Enough About the System: Primary Education and Personal Responsibility

by Ellen Nordahl on March 4, 2010

Ashley Ambirge of The Middle Finger Project recently wrote a post painting the educational system in the US as a factory dedicated to turning out slaves of the capitalist system: unthinking, unquestioning cogs.  I agree that the system is in desperate need of improvement.  We bemoan the teaching to the standardized test, we proclaim that there’s no “one-size-fits-all approach,” but then we obsess about tracking hard metrics to see if we’re really “closing the achievement gap.”  It’s a mess.

Enough about the system. It’s more clear to me than ever that any change in the educational system needs to come from the bottom up, and it needs to start long before we enter the ivory towers of the university system or jostle our way through the crowded halls of high school.  It needs to start before our first day of kindergarten.

The real problem with public education stems from a lack of personal responsibility, and it begins with parents.

I loathe Baby Einstein videos and Leap Frog learning machines.  They’ve spawned an industry worth over $1 billion a year that simply serves to assure people that their babies will grow up to be brainiacs regardless of their involvement.

Our society is producing a nation of media-inundated zombies that lack the ability and initiative to draw conclusions for themselves and engage in critical thinking, and the process starts the moment parents plop their little pumpkins in front of the plasma screen and pop in Baby Einstein at the Farm.  From the time they’re old enough to sit up on their own, we expose our children to a litany of pre-formulated questions and answers that rarely encourage them to think for themselves.  When you put an electronic wand in your kid’s hand and send him off to learn how to read, who’s going to be there to ask him questions about the story (or answer any he might have)?

We continue to find ways to remove the element of human interaction from the teaching and learning process.

In a meeting I was in on Monday, a man was discussing the process of getting his kids to school every morning.  He mentioned that he was glad to be out of car pool duty because “the kids wouldn’t always agree on what DVD to watch.”

Headphones on, juice box in one hand, Nintendo DS in the other and Sponge Bob in the DVD player: when did we become so reliant on hitting play and hoping the kids would just shut up?  Instead of letting the kids entertain themselves (fostering creativity, make-believe, and a litany of questions that makes you want to pull your hair out), we outdo ourselves to find mindless ways to keep them occupied.

Growing up, my mom read to me nearly every night until I was 12 (and she worked full-time).  If we were traveling in the car, we listened to books on tape, or played “I Spy.”  We sang along to Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and I knew every word to Les Miserables by third grade.  I also grew up in a city with three stoplights.  She took it upon herself to begin fostering my life-long love of learning, music, culture and creativity because she cared about my future.  How can we expect the system to change when so many parents view education as stopping when the 3:00 bell rings?

The US Department of Education found that on average, mothers spend less than 30 minutes a day (and fathers spend less than 15) talking to their children.  And though study after study has shown that children who are read to regularly “experience boosts in literacy development and socio-emotional gains,” only 55% of parents read to their children every day.  Science Daily reports that “describing pictures in the book, explaining the meaning of the story, and encouraging the child to talk about what has been read to them and to ask questions can improve their understanding of the world and their social skills.”  A recent study in the UK found that children ages 4-9 spend 7 hours and 46 minutes per week (or 16 days 19 hours and 49 minutes per year) in front of the television.  In comparison, they spend 7 days, 9 hours and 40 minutes reading with an adult.

We can overhaul the system – but what good will it do if from the get-go, we come to school unprepared to actively learn?  To ask questions?  To read and discover on our own accord?

  • http://teeveeaguirre.com/ teevee

    Wow! This is something I am incredibly passionate about and talked about with friends several times this week.

    I am a divorced father of two little genii(plural geniuses?!?) After my divorce I went on a personal journey to improve myself. I learned a lot and since then applied as much of it as I could with my daughters.

    We don't have a tv and don't have a radio in the car. The radio broke and I actually planned to replace it. But in the that time I we began to talk even more and play games in the car. Call out shapes, colors, and make silly observations. One of the silliest yet beautiful things that they do is creating songs on the fly (basically freestyling).

    Like I said I am passionate about this topic. Ironically they are at the top of their classes. My 5 year old is already starting to read! To say I am a proud daddy is an understatement.

    My ultimate message is that you are absolutely correct. As parents we need to step up and take accountability.

    • EllenNordahl

      You should be proud! I'm so happy to hear that you encourage your girls to play games and develop their sense of creativity…and be silly at the same time. I really treasure the memories I have of just being goofy in the car with my mom and my sister…singing at the top of our lungs and playing the “alphabet” game. It's not ironic that they're at the top of their classes – it just goes to show that parents who are involved and make learning into something that's ongoing and fun and not a “task” do an incredible service to their kids.

