Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Hardly Worth Worrying About

He had always been a perfect fit for our school, a kid who needed to move his body, who learned best not by watching or listening, but by doing. From the moment I met him, he had something in his hands, fiddling with it, testing it, bouncing it off of things. As a two-year-old, he was fascinated with our classroom hamster wheel, which he played with in every way imaginable, trying to fit it into places where it belonged and where it did not, spinning it, turning it over and rolling it, dismantling it, and sometimes going so far as to hide it so he could find it the following day in order to continue his experiments.

Even when it came to social skills, he was a hands on learner. Most of his interactions involved some sort of physical contact, like a friendly bump, a shove, actions that were often misinterpreted by others. He would sometimes take a friend's face in his hands, his palms cupping their cheeks as he smiled at them, just to show them how much he liked them. Some children objected to this, not understanding, but the ones who "got it," and there are plenty, found in him a pal for the ages.

During his fourth and final year with us, he spent his mornings in a public school kindergarten and his afternoons with us at Woodland Park. He was not a fan of his kindergarten's use of worksheets or the long stretches of sitting indoors, and when they inflicted the cruelty of an academic standardized test upon him, he ranked near the very bottom, bringing his mother to me in tears. This is a mom who knew better, who knew that some perfectly normal kids have brains developmentally ready to read at two, while many others don't get there until seven, eight, or even later. Much of the rest of the civilized world doesn't even try to start teaching children to read until they're seven. What the hell does it mean: a reading test for five-year-olds? Only someone with no knowledge of child development, or a complete jerk, would use such a tool as anything more than, perhaps, a research benchmark. But to share the results with parents, along with rankings? What is that about? Is it supposed to be some sort of motivation? Only a sociopath would think this is a good idea: I suppose the same ones who punish kids who have trouble sitting still in their chairs by taking away recess time.

This is the great crime of the standardized, assembly line curricula found in public schools. It simply cannot make allowances for children who aren't ready to learn something when they "ought to," according to arbitrary timelines, ranking them, slapping labels on them, driving them with threats and punishments, causing inappropriate anxiety for both the child and his parents.

Based on his academic performance, Winston Churchill's father was convinced that he would never be able to earn his own living. Likewise, Walter Scott's father found his early attempts at poetry so humiliating that he discouraged him because he feared it would reflect poorly on the family. Einstein and Darwin were such poor students that their teachers felt they would amount to nothing. Louis Pasteur's teacher called him "the least promising boy in the class." 

This isn't a race, folks. I've taught many children who were, say, precocious readers, puzzlers, or artists, kids upon whom adults glibly slap the label of "genius." In fact, in every class I've ever taught, there are one or two children like this. They're delightful to teach, a joy, but their early years accomplishments are no better indicators of their future successes than the less notable accomplishments of their peers. Some of our great geniuses showed themselves early, of course, like Mozart, Orson Welles, or Picasso. We are impressed by such greatness at such a young age, but often fail to recognize that the rest of their careers, while still worthy, never approach the genius of their youthful work.

And then there are "dull" children like Churchill, Scott, Einstein, Darwin, and Pasteur, people who needed time for their genius to ripen.

University of Chicago economist David Galenson took a look at this phenomenon, especially as regards creativity. He argues that there are really two methods of genius at work here. Prodigies, like those kids who are sounding out words as two-year-olds, tend to approach their "work" with a clear idea of what they want, then set about doing it. "Late bloomer" genius, however, is of the sort that comes from the experimental approach characterized by a kid who, say, spends hours and days horsing around with a hamster wheel. "Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental," according to Galenson. From his book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses

The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trail and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods.

Of course, most children, are not destined to become geniuses of either sort, but Galenson's work is to me a clear illustration of the broad range of what can be considered developmentally "normal," something that is confirmed by every expert in the fields of eduction and brain science. We know this, teachers should know this, as should administrators, school boards, and education policy-makers, yet they are increasingly throwing their lot with the crazy idea that education is a competition with winners and losers and rankings.

One day I watched this boy who ranked near the bottom according to a standardized test spend a half hour on our "concrete slide" with a piece of chalk, sliding down while dragging the chalk behind him, trailing lines on the concrete surface. As he slid, he studied the chalk in his hand, the colors, and the shape of the lines he was making. When another child dumped a bucket of water down the slope, he discovered that he could create more intensely colorful lines with wet chalk. He slid again and again and again, sometimes joined by other kids, sometimes all on his own, gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trail and error, each time down leading to the next, and none generally privileged over others. It was a process of searching, a process in which learning was a more important goal than passing a stupid test.

This is education and it's not a race that will necessarily be won by those first out of the gate. Education, like life, is a long game, one with a finish line so far away it's hardly worth worrying about.

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