Facing Difficulty

As a staff member here at the Macomber Center and a parent of two young children, I often find myself getting into conversations about education with other parents outside the Center. I'm always puzzled by people who say that they didn't pay attention in school, that they never learned anything useful there, and that the most important things they have learned in life were learned outside of school. What seems strange to me is not that these parents report having been bored and unengaged in school but that they always seem to follow it up by saying that school, despite all its failings, is a necessary evil and ultimately good for kids.  

But perhaps this is not as much of a contradiction as I used to think. For many kids, school is often boring, difficult, stressful and even anxiety producing. And this seems to be precisely why parents feel it is so important. After all, what parent wants their kid to be sheltered from the tough realities of life? Life is difficult, it presents constant challenges, and we all want our kids to be able to thrive amidst the trials and tribulations out in the real world. This may also be why homeschooling has negative connotations for some people; they imagine that it means sheltering kids from the sometimes harsh social realities that lie beyond the security of the home.  

In any case, all of this seems to be an acknowledgement that what kids really learn in school is not the specific subject matter that is being taught, but rather how to function within a rigid and unforgiving institutional structure. And this is why school is supposed to be good for them. But while this environment may be very difficult and challenging for many kids, it does not necessarily follow that it is therefore good for them. Not everything that hurts makes you stronger.

If our real concern is that our kids learn to face difficulty on their own without a protecting parent standing by to mediate their experience and manage every difficult challenge, we need only think for a minute about what actual lessons kids learn in school to see that it is a false kind of preparation for real life. What the institutional structure of school encourages, above all, is obedience, compliance, and conformity. Kids learn to accept arbitrary authority and to passively and uncritically consume a pre-packaged curriculum without ever questioning the material or the way in which it's delivered. They learn to depend on others to tell them what is important in life and to tell them what they need to learn and how to learn it.  

There is a stark contradiction, then, between what we say is good for kids and what we say we value in adults. Increasingly, we hear about the importance of critical thinking, imaginative and creative problem solving, communication and collaboration, and self-motivation and initiative. School, as we know it today, is not designed to enable kids to exercise and strengthen these capacities. Quite the opposite. So, I think we need to be more specific when we say that we want our kids to be challenged and to learn to face difficulties. I would argue that what's important for kids, and certainly what I want for my own kids, is to learn how to function effectively within an unpredictable and fluid social environment, because this is the kind of environment where kids develop the skills they will need in an increasingly unpredictable and fast-changing world.

Along with the difficulties and challenges associated with learning how to negotiate and navigate within an unstructured social environment, kids in a self-directed learning community such as the Macomber Center have to learn how to confront the inevitable experiences of boredom, frustration, and anxiety. These difficult, fundamental human experiences can either be productive opportunities for positive development or they can be deadening, depending on whether one has the freedom and agency to respond creatively to them or whether one is limited and restricted by external forces, as in traditional school.

The experience, for example, of boredom and frustration can be one of life’s primary catalysts for growth. The expression, “If you are bored then you are boring” implies that boredom is an inevitable and fundamental experience that we all need to learn how to push through for ourselves. Furthermore, this pushing through will often tell us something essential about ourselves--who we are and where we might find fulfillment in life.  But the kind of boredom that many children experience in school is not like this; it is the kind of difficult, unpleasant experience that is imposed from the outside, and which they are powerless to change. It is difficult without being challenging. A challenge is something that you can rise to and overcome if you are determined and resourceful. The only thing you can learn from the kind of boredom and frustration that school presents is how to endure unpleasant conditions imposed on you against your will. This may be a useful skill for kids to learn if we want to prepare them for a life in which they will spend long periods of time in environments which are stifling and soul-crushing.  

Developing endurance can certainly be a good thing. When we set goals for ourselves, we often have to endure a lot of ups and downs, and sometimes long periods of difficult struggle, to see our goals through to the end. But learning to endure the status quo because we have no choice is different. A friend of mine, years ago, told me that if she had kids, she would definitely send them to traditional school even though she hated school as a kid. The reason she gave was that she wanted her kid to be able to tolerate the monotony of meaningless, tedious, busy work that school requires from kids. This way, the monotony of adult work would not come as a shock or a disappointment. Aside from being overly cynical, this kind of thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.   

At the Macomber Center, kids encounter difficult and challenging experiences every single day. They have to learn how to make choices for themselves, how to battle boredom and frustration, how to deal with situations they find difficult, and how to resolve conflicts. Most importantly, they learn to challenge themselves and overcome their own internal obstacles. The adults at the Center help to create and maintain a stable, healthy environment for kids. When kids feel safe and secure, they are able and even eager to challenge themselves. They're more likely to take risks emotionally, socially, and intellectually. They're more comfortable outside their comfort zone, so to speak.

Anxiety, too, is an inevitable and necessary part of life. In a safe and supportive community like the Macomber Center, it's a natural part of development; it's part of expanding beyond one’s familiar and comfortable habits of operating in the world and taking on challenges. As we know all too well, though, excess anxiety is a real problem for many kids in traditional school. Instead of helping to propel them to new heights, this anxiety very often becomes debilitating. It hinders performance rather than enhancing it.

At the Macomber Center, children are constantly playing games in groups of different ages and different skill levels. The role of adults is not to manage these complex, precarious dynamics, but to contribute to the game. They have no more power or influence in the games than any other players. Kids have to learn how to deal with all the other players, from the adults to the little kids.  They have to learn how to play with kids who may older and more intellectually, emotionally, and physically powerful than they are. Sometimes these situations involve difficult, conflicting personalities. But there's tremendous motivation to overcome the difficulties that get in the way because of the investment that each kid has in the game.

Without genuine collaboration and the requisite skills of communication, problem-solving, fairness, and emotional resilience, these games would not be possible. Since the adults do not manage these interactions, when a child is playing unfairly or is bullying one of the younger kids, or is unwilling to put up with all the compromising and negotiating required, the game is over. The motivation and drive for these kids to play these games is so strong that they end up developing an remarkable level of patience and diplomacy--even self-sacrifice--in order to ensure that the game can go on.

If we really want our kids to be able to face difficulty, learn to challenge themselves, and overcome obstacles, we need to let them take the lead in their own lives. When we talk about self-directed learning, we usually talk about kids being able to choose what they want to learn about and pursuing learning in their own style.  Of course, this is an important part of self-directed learning.  But the real heart of self-directed learning, more important than the particular interests the child is pursuing at any given time, is the growth, development, and thriving that begin to occur as a direct result of the freedom to direct one's own life.