Friday, March 6, 2009

“Screw the goldstars”

This week I read a book which really opened my eye to a few things. The book is called Learning Outside the Lines (Simon & Schuster). It is written by two people who were deemed “academic failures” who then went on to conquer their own Everest, to graduate at the top of their class in an Ivy League college.

Jonathan Mooney is a dyslexic student who only learnt how to read when he was 12. David Cole has ADHD and at 15 dropped out of high school. Cole went on to graduate with Honours in visual arts while Mooney was recipient of the distinguished Truman Fellowship.

After reading this book, I vowed not to be beholden by external markers of success for my child. Asian parents measure their children’s success by how high their exam marks show. Education, to us, is the hallmark of having beaten the system, and having thrived. Limited as this measure is, we have always relied on this as a measure of our parenting and personal victory. It is not, and it cannot be allowed to be.

Mooney and Cole made a strong case for every college student saving himself/or herself from the "institution". This is especially so for those students with learning disorders or disabilities. According to them, while we encourage our children to pursue college, or education (which puts them onto a professional track) most parents do not encourage their children to look inward to define “who we are or what we want, or chart an individualized path. Success often becomes external, in markers like the GPA (grade point average), internships, and the networking we do.”

I had friends who used to be smacked by their parents if they came home with anything “red” in their report cards. My parents were less draconian but I still got a major telling off if I came home with a red mark. (I think I only did once.) In the Asian context, getting smacked for not reaching your parent’s expectation is normal. A good report card is equivalent to upholding your family’s honour. Failing in school is synonymous with failing in life. Hence the intense focus on education excellence. Education is the passport to professionalism.

I have come across friends with kids diagnosed with ADHD, or kids who are slow to read or kids who can’t add or learn basic facts. How best to help these kids who will face the sanction of their teachers (because he won’t sit still or is disrupting the class”)? How best to help someone whose brain can’t collect information and regurgitate them like what the school system demands?

Learning Outside the Lines challenges the limited definition of intelligence heaped upon us by our education system. So if your child’s teacher gives him/her a below average mark for writing, or if you child gets a 10 out of 50 for math – do not despair. The book encourages us to look within ourselves to define “success” as an individual. “Screw the goldstars” (report cards) and “template identities”, the authors tell us. Instead focus on helping the kid excel at his personal goals.

Be compassionate, not 100% in math
As a parent, I think, I too have been consumed by external markers, worrying about spelling test scores and math groups in school. I think it will take me a while to shake off being bound by external markers of success. It is a hard process, to deprogramme something so deeply embedded. But try I must. I remember writing in one of Princess’ goals for a school term “to be compassionate” to her classmates and “enjoy learning”. I should have more of those rather than the more mundane goals of “achieving 100% accuracy in punctuation” or “master long division”.

Remember, we can waste too much time thinking that there is only one way to learn “in the classroom”. True learning is more powerful than that, “it cannot and should not ever be held prisoner by the classroom.”

Edward Hallowell (MD) wrote in his foreward of the book: “For centuries, the word stupid, combined with various intensifiers like bad, lazy, willful, or weak has been used to create a moral “diagnosis”. That moral diagnosis has ruined millions of lives. Now thanks to neuroscience, we are starting to make the medical diagnosis. We are starting to help unusual learners tap into their unusual talents. We are starting to realise how complex learning is, how destructive the concept of stupid has been, and how glorious getting the most out of a mind can be.”