Feb 022008

I’ve been thinking a lot about schools and learning the past days. It all began with the question of whether our son should be starting elementary school early (that would be this fall) or regularly a year later. I had been thinking about this already last year. In all the thinking and talking to kindergarten teachers (“Better wait.”) and the pediatrician (“But of course he has to start school this fall!”) I got totally emotional and nervous. And I wondered why. Because, truth to be told, I don’t think that it really will make much of a difference for our son and both ways would be sound. And, as much as we can tell so far, he probably will do well in elementary school. Either way.

I only realized why I got all worked up about this when I went to look at a nearby Montessori school. I entered the classroom, I saw the teachers, I heard their presentation and thought, “That’s how school is supposed to be!” And I realized how much I had suffered as a child in school because I had to learn so slowly. I didn’t get top grades but basically I just sat there, made an attentive-looking face and thought of something else.

I’d like my son to have the chance to learn as fast or slow as he needs to.

The other thing that has me all worked up is the Bavarian school system. When I studied music education I learned a lot about the various school systems in the different parts of Germany. When my husband and I got married, and when I briefly worked as a music teacher in a Bavarian school, I told my husband that we had to move somewhere else in case we had children so that they didn’t have to go to school here.

All in all it’s a jumbled mess of reformed reforms, of decision made hastily and then altered because it all didn’t work. That’s possibly true of most institutions but the Bavarian school system is especially prone to promote only a few elite students and leave the rest behind.

There are only very few students who still love knowledge and learning after leaving school even if they have been successful there. I can see it right now at kindergarten level when dozens of people tell my son that he should be glad to still be in kindergarten because he won’t be having any time for playing anymore once he’ll start elementary school. (Which is crap by the way, school’s from 8 to 1 and they don’t have much homework the first two or three years.) I see it in a kindergarten teacher telling another parent – while I and our two children were standing nearby – that it’s a shame, the things first graders have to do these days in schools, some of the lessons were too hard even for the kindergarten teacher!

And then, in third grade, it gets worse because then the children are pressured to get good grades otherwise their chances of getting access to a college or university education later in life will be minimal. (Really.) And if they get top grades and get admitted to the Gymnasium the fun only begins. With the recent reform of the system joy of learning and knowledge has a very hard time in school today. “Learning” is again used as a synonym for “cramming as much facts in your head as it can hold until the next test and then forgetting all about it”. Learning is considered to be hard, to be something one only does when forced to, something that isn’t fun for sure. And it’s not as if the students were taught how to learn, it seems as if they just get fact after fact dumped on them, without any strategies of how to deal with that.

I, on the other hand, still believe that learning is fun, that it’s something that occurs naturally, and especially that children are eager to learn as much as they possibly can. Just like Maria Montessori did.

In order to have our son visit a Montessori school we’d have to pay about 350 € every month for school, have him driven to school to the next town, and we’d have to be lucky to get him in since there are much more people interested than they can take. Regular elementary school is free, it’s nearer to our house than kindergarten, and it has to take him by law.

Those of you outside Germany might ask why I don’t homeschool him, seeing that I am that passionate about learning and a teacher on top of that. Well, homeschooling is illegal in Germany. This goes back to the 19th century when children were forced to go to school for the first time ever, even those whose parents depended on their labor, like farmers. I always believed that this is a good thing that it makes society a bit more equal.

But now that it is about my son I’d like him to be a bit less equal, or better yet, that all the children can have access to schools where learning is fun and where both teachers and students are looking forward to go to every day.

I know that there are still a lot of children in the world who would love to go to school and can’t. Children who have to work for money like they were adults, children who’d love to learn anything, and can’t. But still I’d like to live somewhere where learning is driven less by fear and more by enthusiasm.

  9 Responses to “stifling the urge to learn”

  1. The boredom that was my education in public school is the reason i sent my child to a private school.

    She complains a bit, as is normal, but she loves to learn. So i made the right decision.

  2. it’s huge, these decisions, these early forays into social and learning institutions that will no doubt guide their excitement for their whole lives. i have no advice, but it’s something i am thinking about too.

