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The problem with treating children as investments

August 27, 2011

Recently, my wife discovered a playgroup in our neighborhood for children my daughter’s age (10 months yesterday), so she has been taking Maddie to these gatherings for the past few weeks. After the first visit, she told me that Maddie had a great time, but at the group, all the other babies (including a couple of babies that share her exact birthday) were crawling around and many had teeth. Suddenly, I felt this clinch in my stomach—my daughter…is…behind. Can I get her a crawling tutor? Should we invest tooth acceleration hormone injections? Here it was laid bare—my progressive teaching philosophy shot to pieces by my own offspring. Luckily, my wife helped me to regain my senses and remind me just how much I love the fact that Maddie isn’t fully mobile yet—she stays in place, and how unprepared I am for the fun that is sure to be infant teething.

All this got me thinking of how parents get information about the progress of their children, and how our society is making this information more and more accessible, and whether that actually is a good thing. The very first thing I get at every doctor’s visit is a precise percentile measurement of my daughter’s head, height and weight referenced to all the other babies her age. It seems like this is just the first of many statistics I’m supposed to care about as a parent. When we were touring daycare facilities, many of them bragged about how I’d be able to login to a website and watch continuous camera coverage of my daughter. One of the iphone apps we just had to have as a new parent was Total Baby, which allows me to track every bodily function of my infant with unprecedented precision. Of course, I could only sustain this effort a few days before realizing its utter pointelessness, but somehow, at the time it seemed like I should be tracking every little bit of data my child produced, even the smelly bits of data I don’t care to remember.

I mention all this because it reminded me of some conversations I had with colleagues at other schools who discussed how they have online gradebooks like powerschool that give parents continuous access to how their child’s grades. Because parents check the gradebooks frequently, teachers feel the need to enter grades on an almost daily basis so that parents can have an up-to-the-minute measure of their child’s progress.

Of course, these “innovations” aren’t limited to world of education. Just look a the world of finance. It used to be ok for the average person invested in the market to check his/her portfolio once a day by looking at the stock pages of the news paper. Later, 30 second delayed stock updates were necessary, and soon thereafter, we couldn’t be happy with anything less than real time updates from the stock exchanges. I have little doubt that soon enough, the average investor will be clamoring for the same level of access that big banks get now with their servers co-located mere feet from the NYSE exchange servers so that they can win at the battle of high frequency trading.

While at first glance this might seem to be necessary for something like a stock whose value can fluctuate wildly minute by minute, I think the recent financial crisis makes a compelling case that all this up-to-the minute information was fairly worthless and possibly even distracted investors from doing the real work of assessing the underlying value of these toxic assets that seemed to be doing so well, because they were getting meaningless updated 60 times every minute.

Even outside the financial crisis, I’ve read stories of many companies that have been done in by going public; suddenly they can no longer maintain their focus on a long term future since they are are now beholden to stockholders, and doing all they can to increase the share price, and occasionally this focus on short term thinking lead to the overall demise of the corporation.

This craving for data, even when we have little understanding of its meaning, is universal. It’s natural to for parents to want more frequent updates about their most valuable “investment”—their child. Semester grades are good, so quarter grades would be better. Why not grades every 5 weeks? Heck, why don’t you just put everything out there in an online gradebook?

Here’s my problem with this approach. Children aren’t investments. They are the most il-liquid of assets, and this is a good thing. It’s almost impossible for me to tell if today is the day my daughter is going crawl, or if it is tomorrow, or next week. Getting constant feedback from the crawl book of her every wobble, or even worse, the crawlings of all her peers, can often only serve to heighten my anxiety.

Instead, I want my students to think deeply about their progress and develop their own ability to self reflect. When they miss a core concept on the first try early in the year, the worst thing they can do is to think they’ve failed. Instead, I want them to treat this just like they would their first attempt at almost anything else worth doing—you’re going to fail the first time, and that is both expected and useful, you’ll learn more from messing up and making corrections than doing it right with only a partial understanding. Just like when they first started to crawl, and must failed hundreds of times before taking that first momentum move forward.

This is a tall order. It requires my students to recognize that like a fine unfinished paining from a promising artist that you can’t slap a price on it every day, your understanding is something that you can’t grade continuously.I think this realization would be much easier to make and accept if we as adults could first step back and eliminate our need for instant and ubiquitous updates on our children’s ‘progress.’

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    August 27, 2011 8:20 am

    I commented on one of your posts earlier related to the role parents and others play in how a child approaches school. (I believe you were writing in response to something written by a senior and published in a school newspaper?) I agree with your message 100% but the students will find it hard to change how they approach school with influence to “perform” coming from so many other places. I just finished reading this book that pertains to exactly what you are referencing. You may find it interesting, particularly working in a private school setting.

    http://www.thepriceofprivilege.com/

    Our society is about quick information and lots of it (and we wonder why depression rates are climbing). We want quick updates about how our children are doing and online resources help that. We want to know how our children compare to others. Some are very obvious about it; others are a little more stealth to get the information but, in my nearly 10 years of parenting, I see it being a large force in the lives of many parents around me. Added to the “plugged in” nature of our children’s lives and we’ve lost the ability to connect on a deeper level with our children. The book talks about this in more detail.

