Saturday, March 5, 2011

I'm a Quitter

Vickie Bergman blogs about education and parenting at Demand Euphoria.

Being labeled a quitter is not a good thing. The tendency to quit is a character flaw. It means you give up too easily. It means your parents probably let you quit things when you were a kid. You don't have any sense of commitment. As a parent, you are not supposed to want your child to be a quitter. You can make sure that this will not happen if you don't let your children quit things. Teach them that the commitment is more important than their happiness. Teach them that they might even end up liking something if they stick with it even when they don't want to.

I have known people who played the same sport almost every day for over a decade, from childhood through college, and still struggled with the idea of "quitting" the sport even when it was not bringing any happiness anymore. So it's not ok to quit something if you have only just started, and then it's also not ok to quit something if you have been at it for a while. When IS it ok to quit something? How long are you supposed to give it before you can appropriately decide you have had enough?

I haven't had too much trouble with that question for myself.* In fact, I am proud to be a quitter. I quit the swim team when I broke my arm in 6th grade and realized how much more free time I would have if I didn't swim anymore. I quit taking voice lessons after my instructor humiliated me during a lesson. I quit soccer, softball, tennis, ballet, piano, bass guitar, water polo, two finance jobs, one PhD program and probably a bunch of other things I can't even remember quitting.

My proudest moment as a quitter, though, was when I quit college for a year. I was so tired of school. I was tired of feeling like I had to perform and achieve all the time. I just wanted to live for a little while. And even though I was afraid of what people would think, I did it. I decided a few weeks before what would have been my junior year of college that I just wasn't going back. That decision was the most liberating and empowering decision I have ever made. It helped me to get over some of my fears about what everyone else would say. It was the best year of my life so far.

There are two ways to look at my history of activities. You could look at it and say "Wow, she quit a lot of things." Or you could say "Wow, she tried a lot of things." I tried them. Some for longer than others. Some, I went back to after quitting (like college). Some I have never tried again. I still try things. If I like doing something and it makes me happy, then it belongs in my life. If it doesn't make me happy all the time, but it is worth whatever struggles come with it, then it belongs in my life. But if I can't think of one good reason to keep doing something other than "I just don't want to quit," then it's out.

What if all children could learn from the very beginning that it is all right to quit doing things they don't like? What if they could choose their classes in school? What if they could feel free to change their minds about what they like and feel safe to try new things? They would have more time to find and focus on the things they are actually interested in, and they might just be happy.

*Thanks, Mom and Dad, for letting me quit stuff.


  1. I quit little league after 4th grade after I got hit by a pitch (on the hand, and yes, I cried). It was traumatic. Every day I had a game, I faked illness or prayed for rain. This worked for quite some time as it was a particularly rainy April, but I eventually summoned my parents to the living room for a meeting.

    As I started my pre-rehearsed speech, my parents, with smiles on their faces, said that they already condoned my quitting. My parents recognized that I was no longer invested in little league (after an auspicious start in my younger years as a tee ballplayer, no less) and that, being uninvested in the pursuit of baseball mastery, the game would no longer bring me joy or learning.

    Quitting other pursuits on the grounds of not liking them, however, is unacceptable. To me, the development of the writing, reading, listening, and speaking skills that comprise authentic literacy must be paramount to every student's education. And lest people think otherwise, the development of this type of literacy can be achieved through a multiplicity of instructional frameworks (e.g. aesthetic or arts-based education, project-based learning, blended classrooms, etc.) as long as the appreciative core of our work remains consistent: the pursuit of this type of literacy. To be sure, no matter which framework a teacher or school wishes to implement, literacy must be at the core.

    If we allow students to quit that which they do not fully appreciate or understand, we rob them of the "still unrivaled, but grossly under-implemented, key to learning both content and thinking skills" (Schmoker, Focus, pg. 11). No matter whether your individual, political, or pedagogic views aspire to values of social justice, community, or self-actualization, authentic literacy opportunities--the chance to discuss, read, reflect, listen, and create in response to the gamut of the human experience in the wide array of disciplinary fields--are the surest path to these goals.

