children school elementary kids classroom
© Barry Batchelor
As a rule, I no longer ask school age-children how they're doing in school. Let me explain why.

Recently, my wife and I took a trip to see family and friends, several of whom have school-age children. I noticed that when adults interact with children, one of the first questions they pose is "How are you doing in school?" or some variation ("So, keeping your grades up?").

I also notice that if the child answers that they are anything other really well, the adult responds as if this is a bad thing, "Well, I'm sure you'll do better next quarter." Perhaps most revealingly, children - even engaging in small-talk - rarely, if ever, ask each other this question. I can only assume that they know better.

Doing School

They found strategies to succeed in school without having to do much deep learning.

I am a professor in a College of Education who studies schools and how they work as part of my living. On the basis of that research, I have become more and more uncomfortable with asking kids how they are doing in school, largely because it sends the message that how they are doing in school is, to me, one of the most important things about them. I think adults ask children this, at least partly, because we assume that "how are you doing in school?" is a proxy for "what are you learning?" My own study of schools convinces me that this is a very bad assumption.

There are several reasons I say this assumption is bad. The first is research done by Denise Pope who, for her dissertation, followed around several well-performing high schoolers to see how they learned in school. She found that the secret to their success tended to be their ability to treat school as a game. They found strategies to curry favor with teachers, ace tests with a minimal amount of study, and succeed in school without having to do much deep learning. When she published this as a book, she appropriately titled it Doing School.

Decades earlier, a teacher named John Holt came to similar conclusions in a book called How Children Fail, based on journals he kept as a fifth-grade teacher. Holt was puzzled at the learning his students were doing in class, which seemed superficial, rooted in the desire to get the right answer rather than to learn.

Ultimately, Holt came to the conclusion that even young students, "come to look on school as something of a racket, which it is their job to learn how to beat. And learn they do; they become experts at smelling out the unspoken and often unconscious preferences and prejudices of their teachers, and at taking full advantage of them." Doing school indeed!

More recently, a research study suggests that high school GPA (and particularly, being best in class) doesn't at all predict who will become standouts in their fields. High school performers often go on to comfy careers, but are seldom among the trailblazers.

Why? Doing well in school requires conformity, the ability to give authorities what they want rather than develop your own strong passions, to get (what will satisfy teachers as) right answers rather than develop sophisticated thinking. As the study's lead author says, "Essentially, we are rewarding conformity and the willingness to go along with the system."

Stop Asking Them About School

For these reasons - that certainly jibe with my recollections of school - I no longer feel comfortable asking school-aged kids about how they are doing in school or what they're learning. Not only does that send the message that yet another adult defines them by their school performance, but also that doing well in school equates to learning.

This is a subtle distinction, so let me explain. What I ask instead is something like, "What kind of interesting stuff are you up to?" The kids I've asked pause for a second, then their eyes light up. They tell me about projects they have going on. For one, it was a series of books he was reading and really into. For another, it was an art project she was engrossed in. A third told me about a car that he, by his own initiative, was fixing up.

What do all of these interests have in common? First, they demand sustained concentration and the children are consumed by them. Second, the students are interested in them. Third, they (I assume) were self-chosen; no one made them do these projects, and if someone had, I assume the projects would have lost their attraction. Fourth, there was no obvious reward for doing them well, and no penalty for doing them wrong, only satisfaction from the activity itself. These are all elements that schools disincentivize.

Passion and absorption are great until the bell rings and it's time for the next class. Interests are good, but only if they align with what school is teaching at that very moment. Self-chosen activities? Sometimes students get to choose things, like the group of students they work with that day or which one of several assignments they want to do next, but that's about it. And there is very little we do at school where the reward is just the satisfaction of doing it well. Usually, school work is about getting a good grade or meeting the teacher's expectations.

My suggestion is that next time you talk to a school-aged kid, be cautious not to ask how they are doing in school. Instead, ask about what cool stuff they are doing at the moment. That allows them to tell you about their actual lives. If something cool they are doing is school-related, they can tell you; but they can tell you other stuff too. My guess is that they'll appreciate that you're asking about them and not school.