There is a tug-​of-​war going on in education. Let me say at the outset that I’m fully aware the debate isn’t as clear cut, nor are the debaters as cleanly divided, as I present things here. The debate does exist, though.

At one end of the rope we have a team decrying the collapse of rigor and discipline in schools, asking for more accountability and a return to focused instruction on the essential skills of reading and math. Michelle Rhee is one of the outspoken anchors for this approach. She bluntly disparages any approach to education that, in her words, is too “touchy-​feely.” If it doesn’t result in improved student performance, it doesn’t belong in her schools. And she isn’t afraid to ruthlessly remove anyone or anything that she feels will slow down progress towards her goal of making Washington, DC, schools the best in the country.

At the other end we have those who believe that the basics have changed, and that students now need less emphasis on routine skills and more on creativity, problem solving, and interpersonal relationships. Karl Fisch gives just one example of the change here. (As an aside, if you haven’t seen his “Shift Happens” video, stop reading now and go watch it. Really.) Daniel Pink argues in his book A Whole New Mind that this shift will require an entirely different kind of education: one that indeed focuses on the right-​brain skills of social collaboration and creativity. See this post of his for one example.

But isn’t this the whole point of differentiation? Dean Shareski clearly explains why we can’t have just one approach to education for all students. We need to stop looking at which system of education is going to be more effective for all students, but what each individual student needs to thrive and learn.

Consider this statement by Jackie Winch, speaking about her son, Jeffrey Goldman. Goldman has a gifted IQ, and in high school spent a good portion of his spare time doing his artwork in public—as graffiti.

I could have been a little tougher, maybe? But when he was down there graffiti-​ing with the most fabulous graffiti you’ve ever seen—it was really creative—how can you get mad at that? I’m out there taking pictures of it! I’m aiding and abetting! That’s what a mom does, I think. I mean, that’s what this mom did.

I could see what was happening. You can’t give children lines like a coloring book. You can’t say, “You can’t go beyond this line.” That is the opposite of what you’re trying to get people to do. You’re trying to get them to think without limits. Without lines, without borders, without anybody saying stop. You can’t force creativity. You have to give it room to happen. 

Goldman was not a good fit for his school system and got in trouble with mall security regularly enough that they knew him by name. Chances are that you do too. He is now known as Chef “Duff” Goldman, and is the owner of Charm City Cakes and star of the Food Network show, Ace of Cakes.

Despite his poor performance in school, he is a success. It is his creativity and charisma that have brought him to where he is.

What do we do with this? Duff found a way to thrive despite his schooling. How many students don’t rise up like he did and achieve their potential?

I’m not arguing here that we need to throw out rigor and discipline in school. Quite the contrary. There are many students who need it and thrive on it and for whom the structured environment provides them security and a safe place to grow. Indeed, kids like Duff could not succeed without discipline.

For just as many students, rigor imposed from outside stifles them, cramps them, and cuts off the shoots that they try to send out into the world. For them, the discipline comes from within, and grows out of the relentless pursuit of their passions. They don’t need more boundaries, they need freedom to explore.

If public schools had the luxury of hand-​picking the students who would best fit into their modes of instruction and the design of their curricula, then we could allow each team in the tug-​of-​war to develop its own schools and cater to the students who would fit best. But since we don’t, I don’t see any option other than to diversify, differentiate, and provide a menu of options for both curriculum and instruction which will address all the needs of all the students who find their way through our doors.