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facts & arguments

Neal Cresswell/The Globe and Mail

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In the iconic children's book The Hockey Sweater, Roch Carrier characterizes his childhood experience with formal education this way: "For us, school was a kind of punishment."

The passage of time, and my years of teaching, had caused me to forget this reality until recently, when the school my two boys attend held its parent-teacher interviews.

My wife and I entered our kids' classrooms with the strange mix of excitement and trepidation most parents feel when they arrive for this biannual ritual.

Seated in chairs designed for humans one-third our size, in the kindergarten class of our younger son Buster, we were given radiant news.

"He's so sweet and well-behaved," his kind-hearted teacher gushed. "He is a gem. He's quiet but engaged, and I can tell there is a lot going on in his mind. I wish I had more just like him."

We were not surprised. We've been hearing the same praise since daycare and preschool.

The Grade 2 hallway was our next stop. Walking into my son PJ's class, we knew the news would be dramatically different. I could almost hear the foreboding music of Wagner in the background as we entered.

"Your son has problems," his teacher confirmed. "He disturbs others, he can't stay focused, he rushes through his work too quickly and it's often messy. I think he may have anger issues."

Then came the statement we had expected with dread: "I believe that we should have him assessed."

As a teaching veteran of 18 years, I could pick up what this well-intentioned teacher was laying down – ADHD, and the likelihood of medication to alter my son's behaviour.

As we drove home, my wife verbalized her concern. "What are we going to do about him?" she asked.

I was concerned, too, though the source of my concern may come as a surprise to the reader. I paused a moment and then said: "I'm very worried about Buster. PJ will be just fine."

Okay, reader, I can hear you now. "Great Scott! Don't you know your own children, man? Didn't you hear the teacher, dummy? PJ is the problem. Buster is the gem."

But the fact is that, while PJ works at a Grade 4 math level, can read smoothly and has aced every spelling test this year, Buster cannot distinguish a letter from a number or spell his own name, and seems resistant to learning how.

So, why would the reports of their teachers be so contrary to the realities of their learning?

The answer is disquieting, but simple: Schools are not truly designed for learning. They are designed to enforce conformity.

While Buster conforms well, PJ, though an extremely effective learner, does not.

I was dismayed, but not surprised by what I heard. Our schools are based on an educative model designed for and around industrialization. In the era of the assembly line, it paid to have pupils seated in rank-and-file rows, quietly engaged in some uniform, often simple and repetitive task.

Though the world has changed rapidly since the days of the workhouse, changes in schools have lagged behind. It's true that most teachers have been eager to adopt newer, inquiry-based learning techniques, but it is difficult for innovation to trump crowd control in small rooms with large class sizes.

Children, especially boys, have difficulty adjusting to a learning environment that is inflexible and based on quiet routine and repetition. A child who learns quickly, and in a non-linear, non-traditional manner, must exercise extreme patience to endure a day in a traditional school.

High energy, rapidly changing interest and jittery movements are tendencies that turn children into outliers and "problems." Frustration sets in, and outbursts and negative emotions soon ensue. They are admonished, punished, labelled or, worse, medicated for the malady of childhood. Though there are legitimate cases where medication is necessary, the widespread use of drugs to address behaviour is disquieting. It doesn't take long for these once-excited students to become wholly suspicious of the venture of formal education.

We teachers are first-rate products of the very system that needs to change. As any education professor will tell you, the default setting of every teacher is to teach how they were best taught. Change won't happen until we understand that desired behaviour improves as a result of learning, and not the other way around.

We need to strive to look at the school system through the eyes of the student, not just at the student through the eyes of the school.

An anachronistic system has mistakenly identified my two sons: one as a problem child because his behaviour is out of line with his abilities as a learner, the other as a model student because his excellent behaviour has masked his resistance to learning.

Both of them will probably come around eventually, and be successful in this system, but it will be in spite of it rather than because of it. When they do emerge, having coped with an ungainly organization of mass production, they will be perfectly prepared for life in the early 20th century.

Robert Costanzo lives in Toronto.