Children, Learning, and the 'Evaluative Gaze' of School

How a watched pot loses the desire to boil.

by Carol Black


One night when I was in fifth grade I stopped doing my homework and burst into the kitchen afire with the excitement of discovery. “Mom!” I said. “I just realized something!”

My mother looked up from the sink where she was doing the dishes. “What’s that?” she said.

I looked at her and announced: 

“I just realized that you should never do anything you love for school, because that will make you hate it!”

I don’t remember what my mother said at that point. I think she just looked at me sort of the way a dog looks when it hears a strange sound.


Let me explain. Our teacher had given us the option to write a report on any topic of our choosing, and for me–– well, let's just say that for a person whose family didn’t have the kind of money it took to have much actual contact with horses, I had a fervent love for –– and a truly impressive depth of knowledge about  –– horses. So I had dived into writing my report (on horses) with unbridled (so to speak) enthusiasm. 

But as the work neared completion, a sinking feeling slowly, gradually began to come over me. 

Finally I realized what it was.

It was the dread of handing it in to be evaluated.

Bear with me here. I'm trying to get at a subtle thing, a thing that generally hides in plain sight, although I believe it drives a great deal of what happens –– or fails to happen –– in education.

Call it the 'evaluative gaze' of school.

There is something profoundly deadening to a curious, engaged child about the feeling of being watched and measured, or even, some studies suggest, the anticipation of being measured. Sure, some kids seem to dig it. They preen and pose for it, they compete with their friends for it, they want to be better than everybody else. But everybody can’t be better than everybody else, and this business of being constantly scrutinized and compared to others does something insidious to the life of a child. I've seen kids drop what they're doing in an instant when they realize they're being observed in an appraising way. A wall goes up. The lights go out. As psychologist Peter Gray puts it, 

Evaluation, when it is not asked for, and when it has consequences as it does in school, is a threat. It narrows the mind... it inhibits new learning, new insights, and creative thought—the very processes that some people think school is supposed to promote.

The book Reviving Ophelia talks about the change that comes over our girls when they realize their bodies are always being watched and evaluated. When they realize they are constantly being ranked and compared to other girls, assessed by “standards” of beauty that many can never meet, "standards" by which they are never good enough,"standards" that don't take into account their individuality, their diversity, their idiosyncratic radiance, the sensation of that appraising gaze gets inside them, and not in a good way. Of course the ones who are deemed “less than” are hardest hit. But even the girls who meet the standards –– the ones who are told they are perfect “10’s” –– are demeaned and diminished by this gaze. Under its quantifying eye, girls who were funny and fearless and joyful and confident can become constrained and self-conscious, hobbled by self-doubt and self-loathing. They become prone to depression and anxiety and compulsive behaviors. The life seems to leak out of them.

Alternatively, they eagerly present themselves for the gaze. They internalize it on Instagram until they see themselves from the outside in, even in their dreams.



The “evaluative gaze” of school, I have come to believe, does something similar to children’s experience of learning. The gaze is like the Midas touch: it changes everything it comes in contact with. In my case, it’s not that I was worried I would not get a good grade; I was an obedient, diligent child, and as far as my teachers were concerned, everything I touched was gold. But as Midas discovers the hard way, gold is a dead thing. The life is gone out of it.

Alfie Kohn has been writing for a quarter century about the destructive impacts of praise and rewards on children, and what he says hasn’t gotten any less true in the all the decades it’s been largely ignored. The problem begins early.  One day I was watching an 18-month old intently stacking one block on top of another, laser-focused, completely absorbed. When she successfully stacked three blocks,  I cheerfully exclaimed, “Good job!” She turned and looked at me with an expression that said, plain as day, “Excuse me. Did somebody ask for your opinion?” Then she stopped playing with the blocks.

That's when I understood: when you watch a child who is focused on learning, and you let them know you’re watching, and you let them know your opinion as though your opinion matters, you just took that thing away from them. You just made it yours. Your smell is all over it now.

The evaluative gaze does the greatest harm, of course, to the kids who live under a biased eye; the ones who enter school with a test score or a disciplinary record or a skin color that shades the gaze against them. Once an assessment of a child's ability has been made, positive or negative, that child will feel it; if you think you can conceal it from them, you're wrong. They know. They always know. Studies have shown that even lab rats learn more slowly if their researchers believe that they aren't smart rats. The kids who grow up under a negative gaze, the ones who day after day, year after year, feel themselves appraised and found wanting –– these kids pay the greatest price, their psyches permanently damaged by it, their futures irrevocably harmed. (The fact that our appraisals are shown again and again to be wrong never seems to discourage us from making them.) But even the kids who get the good grades, the high scores, the perfect "10's" –– even they are subtly blighted by it. They've won the prize, and lost their power.

Why is it clear to us that it's degrading and objectifying to measure and rank a girl’s physical body on a numeric scale, but we think it’s perfectly okay to measure and rank her mind that way?



Why do we understand that it's degrading to measure and rank a girl's beauty on a numeric scale, but we think it's okay to measure and rank her mind that way?


