by W.C. Schmidt
"Shouldn't you be in school?" says all adults.
This is my 10th year of educating teenagers. I am still fascinated by their cement mixer of emotion. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. Those years between 13 and 18 offer a magical assortment of terrors, joys, and unspeakable in-betweens (from “meh” to “Whatever!”). I enjoy the drama of it, daily. I’m not a parent, but I’m willing to ride the roller coaster of working with teens because… because…?--Oh, yeah! It’s a privilege to serve the next generation, and secretly, it allows me to feel young.
However, after years of empathizing with teenagers, I believe the average member of our society, including you, desires teenagers to be miserable.
Before I elucidate my theory, let us begin with the brain science of teens. According to Jansen and Urion, Physicians Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School:
“...young brains have both fast-growing synapses and sections that remain unconnected. This leaves teens easily influenced by their environment and more prone to impulsive behavior, even without the impact of souped-up hormones and any genetic or family predispositions… This is the first generation of teenagers that has access to this information, and they need to understand some of their vulnerabilities.” (“Teen Brain” Ruder, Debra Bradley. Harvard Magazine)
*Note: If you are a parent reading this and you only picked up the phrases “impulsive behavior” and “souped up hormones,” please re-read for comprehension.
During brain maturation every person maintains a unique set of inherent neurological “vulnerabilities”; moreover, increased risk of dangerous behavior associated with “unconnected” brain sections is prompted by environmental factors.
Do you agree? I do.
Now, look at the average American high school classroom environment today. It doesn’t matter whether public/private, urban/suburban/rural. Most of a student’s time is spent in classes, despite what teen movies portray. A classroom is where you received scientific facts and the rules of verb conjugation. (Hopefully, you also found kind mentors and a supportive peer network.) But was it true, that most of your formal adolescent education time (and mine) was:
in a room you couldn’t leave without authority permission or embarrassment,
discussing facts/topics that you presently (today) can’t recall,
among bored teens, some of whom used their boredom to make you and others feel uncomfortable or unsafe? (#JerkFromHS)
If you felt free, empowered, and wise as a teen, I salute your school and home life. However, if any of the conditions (above) were true for you, then ask:
Were they necessary for your learning/growing brain?
What exactly did you learn from these environmental factors?
Thank you for completing Mr. Schmidt’s “Quiz: A classroom retrospective.” If it made you uncomfortable recalling your teenaged years, make note of it.
Now, I shall make my point...
You (yes, you) don’t want to spend today under any/all of the conditions you expect teens to experience daily. In fact, you actively avoid confinement, useless information, and bored bullies. In adult life, we pay money and effort to get away from these things. Industries are built on alleviating us from them. Yet, at 11:10 am on a Tuesday in March, if you see a teenager on the sidewalk, you think, “That kid should be in class.”
In public, groups of teens are seen as intimidating. In private, they are shamed for their ignorance or, more sadly, fetishized for their naivete (gaps in knowledge). The average adult civilian limits interaction with adolescents. We limit our exposure to this “awkward” stage and memories of our social-emotional-neurological exposure. Millennials and Gen-Xers use high school as a pejorative shorthand, as in Why’re you acting like this? I thought high school was over.
So when a 15-year-old complains of hating class(es) in her current high school experience, the average citizen response is a shrug and say “Deal with it." Then you think, Thank the heavens I am done with that!
There are three fallacies implied in this response. Each suggests, It is right and proper for young people to be unhappy and uncomfortable in school.
Fallacy #1: “No pain, no gain”
This phrase resounds from practice fields to AP classes. The teen years are filled with faces on all sides repeating the rhyme. It is meant to impress the need for focus, diligence, and persistence. It suggests that a person’s momentary discomfort is a sign that strength will follow, as in muscle soreness after a workout or a callus on a guitarist’s fingers. Unfortunately, teachers, coaches, and counselors apply the phrase to any challenge at hand.
Inherently, “no pain, no gain” can only be applied to a system designed to break down and rebuild. My previous examples of are from the human body, a highly adaptive system.
Next, the gain that can follow pain must occur within a “stretch zone” (Erickson). The act of pushing past a threshold causes the body to build strength in this area. Weightlifters slowly increase their weight or else cause damage. Research into grit and deliberate practice demonstrate the value of having learned this character trait in building any skill, hard and soft.
Thirdly, there are many pains without gains. These are called suffering. I believe we should be seeking to limit suffering. Domestic abuse and natural disasters create victims. Tragedy rarely creates warriors. The personal wisdom gained from a horrible experience can be correlated with a growth-mindset or will to change learned at a previous to the trauma.
How does this apply to teens?
