The schools aren't the problem; our cultural parenting is the problem. Schools just teach in the way we expect them to.
Our culture celebrates competition, dominance and heroism, while as parents we feel successful when our children learn to fit into tightly defined molds and in grading and schooling them we compel them not to deviate.
This dichotomy sets all of them up for either extravagant rebellion, spectacular success, heads-down drudgery, or catastrophic failure. Sounds extreme, but that's just because most of us have graduated from this system and are still aiming for the drudgery. In both my kids' cases, the programs they're attending are trying very hard to work around the provincial requirements in order to provide an experience for the kids that is more wholistic and more engaging than what the provincial learning outcomes indicate. Even the Province is attempting to make a change, and will be implementing new, more wholistic learning outcomes this coming year. But as parents we still want to see that our kids are measuring up. We want them to compete (and win!). We want them to get in there with all the other parents' competing little geniuses - and WIN, goddammit! We want the schools to make them win. And that situation means that a school is a place where people win and lose. Grades, tests, contests, and teachers' expectations are all venues for our little dears to step up and prove themselves as better than all the rest... or to fail at life. That is an expression my kid has learned at school this year.
My son got a paper back from his teacher, who happens to be well-known for his amazing views on and implementation of education. And my son couldn't understand why he should change a sentence that had nothing wrong with it grammatically, and that expressed what he wanted it to express. The teacher had criticized him for not making suggested changes, and I said to him, "You have a choice. You can either make the change without questioning it, or ask him why, or not make the change and explain your reasons in the margin." He looked at me with a look of bewilderment and stress. He was scared to speak up for his beliefs. In that moment I saw that his experience of school has robbed him of his confidence. To me that is tragic.
My son now questions all of his own ideas. He writes them off as not-good-enough, or impossible. He used to see questions as opportunities to talk about things he cared about, but now often feels terrified when people ask him questions - as if they are already judging his response. So, increasingly, he chooses not to speak at all. The kid who was uber popular when he first joined the school now feels alone in the same group of peers. I've told him that that feeling comes from his own lack of confidence, but that lack of confidence is nurtured by the competition that determines his every move.
My daughter has a far more relaxed classroom. But I see the effects on her, too. She used to excitedly write down every song, story and poem that entered her mind, sharing them either in her self-published magazine or sending them to Cricket. Recently she has begun doubting herself - looking for skills that will fit better into her classroom expectations rather than those she is passionate about.
So here we are at the end of spring break, and I smell the fresh wind of change, again. My daughter has decided to become a pop star and has spent this bounty of spare time tearing her fingers up from practicing guitar for multiple hours every day. My son has found a renewed interest in sciences, and spent the entire latter half of spring break researching physics and dabbling in electronics, chemistry and programming. He also has taken the half-assed science fair project he made for his school science fair to a much higher standard for the bigger science fair he's taking it to next week. He did this not because he was asked to, but because he has found a reason to care about it. Now, to be honest - he might not be going to that science fair if his teacher hadn't chosen him to go - it was something of a competition he won to be among the school's entries in this fair, and the school is paying for it. I don't pretend for a moment that this competitive situation isn't benefiting him in this case.
It's the overall picture that bothers me. What if, instead of feeling afraid that their contributions might be worthless, or feeling glorified that they beat out some other kids to be seen, our kids could just share? The experience of sharing their work with no strings or expectations attached would give them real world feedback from people with genuine interest in their ideas. They could learn from those experiences about what went well for them and what didn't; what felt satisfying and what they might want to pursue further. I am imagining open non-competitive expos - maybe on different topics. I imagine spaces full of enthusiasm and innovation, where everyone goes away feeling valued. You don't feel valued from winning a contest as much as you do from sharing with people who are genuinely interested in hearing and sharing with you. In such situations there will be people who discover that their talents or passions are different than they expected, but this will happen through their own judgements rather than because of the judgements of others.
I know some people will tell me (because I've heard it so often before) that this notion of non-competition is useless - that our kids need to learn to win because that's what the real world is like. They need to learn to fight for their goals or they'll never achieve them. The real world is cold and cruel, and only the fittest survive. Yeah, well... what if we changed that? What if we made our real world a place where everyone had value? I believe in that. I have seen it happen in many smaller organizations that happened to (by chance or design) have a lack of competition and judgement. I want that world for my children, and I want that world for me.
I'll finish with some remarks from evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris. Watch the video at the bottom for more details and visuals.
"We have a marvelous example, in our own bodies, of a highly-evolved, decentralized, cooperative economy, which communes as well as communicating. It uses direct transmission of information and it is completely transparent. The biggest discovery I ever made in evolution was to discover what I call the maturation cycle that permeates all of evolution - that any species has to go through a juvenile or youthful phase, in which is has to acquire as much territory and resources as it can, and multiply as fast as it can, and elbow others out of the way, and establish itself in its place on the planet. And eventually, it gets too energy expensive to elbow the others out. The competition becomes very very expensive. And there comes a point at which there seems to be a maturation process in which the species discovers the advantages of cooperation - that cooperation is much less energy consumptive, so that you have lots more energy to use in being creative in friendly ways with others. When they finally reach the mature phase, having solved both global hunger and global pollution, they start building cooperatives with a division of labour, and every different kind of bacterium gives some of its DNA into a central library we call the nucleus, which then binds them to living forever in that cell. And so these cooperatives are actually new on the planet and have to go through their own maturation. And it takes another billion years, after two billion years to reach the stage of those cooperatives, another billion years they're going through their youthful phase - same kind of behaviour - until they reach maturation and form multi-celled creatures. Those, to me, are the two biggest steps that ever happened in evolution: the formation of the nucleated cell and the formation of the multi-celled creatures from them. We, of course, are multi-celled creatures. We are now, as humans, going through our own juvenile phase, into maturation." ... "We're now at the second time when this empire-building phase has become too energy expensive. We've reached planetary limits in using up resources and all kinds of things as we well know. We've created a perfect storm of crises and we've got to grow up. It's as simple as that. It's time for humans to reach the mature cooperative phase. We need not the hero's journey myth that brought us to where we are now - the adventure story - but a story of cooperation."