Is This Wise?
There is a great fable about an imagined animal school which decides to adopt the design structure of schools for humans. Humans have greater thinking and learning power than animals, right? Someone erroneously believes they can improve the performance of ALL animals by modeling animal schools after a learning institution for people. But is this wise?
In this new animal school, rather than the teacher being satisfied with the beaver’s ability to chop down trees and build dams, the teacher also insists the beaver learn to fly. The results of the beaver’s efforts to fly are, of course, frustrating and even ludicrous. Facing such a failure the beaver is no longer even proud of his innate ability to build dams better than any other animal.
What Are We Doing?
Take a discerning look at our schools. Isn’t that too close to what we really do? Instead of identifying and capitalizing on a student’s intrinsic talents, we reduce the time he spends in a pursuit in which he excels and simultaneously increase the amount of time he spends being tutored in a skill for which he has minimal talent. Think for a moment about this.
In a culture in which we are being driven by only test scores, we remove a student from his favorite class to tutor him/her for a class in which s/he is failing. Did it work for the beaver? What a scary philosophy this becomes when you consider the implications not just for individuals, but also for our country.
Why do we put all our efforts into forcing students to remediate to obtain mere passing scores in a subject area in which they are weak? Why not use those same efforts to encourage and push them in an area of their brilliance? What our country really needs is people functioning at the top of their form in the areas in which they excel. Ignite the flame in the area of their strengths and watch them catapult forward. If and when we finally do that, our entire nation will benefit.
Great teachers know this. They search and search until they discover and reveal a student’s talent. They frequently are the first to reveal that talent to the student. They give voice to it, encourage it and often push the student to heights they didn’t believe they could ever achieve.
I’m not the national Secretary of Education, but I think one of the things we need to be doing in every school district in America, is identifying individual student’s areas of brilliance and finding ways to encourage, enhance and grow that talent. Flying beavers are not the answer.
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I agree that teachers should focus on the learning strengths of each student. In addition, I think teachers should teach students about the reality of life as an adult who must find a way to earn enough money to buy food and pay rent. We spend 18 years as a child and teen and then one day we turn 18 and are an adult responsible for our own lives for the rest of our lives and the average person lives into his or her 70s. That’s 18 years as a child and about 60 years as an adult.
For example, there are about 55 million students in the schools today and if the strengths of 50% of those students was in the arts, that means in the next 12 years we would graduate almost 28 million artists. Would they be able to find jobs and make a living?
That doesn’t mean we do not encourage students to build on his or her strengths or follow their dreams, but we also teach them skills that will allow them to earn a living while possibly turning their passion and their strengths into a hobby and/or part-time career.
In 1968, I decided I wanted to be a writer and an author. For the next 39 years I chased after that dream part time and didn’t earn a dime from it. Instead, I worked in industry for several years, and then taught in the public schools for thirty years. My passion was to write and I continued to write part time. I never gave up on my dream.
I think the most important skill the public schools can offer students is literacy. Most criminals serving time in prison are functionally illiterate and almost half of those living in poverty are also illiterate or functionally illiterate. Literacy is one of the most important tools needed to break out of poverty.
As adults, we can always carve out some time to follow our passions, our strengths and our dreams. If we are fortunate enough to earn a living in a field that taps into those strengths and passions, then we are among the few that are truly lucky.