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 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.
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.
I just stumbled on this article which contains my quote about Duff’s (Goldman) creativity on Food Network’s “Chefography”.
While I am flattered and delighted my spontaneous thoughts (I’m not used to being interviewed for TV!) were cited, I feel I must add that during Duff’s junior year, I actually did call a meeting with the principal and the local school board to beg and plead for him to be targeted as a “special needs” student.
I pointed out that just because his profile was at the upper right of the learning bell curve they used as the criteria for student placement, instead of the (majority) of the “Special Needs” kids whose points were at the left side, nonetheless, his education was suffering as much as theirs if they had been placed in a classroom designed to teach to “the norm”. Duff was bored in school and subsequently got “into trouble”. The fact is, he was actually depressed as he didn’t see his life at that time, going anywhere and he was at a kind of “is that all there is” place in his perception of the world around him. He didn’t see where he fit in — both academically as well as socially and his acting out was a bid for attention albeit I bet — more subconsciously than not as he always wanted to please people — even at his lowest points.
The bottom line is that in the 90s, the public Massachusetts school system didn’t recognize kids at the right side of the bell curve as having “special needs” so he/we all just suffered the consequences until he reached college with the help of his astro scores on the ACT test — NOT the SATs.
Duff blossomed at my father’s alma mater, University of Maryland — and turned his life around — not a moment too soon. I don’t think he would have lasted another year in his high school situation — his graduation was liberating and led to the first steps in his subsequent. remarkable journey. He got turned on by ideas and the positive environment where freedom of expression was nurtured, not squashed and punished.
Yes, our educators have a daunting task, but it shouldn’t be a luxury to demand excellence in the standards of all aspects to our education system. I don’t think there’s enough money in the world to pay the salary of truly bright and dedicated teachers. We need to get our priorities straight — fast — for the collective benefit, survival and joy this country deserves.
Most Sincerely, Jackie Winch — the proud mom of Duff Goldman
Thanks so much for your comment, and I really appreciate the added perspective. You’ve actually described an (unfortunately) typical situation for many parents of gifted children. One of the reasons I write this blog is to help inform other educators about the necessity of differentiating for the needs of every child.
For every story we read about people like your son, there are many more about kids who get lost in a system that can’t or won’t adapt to them. The result, I believe, is that a great deal of potential is lost. Some of those people may rediscover their passions and gifts as adults, but we have no way of knowing how many don’t ever find them.
Reading this blog has been very informative for me and I really appreciated being directed to read “Shift Happens”. It was very enlightening. I am in total agreement with you. I have seen such a shift in education from my days in elementary, middle, and high school to now as I see my children going through school. This is one reason that I have chosen to home school. I worked within my children’s public school system in two different states and saw the major differences in the way that our children are being educated depending on areas and money. I’ve been welcomed in schools and made a part of the education process and I have been uninvited in schools and told that teachers do not welcome the intrusion of parents in their classrooms. I have volunteered in classrooms where the education was more of a “one size fits all” approach and clearly witnessed children being left to their own devices, unchallenged and bored. And I have also had the pleasure of volunteering in classrooms where the strengths of each child were applauded and each child was challenged to develop and to help their classmates. Excitement for learning filled those classrooms and it was a joy to be a part of.
I am not a formally trained educator and I feel for those who are. I agree that there is not enough money in the world to the pay the salary of a “truly bright and dedicated teacher”. They are the roses in the midst of many thorns. Thank you so much for starting this blog. I learned a lot tonight by reading it and feel more enlightened and encouraged. It’s people and teachers like you who make a HUGE difference. You’re a blessing and I am honored to call you my friend. Thank you for teaching me.