I sat with my 12yo daughter tonight, encouraging her to get her homework done.

She was working on her monthly reading assignment she gets to pick the book, she has a whole list of options for what to do for the assignment and I’m pretty sure her teacher would allow them to suggest alternatives, if they want. The options include written assignments, comic strips, Power Point presentations, videos, etc. The kids are allowed to use any method and any medium they like.

My daughter loves art, so shes drawing a comic strip. She has said before that she doesn’t like when the teacher picks the novel, so shes allowed to make her own choice. I thought shed like this assignment.

And yet she resists.

Is it just because its homework and therefore its automatically onerous?
Is it because she gets anxious about getting things done, or because perfectionism makes her want it to be so fantastic that the task is daunting?
Would she just, plain, rather be playing?

These things are probably part of it. But this is a kid who makes up long, complex stories with her brothers, spends hours drawing on Google Sketchup, researches dog breeds to incredible depth and regularly blows me away with her questions and ideas.

As she whined and complained about having to do the work, I asked her But you like drawing, you got to to choose the book. How come you dont like doing this assignment? It seemed to me that her teacher had done the stuff we always talk about empowering learners, providing choice, allowing personalization.

Because I don’t like being forced to do it. she responded.

So we talked about the times when we have to do things, even when that’s not our choice, but that it has a larger purpose in our lives. I don’t like paying bills, but I love my family and want us to have a place to live and keep it heated and have electricity for lights, etc And that perspective can help me grind through the stuff I don’t necessarily enjoy with a lighter heart.

She looked at me, agreeing in principle. But nothing resonated with her here. She can relate to having to clean her room so that she can have her friends over or so that she find her things when she wants them. She can understand having to scrub the bathroom so that we all have a home that is healthy. But she cant understand how drawing a comic strip about her favorite scene in this novel helps her achieve her dreams or that it will somehow help her function in life. She grudgingly went back to her homework seeing it simply as the hoop she has to jump through in this game we call school.

In that moment, I realized something. She had no idea why reading and comprehension are important for her life. This assignment isn’t meaningful for her, at all! There is no relevance. And I also realized that I’m not sure how the assignment relates to real world skills either?

Its assumed that reading is important and that kids need to be able to show their comprehension somehow with some sort of output. We all agree that its a necessary skill. But why? What is the end goal of reading? Of a book report? Of a monthly reading assignment?

I struggle a little to understand her disinterest because, to me, reading is almost as necessary as breathing. I love it. I love the art of it, just for the experience of it. I love rolling the words around on my tongue, tasting them, imagining the scenes being painted, letting the ideas stretch and dance in my mind. At her age, reading was my escape.

But as I think about it, my daughter would prefer to make up her own stories. She is a creator more than a consumer. She loves reading for facts absorbing and retaining information as quickly as she can find it. But has never loved reading fiction.

In fact, isn’t that true of the culture of this generation? These kids are creating all sorts of content! YouTube. Blogs. Facebook. Photos. Creating their own characters on all sorts of game sites. They create their own avatars on our Wii. They engage with the world, expecting to be part of creating their own experiences. They are less willing to sit back and receive. To consume. To accept what they’re given.

I sit here wondering what this all means?

If my daughter never does connect with a love of reading, is that a problem? She has other ways of experiencing her love of art and stretching her imagination. She engages with storytelling constantly with her brothers, with her friends, in her own head. In fact, she enjoys reading when it has a social component for her she loves snuggling up to me in bed, both of us lost in our own books but sharing a moment together. And she has certainly shown her ability to read and consume information, as well as assess and communicate her findings. Shes got the basics down.

Beyond that, what are the necessary skills for navigating this world? For being a contributing citizen? For connecting with others? For supporting herself and her family? How do we show kids the relevance of what they’re being taught when were not really clear on that ourselves?

I grew up in a world of have to and should be and seeking to please those in authority. I excelled in school partly because I just plain love learning, partly because I was really good at knowing what people expected of me and delivering that. I found it easy to succeed in the existing system in school and upon entering the workforce.

But is that the world that our children are coming into? Is that what we want to prepare them for? To obey? And jump through hoops?

Because I think were giving them some really mixed messages right now. On the one hand, were encouraging them to care to stand up against bullies, to make changes that will save our environment and feed the hungry. We are empowering them to stand up and make a difference. Were telling them we want them to care and to be passionate about what matters to them.

And yet we expect them to do their homework, even when they don’t understand why they’re doing it. Because these are the rules and that’s what they need to do in order to get the marks and move on to the next level. In fact, this is the work world that we know as well one of rule following and doing as were told, even when it doesn’t make sense. Where the world of Dilbert is just a little too close to the truth in our organizations

I sit here, wondering which way this will all go? Which messages will our children absorb? Is this part of our path, our journey of change? Is this how societal change happens? No wonder our kids are struggling at times were struggling too! Yes indeed, times of change are difficult because this churning, this indecision and mixed messages, this uncertainty its a necessary part of revolution and its uncomfortable. Were trying to figure out how to do all these things were talking about and its hard work, darn it!

And I wonder about my little girl who is growing up so quickly, who is so bright and so determined. Will she change the world? Or will the world change her?