Sleep deprivation, malnourishment, and anxiety rates are rising among teens in school. Is telling a teen to “push through” a harmful or wasteful school experience supporting their growth? Does telling them “get the degree” a imply acceptance of the daily unwanted sexual comments made to teen girls by their peers everyday? Does developing an ulcer from a physics class suggest the student is in “stretch zone” or developing a scar?
Fallacy #2: If given complete choice, teens will waste time on valueless activities.
In the 60s, my father found Dylan and the Beatles. I was 13 when I found R.E.M. and Ben Folds Five (later Dylan). Music can be food to a young person. 40 years apart, my dad and I spent 250+ hours reading lyrics and forcing friends to listen. Was this “wasteful” experience? It seems to have been a meaningful, self-directed activity that developed my skills at research and analysis. I recognize that we are all a little skeptical about how youth spend their time. Though, I wonder how parents of teens in Liverpool 1962 felt about them going to 8 hours of rock-and-roll at The Cavern.
It is a myth that “on-task” activities are the sole cause of learning and development. Teachers have long talked about brain breaks in learning, and creative professionals for thousands of years have recognized that exploration, procrastination and mental meandering are inherent to a project-based creation process.
Teens and adults can fall down a rabbit hole using Youtube or Candy Crush. It is essential to determine the quality of the interaction of the viewer, the tool, and the content. Is the intention mindful or escape-oriented?
Many moments perceived as “wasteful” can be researching a new vocabulary word or a deep dive into a particular story or skill set. If the interaction is active, it is more valuable to a teenager’s long term learning. Passive experiences can be daily maintenance, but active experiences, if designed well, will always push a learner to stretch. Perhaps practicing mindful video gaming or group text poems is offering value to the participant.
Lastly, as a child Gillian Lynne was taken to a doctor for fidgeting and lack of focus in school. After she had choreographed Broadway productions of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, she credited the doctor with recognizing her natural passion for movement. Albert Einstein worked at a patent office because it was boring. It gave him time to play with formulas at his own pace. In both cases, the product and potential of the students’ work remain undetermined until environmental factors allow for development.
Fallacy #3: School worked for me.
Many of you hold (an) official diploma(s). If you feel you that they increased your wisdom and skill set, then mazel tov! Milestones are important throughout one’s learning journey. They serve as markers of mastery and provide accountability to one’s self and others. However, if you would rather jump off a bridge than return to your high school, then the diploma you received may be more of a “Get Out Of Jail” card.
This is an SAT question:
In the figure below, AB is a diameter of the large circle. The centers C1 and C2 of the smaller circles are on AB. The two small circles are congruent and tangent to each other and to the larger circle. The circumference of circle C1 is 8 Pi. What is the area of the large circle?
A) 64Pi B) 32Pi C) 156Pi D) 128Pi E) 16Pi
Can you find the answer? Do you want to find the answer? If you need scratch paper, use the back of your high school diploma.
The true value of a degree at any level is in flux. Our economy is evolving, and tech is accelerating our daily lives. The content of a university coding course from 2007 is irrelevant today. It is difficult to adapt your high school keyboarding course to send an email from your iPhone in bed. For survival, learning is now a lifestyle.
You did not need school to expose you to subjects in school. And certainly today, students are not in danger of lack of access to information. The traditional classroom is designed to be one-size-fits-all, thus, fits few. Just as many hatreds for math develop than deep, abiding passions for it. This is a shame because those “fast-growing synapses” in teens’ brain could be very valuable to the work force.
If you believe your teenaged schooling “worked” for current personal and professional development, I would love to hear your story. Seriously, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fin de Siecle
The average American adult (perhaps you) expects teens to loathe their time in high school. You’re not alone. Bille Shakespeare alleged of Romeo, “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books,/ But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.” (Romeo and Juliet, II.ii.160-161) Little Shakes left his formal schooling at age 12. If he had 6+ years of sleepless nights and cafeteria fights, maybe he could have become a contributing member of society.
Teens can be mercurial and challenging. One moment they are introspective and depressed, and the next moment, energized to the point of arrogance. Unfortunately, they are still “vulnerable”. But their vulnerabilities are not yours. They couldn’t be. Just as was for you, their goals, challenges, and capabilities are quite unique. Our job, as adults, is to demonstrate to them the neuro-gaps we have bridged, not to resolve the difficulties we once had.
Gah! Mr. Schmidt who cares?! Stop lecturing us.
Last thing, I swear.
At an upcoming holiday party, you may hear a youngster listing her/his criticisms of high school. Try listening and asking specific questions first. Do you feel that those experiences will actually help the young person grow? Then, if you feel that the teen could benefit from your POV, give them a real story of how you developed a skill or trait during your earlier years. Your teen audience may not thank you, or smile, or even look in your general direction. However, that young wo/man may remember what you said longer than the Exterior Angle Inequality Theorem.
“If you hate something, don’t you do it too.”
Pearl Jam, “Not for You” (1994)