      If your local library offers any summer reading programs, I would encourage you with all of my heart to enroll your little ones. Fostering my love of books is something for which I'll be forever grateful to my mom (and the children's librarian in my home town).

      • http://teeveeaguirre.com/ teevee

        Oh trust me, we do a lot of reading! But will definitely be taking your recommendation and checking out the local library! Reading is what I believe gave me the belief that I could do anything and there was a much bigger world in which I was raised.


  • http://25andtrying.com Beth Oppenheim

    I really love your perspective on this topic. The idea of distracting children instead of engaging with them is, for me, a main reason why many kids grow up enjoying/expecting only distracting activities. Some like video games, tv, and other technology more than reading or spending time outdoors. I really like the way you have described the issue, and think its' definitely important that we keep up the dialogue.

    • EllenNordahl

      Thanks Beth! I think it's important that we keep up the dialogue too – what you said about engaging children vs. distracting them really hits at the core of my argument. Kids seem to have so much structure from such an early age that they really don't explore things they aren't “signed up for.”

  • LostInCheeseland

    Brilliant post. My half-brother is 2 and watches maybe 30 minutes of TV a week. Although he was given Baby Einstein, it is never put on as a way to shut him up or because my parents don't want to play with him. There are SOME educational benefits but as is true with all media (and food) it's all about moderation. They don't allow him to watch for more than 15 or 20 minutes and when he's done, he plays with his toys. They teach him, they show up how to do things and then he does them on his own.

    Growing up there were fairly strict rules about television and when I got to High School, about internet and AOL IM usage. I cannot even imagine what it must be like for parents to raise children in the web 2.0 generation where they learn how to type and use a computer before they're even speaking properly. It DOES boil down to the parents and how involved they are in their child's education outside school doors and how much control they want to have over the inevitable influence of the media.

    • EllenNordahl

      When it comes to TV and toddlers, I'm definitely of the opinion that less is more – and it's good to hear that your half-brother is being raised by loving parents and not by a television. I had really strict rules about TV while I was growing up too – we never had cable, and I couldn't watch PG-13 movies until I was 13. I got a lot of grief about it, but now when I see my aunt letting my 4 year old cousin watch Jurassic Park time and time again, I feel grateful that my mom exercised so much authority over what was appropriate to watch.

  • http://www.tariqwest.com/ Tariq West

    Interesting points. You might find Mark Bauerlein's “Dumbest Generation” interesting – he has similar concerns about overexposure to multimedia and underexposure to books and reading.

  • LostInCheeseland

    Update: thought you might find this relevant (he's kind of my hero) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-maher/new-ru

    • EllenNordahl

      Hey Lindsey, thanks for the update! Sorry for not responding sooner – the past week has been a whirlwind, but I'm settling back in (and going to get caught up on reading blogs shortly :) )

  • http://rummaged-and-ransacked.blogspot.com/ ciaradawn

    Thank you for posting this. I can't agree with you enough. I see this problem everyday. In my job I do transportation for foster care and one girl (7 years old) said that when she grows up she wants to get a Jeep because it has a tv.

    TV is the now center of our homes. I see it all the time. I see it in my peers and how they were raised and I see it even more in their kids.

    My mom and dad read to me every night as well. My grandmother used to take my brother and I to the library where we would stay for hours upon hours! We loved it.

    You posted this quote “mothers spend less than 30 minutes a day (and fathers spend less than 15) talking to their children.” I can't believe that! It shocks me! I don't have kids yet but when I do this is one of the things that I am incredibly passionate about. That and teaching my kids about money.

    When did we stop teaching our kids and expecting everyone else to do it?
    Remember when parents were allowed to abuse their kids because we were “supposed to” stay out of each other's homes? Were we more passionate about our children then? I'm not saying it's a bad thing that the state steps in when needed, but it seems like when the state steps in the parents step out. It's such a shame that we expect other people and computers and tv to raise our children.

    • EllenNordahl

      Kudos to you for committing to teaching your (future) children about money and about the joy of reading. I couldn't agree more – it seems like every time we try to make our educational system step into the role of parents instead of fostering a healthy love of learning and understanding of fundamental concepts, the quality of our educational system declines and parents shirk from the responsibilities that should lie with parents.

Previous post:

Next post: