While this may seem like a story about my children, unfortunately it’s a story about leadership. Failed leadership at many levels.
I have three teenage children and, for the most part, they get straight As in school. And I’m convinced they know nothing. (Sorry kids, it’s not your fault.)
And I’m angry. The activities of last night are a regular occurrence.
I stared down at the yellow sheet of paper. At the top: Roman Empire Study Guide. I read the first question aloud, “Who was Octavian?”
“I don’t know,” my 13-year old son answered.
I moved on, “How many years did Pax Romana last?”
With a shrug, “Don’t know.”
Even though the middle school social studies test was the next morning, neither of us was panicking. We both knew that within 30 minutes my son would be able to recall the answer to every single question. We knew he would get an A on the quiz. (And he did.)
How did we know this?
Because I’m really good at teaching my kids memory tricks; I’ve taught them how to be great at short-term memorization.
Repetition helps, but there is nothing better than a good mnemonic, or visualization, or association, or rhyming.
Oh you think of the Spider-man villain Doc Ock when you think of Octavian? OK, picture Doc Ock as the new emperor of Rome who used his crazy arms to defeat the other leaders and finally brought peace to Rome. Octavian… Doc Ock… killed his rivals then brought peace.
What does the word alliteration mean? Think of ALL words starting with the same letter or sound… ALLiteration.
Order of operation for math? Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally. Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiply, Divide, Add, Subtract.
Yes, I’ve created three little Sherlock Holmes. They can fill up their mind palace with all the facts and figures to get them through a test.
But I’ve been shocked over and over again at just how little they recall, and how they have no context of how what they are learning applies to today’s world.
When my son couldn’t answer how long Pax Romana lasted—the answer is approximately 206 years—I thought he would remember it with an association.
So I said, “Many people right now think our own country is at risk of crumbling like the Roman Empire. There are many historical similarities between the United States and Rome.”
And then the fateful question, the one that would lead to my anger and this article.
“So, son, about how old is America?”
“I don’t know.”
Perhaps he didn’t understand me. “You don’t know? I mean approximately how old is America, because that’s approximately how old Pax Romana was.”
“No clue,” he said.
“I’m not sure you understand what I’m asking,” I desperately tried again. “I’m just asking like what year was the beginning of our country… when was America’s birthday?”
He lit up, “July 4!”
“But the year?”
“You don’t know that America was started—the Declaration of Independence was signed—in 1776? Which means our country is over 200 years old?”
And we live about 20 miles from Philadelphia.
And in case you think that perhaps my son is just uniquely forgetful, this incident caused me to flash back four years ago when my now 16-year old daughter was herself in middle school and studying the same subject.
I can remember it clearly. I was sitting in our living room asking her questions about the Roman Empire. And she was walking in a circle in the center of the room. Round and round.
Oh, you’re wondering why was she walking in a circle?
Because it was already late at night, she was exhausted, and physically moving like that was what was keeping her awake and semi-focused. (Leaving for school early each morning, after school activities, and a mountain of homework means middle school students regularly don’t get to bed until 10 or 11 at night. And my daughters in their high school years would regularly stay up studying past midnight even though I would implore them to go to bed. “Grades are over-rated,” I’d scream.)
After thirty minutes of memory tricks my daughter had mastered the answers to get an A on the quiz. And just on a whim I asked,
“Hey, do you even know where Rome is?”
Bleary-eyed she said, “What do you mean? It was a long time ago.”
My worst fear was about to be realized. “Rome exists today as a city,” I explained. “If I got a map of the world, could you point to where Rome is?”
“Do you know what country Rome is in?”
And the anger arose.
“You are studying Roman history but you have no idea that Rome is a city that is in the country of Italy!” It should have been a question but it was an accusation.
And her reply summed it up perfectly.
“It’s not going to be on the test, Dad.” And she said goodnight.
Recently I tried to help my son with his seventh grade math homework. I couldn’t do it. That’s OK, must be the “new” math everyone is all worked up about. So I called over big sister, to help. She’s only three year’s older. No luck. She couldn’t remember how to do it either. Thankfully there was YouTube. A few videos and he suddenly could do the homework.
I actually don’t worry about my kids’ futures at all. They will excel in whatever it is they choose to do. But it has nothing to do with their grades or schooling. I can see that they have a strong work ethic, they are kind, have high emotional intelligence, and good leadership and social skills. These are things they learned from family, church, athletics, activities and video games (yes, video games).
The educational system in the United States is clearly outdated. It’s a model predicated on compliance, and recall of facts and figures. Not only is there little context to how any of this matters in the present day (Why do we need to memorize who Octavian was again?), but even what we memorize isn’t sticking.
To put this into further context, this isn’t the result of one struggling child, or one bad teacher, or one weak school.
My kids who have gone through elementary, middle and high school in a middleclass school system. The high school ranks towards the top of most lists of schools in Pennsylvania.
The teachers are doing what is asked of them.
The “good” students do what is asked of them.
The parents—the ones who care—are helping their kids to get good grades.
But for what end?
I am embarrassed at how I’ve failed to truly teach my children. I am angry at the school system. And I am scared for the future of our country.
My oldest daughter graduated from high school last year with a 4.0 GPA. She went off to a very good private university. Tuition is $40,000 per year.
In fact, she’s home now on winter break. When I asked, “So how do you think you did for the semester?”
She didn’t hesitate. “Great, Dad! It’s even easier than high school.”
Kevin Kruse writes on leadership, productivity and entrepreneurship.