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Sit Down, Shut Up and Learn


Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced a new $500 million state-level grant competition, the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge.  The program is intended to encourage better coordination, clearer learning standards and increased access to early learning programs for low income and disadvantaged children. Like the previous Race to the Top initiatives, states will compete with each other for the one-time grants that allow them to spend more on education with other people’s money.

Responding to a question about some of the problems in the development of young children, Sebelius said “if a 5-year-old can’t sit still, it is unlikely that they can do well in a kindergarten class”.  While you can watch the video for context, the implication of what she said is frightening. The same government that wants to control the education of our children from ages 5 to 18, or now 3 to 18, thinks that learning can only be had by sitting still in class, despite ample evidence that that is not true, and such a mindset will further degrade learning. 

Children are active beings; they have extraordinary energy and need an outlet for that energy, especially in their early years.  Parents don’t teach their kids to speak or brush their teeth or tie their shoes by forcing them in a seat and not allowing them to move while lecturing them in 40 minute blocks.  Perhaps the only thing that parents need their children to “sit still” for is to become potty trained.  For the government to suggest that children need to sit still to learn shows either their arrogance or their ignorance – that is if their ultimate goal is education.

Children are sponges, they are eager to learn and not easily deterred from it – until they get to school.  Schools do a wonderful job of taking the joy out of learning, of making learning more of a chore or a punishment than an essential component to an enjoyable and fulfilling life.  One way they do this is by telling the kids to sit down and shut up. If the kids are fidgety, then they suggest that there is something wrong with the kid, as Sebelius essentially did. Such an attitude leads to the browbeating of children for the crime of being children, and oftentimes leads to unnecessary medication to calm kids down and to get them to focus.

Tying these young children to chairs as if they were chained animals will not result in proper education.  The state has it wrong, as Sebelius made clear through her implicit belief that 5-year olds need to be at a certain readiness level for math and reading.  What the state doesn’t understand, or what they disregard is that each child is different with unique learning styles and personalities.  While the state expects every child to have certain skills at a certain point in the school year (ignoring that children in a given grade aren’t all born on the same day), what is best for an individual child will likely not conform to the special interest driven standards written by the state.

The problem with education in America has nothing to do with the kids.  No matter how much money the government throws at the education problem, it won’t solve the fundamental problem in education – government intervention.



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32 Responses to " Sit Down, Shut Up and Learn "

  1. I love this quote, well I don’t love it because it is so sad that it is so true! I didn’t always love school when I was young but it wasn’t as bad as it is now as the teachers freedom to teach for the sake of learning and love of learning is taken away a little more each year
    “Schools do a wonderful job of taking the joy out of learning, of making learning more of a chore or a punishment than an essential component to an enjoyable and fulfilling life.”

  2. M. Reyling says:

    Wow, thank you for posting this. Finland has the most envied educational system in the world, and they don’t even start formal academic schooling until age 7. While they do have universal (non-academic) preschool, students only experience social/emotional learning, role-based play, etc. We keep sending delegations there to find out their secret formula, but we just don’t seem to like the answer…

    • Antonio Buehler says:

      “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
      ~ Albert Einstein (attributed)

  3. Adam says:

    This is a fine article right up until the last line. Government intervention funds education, and if the government doesn’t intervene, some kids don’t get educated. Government doesn’t always do the right thing, as your article clearly points out, and we need to work to correct those problems. But concluding that government IS the problem is ludicrous. Try getting educated in Somalia if you think education works without government.

    • Antonio Buehler says:

      Adam, I used to believe the same thing – that without the government people wouldn’t get educated. However, the fact is that most people aren’t being educated through the government, despite government coercion, and it is making us all weaker and poorer as a result. The overwhelming majority of children, and society as a whole would be far better off if parents were left to educate their children as they saw fit. Far cheaper and superior education opportunities would open up, and the poor would still be able to be educated through parental involvement and charitable contributions.

