Kids Teaching Kids

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Several years ago I was bamboozled into babysitting one evening for a seven-year-old girl and two boys aged five and three.  Since one of my main purposes in life is to lie on the couch and dream of partially-clad women feeding me grapes (as Bob Hope once said in a movie, "I've had women chase me before, but never when I was awake"), I had to figure out how to get these kids to leave me alone.
The girl was old enough to be okay, but the two boys were monsters in the truest sense of the word--"offenses against the natural order."  Plan A was to tie them up, hang them upside down in a closet and tell them they were vampire bats who had to sleep until their parents came home.  I decided against this since these little potential felons might have ratted me out.
So I began to rummage around the house in the hope of discovering Plan B. I found something which I decided would be very useful: a blackboard, an easel and some chalk.  I set the blackboard on the easel in one of the bedrooms, sat the boys in front of it, gave the girl the chalk, and told her to teach her brothers the alphabet.
Much to my surprise, the boys sat there expectantly and the girl took on a rather teacherly air.  This intrigued me enough to put my babes-and-grapes fantasy on temporary hold.  The girl drew letters on the board and had her brothers repeat the names of them.  She enjoyed it, and so did the monsters.
This lesson lasted about half an hour before they got bored and wanted to do something else.
The lesson I learned from watching these kids is that our schools are set up the wrong way.  Instead of separating children into grade school, junior high and senior high, it would be better if it was done as it was in the little red school house of our past (or, for that matter, the home school) – all kids go to school together.  Then the older ones could teach the younger ones.
I don't know enough about the history of American schooling to know why children have been separated into these three different groups, but having spent 12 years in the public schools, I know it's been a catastrophe.  Especially junior high, which I consider (to put it mildly) a most uncivilized place.  There were times I couldn't even go into the bathroom without a fight breaking out.  If nothing else, junior high should be merged with high school.
I found – just like everyone else in the U.S. – that grades K through 6 aren't much trouble, but once kids got into junior high, everything fell apart.  The ninth-graders bullied the seventh-graders.  Terrorized them, actually.  When I was a senior the administration finally figured out the problem and placed the ninth-grade with the rest of the high school.  Then they were called "freshmen."
After that, there was never any problem with them, since they were at the bottom of the rungs, and there wasn't anyone under them for them to bully.  I had exactly one problem with a freshman, when my sister told me he was bothering her.  I fixed the problem permanently with five words: "You leave my sister alone."  That's all it took. 'Course I was six-foot-tall and weighed 160 pounds, and he was about eight inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter.
I think that if all children had to go to school together, and each grade had to help teach the ones behind them, it would go a long way into helping the kids grow up.  The high school kids could easily control the junior high kids, and the junior high kids would have to help teach the grade school kids.  That "junior high" mentality just might come close to disappearing, if they had to assume somewhat of a parental role with the younger kids.
I did have some experience with this parental role when I was 17, but didn't realize what it meant until some years after the chalkboard incident.
A friend and I were camping on a lot his parents owned, some 150 miles from where we lived.  While he was off swimming one day, I decided to shoot some basketball.  A ten-year-old boy who lived nearby wandered over, wanting to play.  I showed him some basketball games and how to how to shoot the ball.
After about an hour I was ready to leave, but he protested, "No, don't go; show me some more."  He was impressed that an older kid would actually teach him something.  And I enjoyed it, too.  It wasn't boring for either of us.
Boredom is a big problem with school.  Maybe the biggest problem.  Kids are supposed to sit quietly at their desks and somehow absorb knowledge radiating from a teacher at the front of the class.  If students had a more one-on-one relationship with the younger kids, I think it would alleviate that boredom a great deal.  They would be doing something useful instead of just sitting there.  It might even be fun.
Jesse Stuart, in his autobiography about his teaching days, The Thread That Runs So True, wrote about his inability to reach his students.  Then one day he noticed all of them absorbed in play outside.  It was a revelation: learning should be play; it should be fun.  He made it a game, and had very few problems after that.  He also had the older kids help teach the younger.
"Absorbed" is the important word.  If students aren't absorbed, they're bored.  School then becomes a chore or else a sentence to be served.  It becomes meaningless.  And what helps kids become absorbed is when the older teach the younger, as when my seven-year-old charge decided to instruct her brothers in the alphabet.
I doubt this older-teaching-the-younger will ever happen until the public schools are shut down.  They've been around for too long; there is too much bureaucracy and red tape, and too much turf and ego to be protected.
Unfortunately, it's the students who lose. 


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Bob Wallace's picture
Columns on STR: 89


Chills's picture

Great idea for teaching the younger ones, but teaching a class of older kids Trigonometry, Calculus or Chemistry would be quite difficult with little ones running about. Also, by that point, expecting the students to understand how to take notes, and prepare wouldn't be instilled if the education system was as drastically changed as you describe.

I agree that having older students interact with younger would help the younger ones significantly, but the assumption that there will be continued advanced students to help out (without the necessary preparation especially in those previously mentioned subjects) would be unlikely in time.

Student directed education has been tried in many situations (Celebration, Fl was where I saw a student directed system in action years back) and the problem with that situation is in essence the same problem with the current system (which I fully admit is flawed) and the problem is MOTIVATION.

No Child Left Behind (stupid name for a governmental program...btw) addressed teacher preparedness (better in some states than others) and standards (again better in states where they took the process more seriously than other states). What was not considered is that its the STUDENTS who have to actually learn the material. The current view of education from government is comparable to telling law enforcement that speeding needs to stop, but drivers are not to be inconvenienced, stopped, fined or threatened with anything in accomplishing this goal. I can predict the successfullness of such a program (and so should anyone with a brain). Education is being treated in the same way.

1. No more social promotion (at any grade level). Waiting until high school to stop automatically promoting a student means that high schools will face more students who can barely add(etc), read or write a sentence. Without such skills no student should even be in high school.

2. You can't read at the 9th grade level and can't do math at a similar level, then society does not need you travelling 70 mph pushing a ton+ of metal down a street/highway and unable to comprehend the signs or the numbers flying by (especially distracted by hormones and cellular devices)

3. If you're a little snit who gets in trouble at least weekly in a school environment and are distracting from the educational potential of others, you need to be removed from the system and placed into another one (the military won't thank me, but they have the best chance of fixing such problem kids). If the kid learns the value of education later in life, maybe they'll do a better job of instilling the value of education in their own children than their parents did in them.

4. Parents...if you made the student then you need to show enough interest to try and solve the problems of your offspring. Failure to do so will result in something. (mandatory councelling, tutoring, parenting classes) For the chronically poor, don't let government solve this problem. Demand parental assistance or face loss of earned income credit to pay for the necessary councelling, tutoring or whatever.

5. Encourage more vocational education. Lets get America back to making things again.

6. Stop fearing hurting a kid's self-esteem. Self-esteem comes from accomplishing something worthwhile. If a student's self-esteem can really be damaged by all the red marks on their paper (a real complaint from a parent), then having the teacher switch to purple ink (a suggestion made by the parent and enforced by administration) is not a real solution (and when the parent wanted the purple changed to green, I feigned an allergy to something in green ink)

How's that for striking the root of the education problem?