Pressure Cookers are Designed for Food, not Kids

I just returned from a screening of the documentary film Race to Nowhere. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, I would recommend any teacher, parent, administrator, school policy maker, and high school student to see it. This link shows where the nearest screenings are in your area. It’d be great if our school were able to host a screening for parents, teachers, and anyone in our community who wished to view it. There’s a link on that page to request a community screening.

In this country, starting in the 80s with Nation At Risk, followed in the 2000s by No Child Left Behind, the pressure for all kids to perform at high levels on tests in order to get into colleges has had an adverse effect on our students health and their ability to think critically, find and solve problems, and work well together. After a seven hour day of school and three to four hours of extra curricular activities, should our kids then tackle five to six hours of homework each night? Many of the examples were those of middle and high school students, but it was painful to watch a family end what was probably already a taxing day arguing about homework. The film reiterated what I’ve read and tried to advocate at my school, that there is no evidence linking homework in elementary school to achievement. The correlation begins in middle school, but after an hour of homework, the correlation disappears. By high school the correlation becomes stronger, but again, after two hours of homework, the correlation drops off significantly.

Many of the AP tests don’t test for critical thinking skills, but rather for a bulk of content. One teacher mentioned there is too much content to realistically learn, so they speed it up. The results are kids relying on cramming and cheating. Sadly, there is an increase in all kinds of stress related disorders with the extreme being an increase in teen suicide. It’s hard enough to be a teenager. It was extremely sad to see a parent discuss the suicide of her 13 year-old daughter over a letter grade (the letter grade was a B).

Something I struggled with was watching a teacher who, through her words and tears, was passionate about teaching and cared deeply about her students, However, through the bureaucracy of the system, she couldn’t take it anymore and decided to resign. There are already too few passionate teachers that care so much about what they do. Yet the system is so broken that it  makes them leave the profession.

What I liked about this film is that it showed many of the same kinds of pressures that kids face today to compete for a place in a ‘decent’ college regardless whether they came from an impoverished low-socio economic to wealthy suburban or private schools. The pressures trickle down from policy maker to school principal to teacher and to student. Not everyone needs to go to an Ivy league school, yet for many, they felt that it was the only choice if they wanted to be successful. What does being successful really mean anyway?  The movie mentioned that in Singapore, they offer the top 20% of the graduating class free college tuition – and a stipend – to go into the teaching profession. Here we have to go an extra year and pay for it on our own just to get the basic credentials.

Schools differ in many ways and whether a specialized public charter school or an independent one, the film makes a great case for reducing the stress on kids. Some want to extend the school day, take away recess, art, in order to cram more content into their brain. I can still remember the quadratic equation and know what to use it for, but I’ve NEVER used it since learning it in high school. Some other things, like the chemical structure of amino acids, I have completely forgotten. Are either of those things useful to me today? Did they in some way help me think in different ways? Perhaps. Or maybe I was just figured out what was going to be on the test. If that’s the case, that’s not learning. Why bother teaching if you’re just going to follow a script.

It made me think of this list from Tony Wagner’s book The Global Achievement Gap. He listed seven essential skills all people need to learn:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving
  2. Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination.

Are those things nurtured, taught, and fostered in schools?  Are they tested?

The movie calls on all stakeholders to be brave and do what they care about, say what they believe in, and take the risk when what that is may break the rules, go against policy, or even seem radical to some. If your heart is in it, and you’re doing it for the students’ benefit (and for me, stays true to the school’s mission), then it’s worth that risk. Those with the power to make decisions shouldn’t expect their employees to interact with students a certain way until they model what that looks like and treat their teachers the same way.

Below are a few related videos including the film’s trailer, and a round panel from Stanford discussing the issues.

If you watch the latter, you will hear that students in Finland (who are one of the countries that consistently produce top scores) are involved in project based learning, and have their social and emotional needs honored. They don’t ‘cover’ content. Here are some interesting links.


Fair Test

NYTimes article about this film.

This screening was the first in a series of three parts hosted by Seattle University. I really liked what the Dean of Education said when introducing the film. The next in the series is the screening of the film “Waiting for Superman” – I can’t wait.






4 thoughts on “Pressure Cookers are Designed for Food, not Kids

  1. Thank-you for this post. One thing I noticed from my eldest is the expectation all this pressure is that the child has to become an adult. For them to make it and be happy they must have adult thoughts and behaviors and emotions. This is unfair for a 14 year old or a 16 year old. Maybe an 17 year old can handle it a bit more. I see our youth as being unhappy and scared and confused all the time. I think childhood is not something that should be stripped away for the sake of tests. It certainly has changed a lot since I was a kid because we were still aloud to grow and be silly and creative and make mistakes.

  2. Anthony, I’ve heard good things about the movie, and I agree with you about homework in elementary school–though it is a useful way for parents to watch their kids work and struggle, provided parents are there when the homework is being done (not an easy thing for the conventionally employed).

    Being overprogrammed kills initiative and entrepreneurialism.

    When I was teaching at Lakeside, I saw kids who truly couldn’t think of what to do in the absence of an assignment.

    I’d rather see homework be more open-ended, and as an opportunity for kids to explore something they’d learned at school and something that interested them. Students could talk about their choice of homework the next day. In this way, they can inspire each other, or even collaborate on projects. And it builds a habit of making kids reflect on what they’re learning and take responsibility for extending it, which is ultimately what builds the sort of resilience and inventiveness you need to thrive in an ever-shifting world.

  3. Thanks for all the comments. My biggest worry is how dependent some kids have become. They need to be told what to do. When given choices, they freeze and want you to choose for them. There’s already enough in the curriculum that is chosen for them; they need to be able to have their own choices. Whether it be the so-called “helicopter parent” or how kids, as Alfie Kohn puts it, are “Punished by Rewards” – as difficult as it is, kids need to take risks and sometimes, they fail. The tenets in Daniel Pink’s book drive are not all that different from those in Alfie Kohn’s, but it’s amazing how many people dismiss his writing. It’s amazing how many people are starting to see his points as valid – what took them so long! Oh wait, I forgot, I’m impatient. And yes, I agree that it’s taking childhood away from our youth as well. 7 year olds shouldn’t have to take standardized tests and when the movie portrayed a school district that mandated that kids read proficiently by the end of kindergarten, I can’t tell you how upset that made me. Sure a few kids can read then, so they should be given opportunities that meet them where they are. But most kindergartners just aren’t ready, and their needs are very different.

    We’re just started a fun math project where the kids design menus and create math problems based on the prices of their items. Those who didn’t finish the first part had to finish it at home (most were close to done). Those that were finished, received a homework holiday.

    A couple of weeks ago, my co-teacher and I decided to give them the chance to learn about a new country. We’re studying Antarctica, but over 40 countries signed the treaty. Our assignment was to create a treasure box (or bag) that contained items, pictures, trinkets, food, and other things they learned about their country. They were given access to a database and what resulted were engaged students eager to learn about another part of the world. Not only was the homework meaningful, they were able to share their knowledge with one another, it also saved me having to think of some set of ridiculous worksheets that fit the needs of the kids each day. You’d be surprised that when you ask a child to ‘do their best and impress me’, they often will with no pressure from anyone.

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