I am on sabbatical from teaching first grade this year. My hiatus has
given me an opportunity to write, travel, and study. It has also afforded me
time to do something that I ordinarily am not able to do: be a substitute
teacher in middle and high schools. I enjoy seeing contrasts among various age
From my years of teaching first grade, I have become accustomed to the
six-year-olds, who find joy and excitement in the act of learning. A
recent day in a high school gave me a snapshot of what happens when the kids get
a little bit older.
The teacher for whom I worked provided a packet of information and
questions based on the reading assignment. The ninth-graders were permitted to
work together to find answers.
But what I saw was surprising because of the approach that most of them
took. Instead of finding answers together, they copied from each other. One goal
prevailed: getting the right answers. There was no thrill, no joy, no excitement
in learning new material.
How do we account for the change that takes place from first grade to
ninth grade? I have some thoughts:
state has told the schools that they must be accountable, and there is only
one measurement of this: test scores. Getting the right answers on tests is
the only way the state can understand that students are learning and
teachers are teaching.
have picked up these cues from their parents and teachers. The kids are only
doing what they have been told they should do: get the right answers.
for its own sake is not what motivates these kids. Instead, the
process I observed is tedious and based solely on creating the final
What have we done to our children to change their focus so dramatically?
Is this the quality of education that we want? Are correct answers on papers the
only way we can gauge that young people are learning? Is this the wave of the
future in public education? Unfortunately, I have more questions than answers.
Jay Davidson lives in Palo Alto and has been teaching in San Francisco
for 31 years; he teaches first grade. He will be teaching Travel Alternatives
and Opportunities at the Palo Alto Adult School on March 8. For more information
or to enroll, call (650) 329-3752 or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.