    I'm not advocating that students who display a passion for dance should not be given opportunities for dance; I am arguing quite the opposite. They should. It is the innovative school that sees these interests as opportunities for the serious exploration dance in the context of rigorous, integrated literary experiences in science, history, choreography, math, and art that will educate the whole child.

    What I cannot abide is an educator maintaining that a student can simply draw a picture or dance INSTEAD of writing an essay in the name of differentiation or honoring the student's current interests. It is our job to push students into trying new things, otherwise they will stick only to what's comfortable. Comfort, after all, is comforting and risk-taking can be scary.

    It is our job as educators to inspire students to connect with what they read and write, as we know this is not always the easiest connection for students to make, especially when literacy is taught out of context through pseudo-reading strategies or through basal readers. As we love teaching and learning know, real learning is fraught with frustration, confusion, and obstacles as often as it is filled with moments of genuine discovery and revelation.

    As Jeffrey D. Wilhelm explains in Engaging Readers and Writers with Inquiry, “The student-centered model—also known as natural learning and discovery methods—is...critiqued by these researchers. The concern is that the model focuses too exclusively on the who—namely, the learner and her current interests, desires, goals, and idiosyncratic, personal (vs. disciplinary) understandings.” (28). The student-centered model excises the teacher-as-mentor from the classroom. Wilhelm narrates the metaphor aptly: “Student-centered: Make your own path! You must be your own teachers. Teaching is about nurturing and stepping aside. Learning is self-discovery. No roadmap required.” (29)

    Simply, "I just don't want to do it any longer" will not suffice for everything.

  2. I discussed your post and Mr. Fachler's comment with my two sons, aged 17 and 20. They both said that they recognize the fact that kids don't like things they aren't familiar with so some things at school must be mandatory. However, it would make school so much better if there were more opportunities to try things, experiment and quit if you don't like it.
    After reading your post sat down to watch a movie with my husband. Turned out to be very relevant to the subject of your post! I recommend watching the excellent movie" The visitor"
    Thanks for the thought provoking post!
    Naomi Epstein

  3. Fantastic post! I love seeing you on here. You've been making me think a lot about quitting. The word has such negative connotations, but the act is often incredibly liberating! I quit music school and went into an academic program instead. One of the best decisions of my life.

  4. I think tenacity is an important quality, my hours of half-marathon training were so worth it when I finished my first race. So perhaps learning the art of delayed gratification?

    However a lot of what you've listed I don't think of it as quitting, I think of it as changing tack. Some times you can't sustain sailing into the wind for too long, it's hard on the ship and her sailors. A different time, a different set of conditions might bring pleasure or renewed focus. I suppose the question is about quitting but doing things differently.

  5. @Mr. Fachler, I am very happy for you that your parents understood how badly you wanted to stop playing baseball. You are lucky that something that made you so miserable was not a requirement of childhood (although I think there are probably families in this country for whom baseball IS required). I am curious what you would say to a child who is as miserable in school as you were in baseball. I know there are kids out there who don't just fake illness to get them out of something at school, they actually become physically ill over it. I would doubt that any joy or learning could come of forcing a child into that situation over and over again.

    As an adult, do you have anyone pushing you into doing things that make you uncomfortable? I don't, and I am really happy about that. If the government suddenly decided that every American adult is required to know how to dance at a certain level, for instance, I would be screwed. And yet, I DO sometimes do things that make me uncomfortable, by my own choice. And I refuse to believe it had anything to do with supposedly "learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable" in school. I think that children can learn what they need, when they need it, just as adults do.

    I am also curious to see a list from you on what activities for which "I don't feel like it anymore" would be or wouldn't be sufficient reason to stop.

    I wish every child in this world could be free to learn and explore what is most interesting to him, at his own pace,in the order and the way that makes most sense to him.

  6. @Naomi, Thanks for the movie recommendation. I am going to check it out! I also think there is a way to make school so it truly is more like *exposing children to options* rather than forcing required subjects on them day after day.

    @Teacher Trainee, How do you think you would have felt about your half-marathon training if you were being forced to do it rather than choosing to do it? I know that if someone required me to train for any kind of running race, I would be miserable. I don't think tenacity is something that is learned or taught. I think that if an activity has value for an individual, the person will keep going with it. If a person can't find any value in what she is doing, then why should they have to do it?

