The real problem with school

The real problem with school

I have become the bane of my kids’ teachers existence.  They go running when they see me.

Part of the reason is because I think school isn’t demanding enough.  I’m sure they view me as one of those parents who thinks SO highly of their child and wants them to be in advanced everything.  Maybe there’s a bit of truth to that, but I have an even more serious reason: I want them to be challenged.

The other day while talking to several fellow engineers on Twitter, the discussion turned to failing courses.  It turned out that a lot of us had actually failed courses at some point during our career.  Yet all of us had gone on to become engineers.  Chris made the point that failing teaches us something.  While I think it would be better to be given the tools to prevent failure, he is right: failure can teach you that life goes on and you can’t let it impact you.

Unless, of course, it does.

As it turns out, this is often the point where students will withdraw from an engineering major and either drop from school or switch majors.  A fairly recent paper discusses interventions to the problem, arguing that most of it is caused by the lack of failure (which I read as challenge) prior to college.  Students who go into engineering tend to be among the top high school students and simply can’t deal with the fact that they cannot perform as well in college as they did in high school.  And, probably never having been in that situation before, they are the least likely to seek out help.

I personally feel this is an indicator that for the top high school students, school may still not be challenging.  I say this as a student who took AP courses throughout high school and attended college while simultaneously completing my senior year of high school.  Even lower level college classes really didn’t take significant effort to pass with reasonable grades.  I really think that schools ought to make more effort to individualize instruction to allow students to progress at their own pace so that they can learn to deal with challenges well before entering college.


Stop making school about being “fair” and about making sure their feelings are not bruised. As engineers we all realize life is not fair. There are times we work on something from planning, through analysis of design to implementation of prototype and find it fails at that point. We learned through our failures in school how to deal with the adversity and how to look outside the framework to see what cause and effect is doing to the project. This was something we developed all along our school years and friendships. When we remove this learning process from our children, we are in effect reducing their ability to deal with adversity. SWMBO sees it every day in her classroom.

Grade inflation doesn’t help here. With high schools giving 60% of the students As and the rest Bs, switching to an engineering college (where 1/3 of the student may fail an entry-level course) comes as a shock, and a lot bail out to other divisions, where grade inflation is as common as in high schools.

We have tried various ways of getting sufficient challenge for our son. Each works for a while, but then a new method needs to be tried. Currently, we have switched to home schooling (see and the links from there to earlier posts).

This is a really big worry for us… we’ve gone private– the one school in town that allows single-subject acceleration and one of two schools that allows grade skipping. So he’s started K early (with 5 other early starters!) and is doing first grade for math and reading (he tested at 3rd grade level in both, but presumably there’s areas he’s missing). He’s still a bit ahead of the curve, but hopefully as the school year goes on he’ll start seeing things he doesn’t already know how to do. He’s getting some challenge in Spanish and French at least.

We’re taking it a year at a time… but the goal is for him to get As with effort! Not As because he’s known the material for half his life already. If necessary we’ll do college classes early too like my sister and I did.

We’re really worried about perfectionism. We want him to embrace challenges now and in the future.

Your post got me thinking… So consider this comment as just me musing, not a judgement of anyone else.

My eldest son just started middle school. He’s overall a very good student; he’s good at math, perhaps slightly above average, but not extraordinary. We have always pushed him to push himself, but now I am starting to wonder how much pushing is really necessary? When we push him to do advanced work, he gets it, he’s a smart kid, but he doesn’t really like math all that much, there is no real spark (that breaks my heart a bit, but that’s my problem, not his). In contrast, I see some of his friends, really ambitious kids — wanting to be the best at everything, doing honors algebra plus music plus sports — they have that overachiever’s fire in the belly that I recognize and that I had. My son is much more laid back; his talent is writing — he writes exquisite short stories and novellas, gets that talent from my dad (also a supremely laid back person), but math or sports — I don’t see a talent. (He likes history and sciences, but I wouldn’t say he’s crazy about either.)

I guess what I am trying to say is that it is hard to decide, at least for me, where the boundary is between, on one end, pushing a child so that they would extend themselves and grow and become fearless in the face of challenge and, on the other end, simply pushing in vain in the direction in which there will never be any real excellence. Sure, true excellence is never achieved without a lot of hard work… But there has to be talent and the kid has to have an inner drive, not just external impetus…

Thinking back how uninvolved my parents were in my schooling (I didn’t grow up in the US), I see that you can become an overachiever all on your own. I don’t know if the drive to excel is something we are born with or how we are raised plays a role, but I fear that without that impetus from within the child nothing great can come about in the long run…

Or maybe I am just trying to make myself feel better because maybe I should have pushed him all that much harder, but I hadn’t (didn’t know better, too busy with work etc.) and perhaps I have thereby sentenced him to mediocrity. Parenting is tricky business…

This reminds me of the college cliche.
“Fail to prepare, prepare to fail”
Engineering or life is never about being sucessful but more about learning from previous experiences (as well as mistakes) and applying such experience to the current situation as best as one can. Engineering is about adapting. People who afraid of failure are not engineers. Peoiple who are afraid of failure but can look beyond to a place where they have “fixed” said failure are.

In college I definately had the experience that exams were not too difficult to pass. Many of my friends did have major troubles with passing. But they were more socially savy and in many cases, had and still have the gift of the gab. Life work balance anyone?

My kids are going to love math whether they want to or not. My sister could have fallen through the cracks– she was pretty, popular, athletic, a cheerleader (sorry, POMS! which is *nothing* like cheerleading… even though they uh, cheer for the boys at sports events). But we wouldn’t let her. People in our family like math, period. Math is inherently beautiful and if you don’t see that, you just need more practice. When the minimum to get an A was too little, we sent her off to Catholic school where she flourished, learned to think, developed a sense of humor, and her former middle-school friends all ended up getting suspended for underage drinking on a school trip…

So she’s an engineer. And happy. And very well-off. And still popular. And still a dancer.

I don’t think it is so much failing, as failing when expectations are to be perfect. My parents were never demanding about my grades, so when I failed a college course my first semester it was no big deal, just a wake up call that college took more effort than high school. I remember others being deathly afraid of telling their parents, thinking about switching majors, etc., like it was the end of the world.

I knew of an engineer who was home schooled in the “just let them do what they want” totally hands off type of way. He literally had no challenges he didn’t give himself. He didn’t learn to read until he was 11 and that was because that’s when he was suddenly interested in what highway signs said. His curiosity continued to bring him to college and an engineering degree.

I think the fact of the matter is that parents over-estimate what they can bring to the table, and may end up burning their kids out. I’ve seen the same thing in sports. I was a college athlete and grew up playing with many kids who probably could have ended up continuing onto the college level if their dad’s hadn’t acted like they were going to be the next Bobby Orr, and driven them to quit. I think the most important aspect of parenting in regards to schooling is to foster a healthy attitude that learning is (or can be fun) and that failure isn’t a big deal, nor is perfectionism expected.

I completely agree, I am a senior in high school, and for 3 years, I feel like i have been wasting my time. My classes from 9-11th grade were ridiculously easy, the teachers were lenient, and there was very little incentive to excel. Now, at the beginning of my senior year, I am really starting to see a challenge, from Calculus based physics courses, to an advanced engineering program developed by RIT. The seniors are really being pushed to achieve greater things.

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