    I’ve really enjoyed your posts about grading philosophies. I am a homeschooler precisely because I want my children to make progress and have freedom to explore ideas vs. getting caught up on a conveyor belt of pursuing grades. And I do believe that our encouragement of that idea (my husband is very involved) will make or break their personal ideologies as they mature as students. However, I find it fascinating that my oldest daughter, now entering 4th grade, has lots of questions about grades. She hears her friends from school talk about grades and she’s read novels that talk about grades.

    She has never received a grade. But the curiosity is high and she’s asked me to score some of her math work. I put point totals on the top and percentages because they spark a math concept conversation but I’ve yet to put a letter grade on any of her work. She has strong reactions to feedback. I had her listen to the first 10 minutes of your video because I found it hilarious that your message to 9th grade students is the same I deliver to her. Make mistakes; it is how you learn. Listen to feedback; the intent is to help you improve.

    I marvel at the way people portray school, learning, education, etc. in a negative light YET, you will hear people tout the desire to instill a “lifelong love of learning” into the youth around them. Recently, we were part of a tour group and the guide acknowledged it is “back to school” time and gave my girls pencils. Another member of our group muttered “Oh, don’t bring that up, I bet they don’t want to be reminded.” I turned to the woman, laughed and said, “We homeschool, this actually is a field trip.” I wish there was a way in this society that we could stop all of the negative references to school. My children, ages 7 and 9, enjoyed the tour, even without the free token that was put into my purse and forgotten about. Learning in our society is often something portrayed with disdain. That is the bigger problem to be tackled. Let’s change the way learning is portrayed in movies, TV programs, books, etc.

    This monster of using metrics and information to track your child’s every move has taken on a life of its own. I do think the results are disastrous for children and it is really part of the reform needed in our approach to education.

    A couple of years ago, while my children were still in the local elementary school, they implemented an online gradebook. The principal, nearing retirement, just wanted to check it off of his to-do list based on parent requests. The teachers, however, didn’t want to publish grades right away because they had policies around granting extra credit to help children raise grades. The teachers wanted a two week window after each assignment till they were required to have the grades in the system. This was to give the students time to do the extra credit so the improved grade would be seen by a parent, THUS, reducing the number of contacts a teacher would receive from a parent about the initial grades. I see many problems with this.

    First, why so much extra credit? I’ve heard stories of kids taking a test, getting a couple of problems wrong but still scoring 104/100 because of the extra credit. That’s a skewed approach to me. At least make the extra credit a separate assignment. Let the test score stand as a true measure of the student’s understanding.

    Second, I sat in a classroom and listened to 6th graders joke around after having a failed test returned to them. The teacher began to review the test and a student interrupted to ask what the curve would be. I was astonished to think that these children, at a much younger age than I, were already learning how the “system” works. I graduated from high school nearly 25 years ago and I never learned of grading curves till high school science and AP classes.

    I’m also starting to see honor rolls published in newspapers as early as 1st grade. Why promote the “honor student” concept to students so early? I’ve read a true measure of an IQ can not be seen till 3rd grade but, yet, these students have already been labeled by proud parents. Labels, even ones seen as positive, can have negative impacts down the road. Our local elementary school published an honor roll in their newsletter that included 60% of the 5th grade class. How is that possible? No matter how you slice it, doesn’t that dilute the honor? I suppose not to those proud parents and administrators! But, ahem, shouldn’t their standardized test scores from the previous year support the 60% claim? Why are we doing these things? Is it all a game? What impact does it have on a maturing student’s psyche? How does making an honor roll instill a love of learning in a child?

    Finally, why do parents have to log in to look at grades to get a feel for how their children are doing? Are they talking to their children? Are they helping with homework? Do they know their children have tests so they know to ask how it went? Are they seeing the tests that come home? Let’s strip out the opportunity for more parent/child communication by just putting it online.

    This post struck a nerve with me. Thanks, John. I enjoy reading your blog. Now I will hunker down here in New Jersey and wait for Irene.

  2. August 27, 2011 9:13 am

    I’m reminded of the recent hurricane blog comments trying to read the movement of Irene’s eye during an eye wall replacement cycle. Weather blog comments were filled with “OMG, it’s already turned north!” “No, wait, it’s actually backtracking!” etc. Nothing of the sort was happening, and this became obvious from watching long term patterns.

    Even monthly or biannual data frequency for your child isn’t all that useful. I can remember being assured by a doctor that my daughter would be at least six feet tall… whoa, future athlete! Not.

    Useful data for a child? You instinctively know it and there is no need to record it anywhere but your brain. And never compare, unless your kid is ahead… just kidding.

    I wonder whether incessantly tracking data is a replacement for something more fundamental that we are missing. We’ve taken away the need to hunt, gather and build shelter. We’ve outsourced the education of our children. What do we do to create meaning in our lives? Peter Singer talks about this in “How Are We To Live.” We have automated and outsourced so many of the activities that used to give us day-to-day meaning, and now we are searching for other meaningful activities. Hunting turns to shopping. Or reading blogs? Or we just get depressed. But ultimately, and obsessive focus on minute data (whether the minute-to-minute progress of Irene, stock prices or our children’s grades) isn’t very satisfying.

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