Over the years I've watched the many ways that children try to cope with the evaluative gaze of school. (The gaze, of course, can come from parents, too; just ask my kids.) Some children eagerly display themselves for it; some try to make themselves invisible to it. They fight, they flee, they freeze; like prey animals they let their bodies go limp and passive before it. Some defy it by laughing in its face, by acting up, clowning around, refusing to attend or engage, refusing to try so you can never say they failed. Some master the art of holding back that last 10%, of giving just enough of themselves to "succeed," but holding back enough that the gaze can't define them (they don't yet know that this strategy will define and limit their lives.) Some make themselves sick trying to meet or exceed the "standards" that it sets for them. Some simply vanish into those standards until they don't know who they would have been had the standards not been set.

But the power of the gaze goes beyond the numbers and letters used to quantify it. It exists in looks and tones and body language, in words and in the spaces between words. It is a way of looking at another human being, of confronting another human life; it is a philosophical stance, an emotional stance, a political stance, an exercise of power. As philosopher Martin Buber might have put it, the stance of true relationship says to the other, "I–Thou;" the evaluative gaze says "I–It."  It says, "I am the subject; you are the object. I know what you are, I know what you should be, I know what 'standards' you must meet." It is a god-like stance, which is actually a big deal even if you think you are a fair and friendly god. 

“I was not a creation of the schoolmaster: the Government Board of Education was not consulted when I took birth in the world.”
— Rabindranath Tagore


The evaluative gaze of school is so constant a presence, so all-pervasive an eye, that many people have come to believe that children would actually not grow and develop without it. They believe that without their "feedback," without their constant "assessment," a child's development would literally slow or even stop. They believe that children would not learn from the things they experience and do and see and hear and make and read and imagine unless they have an adult to "assess" them (or unless the adult teaches them to "self-assess," which generally means teaching them to internalize the adult gaze.) For people whose experience is with children inside the school system, it may seem self-evident that this is true. For people whose experience is with children outside the school system, it may seem like believing that an acorn would not grow into an oak tree unless you measure it and give it your opinion. Because an oak tree does not actually require your opinion, and believe it or not, 90% of the time, neither does a child. 

A pot boils whether you watch it or not. It just needs water and fire.

There are ever-increasing numbers of people raising their kids outside this Panopticon of constant evaluation and measurement and feedback, and what they find is simply this: they grow and develop very much like other kids. Like other kids, they don't all conform to the same "standards;" like other kids, they are individual and diverse. Like other kids, they have triumphs, and struggles, and doldrums, and passions, and frustrations, and joys. "Assessment," or the lack of it, seems to have remarkably little to do with it. Because what an oak tree actually needs is not your opinion but soil and water and light and air, and what a child needs is love and stories and tools and conversation and support and guidance and access to nature and culture and the world. If a kid asks for your feedback, by all means you can give it; it would be impolite not to. But what we should be measuring and comparing is not our children but the quality of the learning environments we provide for them. 

Girls and women are now fighting back against the appraising gaze that objectifies and quantifies them, that teaches them to live their lives from the outside in, for the approval of others. But our entire education system, the whole hegemonic edifice of curricula and standards and data and rubrics and behavior charts and point systems and grades and tests, is steeped in a stance of objectifying and quantifying children. It teaches them to live from the outside in, to view themselves through the gaze of others, to allow themselves to be quantified and diminished by those who have the power. The fact that the results of this system are consistently racist should not go unnoticed or unchallenged. It is not an accident.

Many teachers do their best to resist the dehumanizing power of the gaze, although to their grief they may find harsh limits on what they can do. Parents who pull their kids out of school are resisting it, although to their grief they may find that the gaze is inside them, and gets to their children through their eyes. Children, for their part, resist and reject the gaze in a thousand different ways, because deep down each child knows she is complex and mysterious beyond your wildest dreams, a being with a destiny and purpose here on earth that is not known to you or to the testmakers at Pearson or to the people who wrote the Common Core Standards. As the poet Rabindranath Tagore once said: "I was not a creation of the schoolmaster: the Government Board of Education was not consulted when I took birth in the world.”




Fifth graders don't read Foucault, who would write about the gaze a few years later in Discipline and Punish. They don't have a critical theory that tells them how the gaze is a tool of power, of domination, of control. But fifth graders feel it. First graders know it. They know it in their bodies, and they act to protect themselves with their bodies. When a child does something you can't understand, something that doesn't make sense, when they erupt into recklessness, or fold up into secrecy and silence, or short-circuit into avoidance, or dissipate into fog and unfocus, or lock down into resistance, it's worth asking yourself: are they protecting themselves from the gaze?

That year I decided to protect the things I loved from the evaluative gaze of school. For the things I loved, the things I was born into this world to make and to do, I did not want school’s petty praise any more than I wanted its nit-picking criticisms. When the teacher made us keep a journal and hand it in, I wrote some plausible arm’s-length bullshit for the grade and put my real thoughts in secret notebooks of my own. I learned to live on two tracks –– one authentic, one false, one public, one hidden –– a psychic split that affects my life to this day.

And then I did a thing that, to my parents, didn't make sense: although I was almost finished with my magnum opus on horses, I refused to hand it in. Docile and compliant as I generally was, when I felt my very life was at stake I would dig my heels in and refuse to budge. As my father said in bewilderment, "She weighs 53 pounds and I could break her in two and she would not hand that paper in." 

The things I loved I would keep for myself. I put my report in a drawer and wrote another report, on limpets.


Don’t get me wrong: I liked limpets. In a way I hated to give them up. But finally I settled on this small sedentary gastropod as something I could sacrifice.

Horses would remain wild and free. Limpets I could bear to lose.