The Peer Group Is All-Important

Mat 23:4For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”

Danny decided to better himself and become more flexible in the job market given the prevalent economic uncertainty. He went to the web site of the Open University and looked for a course package that would appeal to him.

After due consideration, he decided on a subject, whereupon he proceeded with his enrolment. The course involved a number of challenging assignments, all accompanied by due dates and form prescriptions in terms of word count, letter type, and such like. Danny was not fazed.

Full of enthusiasm, he started on the course work. He industriously complied with all the required readings, studied the assignment requirements, and set to work. Well before the deadline he finished assignment number one and sent it away.

It was less than a fortnight later that he received word back. His assignment did not pass muster. He had failed miserably. The kind lecturer gave many tips as to how to improve the work for resubmission. Disappointed, but not down, Danny set to work again. He carefully followed the lecturer’s suggestions and, with hope in his heart, resubmitted. The result, though slightly better, still was a disappointment. Danny did not manage to pass even on second submission.

Danny was thoroughly disheartened. After honest and deep contemplation, he decided that he had overreached and that he needed to bite the bullet and quit. Perhaps he should have another look at the courses and take on something more realistic and in keeping with his current abilities…

The family of little Shaun and Emily moved to a new district. The 7- and 9-year-old embarked on the adventure of a new school. They were kindly received, then tested on their abilities, and placed in a class room with their peers.

It was not long before both children became fractious and unhappy. Shaun could not care less whether he did his homework or not. Emily did not have any homework, because she finished everything in school time. She said school was boring. Meetings between the teachers and parents followed. It was agreed that Shaun struggled and required some remedial help. Emily needed no help at all; perhaps she could be given some extra work, expanding her challenges in that manner. The teachers would do their best, but with the large number of students in their care, it would be difficult.

At the end of the year, Shaun was promoted to the next grade, even though his progress reports showed failure after failure. Emily was promoted as well, with straight A’s all over her list. Both children looked forward to the summer holidays and nagged their parents for a different school come February.

In February school commenced; the children joined their peers, Shaun was looking at another year of discouragement and remedial treatment. Emily’s motivation was also at a low and she decided to do what was necessary to get by…

Danny had a choice; he could decide to quit his course when he noticed it was above his ability. He could adjust and find something more suitable. Shaun and Emily were locked in a system from which there was no escape. Shaun was forced to endure the ignominy of failure after failure; Emily was exposed to what she called Kindergarten material which she considered humiliatingly unchallenging. However, as the Principal pointed out, it was important to keep the children in their peer groups. It would not do to place them with those older or younger than they, as this would stunt their emotional development.

Meet Caleb (not his real name). He was brought to this little Christian school. Dad and Mum said that Caleb was a problem student in his current school and did not perform well at all. In fact, the larger part of the day he was forced to reside outside the class room. On his report card the teacher had written, regarding his reading skills that Caleb needed to guess more! Caleb did not want to guess; he wanted to read! This nine-year-old was by now on the level of a six-year-old student, even though there was nothing wrong with his cerebral capabilities. He did not like school anymore. “And then to think how he started so full of enthusiasm,” Mum remarked.

The long and short of it was that the Principal and the parents agreed that Caleb would start according to ability with the little ones, moving between different groups fluidly to tap in to his present abilities. Being more mature, he would succeed at a faster pace and consequently move through the ranks ever more closely to his peers, all the while tasting academic success. Caleb finished high school within a year of his peers and went on to do a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science at university. As an adult he wrote on Facebook how that little Christian school and its teaching approach had been the saving of him in terms of developing his abilities.

Caleb was not forced to sit in class with his peers and be confronted with repeat failure. He was not singled out for remedial (often sensed as humiliating) lessons. He was successful in class, and was able to join his peers outside class when playing games (during PE lessons he did join his peers, by the way, and outshone most of them).

The Lord Jesus accuses the Pharisees (Matthew 23:4) that they put heavy and grievous burdens on the people with the rules and regulations beyond God’s requirements. The people are suffering and the joy of godly service is eroded. It is fair to assume that many of the religious leaders implemented this practice out of a genuine desire to serve God wholeheartedly. Yet, whether the intentions were noble or not, they received fulsome condemnation. The burdens were heavy, the failures were multiple.

In like manner, educationalists – with the best of intentions – place burdens upon children which they would not place upon themselves! An adult who enters on a course of study will do so within his capabilities. Should there be an error of judgement, the course will be discontinued and, perhaps, a more suitable one entertained. School children, as a rule, are not given that choice in the traditional system. For some reason it is determined that it is all-important for them to mingle with peers, even when they are to concentrate on cerebral pursuits. Why, intellectually mismatched children who are being set the same challenges are usually a hindrance to each other in class time! The discouraged ones skulk away (generally a girls’ thing) or resort to bravado (a trademark reaction of most boys); the capable students are irritated by unwanted distractions. The nett result is a teacher with a classroom replete with behavioural challenges.

When considering the eagerness of the little five-year-olds upon entering ‘the big school,’ it is a shame upon the education system to erode this eagerness by providing systemic failure on the one hand and systemic boredom on the other. Success breeds motivation. Success is achieved by enabling children to punch according to their weight, not above their weight, or below their weight. A good school will strive to place just the right expectation (burden) upon each child’s shoulders, in keeping with capability and maturity, regardless of age. I would submit that many schools, including a number of Christian schools, unwittingly torture children with the misguided concept of peer group education, producing unintended child-abuse and procuring motivation-eroded people.

“One may miss the mark by aiming too high as too low.”
Thomas Fuller (English clergyman, 1608-1661)

Dr Herm Zandman