Are You Smarter Than a 6th Grader?

by Amy McGarry

Recently, in the wonderful life of pandemic parenting and schooling from home (snicker snicker), I found myself on Google trying to relearn how to determine the numbers of protons, neutrons and electrons in an atom. Pretty basic stuff. Stuff I had to have learned in high school. As a junior, I took honors chemistry, for Pete’s sake.

And yet, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember any of it.

Next came geometry. While I confess, I never liked math, I always managed to pull an A, and I remember enjoying geometry. Here I could be of some help! Alas, as she pulled up the problems that included finding the area of multi-sided, irregular shaped constructs, I scratched my head, baffled.

When it came time for history class, I was thrilled. Here was a subject I loved! Surely, I could be of some help now. I opened the textbook to the chapter on the Persian Wars. Nope. Didn’t ring a bell. I began reading the chapter to learn it so I could help her with the questions.

Every day, I sit down with my 6th grade daughter to help her navigate her online classes. That is my euphemism for what’s really happening, which is me cracking the whip to make sure she actually does what she’s supposed to. Apparently, I’ve failed miserably at raising an intrinsically motivated child. Every day, it’s the same broken record, the same complaints out of my daughter’s mouth.

“Why do I have to learn this?” she whines.

“How am I ever going to use this?” she demands.

“It’s a waste of time! Why can’t I learn something useful?” she pleads.

Or my very favorite (snicker snicker), “This is sooooo stupid!”

While I may have failed miserably at raising an intrinsically motivated child, I can be frustratedly proud that at least she questions authority.

I listen to my daughter’s complaints in earnest, recognizing that, in some ways. she is right. I can’t answer the question “How am I ever going to use this?” because a lot of this she will never use. Like her good ol’ mom, she won’t remember any of it after taking the test. I think back, overwhelmed by what I don’t remember, I try the opposite approach. What do I remember? And more importantly, why do I remember?

Mostly what I remember from high school was from my favorite classes, electives like psychology, mythology, and communications. Of course, we will always learn something better if it’s something in which we’re interested. And, in my teacher training, I learned that there are certain “best practices” in teaching that help students learn. Practices such as cooperative learning, where kids work together in groups. Or the most fundamental of best practices: learning by doing.

Herein lies the rub: It’s hard to implement these best practices in online school.

But back to the real issue at hand, my daughter’s daily mantra: “Why I do I need to learn this? When will I ever use this?”

In my mind, I’m bemoaning the fact that I never learned economics, finance, or even civics in a way that I remember. I think of all the useful things she could be learning but is not.

Instead of addressing this, I reason with this intelligent young gal I’m raising, “But what if you will use it? What if you wake up tomorrow and decide you want to be a nuclear physicist, but you can’t because you didn’t learn the basic chemistry that you need to for your college courses?”

“Homer Simpson did,” she argues.

“Ha. Ha.” I answer with no humor. “He’s a safety inspector, not a nuclear physicist.”

“A nuclear safety inspector,” she argues, like she does with every freaking thing I say.

“He’s not real! He’s a fictional character!” I’m losing my patience, which happens a lot these days, even though I know she’s just trying to push my buttons, which also happens a lot these days.

But now she has me thinking. In today’s world, you can literally Google the formula for any geometric equation or skip that step and just get the answer. You can find a YouTube video that will instruct you on how to do anything. Or, like I did to help her with science, you can ask Google how many protons, neutrons and electrons are in an atom. In a world where anything you could ever want to know is at your fingertips, what, pray tell, is the point of school?

I remember my brother’s argument, a math genius who says everyone should take higher level math despite the fact that most of us will never use it.

“It teaches you logical thinking,” he claims.

He has a point. While I’m not convinced I need calculus to learn logical thinking, I do believe the brain benefits from the exercise of learning. I try that argument with my kid.

“You are exercising your brain!” I exclaim, hoping my enthusiasm will be absorbed like the osmosis I magically remember from biology. “You are learning to learn!”

Of course, she doesn’t buy it.

Maybe I’m finally and legitimately losing my mind with the stress of quarantine, homeschooling and life during the pandemic in general. But I begin to ask myself if there might be a better way of thinking about how we prepare kids to be citizens and lifelong learners. Is the way we do schooling now the best approach?

When I was a student teacher for 8th grade English and history, my mentor teacher confessed his radical idea for middle school students. With the brain science proving that middle school students’ minds are not wired well for traditional classroom learning, his idea was to put all middle school students in “work study” programs, apprenticeships. Each kid could choose some job they wanted to learn more about, and instead of sitting in a chair where it’s physically impossible for some of them to sit still, they can be up and moving and learning real life skills.

City School in Spokane is actually a model for that. Why don’t I send my kid there? Simple. The single most important thing to my daughter, as is normal and healthy for any middle school kid, is her friends. Seeing her friends is literally the only incentive to go to school some days. She’ll continue in our neighborhood schools so she can interact with her friends at school every day.

How she must miss that now!

As mature adults, we understand that going through life often requires jumping through hoops. There are certain things we just have to do, whether it’s necessary, or even useful. I explain this to her, but it’s hard to grapple with when you’re an 11-year-old.

I don’t claim to have the answers. I encourage my daughter to try her hardest in all of her classes, even if she thinks she’ll never use the information, what if she will, and she just doesn’t know it now?

In the meantime, I will sit by her side trudging through online classes, keeping Google in my hand.

Amy McGarry grew up in Spokane Valley, Washington. After a 20 year hiatus, she moved back to Spokane Valley where she lives with her husband, daughter and two cats. She teaches English as a Second Language at Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute, the American branch of Mukogawa Women’s University in Japan. I am Farang is her first book and available on Amazon.com and Auntie’s Bookstore.

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