  3. My Ramekin is a couple of years away from starting ‘real school’, and I’m already thinking I want to hold him, he’ll be one of the youngest in his class if we stay in England. Scotland or the states would be better age-wise. Because I don’t want him doing ‘academics’ so young. I want him to enjoy, move about, get his hands dirty. Not sit at a desk learning to read and write and do math when he’s 4, 5, 6… I think it kills the desire to learn in so many children to start academics so early.

    The scandinavians get it right. No academics until they’re 6 or 7.

  4. Meno and Jen, the problem with these decisions seems to be that you never know if they will have been right. As I said, from what we can see now he will do fine either way. Anyway we have decided to teach him all we can for now and not to worry about “spoiling him” for elementary school. Because there are a lot of people concerned that he will be bored in school if he learns too much beforehand.

    Ewe, that’s funny that you say that because I’d love for my son to start “academics” right now that he is 5. He is longing for it. But here in Germany the children only start at age 6 or 7…

    I don’t think that learning in schools has to be all about sitting still all day. That’s another aspect about Montessori education that I like. They are very hands-on with the learning.

  5. My little boy oliver is not 5 until march this year, he started full time school last September. Yes they do learn everyday, but the majority of it is playtime. he hasnt noticed yet that he has been learning whilst he is there (i have asked him). yet through all of this play he has managed to learn to read (basic stuff obviously) I think the trouble with the schooling system is that it is generalised and children are indiviuals all wanting to learn at different rates in different ways.

  6. Hang in there, dear girl. This debate seems to rage on throughout the entire educational journey of our children! I worried whether to let my youngest go ahead (he was very young in his class, based on the cut off date) or hold him back. (We let him go–he excelled in so many things and is continuing to excell at college this year.) It starts early on ( I know in Europe they are big on this idea) to decide which path you will take–college or trade? We chose college. Yeah! Worries over! Not. Now the questions are which path, what field, make a choice, stick with it NOW, no these classes don’t translate to that field, too late to turn around! (These statements accompanied by much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair.) All I can tell my sons, myself and anyone else who I can get to listen to me for two mins (wink!) is that all they can do is keep moving forward, making decisions on what information they have now. One way or another, it WILL work. It will be ok. And if it’s not ok, then it’s not the end, because it will all be ok in the end. Hang in there!

  7. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of my myriad posts about education. Funny how much this one reminded me of all of my own, and I’m talking about the US.

    I’m not sure how that makes me feel, TBH.

    We’ve had our fair share of struggles with kindergarten. And we ponder what to do going forward.

    At least homeschooling isn’t illegal here.

    But that I don’t think we can do, and we also can’t afford private.


    My daughter began kindie at 5.5 years. It is all day here, and she has done well. She turned 6 mid-way through the year. She is very bright academically but has some struggles socially. However, by virtue of being slightly older, she manages the social things just fine. I shudder to think of beginning her any younger.

    There are younger kids there. They have it rough. Some have toilet accidents, some fall asleep in class, others are on the side of the social groups.

    TBH? I would not consider academics much; I’d think more of his EQ than his IQ.

    I have to cut off and run now but this is a big topic for me.

  8. My kids went to a private preschool, half-day kindergarten and now public school. I have always believed that kids do well wherever they are if they’re smart and learning is valued at home. My children have a variety of special programs at school for their giftedness and that keeps them challenged. I like that they are surrounded by all different ethnicities and cultures and levels of learning. They are happy.

    The problem in the U.S. right now is “No Child Left Behind” and the endless teaching to the test for fear of losing funding. It really stifles the teachers’ creativity. We will be glad to see the back of Bush. Don’t get me started.

  9. I came over to see what everyone else had written and was surprised to realize that I never left a comment. Except that I don’t have much else to add.

    I’m not worried right now, although I don’t know exactly what we’ll do (or what choices will be available) when the kids are older – maybe nine or ten?

    As Julie said, initially, my concerns are with having enough time to develop a strong EQ. I agree with Anne that if the child is smart and the parents are attentive to the education and supplement it (just as a natural part of life) in the home, the children will be OK. We chose private Catholic school because of over-crowding and low budgets in the public schools, plus the emphasis on character education and service learning in the Catholic school. When the time comes for science education, if there is a lack due to Creationism being taught, I might freak out a little bit. Wait and see.

    And again, when I step back and think about what is important in life, so often personality traits get the individual closer to where he or she want to be than what happened in school.

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