….The effect of good [or bad] parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical.” – Paul Tough – How Students Learn

“[ACE scores compared to adult health] The correlations between adverse childhood experiences and negative adult outcomes were so powerful that they “stunned us”… The adversity these patients had experienced in childhood was making them sick through a pathway that had nothing to do with behavior” – Paul Tough – How Students Learn

The research continues to mount that the parenting and the home environment are more important than anything that happens in the classroom.  Many students do not have supportive “community” outside of the school.

For most students this need for community support is not being address.  If you don’t at least address the root causes of the student’s issues it will be very difficult to help them.

Eliminating Tunnel Vision

While I am not advocating a nanny state.  Schools do need to take a big picture view when trying to improve underperforming students and schools.  Schools should be more active in partnering with organization who provide support and development outside of the school.

For example: Instead of increasing school funding, maybe we need to increase funding for prison job training and anti-recidivism programs.  This would help more men in poor communities stay out of prison, find jobs, and provide a positive influence on the community instead of a non-existent or negative influence.

Prison Entrepreneurship Program

The best solution will be different for each city, but trying to improve student outcomes by only focusing on schools is a fool’s errand.  We need programs that engage all parts of the community.  Programs that strengthen the community not infantilize the community.

In the next post we will look at how schools infantilize many of their students, and encourage them to be less self-sufficient.

Next Post: Infantilization of a Generation

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Recommended Further Reading:   Matthew R. Morris – Students are People First (Medium Post)

A few excerpts from the above article:

“Almost always, these judgements are based on the narrowed and limited views of a “student”. But students are people first. When you are stuck teaching students day in and day out, it is easy to forget that your students are more than pupils existing in your class from 8:30 a.m until 3:30 p.m from Monday to Friday.”

“Teachers often forget that school is just a portion of a student’s lived experience. Teachers place homework, tests and attitude towards school on a pedestal while forgetting that kids spend the majority of their time away from school — at home, with family, tending to situations that do not require a pencil and paper.”