I ended 2010 by going to see “The Tourist.” The reviews were awful, but Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp did their best to channel Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in a romp around Venice and it was a great holiday indulgence.
I won’t get another chance for such carefree hours for a long time. And in part that’s because I started the new year with a very different movie: “Race to Nowhere”, produced and co-directed by filmmaker, and not incidentally, mother, Vicki Abeles.
The film, which has been praised by The New York Times, Oprah, the Washington Post, and school groups nationwide, casts a harsh light on the nature of education students endure as routine. Though the focus of the film is on private schools, the message, that teaching geared to standardized tests is doing too little to give kids real learning experiences and too much to heighten stress, is as much an indictment of the public school system as the private.
Abeles is a gifted storyteller and from the opening shot of students swarming up and down the staircase of some anonymous high school, the lyrics to “Nobody Knows Me At All” playing eerily as backdrop, she pulls you into the problem: “I can’t remember the last time I had a chance to go out in the backyard and just run around,” one adolescent girl tells us, looking straight into the camera. “School is just so much pressure that every day I would wake up dreading it,” says a teenage boy sitting at a desk in his bedroom. “I’ve sat doing my homework and just started crying,” says another.
The first minutes of the film are tricky. The viewer will either feel compassion for these beleaguered children (“My mom checked me into a stress center,” says one young woman, in tears) or impatience. “Buck up! School is hard; we’re competing globally,” some viewers will be tempted to respond. And early on Ann Appert, a school trustee from an upscale community in Northern California states the obvious: “Some of the pressure is real: if you want the same opportunities your parents had you’ll have to do more: you have to have better grades, more activities. It’s the pressure of the demographics.”
But Abeles tells us, “I started to see the toll that the schedule and the stress was taking on them [her three children]…our oldest daughter looks like all is well, but she doesn’t have time to sleep at night or to hang out with friends…” And then she drops a bomb: a 13-year-old girl in the community committed suicide due, we find out, to her inability to be perfect, to get a particular math score.
Abeles is not an over-anxious mother. She is a smart woman with a drive to pursue hard questions. “I wanted to understand what was going on,” she tells us. ”I started talking to parents, students, experts. I visited schools across the country. I was determined to find out how we had gotten to a place where our family had so little time together and kids were physically sick and a 13-year-old girl had taken her life.”
The film documents her quest to get those answers. She takes us behind the symptoms and illuminates a mad, AP test-driven culture that makes kids sick, teachers despair, and overwhelms family culture, without doing anything to make kids more competitive in the global marketplace. “Race to Nowhere” is an important film but I was slow to get the connection between the story Vicki tells and what we do at Independent Means. The connection is important.
Solutions to the challenges of 21st century life won’t be found on multiple choice tests or by cheating to attain top grades. “The point of education is to learn, not to memorize,” says one teacher, as though that were not self evident—and of course in today’s system it is not. At Independent Means, we don’t grade the kids we work with. We don’t ask what their grades at school are. It doesn’t matter. We meet them at whatever their level is, create a learning environment and proceed from there. Mastery, discovery, and insight are our goals, not a number or a grade average. Whatever their level, we work with it; whatever their interests, we identify them and use them as learning tools. We call this NORMAL.
I forget this is not the standard nature of education. Rarely do kids see their mission and purpose clearly when they are young, but helping them explore possibility and knowing that learning can be satisfying when connected to purpose is critical. Building an environment and relationships within which they can learn is vital.
Encouraging inquiry, play, curiosity, and passion is at the heart of real education and as important to building great communities as to building great families. At Independent Means, we don’t use standardized tests to assess progress. We don’t pit one kid against another. And we don’t define success as doing better in the mastery of skills and experiences as a brother or sister. Instead we listen to children’s goals and dreams. We can SEE them learn when they are having fun, when they are engaged and engrossed. When they are in that state of “flow” so brilliantly described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Abeles is not an advocate for easier schools. She is an advocate for learning that enhances and encourages the kind of creativity that will be required to solve 21st century problems. She is an advocate for schools in which young people flourish, rather than collapse in the face of misguided policies and an homogenizing culture. She is a loving parent who wants the best for children. That should not be such a radical idea in a country famous for innovation and creativity.
At the end of the film, Blue Man Group founder Matt Goldman asks, Why can’t happiness be a metric, as much as math or reading scores?” Goldman’s very successful company is built on principles of play and discovery. And, he announces, “It’s a crazy idea, but we’re starting the Blue School for children. The school’s mission is to cultivate creative, joyful, and compassionate inquirers who use courageous and innovative thinking to build a harmonious and sustainable world.
Now THAT’S a journey to somewhere.
Find (or request) a screening of Race to Nowhere near you.
Learn more about Blue School.
Or learn more about our approach to financial education.