Liberation, Anxiety, and Learning: Day Five of Fourth Grade

“Can you get thirteen?”

I think and think, but I can’t come up with it.

My son likes the challenge of solving puzzles. And the fourth graders have been grappling with the same puzzle for two days now. Can you make every number from 1 to 20 using four fours?

“Do you want to know how we got thirteen?” he asks, eagerly.

At his old school, to spend so long on one math problem was unheard of. At his new school, math so far has shown itself to be a place to put your heads together on a single question without knowing if anyone has the answers.

The reveal: “Four, uhm, you know, with the exclamation point, minus 44 divided by 4.”

“Four exclamation point? You mean factorial?”

“Right. Factorial”

“That’s clever. Had you ever heard of factorial before?”

“Not before.”

“Who told you about it, the teacher?”

“No. One of the kids in my group told me. He explained it.”

At his old school, all these ideas he’s telling me would have had to be written out: he would have drawn pictures of the fours and been asked to write out his thinking, then explain how he arrived at it. I get it. I know why the teachers asked him to do that: They want to see their students’ learning. They want people who come in and check on the quality of the school — people like me when I’m doing my job — they want us to see evidence of the thinking, evidence of abilities, evidence of learning. At that school, I wondered: At what point does the demand to prove what we can do stifle the need to love what we do? My son loved figuring out thirteen. For the first time, he has come home from school telling me he learned a new math concept not from his teacher but from one of his peers. At this school, though, I wonder the opposite of what I did at his old school: Can the teachers be sure he’s learning it? How do they know one kid isn’t carrying the whole group? This is the risk of engaging, interesting learning: Is it fun and important learning, or is it only one of the two?

The conversation takes a sudden turn, jumping from math to humanities. “I’m writing a story,” he tells me bubbling over the rattle over the subway. “You have to get something magical. So, the idea is,” and now the words start flowing from him a mile a minute, “this kid makes a wish for Christmas and he asks for something that lets him get all his wishes come true. And the next day, he looks and he has this beautiful titanium box with jewels and emeralds. And you think that the box is the magical thing, but he opens it and inside there’s a pair of boots.” The boy finds a a note in the boots, and the boy puts on the boots, but it’s not what he expected, and suddenly he is transported to a land where he has to fight a war to save his parents.

When I can get him to pause, I figure it out: The assignment from the teachers was simply to write a story about something magical. That’s it. The end. The rest was up to him. Interesting and important? I wonder, but I understand that the you need to withhold and wait. There is strong research that tells us that learning does not come when we are under pressure to learn. Learning does not come in environments where there is stress that has sometimes arisen precisely because kids have not been learning. Learning comes in environments where kids feel comfortable and safe and where they have space. Learning comes when you give it the space to arrive, not when you badger it for being late.

That space to arrive can be liberating, but it can also be overwhelming. Case in point: A few days later, my son tells me he is supposed to write a letter.

“A letter about what?” I ask.

“Anything I want.”

“To who?”

“Anyone.”

“So… write a letter.”

“I don’t know what to write. Who should I write it to? What should I write?”

“Well, that’s what I was asking. What do you think?”

“What do you think?”

“What do I think?” I don’t know how to respond to this.

“You write it,” he beseeches me, teary-eyed.

We brainstorm ideas. How about writing to the mayor about the subways? To a friend about the summer? To grandma about our new apartment? It’s too many ideas and soon he is upset at the assignment, upset at me, upset at himself. He storms out. The letter goes unwritten.

At his old school, the few long-term writing assignments were the shining moment in his learning. His poster and three-page written report on the effects of deforestation on gorilla habitats was a source of pride. These gave him the chance to use and develop skills, too: he researched, he wrote, he connected ideas, he tried to persuade his audience, and he persevered. The space to develop ideas was indeed liberating, and the learning sure seemed important.

At his new school, these long assignments are even more of the norm. But they come with a level of freedom that he is not accustomed to. On his fifth day of school, he comes home and tells me angrily, “The homework here sucks. Why can’t it be like at my old school? There, they told you what it was and then you did it and it was done.” Orderly, clear assignments let you check off a box; on day five of fourth grade, these are the halcyon days of third grade at his old school that he looks back on fondly.

Open-endedness when solving a math problem has been a revelation: work and work on it until you get the answers. On the other hand, open-endedness in the humanities, open-endedness where there is no answer but instead the infinite possibility of creativity, this is another matter entirely. And it’s daunting. There are many varied schools of thought about just what a liberal education should mean in our schools, just what freedom we should give students to explore and how this benefits learning at various ages, and just what structure they need so they can have a platform from which to grow. I am still unsure where I land among these schools of thought, but one fundamental idea has always stuck with me: the schools we create foretell the society we envision. Schooling in a tolatitarian regime is different from schooling in a democracy. A generation of children raised on worksheets will create a different society from a generation of children raised on stories of magical boots. When we ask ourselves whether a form of education is working, it is as important to ask whether it appears to be working for our kids as whether it apperars to be working for the society our kids will create.

On curriculum night in the second week of school, the teachers talk about the letters. They explain that although they don’t give much homework, there are two things the students have to do every week. One of those is the letters. At first, one teacher explains, they might not come up with much. There may be frustration. They may be embarrassed to read it. But, he tells us knowingly, give it a few weeks and they start opening up. “What’s amazing,” he reflects, “is how it builds the community. You should hear the things they write about.” He talks about one student who wrote a letter last year about her grandmother passing away. Anther wrote a letter to the infinitely expanding universe. “We do it too,” he adds. “The teachers write letters. That way the students see that we’re all part of this community.”

What would I write, I wonder? It’s daunting, yes. Learning is daunting. And can be frustrating. The question is whether and when and how that daunt and frustration overwhelm you, turn you off to learning, adding to the same stress factors that stifle learning, and whether and when and how they are the oxygen that feeds the spark to learn.

Founder of Eskolta School Research & Design. Education reformer, husband & father living in New York City.