Cory Roush

Dissonance and tension plus reflection and resolution equal intellectual growth

Get the Fear Out of Your Classroom!

Given the assignment of indoctrinating a thousand kids at a time, the embattled school administrator reaches for the most effective tool available. Given that the assigned output of school is compliant citizens, the shortcut for achieving this output was fear.

Love him or hate him for his no-holds-barred approach to delivering the truth about the public education system (and I've been reminded several times that he is not an educator but a businessman), Seth Godin does have the masterful ability to make you think long and hard about your attitudes towards life's most important institutions. His most hated adversary is the lizard brain, his catch-all explanation for why humans are fearful of anything that could result in discomfort.

His latest book, a short but powerful read titled Stop Stealing Dreams focuses entirely on education, undoubtedly a result of legions of educators begging him to elaborate on the points he made previously in books like Linchpin relating to school.

Godin highlights the fact that teachers really only have two options available to them in order to keep students engaged - fear and passion. You can guess which one he believes is easier to induce. He doesn't pretend that teachers make this choice because they are lazy, though:

The problem is that individual passion is hard to scale—hard to fit into the industrial model. It’s not reliably ignited. It’s certainly harder to create for large masses of people.

One of the more frustrating elements of any Godin manifesto is the fact that he doesn't always give us the solution to the problem. It's not his fault, of course; if you think that you can fix the education system in 24 hours, go right ahead. Instead, he models the exact kind of thinking and activity that we should be incorporating into our classrooms as much as possible: here's a problem, how will you solve it?

A few quarters ago in a school that I will not name, I listened to a kindergarten teacher talk to a group of students about an upcoming science experiment. They were all excited, eager to have a chance to be scientists. "I love science," one would exclaim. "Science is very easy," another would declare.

And then, like a giant boot coming from the sky to crush the worker ants below, the teacher turned to her classroom aide and said, "We'll have to remind them about this when they get to the third grade... they won't like science then!"

Whether or not she was correct (and from my own personal experience, I would come very close to agreement with her) is not up for debate. I cringed at the words, though, because it is the perfect example of the kind of fear we invoke every day at school without even thinking about it. The lack of passion and drive that our fourth and fifth graders start to exhibit cannot be blamed solely on the boring, repetitive classroom borne from a push for standardized testing. We're to blame too, because teachers love to scare children into thinking that they'd better sit in their seats and listen, or else the rest of their life will be miserable.

Not convinced? Here's a few statements I've heard myself and past colleagues say in the classroom: 

  • "I can't help you with that question... on that big (ed: Scary! Terrifying! Life-threatening!) test in the spring, no one can help you!"
  • "Boys and girls, you have to learn your multiplication facts before the fourth grade. Your teachers will expect you to know them all!" (ed: And if you don't, they'll feed you to the grue!)
  • "An 'F' on this test is going to make it very difficult to get a good grade in science!" (ed: And so really, if you fail this test, don't even bother coming to school tomorrow. Or next year, since your fifth grade teacher is going to expect you to remember this stuff!)
  • "Acting like this as an adult will only get you in jail, or worse." (ed: If said to any student below the 11th-12th grade, you're doing nothing but creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

Teachers, principals, and parents don't even have to say anything to scare children into compliance. All of the classrooms I have been in are structured so that mistakes, academic and behavioral, are almost irreparable. Walking out of a single file line might make your stoplight turn from green to yellow or red. Can anything reverse that decision? Does walking in line with everyone else the following day earn you a green stoplight? Most grading systems are set up so that a few bad grades at the beginning of the grading period (you know, when students shouldn't be expected to be experts on a topic or skill) could really outweigh the progress you make in the last three weeks. Don't even get me started on the subject of a one-shot chance on a multiple-choice test to evaluate an entire year's worth of learning.

If passion really is the alternative to fear, then we have to stop leading children to believe that school is such a terrible, unforgiving place.

NOTE: I'm aware of the potential to misread the title of this post. I think the sentiment is clear.

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