Doubts About an “Unconventional Approach to School”

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Given the variety of humankind, we do well to be humble in our proclamations about what approach to education best serves young children in school, but I have my doubts about the strategy described in Marcia Pobzeznik’s Newport Daily News article on “an unconventional approach” being taken at one school in Tiverton:

Brightly colored balance balls, beach chairs, pillows and bean bag chairs have replaced the traditional desks and chairs in classrooms at Pocasset Elementary School, where most teachers have also stopped giving nightly homework to reduce stress and give families more time together.

“There’s a decrease in stress and social and emotional concerns,” Principal Deanne Reilly said of the no homework initiative being practiced by 90 percent of the teachers, though students are expected to read every night. Students are coming to school happy, she said, and are more excited to be there.

Nobody should be surprised if children seem to like school better when it becomes less structured and less rigorous.  Kids can sit where they want and know that no homework will be assigned.  But there are warning signs that a healthy skepticism should highlight in the article.

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Most notably, the article says not a word about academic achievement.  In a particularly worrying detail, Pobzeznik conveys the school principal’s happiness that parents need no longer feel the frustration of trying to help their children with new methods of learning math.  Unexplained is why it’s a good thing that parents don’t have to follow along with their children’s education.

Indeed, all of the proclaimed advantages have to do with the comfort of the atmosphere, which accrues conspicuously to the benefit of teachers.  With longer leashes on children’s behavior, teachers are less stressed, and of course they don’t have all that homework to develop and review.  With parents’ having less opportunity to become aware of what their children are doing, the school is also likely to get less guff from those who aren’t happy with the content, the pace, or the strange methods.  One wonders if public school faculty find that to be a downside to the change or another plus.

Apart from withholding judgment on whether this approach will help students to learn important subject matter, we should also wonder about the broader effects on their personalities.  By brushing aside their traditional role in easing children toward an adult world of discipline and restraint, schools may simply be passing the stress of that particular lesson on to employers.  And that stress can only be made worse if students have learned that the world is supposed to accommodate them.

This is an experiment, to be sure.  Unfortunately, Pocasset is by far the lowest-income elementary school in Tiverton, meaning that families who would rather their children be in the control group have less ability to send them elsewhere.

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