  7. @Kate, Thanks! Sometimes I like to think of it as "taking a break" or "retiring" instead of quitting. They sound so much nicer!

  8. My pushing students into activities that they might be uncomfortable with has nothing to do with government requirements. I believe that authentic, participatory literacy is the right of every citizen.

    A fully student-centered approach is problematic (and to suggest that approaches that put a curriculum at the core isn't student-based or influenced is reductive). We (the U.S. and society at large) do not place equal emphasis in society on each of the multiple intelligences. Suggesting to students that all intelligences are valued equally is inaccurate. E.D. Hirsch says:

    "To impart adequate verbal competence is the most important single goal of schooling in any nation. Verbal scores are reliable indexes to general competence, life chances, and civic participation. Good verbal scores diminish the notorious income gap. Decades of data show that the earnings gap between racial and ethnic groups in the United States largely disappear when language competence in...English is factored in."

    But it sounds like you're saying that if a student doesn't want to read or write, we shouldn't continue to push them or find innovative ways to reach that learner.

    And that list? Critical reading, writing, listening, and speaking. That's all. What student does not deserve that? How could you justify weakness in any of these areas? Isn't it the teacher's job to model active literacy and apprentice students into it?

  9. I don't know what "student-based or influenced" means. And maybe "we" would value the other intelligences more if "we" stopped telling our students that it is inaccurate to do so. I like to suggest to people that we *can* value other types of intelligence, rather than saying "We don't, so just deal with it."

    I *am* saying we shouldn't push kids to read or write. If they aren't ready at 5 or 6, maybe we try giving them a break until they are ready. And I am certainly *not* saying we shouldn't find innovative ways to reach an individual child. I think we should reach out to different kids in different ways. To me, that could be the first step toward a "student-centered approach." But you are the one who said that would be "problematic," so I am actually really confused about your point of view now.

    And when I say we shouldn't force things on children, I am certainly not saying they don't deserve to learn. In fact, they deserve even more than that. I think it is each person's (child's) right to learn things he values most, at a pace he is most comfortable with. I am hearing that you value reading and writing most. But that is not necessarily true for everyone.

    And lastly, I don't think "listening" is a skill to be taught. I think everyone listens when they want to hear what is being said.

  10. From a cognitive standpoint, not pushing kids to read early on is a bad thing. The human mind works in such a way that the more you learn, the more you are able to learn. Students at younger ages can fall behind their peers as early as first grade if their peers have access to literary experiences, and they do not. The effect is exponential; students fall further and further behind and have virtually no chance of catching up without targeted intervention.

    I believe that our system has perpetuated the myth that it is difficult for most of the population to read. This is not true. With the exception of a slim minority (Tier 3 academic individuals, if you speak Response to Intervention language), few people lack the processing capacities to learn to read. Why we would coddle children who "aren't ready"? For what? One of the most enriching tasks an individual can set his or her or hir mind to? Sure, it's a child's right to "learn things he values most," but I think that you're setting a dangerous precedent when we allow students to opt out of that which they "do not value." Do we trust a child's valuation metrics as we trust our own? I certainly do not. And I don't say that from any kind of condescending viewpoint; I mean it matter-of-factly.

    I would not say I am smarter than my students necessarily, but I certainly know more. I've around longer. Of course I know more. It should not be anything controversial when a teacher guides children into activities they do not currently value with the knowledge that it will make them happier, more productive citizens and people. Reading really does that, even if you don't value it as I do.

    I would agree with you if you said hearing is not a skill as it is a faculty. But listen critically is definitely a skill. Individuals don't just stumble into critical engagement with the words they encounter, they are educated into it. I worry about a world where people only listen when they want to hear what's being said rather than when they need to hear what's being said or when they have a responsibility, social, personal, or otherwise to listen.

    Does everyone want to listen to stories of social injustice? Or must we bear it so we can take action? Catering to kids' self-centeredness is not a recipe for social justice or democracy. Sometimes kids have to know it's not just about them. It's about the world and its history, too.