      • Meg says:

        When the government, or anyone provides FUNDING to people who do know a thing or two about appropriate education during the early years, amazing things happen. It’s not about the government coming in and taking over, it’s about providing the funds necessary to do it right and finding the right people to do the job. If you want to see how that concept works….do some research on the Keys to Quality Program in Pennsylvania…outcomes are strong and children are entering public school better prepared than they were a decade ago. Quality education is NOT cheap, and far too many parents from all economic levels do too little to ensure that there children are receiving a solid start early in life, or continued support through grade school and highschool. If we are to ever become the innovative society that other emerging countries are becoming, we have to focus on superior education for all children to reach their individual fullest potential.

      • Meg says:

        And to further clarify, when I say “do it right” in early education I mean hands on activities that engage a child’s mind, interests, body and unique ways of learning. That fosters creativity and instills a life-long love of investigation and learning…not sitting still.

        • Antonio Buehler says:

          Meg, I only wish you were right. Would you say that when the government, or anyone provides FUNDING to people who do know a thing or two about appropriate education during school years that amazing things happen? If so, why do we spend the second most per student in the world and get such horrible outcomes? When the government provides funds, it locks out those who would innovate and provide better services at lower costs. Saying that kids are entering public schools “better prepared than they were a decade ago” is a dubious argument as the cost of those programs and the damage that they do to the development of a child can far outweigh the “benefits” of the program, especially when the measure of prepared is a false measure based on the belief that each 5 year old must be ready to proceed according to the state’s timeline.

          Arguing that quality education “is NOT cheap” is also a tough argument to buy into. Considering that terrible public education is NOT cheap, how much do we have to pay to get quality education? Is the ~$25,000 spent per year per child in Washington D.C. enough?

          This nation was the most innovative society in the world for over 200 years, and most of that time we did not have compulsory public education. I agree we need to focus on superior education for all children to reach their fullest potential; that is why I oppose the general public schools, as they fail to educate, but destroy potential.

          • Linda says:

            Whoa there, Antonio! I am on the board of education for a school district which gets outstanding results–regular public schools, which take one and take all who show up ath the door! Schools in middle class neighborhoods are not failing to educate! There must be some horrible schools in some inner cities and poor rural areas, but, by and large, public schools are filled with smart, dedicated teachers and students who are learning just fine. When children come to school feeling well, having had an enriching pre-school experience (at home or otherwise) and well-rested, the learn. However, schools are under more and more pressure to “destroy potential,” and teach kids to fill in bubbles on tests which measure shallow learning, at best.

          • Antonio Buehler says:

            Linda, you must be on the board for the ONLY school district in America that gets “outstanding results”. I would love to know what constitutes “outstanding results” in your public schools. If you think students “are learning just fine” in middle class and affluent neighborhoods then you have a very low standard of what “learning” is and you should revisit it before you stand for reelection.

    • Tara says:

      Adam, you cannot compare the U.S. To Somalia. The government cannot even monitor itself let alone education. And, in regards to your argument, w/o intervention some kids get left behind. With intervention, a different group of kids will get left behind. As is the case with the testing. Kids lose out, especially those who struggle, when band, art, gym, trade classes etc get eliminated because they need to meet “basic requirements.” please, start questioning these basics, who they affect, and why.

  4. MJKinCA says:

    Excellent post Antonio – thank you for sharing. I have long thought that the idea that learning occurrrs best by spoon feeding it at set intervals to children essentially chained to a desk is an offense to our basic nature – which is to say that all children LOVE to learn. Only when it’s forced upon them do they lose that love. Public education is a one size production that does not fit everyone.

    @Adam – I think you missed the bigger picture, and got hung up on the last line. That’s clear or you wouldn’t have admonished the author for saying it. Not all education is funded by government intervention. Yet all public education in the US is and along with this governement funding comes the idea that education must be undertaken in a prescribed manner – specifically sitting quitely and behaving, and that’s what this article is addressing.

    Your suggestion to “try getting educated in Somalia” is irrelevant to the situation. Who says we all WANT to “get an education” in this manner? Government funded education in the US is a relatively NEW concept. And I believe if you research it fully (it being government involvement in education world wide), you’ll find a direct correlation between the size and influence (IE control) of a government and the funding it provides for the supposed education of it’s citizens. The more it funds the system, the more control it has over the product of the system.

