“Because it’s boring!”
This was my 11-year-old niece’s tearful explanation for the recent decline in her grades. When I calmly asked her to explain to me what she meant by “boring” I got: “Because in middle school you don’t actually get to DO anything. When you’re a little kid like for example, like a Kindergartener, you get to play in the sand table and build stuff with blocks or paint or play dress-up with your friends and imagine all the cool things you want to be when you grow up. And when you’re in high school you get to drive and go to the prom and learn the stuff for college so you can pick a career for when you are an actual grownup. But in middle school ALL we do is sit at our desks and study for state tests. I mean it’s like totally ridiculous! We don’t even get recess anymore. Our teachers are all stressed-out because they don’t want to get put on the ‘bad teacher list’ and our parents all need tutors just to help us with our Common Core homework, and none of it even matters anyway because we all live in the same zip code, so we are all just going to the same high school anyway! You’re a principal, can’t you do something Aunt Bridie?”
Wow. No pressure.
Needing to think fast in order to head off a total tween meltdown, I replayed her answer in my mind to get back to her main point: “...in middle school you don’t actually get to DO anything.” Perfect, she wants something to do.
I took a deep breath and began to explain that what she was asking me to do is something called “education reform”, and it’s not a job that Aunt Bridie can do alone. To this I received a disappointed harrumph. I went on to explain that what she was asking for would require research. That it’s not sufficient to just to complain about what we think is wrong, we have to offer alternate solutions and back up our arguments with data that can be tested. Another harrumph.
Data! Something flickered in my memory: “Do you have the test scores to prove that all this crazy gaming works?” It was a question Vicki Davis had recently posed to Michael Matera in an episode of Every Classroom Matters, discussing his game-based learning approach. I asked my niece if she would be willing to help me do some of this required research that I was talking about. To this I got, “Well, is it going to be boring?” I assured her that it was not, and pulled up the broadcast on my phone. She sat, face scrunched up, and listened intently. She even took notes. When the show finished I asked her what she thought about the broadcast. “It sounds like those kids are having fun and learning stuff at the same time”, was her reply. When I asked why she thought this, she informed me: “Well, for example, those kids probably learned a lot more about math and science and learning to cooperate and respect one another’s ideas when they worked together on the cotton ball thingy and that’s WAY better than just reading about it in a dumb old textbook.” I told her that I thought she had a valid point. I wasn’t expecting what came next. My niece turned, sparkly purple pencil and notepad in hand, looked squarely at me and asked: “And what did you think of the broadcast Aunt Bridie?”
Trying not to smile too much at her very serious tack, I explained that when I first listened to the explanation of the gamification concept it actually reminded me of Dr. Montessori’s theory about educating adolescents and teens called Erdkinder. I explained that in an Erdkinder school (German for Earth-Children), the children live on a farm and their schooling consists of running the farm as a business, including caring for the animals, calculating crop yields, planning and executing the planting and harvest cycles. Montessori believed that as children start to become young adults, their minds and bodies are changing in such a way that they need an increase in physical activity in order to learn. I explained that the goal of Erdkinder is to produce adults who are equipped with the confidence in themselves and actual skills to live in the real world and even Albert Einstein agreed with Montessori’s ideas.
Very impressed by the Einstein tidbit, my niece thought over my answer for a moment and then said: “So you mean that Maria Montessori thought of all this stuff like a hundred years ago? So why didn’t anybody listen to her?”
I explained that there isn’t much written about Montessori education at the middle school and high school level, probably because so few schools have done anything with the theory that Montessori provided before she died. She never had the opportunity to test her theories by founding her own Erdkinder, and there are still not many Montessori schools out there for this age group. I also explained that many schools probably find this model of education very difficult to implement given that, for starters, it requires a full, working farm.
She thought about this for another moment, and then the following conversation unfolded:
“So that teacher we listened to knows all about how that gamification stuff works for us kids and that’s why he is trying to get everybody to use it, right?”
“And everybody has known for like a hundred years that kids my age need to DO stuff in order to learn, right?”
“And YOU, Aunt Bridie, run two Montessori schools, right?”
“And you just started them up from scratch and you went out and got your own buildings, and teachers, and all the stuff for the classrooms, right?”
“So SEE Aunt Bridie, you CAN do something! I told you so!”
Later that evening I sat back to reflect. I thought about Mr. Matera’s innovative gaming movement, I thought about Dr. Montessori’s theory on educating adolescents and teens, remembering her words: “My vision of the future is no longer of people taking exams and proceeding on that verification from that secondary school to the university, but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher [one], by means of their own activity, through their own effort or will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual." I thought of the famous quote from Hal Moore: “There is always one more thing you can do to influence any situation in your favor.”
Finally, I thought about my niece. For quite some time now I have been questioning what the next step will be for me in my personal and professional growth. I wasn’t expecting the answer to come from an eleven-year-old.