By Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

It’s back.

That nagging feeling that we are doing more harm than good. That schools for the most part, as they currently exist are resulting in the dumbing down of education. We are developing mediocrity rather than excellence in our graduates. That we are missing opportunities to help children develop deep learning around their passion due to our one size fits most approach to learning in our schools.

Gone to the Dogs
I got rattled again  and this time it started with my dogs. Yes, my dogs. 


Our perceptions usually color the investment we make. Take dogs. If we expect them to be dogs– the dogs of our childhood. The kind that ran wild and got in the trash or the kind that followed us around in the neighborhood and slept on our beds but not much else– they probably will only be that sort of dog. It takes our belief and nurturing for the excellence and potential that lies inside them to be released.  Spending not just quality time on occasion– but quantities of time– everyday interacting and doing things with our dogs. Talking with them and teaching them.

For example- look at Ricochet and her ability to serve others or how about Rico who has the vocabulary of a toddler. The expectation we bring to the relationship with the dog brings the level of result we see in the dog’s ability.  My dogs have spent most of their life interacting with my best friend David and myself. There are four of them. We have always done everything together. We have routines. We have different games for each dog based on their passion and interests. Each relationship is special.

Five days ago something changed. A rather big something in dog terms. David took one of the dogs (Rusty-the biggest male) and moved away 1500 miles. One would think well they are dogs. They will get over it. I mean– just give them a bone. It isn’t like it is a child or something. But one would be wrong. To begin with the dogs left behind are in serious mourning. They keep running to the spots where David could be found. They cry and sit at the door watching for him to come home. They watch out the window. As soon as the garage door opens (the door David used) they jump up and wag their tails and start barking and jumping only to be disappointed when someone else comes in the door. They keep smelling Rusty’s blanket and running to where he spent his time outside. The things they did as a pack– like running outside barking and chasing the raccoon (led by Rusty) no longer are happening. The smallest dog who normally played with Rusty the most is not playing at all–with anyone. They just want to lay in my lap. When I cry  they all run to me and lick me and try and get me to stop. They understand David is gone. But their experience tells them he will be back. He has always come back. So they continue to wait and watch.

However, as each day passes they have begun to show their understanding that Rusty and David may not be coming back in the short term. Rather than getting out of bed and running to the spot they always have to check if David is here- they are starting to stay close to me. They are adapting. They are totally aware that things have changed. They are showing emotion. They are planning and adjusting their plans. And like the dogs shared above- my dogs also have vocabularies and understand quite a bit. Because I am willing to talk with them and teach them they have grown in their ability. And because I know my dogs I am able to see the impact this separation is having on them. Because I have not standardized their treatment they are able to show different intelligences fueled by their passion and interests.

IMG_4966How Does This Relate to Children?
Children need the same type of interaction. The same high expectations. The same 1-1 nurturing around their passions and interest to achieve excellence. Standardization of learning experiences works best because we are educating the masses. Common sense tells us that one teacher to 10 kids verses one teacher to 25-35 kids is going to produce a different outcome. For example, not having to “cover” a curriculum so that kids will do well on a test is going to allow children to fuel their learning with creativity around what interests them. Classrooms become communities. Teachers model the passion they want their students to show. The focus shifts to learning and not just teaching the standards.

Take Luke Skywalker, my two and a half year old grandson. Luke gets lots of language exposure and lots of 1-1 interaction from everyone in our family. We have enriched his world with art experiences and lots of conversation. We use everything, even TV experience, as teachable moments and chances to talk. Our expectation is that he will read fluently by four. Why? Because we are doing worksheets and coloring ABC pages? Because we are doing flashcards and other classroom strategies? NO! Because we read personally (he sees us reading) and we read to him. Reading is an expectation just like Luke doing dishes and sweeping is an expectation. He does both at my home and pretty well for a kid his age. You get what you expect. Luke is learning by doing. What he enjoys what we do together. The focus is on the relationship– not the standard or outcome.

For example, on my birthday we were going to see Christmas lights. We all loaded up in the car and drove the the beach. I got to sit next to Luke in the back seat. I asked him who is in the front of the car? He said, “In the passenger seat is Dave and in the driver’s seat is Papa.” He is two and a half. Then we saw someone walking by and said, “Look they have their hoodie on.” And sure enough a guy walked by with his hood up on his sweatshirt. Luke rises to our expectations. He experiments with language. We are his learning lab. He tries things out and watches our reactions.


In my classroom there simply wasn’t time to engage with each child to the level I needed to in order to get to know them and determine their interest and passion. One size fits all strategies worked best to keep order and get done what was required. I didn’t even have the freedom of reading for the joy of reading. Rather reading was done during reading time. Where I know if I could have just provided the rich environment of interesting and beautiful books and other learning artifacts which we could explore while talking and creating, learning  would have occurred at the same rate it has in the home with my own children and now my grandchildren.

All children, even children who are labeled LD (learn differently) thrive in an environment that is based on their strengths, interests, and needs. Schools are using a system to produce scripted results rather than developing the natural strengths and talents within each learner. We are producing a nation of mediocrity.



Tags: , , , ,

One Response to “Questioning the System- Are We Harming Kids?”

  1. Tom December 9, 2013 at 12:32 am #

    Brilliantly said, Sheryl. What would your advice be to the rest of us, still in the classroom? What is the very first thing I could do to break free from the web of standardization? How can I make everything just *that* much better for my 24 grade 4 students?