We can't take credit for students' growth | The Open School

We can’t take credit for students’ growth It's children's job to grow and mature, and they are very good at it

by Aaron Browder, Open School staff
March 18, 2018

Many parents have mentioned how they have seen astounding growth in their kids during their years at The Open School. For example, last year one mom, Tania, said, “This is our first year at The Open School, and in these short seven months I have seen so much growth in my children in all the important things in life, what really matters.”

And a dad, Scott, said of his son, after a difficult experience in public school, “This year, he is making decisions for himself. I see him involved in school and learning how to balance great freedom with deeper responsibility.”

I’ve seen growth too. Some kids who used to have frequent conflicts and run-ins with the school’s justice system have learned how to strike a balance with their community and get along with others. Kids who once had difficulty taking responsibility for themselves have managed to cultivate good habits. Kids who used to have angry outbursts over small things have learned how to take disappointments in stride.

However, nobody at The Open School, nor any of our programs, can take credit for that growth. Growing and maturing is a natural process that all children undergo as they get older. As they mature, they develop reasoning and communication skills, acquire knowledge and norms from their culture, and learn to navigate their inner emotional worlds.

This process unfolds as normal unless the child experiences severe stress or trauma. Unfortunately, this occurs regularly in most traditional schools, where chronic stress is the norm and children are denied basic human rights as a matter of course. Kids in those environments turn their energy away from learning and growing and direct it toward fighting off the intrusion of authority, meaningless work, and humiliating school policies into their lives.

Traditional schools believe that children are born “bad” and must be “corrected” using rewards and punishments. But children are not bad; they are learning, and learning takes time. They want to learn, and don’t need us to provide them with any more motivation than they have been endowed with by nature.

Growing and maturing is a natural process that all children undergo as they get older. It unfolds as normal unless they experience severe stress or trauma. Click To Tweet

I want to illustrate my point with a story. All students at The Open School are required to sign themselves in when they arrive in the morning and sign themselves out when they leave. This is the most efficient way for us to take attendance, because kids arrive at different times and there is not always a staff available to check them in. However, sometimes kids forget to sign in or out, which makes the attendance records inaccurate.

Last year we had a policy which penalized kids who forgot to sign in or out with a 25 cent fine, due the next day. The fine would grow by 10 cents every day they were late in paying it. Most kids got fines some of the time, but a few kids racked up huge bills from the fines and from waiting a long time to pay them. Week after week, throughout the year, they dropped significant amounts of cash on attendance fines, but they kept forgetting to sign in and out.

At the end of the year, there was no measurable improvement in the kids’ behavior, and I, the Attendance Clerk, was tired of being a tax collector. So I decided to abolish the fines. There was no apparent change in the kids’ behavior in the absence of fines, except they were a bit relieved. They continued to forget to sign in and out a lot of the time.

Then, gradually, over the course of many months, and with the occasional reminder, they stopped forgetting. I don’t know how they did it. Somehow or another, they cultivated habits. Now, sometimes new students will still have a hard time getting in the habit of signing in and out, but the veterans have gotten it figured out.

This story can’t be explained by traditional pedagogy, which claims that children must be motivated to behave better using rewards and punishments. Now, I don’t claim that my no-fine policy caused or enabled the kids to behave better than they were able to behave under the fine policy. But it’s certainly possible. What my story proves is that kids don’t need external motivation in order to mature. They already have internal motivation, even if it’s invisible to us.

What kids need from us is communication — sometimes sharp communication, if polite words went over their heads; sometimes restrictions of their freedoms, if they are hurting people or property. Most of all, they need our patience.

Ingrid, another mom, is happy most of all about what hasn’t changed about her daughter: “We wanted her to learn, mature, and grow, while still staying who she was and who she wanted to be. In two years at school she has not had to change who she is. She still has the same fire and spark and desire to learn new things.”

We can’t take credit for our students’ growth, but we can try not to interfere with it. At The Open School, we provide a safe space for children to grow up, and we protect their human rights fiercely. We don’t want to mess up a good thing — and good things these kids are!