Are parents and schools putting too much pressure on kids?
The hot-button topic drew a crowd of over 300 to the Oshman Family JCC on Jan. 8 for a talk titled “Performance vs. Learning: The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement.”
Alfie Kohn, a nationally known speaker and advocate for education reform, addressed the pervasive culture of prizing academic achievement — measured by high test scores and top grades — over love of learning and a commitment to contributing to the greater good.
The community was ripe for this subject, said Julie Smith, head of school at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. Hausner co-sponsored Kohn’s talk, which Smith said provided a needed opportunity to engage on the topic, as much has been publicized lately about the high levels of stress and even suicide among young people.
“I think we are living in an area that is very focused on achievement,” Smith said. “In our local area there have been many examples about what this kind of stress is doing to our teens and young adults.”
Ronit Widmann-Levy, director of arts and culture at the JCC, which brought Kohn to Palo Alto, said, “I think we’re sending very mixed messages, and Alfie sends a very clear message.”
The author of 13 books on parenting, education and human behavior, Kohn is an outspoken critic of the status quo of constant testing, mounds of homework and a rewards-based culture.
“People clapped … and were cheering and agreeing with him,” Widmann-Levy said. “He got standing ovations mid-talk.”
Kids — especially area high school students, she said — are stressed out trying to get good grades, ace standardized tests and have all their ducks in a row to get into top universities. “The parents of kids who are in high school are dealing with a very high-pressure environment,” she said.
“There’s peer pressure — it’s in the air wherever you go, it’s always an issue. People don’t inquire about grades per se, but just asking where your child is going to college says a lot.”
Palo Alto’s Gunn High School community has lost seven students to suicide in the last five years.
“To Gunn this topic is extremely important and resonates with them,” added Widmann-Levy, who provided space in the lobby for Save the 2008, a grassroots organization striving to create “a happier and healthier life at Gunn,” said former Gunn English teacher Mark Vincente.
Kohn’s talk was a move to facilitate discussion and perhaps action among educators and parents.
“A big chunk of us is ready for change,” said Widmann-Levy, who has a 16-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. “A big part of the community now understands that their children’s happiness and the prospect of them thriving is not directly linked to their grades.”
Bay Area Jewish day schools may already have a leg up in providing an enriching but less stressful education for their students. Several area schools — including Yavneh Day School, South Peninsula Hebrew Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School — were represented at Kohn’s evening talk.
Smith said Hausner’s testing acts as a performance assessment, and that learning styles in the classrooms are collaborative and problem-based.
Rather than learning to “regurgitate information,” Smith said, Hausner students adopt tools to investigate problems and learn how to have an impact on their world.
When students study Shakespeare and other literature, for example, they are encouraged to use deep analysis, just as Jewish scholars have done for centuries to delve into Torah study, she said.
At Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco and Marin, students are expected to become well-rounded citizens of a greater community, said head of school Donald Zimring. The focus is on learning and providing service rather than on grades and test scores.
“Our curriculum is delivered through the lens of Jewish values,” he said.
As a private school, Brandeis Hillel is not subject to the same testing requirements as public schools, noted Zimring, a former public school teacher and superintendent in Southern California.
However, Brandeis Hillel does administer standardized tests as a way of monitoring each student’s progress during the year, and many parents like to see these results to gauge how their child is performing and progressing, he said.
Zimring said he admires Kohn’s stance on promoting problem solving and learning in the classroom, but the trick is how to implement these ideas in the real world. “That becomes the challenge of teaching,” Zimring said. “Standardized testing cannot be the focus of what we do. It has to be one of many metrics to say how are we doing.”
Widmann-Levy believes part of the reason why Jewish day schools are excelling in creating a nurturing learning environment is because Judaism has always valued the quest for knowledge.
“I think it is in our heritage — the concept of learning for the purpose of enriching, growing minds and asking questions,” she said. “We are taught to do that very early on. We answer with questions.
“I can see it in Jewish early education — a lot of discussion and inquiry, things that broaden the mind and stretch one’s imagination and capacity to explore. … It’s important to learn, and achieving is not a goal but it is a journey.”