Tuesday, 13 November 2012

School Projects

This year my oldest started at a new school where the focus is on a lot of independent discovery-based learning. What does that edu-babble mean? School Projects. Lots and lots of projects. Ugh.

Last year was the first year of projects for us and, while they almost broke us, my son did very well - or as I like to say my wife did very well indeed; she was up to all hours with him getting them done. I try not to get too into this gender role stuff - after all, as a Home-Based Dad I buck many of the  stereotypes myself. But, then again, if my musings on what it means to be a HBD have revealed anything it is that to be successful or happy with that "choice" you have to do it your way not try and be a failed Mum.

While you may have cast off the shackles of traditional male definitions of success and roles - you're still a guy and you still have certain attitudes, beliefs and approaches that are very different than a woman's and you often discover you have these attitudes while expressing them to your kid. You are who you are and, while you can always aim and try and work to be a better YOU, there's no point in trying to be someone else (especially if you lack the same basic plumbing). Maybe I shouldn't make grand pronouncements about gender so let's just say that just because I am the parent working from home it doesn't make me a nice guy.

So when my son brings home his project my wife and I have had different approaches to  how to deal with it. She spends A LOT of time with him discussing it, working on how to say something, what his approach will be whereas I mostly tell him to go to his room and DO IT. I constantly read in newspapers and magazines that your children should do their homework at the kitchen or dining room table so you can be there for them while they work through it. This doesn't work.

First of all, I have three kids and they run rampant through the house and make each other mad. How are you supposed to get any work done when you're busy trying to stab your brother with a pencil because he is under the table making weird alien robot sounds?

More importantly I send my son to his room to do his work because he drives me crazy. He is constantly sighing, groaning or freaking out about the work. Or he walks away from the table to look out the window, start playing with an action figure his brother left on the floor or chase his other brother around the house because that brother is touching his 'stuff'. But what really drives me nuts is how he is contstantly asking me to do his work for him - figure out the question, figure out the answer, figure out how to answer. He is a humanoid time-sucking device.

I send him to his room, tell him to close the door and not come out until the work is DONE. Even this is a difficult concept for him to grasp. He often will appear moments after I send him to his room claiming the work is finished. I ask him how he knows he is. This seemingly simple question stumps him. I suggest he go back and read the assignment and compare its expectations and instructions with what he has done. This often results in the realization he is not finished and tears begin to well.

This is when a good parent would comfort their child, and tell them it's OK and that they will help them. This is the moment when I will tell him to stop crying as that won't get the work done and go back to his room, put his butt in the chair and pencil on the paper and work it out. And don't forget to close the door because I don't want to hear all the drama. See? I told you I'm not nice.  Oh, often I'll tell him I already passed Grade Five and did pretty well too so I don't feel the need to do it again. Nice? No. Effective? Mostly.

Then when he's actually done the work I ask him the same question that I also ask all my kids when I tell them to clean their room and they say it's clean - Would I think it's done? They usually go back up and spend some more time cleaning it up. That requirement to do the work yourself without having someone else telling you exactly how to solve the problem and then think about whether it's going to meet an external standard before putting it to the test is a critical step that many people never seem to develop. The kids don't learn the real point of these tasks which is to figure out what they think the task is, do the best that they can to reach that requirement and then put it up for evaluation - with the real risk that it may fail, not be good enough etc.

I can't blame them - I see the same behaviours in the University classes I teach. Students constantly come up to me and ask me essentially to tell them what the questions are going to be on the exams and what particular parts of the course they should study. This makes me angry. I've already told them what parts of the course they should study - it's called the syllabus. I've also lectured for hours  on things I think they should know and tried (mostly in vain) to prompt discussions of these issues. Figure it out, already. But I don't say that - when they ask what to study and what they need to know I say, 'Everything'. When they ask what kind of answer I am looking for I say, "One that is accurate, complete and addresses the question." They think I'm a jerk. And maybe I am but similarly I have passed University and feel no need to do it again. These are the very skills that they are supposed to develop - me telling them the answer defeats the purpose.

My brother runs a startup and we were talking about this over the weekend. He regularly gets staff who come to office door and say they want to talk to him about an assignment - basically trying to find out what he wants them to say. He tells them he has no interest or time to do their job for them. They have the assignment - figure it out - it's not his job to tell them how to do it as well. They need to figure that out and if they can't then maybe they're not right for the job. Bring him the assignment when they think it's done. They stumble out confused and angry but now they know what's what. When they come back with it he asks them to rate the work before they give it to him. They hesitate and usually give it an 8 out of 10. He nods and hands it back to them. Bring it back when it's a 10, he'll say. Then and only then will he go over it with them to show them where he thinks it can be improved.

It's funny, that's the approach I take with my son. I insist he does the work to the best of his ability and then I go through it ruthlessly. I credit this with my own experience growing up. I would have to give every essay and assignment to my mother to review first. She would mark the crap out of it - red lines everwhere. I then had to take it back and fix it. Repeat as required. You learned pretty fast to take your best work down because it was less work in the long run. She was way harder than any teacher I had.

Another difference between me and my wife is that if my son chooses not to follow my advice and suggestions I ultimately am content he hand HIS project in and get his butt handed back to him if it's lousy. My only real problem is when teachers are not hard enough on the work so my kid gets used to being lazy and not doing his best work. That does him no favours. Also if he comes back with bad marks I will hold him accountable and point out that he could have done better and I expect he will learn from the experience.

After all, the real project I'm working on with them is my kids themselves. I can't say I have passed this test yet or done very well but I''m working hard on figuring it out on my own and if I occasionally (or often) fail, I'll try and do better next time.

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