Is Anyone Measuring All this Educational Measuring?

When I talked to my Danish husband about getting grades when I was in kindergarten, he almost fell off the bed. “What in the world did you get grades for?” We would discuss our childhoods at length and I remember thinking that my poor husband must have been neglected. Apparently he just played a lot, he didn’t start school until he was 7 and grades were not important until he was older. I felt sorry for him that no one had taken a more active role in his academic development and just let him play so frivolously as a child. I assumed his incredible sense of self-confidence, intelligence and general positive nature was an anomaly for Denmark.

Many years, two children and four countries later, and I have a much deeper understanding of what different parenting models look like in other cultures, especially Scandinavia. And I can honestly say that I now have a very different opinion. You see, after my daughter was born a strange thing happened. Instead of referring to all the parenting books I had read, I began deferring to my Danish family and friends for advice on everything from breastfeeding to education to language choice, and I really liked what I heard.

This continued well after my son was born until I became a total convert to the Danish way of parenting. It was similar to positive parenting but based on generations of one country using it successfully. So I was even more convinced when I read that Denmark had been voted as one of the happiest countries in the world for over 40 years in a row! This was news to me but it suddenly all made sense. The Danish parenting philosophy is based on children needing to be children and playing. They believe play is valuable learning. The goal is not to measure kids with grades and assessments but to respect them where they are at in their learning process. This fosters the joy of learning from the inside out, not from the outside in- where they have to constantly prove to adults they are good enough.

Once I finally got over my need to have measurable proof that the Danish way was working, I stopped feeling like a bad parent for not pushing my kids more. I trusted my intuition and relaxed. But what better measure was there than topping the world happiness reports for more than 40 years in a row I wondered? As an American, I started to wonder why this philosophy hadn’t caught on more considering we have the pursuit of happiness built into our own Declaration of Independence and mountains of books devoted to obtaining it. Why are we going in such an opposite direction?

One of the main reasons free play has decreased in America, is partly because we can’t measure it’s worth. And if we can’t measure it, we can’t believe in it. We feel lazy or like we aren’t doing enough. After all, how can we prove our kids are learning without a measure? So we test and we grade and we strip more and more recess from kids’ schooling. We replace play with more and more homework, tutors and adult led activities to provide a competitive edge. We measure the teachers who have to measure the kids who have to stress the parents to push them to perform and measure up.

But then it struck me. Has anyone ever measured all this measuring?

Do we have any proof that measuring even works in growing well adjusted happy kids? It seems like a valid question worth asking as we see rising anxiety levels across the board and kids as young as 4 being subjected to standardized testing. Research is coming out left and right that homework isn’t necessary, that testing is harming kids and that no matter how early a child reads, it evens out eventually. The only difference is that the kids who are pushed to read earlier will have higher levels of anxiety  along with those initial higher test scores.

Where are the studies that assure us that more grading, measuring and testing for younger and younger children is actually doing any good for the wellbeing of society? If we can’t look to the country with 40 years of happiness as a measurement for success than what about the country that is a global leader in education? Could we learn something from them?

Interestingly enough, that country is Finland, Denmark’s northern Scandinavian neighbor with an extremely similar parenting and education model to the Danish one. They have a great respect for free play, they start school at age 7 and “teaching to the test” or measuring children, as we know it, doesn’t exist.

Knowing this, I can’t help but wonder why we aren’t asking if all these measures we are putting on kids just aren’t adding up?  

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