    You say, “Government doesn’t always do the right thing, as your article clearly points out, and we need to work to correct those problems. But concluding that government IS the problem is ludicrous”

    So I ask you Adam, what are the problems? How would you recommend that they be fixed? Is more testing and all that goes with it the answer? Are higher standards the answer? You admit that government doesn’t always do the right thing and we need to work to correct “those problems.” Are you saying the government intervention and control of education, of LEARNING is not the problem? If not, then pray tell, what IS the problem?

  5. Susan Harman says:

    No one should be trying to sit 5-year-olds down – especially not for the drill and kill curriculum Obama threatens them with. For a beautiful fairy tale, yes; when the woman who rescues bats comes to visit, yes; but for grunting at letter-by-letter nonsense words, NO. What do you know about 5-year-olds, anyhow, Kathleen?

    • Antonio Buehler says:

      The government seems to do a lot more damage than good in virtually everything they do – I don’t know why people would expect anything better from government schools.

  6. Dominique says:

    I think her improper grammar is funny: “if a 5-year-old can’t sit still, it is unlikely that they can do well in a kindergarten class”. It should be “…that he or she can…”. Bad example. Thank you for the article; my son will be 4 this summer and everyone is asking me why he is not already in school. I teach him a lot, and have been nervous about continuing with a new baby at home, but then I ‘come to my senses’ after reading this.

    • Antonio Buehler says:

      “Thank you for the article; my son will be 4 this summer and everyone is asking me why he is not already in school. I teach him a lot, and have been nervous about continuing with a new baby at home, but then I ‘come to my senses’ after reading this.”

      Absolutely! All we have to do to see what is readily apparent is open our eyes. Those who think our kids belong in school choose not to open their eyes.

    • Linda says:

      Dominique, if you live in a reasonably affluent neighborhood, chances are that your children will flourish in their neighborhood public school. Young children will be in classrooms set up for moving around, playing, doing fun things which are the basis of early learning. They will be read to, given snacks, and going outside to play. Please go and visit! In all probability, you will see a school you’d like your children to attend!

      • Antonio Buehler says:

        Linda, please tell us what magical school district you are talking about, where rainbows come in through the windows and kids don’t have the love of learning sapped from their souls.

  7. [...] Arnie Duncie, Secretary of Education, promotes more Race to the Top competition grants and U.S. Secretary of Health and Humans Services blames the children. I don’t this is an improvement from blaming teachers. [...]

  8. Leslie says:

    Good God. My daughter couldn’t sit still at five. She taught herself to read, however. And at 15, she teaches martial arts. Perhaps this is because we pulled her out of school in the fourth grade.

  9. mike kiley says:

    Wonderful site. I just started one and would like to add you to it especially with this type of information Please let me know if you approve.
    I have put together a daily blog intended to be used as an additional study tool for you and your child. History, math, science, vocabulary, and geography are given every day many with a link to the document to study. I also have researched sources that I hope may be helpful to you as an aide for your child. The site is actually very child friendly in terms of use.
    I ask you to visit it and see what it has to offer. The first post “The Furniture of the Human Mind” will explain the site and hopefully you will look around.
    Thank You

    • Antonio Buehler says:

      Mike, we’d be happy to have you add us to your site. I look forward to visiting your site in the future.

      Thank you,

  10. Dawn says:

    . But I will also remind them of all the ways in which our public education system is failing our kids, destroying lives and destroying families.

    I am a public educator. Specifically explain how I have failed my students’, destroyed lives and/or families.

    • Antonio Buehler says:

      Do you tailor your teaching to the individual learning needs of each of your students? Do you bring out their full potential, and don’t allow them to be made to feel stupid by not keeping up with an arbitrarily defined curriculum timeline or by their peers? Do none of your students ever join the 20% of Americans who are functionally illiterate? Do you ever place classroom management as a priority over a student’s education?

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