Transitioning to a Traditional School – Learning To Take a Test

Bailey, last spring,  with a Lego-version of C3POMy son, Bailey, except for first and second grades in a traditional American school in the U.S., has spent the majority of his schooling life in a Montessori classroom – even for preschool and kindergarten.  He’s a textbook Montessori child – curious, self-motivated, and interested in a variety of subjects. Last June, he graduated from the fantastic school which he had been attending for the prior four years and we decided to send him to the big American School here in Japan – literally called The American School in Japan (ASIJ), which is an hour outside the city, in Chofu.  The school runs many buses from downtown, but it has to be located out there in order to have the facilities (read: for sports) that an American school requires.  All of the parents worry about the bus ride, but the kids actually like it.  It’s like an hour-long playdate before and after school.

Montessori method is quite different from a traditional learning environment.  It’s more individualized, child-centered, and independent.  Children stay in the same classroom ideally with the same teacher for three years, and Bailey got one extra year out of his wonderful teacher because she moved classrooms with him.  So he had the same teacher for four years.  The classrooms are mixed age, and often older children teach younger ones because you never learn something so well as when you teach it to others. Montessori method also does not require homework or testing, feeling that the children work hard enough in school, and work to master concepts innately, so they do not have to assess the progress – it’s apparent.  We loved it for Bailey – it was perfect for his style of learning.

But he has done quite well transitioning to the American school too – where in the middle school, he has not only one new teacher, but seven.   It’s a big place and he has to use a locker, a gym locker, and a music locker for his violin.  He’s enjoying it.

But there has been one stand-out consequence of the transition that we have just realized, in the fourth week of school.  Bailey has never had to study for or take a test.

He had a math assessment last week and he did not tell us about it beforehand.  He did okay – 80%, but not stellar.  He was disappointed with himself.

“Well, did you study, Bailey?” I asked.

“I knew the material.  I understood it.”

“There’s more to it than simple understanding.”  This statement floored him.  In the past, if he understood, it was great – he could move forward with the next thing.

So my husband and I sat down with Bailey and literally showed him how to study.  It’s not enough to understand – you have to understand, take in the material, memorize it – own it – and then be able to regurgitate it in the proper format for the teacher.

We talked about various methods of studying.  Some people write to learn, some people say things out loud, some people can learn by staring at the book and then asking someone to “test” them, but most work in a combination of methods, depending on the class and the type of material.

“That’s hard!” Bailey protested, when we found out that he had a health quiz the following day for

which he needed to study.

My husband, Marc, and I agreed – it is hard!  And time-consuming, to boot.

Grudgingly he put in the time to write out the material he needed to learn for the health test, and then Marc tested his knowledge.  Miraculously he did very well on the test!

“That studying thing really works, Mom,” he said, pleased with himself.

“Gee, ya think, Bailey?” I teased.

The whole thing was wildly interesting to Marc and me – knowing how take a test and study is one of those things we take for granted.  I don’t remember “learning” it per se.  And now Bailey will always know it as he works on what methodology is good for him personally.  Onward and upward on this journey!

On Motivating Children

As any parent will tell you, one of the key challenges in parenting is teaching motivation.  In the beginning, toddlers learn to do things because you tell them to do them.  “Go brush your teeth; pick up your toys; be nice to your sister.”  As they grow, these pithy, little sayings turn into, “Do your homework; practice your instrument; be nice to your sister.”  The hope is that by the time the kids are old enough to have serious amounts of homework to do that they’ve already learned to brush their teeth twice a day, so the requests necessarily change.  Then parents further hope that the lessons the kids learn in high school while they are still under day-to-day parental charge stick with them through college and beyond.  In other words, it is a parent’s job to teach kids how to be successful, motivated adults.   This is something I hold dear, and I work very hard to follow the axiom on a daily basis.

This week, political scientist Barry Rubin wrote a blog posting on filling in as coach to his son’s soccer team.  He told the story as a parable, something applicable to Western Civilization.  It seems, as Rubin wrote, that the regular coach focused on the kids having fun and doing whatever they wanted, so he didn’t give more play time on the field to the better players; he didn’t have the players play the positions to which they were suited, and he didn’t teach them any particular skills.  He just wanted them to get out there and have fun, even if they lost every single game.  However, when it was Rubin’s turn to coach, he played the kids in particular positions even if someone else wanted to play that position; he gave the best players the most minutes on the field; and he told them to go out there and win!  Lo and behold, the kids won and felt great.  As Rubin says, “If you don’t care about winning, you’re merely handing triumph to the other side. In a soccer league that might not matter, yet in personal life, your level of achievement and satisfaction is going to depend on giving your best effort.  If a country is indifferent to succeeding, the opposing team’s success might be very costly indeed.”  Rubin agrees with me that we have to teach the kids not only to win, but to WANT to win – to hunger for it and work for it and do the best work possible for it.

In another entry from the blogosphere on the topic, Ilya Somin agrees with Rubin, stating, “Playing to win encourages better performance. People, including children, are unlikely to make a real effort if they are told that results don’t matter.”  He adds to this idea reminding readers that showing short-term benefits, especially for children, such a winning the game, outweigh the eventual benefits, such as physical fitness or good teamwork.  Most people see what is in front of them, not so far into the future.

In these stressful economic times, we have to work hard to grab onto what happiness and pleasure we can.  Our responsibility for teaching our children about motivation and working hard does not slide just because we as parents are feeling pressure or not getting benefits out of working hard right now.  The children of today are the leaders of tomorrow.  I know it’s a hokey and trite statement, but it is a true one.  If we fail to instill the hunger to work hard to win, then we are failing a generation of people.  Rubin can liken the idea to the problems in Western Civilization and Somin can discuss the education benefits, but to me, I plan to keep it closer to home and teach my children that hard work pays off in the end.

I have not been feeling very motivated of late, but children learn what the see, not always what parents tell them, which is a story for another day.  But what that means is *BACK TO WRITING*  Not only will I appreciate the effort in the long run, but my children will appreciate it now.