Tracing Letters

Brennan Dignan
March 8, 2019
In many ways, the college application highlights much of what is wrong with our current approach to education.

At our son’s preschool, the kids have been learning how to write by tracing dotted lines in the shapes of letters. They do this every day, four days a week, and then they are sent home with a similar worksheet for homework over the weekend. To put it mildly, he doesn’t enjoy doing this. To put it mildly, I don’t enjoy trying to make him do it.

I was explaining this scenario to his preschool teacher and she told me, “He’s just being lazy. You have to sit him down and make him to do it.” I immediately went to that dark future place where my child is diagnosed with ADHD at 4, medicated and turned into a zombie, sorted into remedial classes where the student teacher ratio is 50:1, eventually dropping out, self-medicating, and in prison by 18. When I ask him what went wrong, he’ll say, “you made me trace letters.” (SIDE NOTE: For the student perspective on the worksheet approach to education, I suggest checking out the Jeff Bliss video.)

I’m thinking a lot about this right now as I am at the end of the college application reading season. In many ways, the college application highlights much of what is wrong with our current approach to education. When I see anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder, self-harm, or other disclosures that have become so common in this population, I think about my son and how the “sit him down and make him do it” approach impacts the development of an individual over the course of their young lifetime.

If a child goes off the rails a bit in our system early on, the approach is usually to try and re-engineer the student through pharmacological intervention and/or behavioral remediation without questioning the contributions the system may have made. I am not suggesting that our schooling approach is the cause of all mental health issues; clearly there are other factors. But what I am saying is that the system, at the very least, exacerbates mental health issues and could very well be the source of some of them.

In higher education, there are many discussions around this issue, mostly about how to best support students with mental health challenges on campus. Unfortunately, colleges are mostly on the intervention side of the equation (students come with these challenges), focused on campus services that treat symptoms, but don’t/can’t address the underlying causes. One study found that 45% of college students reported feeling hopeless with another 30% experiencing such extreme depression that it was difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Consider this:

“While depression and anxiety consistently rank as the most common mental disorders treated at college counseling centers, an often overlooked but equally serious problem is the rising number of students struggling with eating disorders, substance abuse and self-injury. The NSCCD study found that 24.3 percent of college counseling center directors have noticed more clients with eating disorders, 39.4 percent have noted an increased number of clients suffering from self-injury issues and 45.7 percent have reported an increased number of clients struggling with alcohol abuse.”

There is quite a bit of evidence that our schooling approach is failing on multiple levels, but the most alarming indicator to me is the mental health crisis. If your inner life is a mess, there isn’t a major, career, car, house, spouse, child, dog, vacation that is going to resolve that. That’s why I think the work that’s being done at REEINVISIONED is so important. They are starting with the “output” side by asking what is the good life and what is the role of school in achieving this?

I would propose that as we move forward in re-envisioning what education could be, we include mental health/well being as part of our teaching and assessment model. If students are spending 6–8 hours a day in a school environment for most of their young lives, it would make sense for us to have some checkpoints along the way. If the assessment shows cause for concern in an individual, it would allow us to intervene and work to identify a cause. We do that academically so why not socio-emotionally? If we made positive emotional wellbeing a priority on the output side, we could be intentional in our construction of learning environments that worked towards that outcome.

There is at least one school that does a version of this. One Stone in Boise, ID, has built a socio-emotional component into their assessment model. It is a tuition free private high school (10–12) whose Board of Directors is 2/3 students. Their growth transcript uses something called the BLOB (Bold Learning OBjectives) and is divided into four quadrants under which nine areas are to be developed and measured. These quadrants are Mindset, Knowledge, Creativity, and Skills. Under Mindset, the following nine areas are empathy, grit, humility, desire to grow, vulnerability, gratitude, mindfulness, reflection, and fail forward. One Stone not only measures and tracks growth, but provides meaningful feedback and direction about how students can work towards achieving that growth.

I could envision a curriculum that begins much sooner than 10th grade, laying a foundation for individuals to effectively navigate and make sense of their inner world. Susan David’s Ted Talk, The gift and power of emotional courage, highlights a number of findings she and her research team have unearthed in their studies, but in terms of this conversation I felt particularly drawn to this one:

“When people are allowed to feel their emotional truth; engagement, creativity, and innovation flourish in an organization.”

This is also something I believe Paulo Freire points to in his philosophy:

I am dealing with people and not with things. And, because I am dealing with people, I cannot refuse my wholehearted and loving attention, even in personal matters, where I see that a student is in need of such attention.
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Pictured: Susan David at her TED Talk.

I could imagine a world where we help students hone their “epistemological curiosity” (Freire) and point it inwards; empowering them to understand emotional experiences that feel overwhelming, creating a space between stimulus and response, a space that Viktor Frankl described as containing our freedom and power. Susan David speaks of “premature cognitive commitment” which is its conceptual sibling. This includes being able to “name your story” when unhealthy habitual narratives arise, but also honoring your emotional experience by not trying to disassociate from unpleasant feelings. None of this can happen in the banking model of education. None of this can happen if your response to a 3 year old who doesn’t want to trace letters is, “he’s just being lazy.”

As I think about my son and his education, I would love for him to excel in his socio-emotional intelligence, effectively navigating the complexities of his inner world and how he relates externally. I believe having this level of self-awareness also cultivates empathy as one finds the commonalities between themselves and others. It seems to me that a progressive classroom is the most conducive to this idea, where the inherent value of each individual is not a privilege but a right, teachers are empowered to respond to each student where they are at not where we think they should be; a place where an individual’s success isn’t measured against their willingness to trace letters.

Brennan Dignan
As a college counselor at a progressive international school in Hong Kong, Brennan's work attempts to infuse the post-graduation planning process with meaning and purpose as defined by the individual.
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