Jane Dimyan Ehrenfeld is a parent, educator and attorney who now serves as executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Inspired Teaching, a nonprofit organization that trains teachers to use best practices and rethink their traditional roles in the classrooms. She has been deeply involved in the D.C. education community, serving as chairwoman of the board of the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, and teaching in public schools in Prince George’s County. She also taught in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.
Her classroom was the focus of writer and educator Jonathan Kozol’s 2007 book, “Letters to a Young Teacher,” in which he reveals his views about the state of education. She has worked with him on advocacy projects related to public education.
Here’s a piece by Ehrenfeld, who tells a personal story to discuss a key problem with the basic structure of most schools.
By Jane Dimyan Ehrenfeld
As I watched my daughter Annie bravely climb the big steps of the yellow school bus, wearing her too-big backpack, headed to her first day of kindergarten, I abandoned any pretense of restraint, and I cried with abandon. Much later though, in the quiet of the end-of-day, I went back to what had brought on that rush of feeling. Of course some part of it was a “Sunrise, Sunset” moment, thinking about how quickly time is moving, how fast my girls are growing. But there was more.
I wondered who, if anyone, at Annie’s school would ever get to know her as a complex, quirky, wonderful individual, who would nurture that individual and appreciate her for the entirely unique person she is. And I wondered, too, who would do that for each child in her classroom, and in her school.
As I pondered this, I thought back to the questionnaire that the school had sent home before the first day. Mostly there were the kind of getting-to-know-you questions that many parents love answering (e.g. “Annie loves creative hairstyles and scaring her parents with her stunt biking, and her favorite self-selected nicknames are Honk the Beep, Bubble, and Special K”).
But there was one question that stood out to me — the kind of question that is asked in schools across the nation: “What motivates your child? If your child is motivated by rewards, please be specific about what type they like most (positive praise, stickers, free time, etc.).” And especially when juxtaposed against my reflections on Annie, this entirely individual child, and her entirely individual peers, I wondered: What goal were the teachers trying to achieve with this question?
I have no doubt that Annie’s teachers want to set her up for success. Many parents and teachers have been told to motivate children with stickers, candy and the like. It seems innocuous enough, and this system works if the goal is to condition kids to be obedient and compliant. But what is missed when compliance is the goal? The answer is troubling.
Incorporating students’ favorite rewards into the classroom is comfortable and exciting for them. But school must be more than comfortable and exciting; it must be engaging. Rewards and consequences demand little from our children. We can buy children’s obedience (or the perception of their obedience) most of the time with prizes — especially when the children are young. But easily purchased obedience has little, if any, relation to authentic engagement, and so when we expect little, we get little in return.
In a compliance-based system, we send the message that children don’t want to learn or be kind; that their intellectual curiosity and innate morality aren’t foundations worth building on. But I’ve taught hundreds of students in public schools, and I’ve never met one who entirely lacked these foundations. And while it takes a lot more effort to actively and authentically engage children in school and learning and exploration and community, to notice and identify and build on their intrinsic expertise and integrity, there is no doubt that this is by far the best way to ensure that they thrive in their classrooms and beyond.
Think about the traits you most value in your family and friends and community members. Do you value people who require a reward to be kind, or thoughtful or to complete even the simplest task? Do you value people who unthinkingly agree with figures of authority? Or do you value flexible problem-solvers and empathetic collaborators, people who build their communities because being a kind, thoughtful member of a community is something they are intrinsically motivated to be? And if it’s the latter, how do you suppose these adults come into being?
I don’t think it happens if we spend their childhoods handing them prizes, and then send them off into the world hoping for the best. I believe — and the research agrees — that this kind of wonderful adult has to be nurtured and carefully taught in her formative years, has to experience authentic engagement, and adults who expect more from her than mere compliance.
According to a recent PDK Poll, 82 percent of respondents indicate that it is highly important for schools to help students develop interpersonal skills, such as being cooperative, respectful of others, and persistent at solving problems. But the reality is that our schools aren’t doing enough. Research shows that half of American middle and high school students are disengaged. The compliance-based system — which is widespread — ignores our children’s complexity and fails to teach students how to engage with the world around them in a profound and productive way.
As she grows up, Annie, like all children, will witness and experience serious challenges — challenges like racism, severe poverty and climate change — and compliance won’t help her tackle these issues, and it especially won’t help her learn to work productively with others to tackle these issues, which will no doubt only be solved through a concerted group effort.
To prepare students to thrive in our rapidly changing world, the school experience shouldn’t condition children, it should tap into their natural curiosity and help them question their surroundings so they develop the skills of empathetic, critical thinkers. And if we get it right, not only will Annie and her peers be ready to face our most intractable problems, we will all benefit and thrive in a world where these wonderful kids have blossomed into wonderful adults, creating a brighter future for us all.
As teachers, parents, and community members, we ought to be asking, for each element of our children’s school experience, what is the goal? When we put in place a reward system, to what end? And what opportunities might we be missing by taking this route?
From my time as a teacher, a parent, and a citizen, and from Inspired Teaching’s two decades of work and research, I’ve learned that compliance is a problem with implications not only for school, but for our future. And it’s primarily the focus of our efforts as educators and parents not because it’s right, but because it’s straightforward, and produces the illusion of results. When we don’t question this easy route though, we all lose.
A simple question about stickers on a parent questionnaire may seem innocuous or insignificant. But it can spark a useful conversation and push us all — parents, teachers, community members — to see our children as the curious and complex individuals they are. I look forward to engaging in this conversation, and wrestling alongside my fellow adults with questions around the very purpose and meaning of raising children.