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Why kids hate school: sociologists explore issue in new book

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

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Media Contact: Sue Stevens

ARLINGTON - Evidence abounds to indicate the United States is lagging behind other advanced-industrial nations in educational achievement, despite massive infusions of resources in technological, science and math education. Over the past decade, the country has resorted to standardized testing and fact-based education to ensure children learn basic math, reading and writing skills.

But University of Texas at Arlington Sociology Professors Ben Agger and Beth Anne Shelton, say the problem of ineffective education cannot be remedied by more math courses and rounds of educational testing. Agger and Shelton, co-authors of a book titled, “I Hate School: Why American Kids are Turned Off Learning,” contend that by the time American students are in junior high and high school, they hate school and cannot wait to finish an acceptable terminal level of education and establish careers and families, mimicking the suburban lifestyles of their parents.

“They are anti-intellectual,” Agger said. “Instead of reading, they are passive consumers of electronic entertainment. They don’t watch the news or follow politics. They are immersed in the instantaneity of now, experienced online.”

Bookstores are declining, as are newspapers, and the sociologists fear the United States is producing a conformist, vacuous generation.

“Not because we have failed to invest sufficiently in education,” Shelton said. “We are failing to spark the imagination of children to enable them to seek their muse and cherish the life of the mind.”

The book looks at why kids learn to hate school and turn their back on intellectual and cultural pursuits, making a strong case that it is not enough to blame television and other distractions.

“Our schools are failing because they are warehouses and work houses. They verge on penal colonies, where teachers are wardens and children are inmates. Children constitute a pre-labor force, tasked with producing homework instead of goods and services,” Shelton said.

While she admits that backpacks stuffed with homework certainly teach students the Puritan virtue of diligence, she says it also diverts them from intellectual and physical play.

Agger agrees, saying “School has become a job and childhood merely a preparation for busy adulthood.”

The authors explore topics like time-use in schools; the confinement and physical disciplining of young bodies as they carry backpacks and sit at cramped desks; the stress on fine motor skills; the performance principle and grading; the performance principle and testing; the disunity of mind and body; vocationalism; a fetish of facts and factoids; rote learning and regurgitation; worksheet-driven learning; classroom authoritarianism and competitive school sports.

Committed to helping kids like school and love learning, Shelton and Agger consider alternative arrangements and styles of education, drawing on movements like anti-schooling, free schools and homeschooling. They analyze the school day and what happens at, and after, school. They look at curriculum, grading, testing, classroom teaching, discipline, the roles of play and exercise and even school food.

The sociologists, who are married to each other and parents themselves, assert it is not enough to tinker with curricula and teacher training. They see a need to start over, building from the ground up. In their ideal school, grading and testing would be minimized and teachers would not be cops or dictators. Schools would have fewer desks and more open space. Each day would start with an hour of exercise, not the dreaded rope climbing but sport as play, which would include teachers. Homework would be minimized, as real teaching and dialogue fill the day

Formulaic writing would be replaced by essaying, journaling and thought pieces. Standardized tests would be replaced with portfolios of best work and art. There would actually be more art and less math. And math would be taught philosophically, like science.

“The litmus test of all this is simple,” Agger says. “Are kids excited to get up in the morning and go to school?”

The book is being published by Lexington, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield, with the release date to be announced.

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The University of Texas at Arlington is an Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action employer.

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