  11. great post Vickie. thanks for sharing it here Lisa.

    so what if choice is the ultimate empowerment? what if ed/life would be way different if we just changed who's together in a room, per choice.

    and yes, probably some early quitters, or bad choices at first, till we all detoxed from a system of compliancy, and got back to the natural state of learning/doing/being.

    currently, trust is so rare. without trust, we call trying many things - quitting, and we call people who procrastinate - lazy.
    with trust, we end up with people who can't wait to get out of bed in the morning. people who can self-direct, and know where that sweet spot is for moving on. people who have found their art, and will do anything to give it away. they'll want to communicate it and share it. that will make them indispensable.

    when we trust people to be themselves, we'll no longer have as many health or budget issues. i believe it's coming.

    what's holding it back?...
    well - it's different, it's new to us in public ed. we're used to things being the same. comfy even. we're used to not quitting. but now, we can offer 1-1 people in ed. that changes everything. we can now personalize to infinity. we can let kids explore and choose. once we start seeing the empowerment from ownership, we'll start to realize that playing it safe is what's risky.

  12. @Monika, Thanks! I agree that it really comes down to trust. Trust in ourselves, and trust in others.

    @Mr. Fachler, I agree with you that the system has made learning to read seem difficult. All kids need is access to lots of written words, and for no one to force them until they are ready, and they will learn to read. When they are ready. Check this out:

    I wholeheartedly disagree with your "valuation metric" thoughts. I think my "valuation metric" is most important to me, just as any child's is to him. Don't put your valuation metric on me, or anyone else. You can't make someone value something.

    Lots of people don't value reading, and it's not as necessary anymore. Just as oral storytelling was made less important when books became widely available. You can learn almost anything without reading (on YouTube, for example, or even from a real, live person). And any child with a supportive adult can navigate the world without reading until he wants to learn to read for himself.

    Just as each child learns to walk at his own pace, each child could learn to read at his own pace. If only adults would get out of the way of this natural process.

  13. I'm not trying to "make" someone value something, but if someone does not value something vital to their well-being, I see it as our duty to help them see the value, and that usually involves helping them along with it.

    If your child's valuation metric was skewed such that they valued their comfort over their safety, would you allow them to make that choice and not wear their seat belt in a car? Or would you consider your valuation metric superior and act on behalf of that child's welfare?

    To me, intervening on behalf of a child's educational welfare is no different.

    Also, reading is as valuable as ever. It's educational malpractice to suggest otherwise. What's the point of education if we dont' value reading? Are you suggesting that the existence of YouTube has devalued books?

    And regarding your statements about children with supportive adults, w hat happens when that supportive adult goes away? What about communities in which supportive adults are at a premium?

  14. Hi Vickie

    Thanks for such a thought provoking post, loved reading it and all the discussions that ensued. I felt the need to reflect on my own experiences and those my children will have after reading this in my blog here:

    Thanks again


  15. @Mr. Fachler,

    You say, "if someone does not value something vital to their well-being, I see it as our duty to help them see the value." I say, if it's that vital to their well-being, they will see the value for themselves.

    As far as the car seat example goes, I don't put my child in a car seat to "teach him the value of it" or teach him a general lesson about safety. The car seat is a safety precaution, one that is temporary. If my child is particularly against going in his car seat, I try to avoid having to put him in it, or make it more pleasant by giving him something to play with while he's in it. I don't need to make my toddler value the car seat, I just need to figure out how to get through it for now, until he can understand and decide for himself how much time he will spend in a car.

    This is not the same as learning to read, or learning any other skill. My child can get the benefit of words without being able to read them himself. I can read to him, or he can listen to audio or watch video. Also, he has his whole life to learn how to read. What's the rush? When he feels like he wants to read for himself, he will. But not until then. And to continue with your car seat example, there are people in the modern world who never even have to wear a seat belt, as they live in cities and ride public transportation. There are people who don't read well, or don't like to read, and there are ways for them to get along in the world as well.

    And I think teachers can be supportive adults for kids who don't have one at home. Teachers can read to students who aren't ready to read for themselves, just as parents can.

  16. Hi, I am exactly like you and have been doing research on what causes this. I ran across what is called a Maximizer personality and thought I would share it: