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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lessons Learned

Today I received an email from my son's 6th grade teacher regarding his recent biography report on Adam Smith.  The email was to alert me to the fact that his teacher did not feel that the report reflected my son's typical writing style and work.  Basically, the main message was  "I know you meddled in your son's paper and he did not write this on his own."  She then went on to say that she would give him a chance to rewrite the assignment and turn in his own work.

If you don't know who Adam Smith is (which I didn't until this report) he is considered the father of economics.  He was a Scottish philosopher who wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.  Pretty heavy stuff!   My son picked him because he thought it was cool that he "had something to do with money."  Unfortunately, when we went to the library to get books on this forward thinking, influential man, there was nothing to be found in the kids biography section.   Actually, we couldn't find any books on the man.  We did find one Industrial Revolution book in the adult reference section, that had a few pages on him. The librarian also tried to help us and the best she could do was to uncover a few articles in the online book section (which basically houses books that they no longer keep in print).

So with the very limited and complex information we were able to find, my son went home and tackled his paper.  After spending a couple of hours or so writing about Adam Smith, my son showed us his work.  He did well recounting the basic information on him (where he was from, his childhood, where he studied, etc.) but as far as his ability to explain how Adam Smith contributed to the world and the impact his philosophies had on today's economy, he struggled. I mean, he really struggled.  What he wrote didn't make any sense.  And when I read the book he had and the articles he printed, I understood why.  The information was extremely complicated and written at a college level.   Not to mention, Adam Smith's theories and philosophies are hard for anyone to wrap their head around, let alone an 11 year old.

And here is where we made the mistake....we got too involved (when I say "we" I mean my husband and I and when I say "involved" I mean we spoon fed him parts of his paper).  My husband and I each took turns helping our son "rework" his paper.  We sat with him and tried to explain the material.  We gave examples to explain the concept of a free market and "the invisible hand."  We tried to clarify what Adam Smith meant when he said "moral principles have social feelings or sympathies as their basis."  (I still don't get that one).  And in doing so, we helped write my son's paper and used words that were a red-flag to his teacher.  But boiling this information down to a 6th grade level is nearly impossible.  It is just too difficult to simplify into basic terminology.

While I agree, that this was not a paper that our son could call his own, I still feel that he learned more with our involvement than not.  His teacher wants him to rewrite the paper.  I emailed her to say that I support her suggestion that he write something on his own, but I would not have him rewrite a paper on this particular Influential Person.   It would just set him up for frustration and failure.   So the big lesson we learned is that we can't just take over.  That we should have tried our best to explain the concepts and then let our son put the information on to paper,  in his own words.  It wouldn't have been perfect and it might very well have been wrong but at least it would have been his own (and he wouldn't be stuck now having to read books on Henry Ford).  


  1. So true! I also had my Adam Smith type lesson when my oldest child was in 6th grade. Back then; all 6th graders were required to do a major science project, which was displayed during an open house evening. I must admit, both my husband and I “helped” just a teeny tiny bit too much. As a looked through all of the science projects and posters, it was clear just which ones were really 6th grade level projects, and those that reflected just a little too much parent participation. My favorite project of the evening belonged to a student who had placed slices of bread in 10 different locations around the house, and tried to predict which locations would produce the best mold. The student could clearly and enthusiastically explain the project, and I realize that my over-involvement in my child’s experiment took away his opportunity to own it the way this student had. I’m finding it much easier to “back off” with my younger children thanks to the moldy bread lesson!

  2. Thanks for the comment. Sometimes it is hard to not step in. I love the moldy bread project--what a great reminder of how even simple things can yield terrific results.


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