When it comes to learning, factor in the learner

Susie Kaeser

When I walked into Belinda Farrow’s kindergarten classroom for a lunchtime meeting to plan this year’s tutoring program, she was huddled next to a child in tears. Her firm, reassuring voice comforted a young student recovering from a meltdown over tangled shoelaces.    

This brief encounter brought me back to the reality of education. It is messy—intellectual growth pursued within the cauldron of physical and emotional development. All of it counts, and yet none of it can be measured with much accuracy.

As a kindergarten volunteer I help students master letter sounds, a foundational literacy skill that is crucial for achievement. But the emotional needs and coping skills of our young charges, like the thermostats in our houses, govern them and their encounters with the education agenda. You can’t teach a subject without factoring in the child! There are no shortcuts and no formulas.

We like to think IQ defines success in school, but, according to research reported in Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, student achievement is deeply affected by how able students are to self-regulate—that is, how able they are to concentrate, organize their thoughts and emotions, and engage with schoolwork. The research shows that stress, particularly in early childhood, can hurt the part of the brain that controls children’s ability to concentrate and apply themselves to schoolroom tasks.

Stress in life can throw up barriers to learning. This is more than common sense; it is now visible in neural pathways. Tough's book also describes some of the interventions being used to overcome these barriers. It is hopeful, but intervention takes time and trained people. If we truly want all children to succeed, we need to minimize the sources of stress and support the development of both academic and emotional skills.

If we are committed to educational equity, we need to face the societal factors that affect the educational experience. Too many of our children, particularly those in poverty, experience too much stress, which affects their health and their ability to self-regulate—a fundamental variable affecting school success. While not immutable, it can be a serious challenge if not addressed.   

As we grapple with the daunting task of helping every child become a successful learner regardless of life circumstances, we need to recognize that children are not widgets, schools are not factories, teachers are not the problem, and grading schools is not the same as reforming them.

When you consider the variability among students in any school, comparing one school to another does not make sense. Holding teachers accountable for issues beyond their control is ludicrous.

Farrow and all the other people who go into our schools everyday know that their task is human development—a much broader goal than student achievement. Their students are not abstract learning machines. They are complicated, vulnerable humans navigating an anxiety-producing world—anxiety that can exact a big toll on their lives and how they experience the world, including their school curriculum.  

Successful education accounts for this. It cannot be done on the cheap, and it cannot be done without caring, skilled, supported educators like Farrow, and without the support of the community. Policymakers who claim to value student success need to meet our children. Maybe then they would see that strategies like oversimplified report cards, competition for funds, and linking student success to teacher pay do little to support the human beings who inhabit our classrooms and who are the keys to our future.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

Read More on The Common Good
Volume 6, Issue 11, Posted 12:20 PM, 10.31.2013