"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." -Plutarch
Education as a subject is a little like sex—a topic of enduring interest and it is often debated at length. Even President Bush talked a great deal about education until he was distracted by that September 11 thing. The reason for this interest isn't hard to understand. Along with health care, education is one of the largest consumers of public and private spending.
In addition, education has a major impact on the lives of tomorrow's citizens not to mention on how our own children will make out as they begin their journey into the adult world. It is also the system that trains our future scientists. And so the debate continues. If you speak to five experts you will likely get five different opinions.
The issues are simple enough. Given the amount of money we spend on the system, are we getting our money's worth? As a democratic institution the system should provide the greatest good for the greatest number, so how are we doing so far? Judging by the numbers, very well, especially if we ignore the troubling statistics of those who drop out.
The system seems to serve the average student very adequately. Many of them get a first-class education leading them to go on to greater things such as college or university and a happy and fulfilled life. Case closed; job done! And yet...
How many students fall through the cracks? Is there a risk that because we try to make the system be all things for all people that in fact it becomes a mediocre offering for some? Is the tendency for a one-size-fits-all system to impose conformity desirable or even possible. Do educators sometimes prefer a homogeneous classroom over a stimulating learning environment?
Maybe it's time, once again, for a little history. The location: Munich Germany, the year: 1889. A young Albert Einstein was not a happy student. Hovering between boredom and rebellion, he quite obviously didn't fit in the academic environment in which he found himself.
Quoting from the American Institute of Physics website we learn that:
"Although he got generally good grades (and was outstanding in mathematics), Einstein hated the academic high school he was sent to in Munich, where success depended on memorization and obedience to arbitrary authority. His real studies were done at home with books on mathematics, physics, and philosophy. A teacher suggested Einstein leave school, since his very presence destroyed the other students' respect for the teacher."
And (from another source):
"In 1894, the family moved to Milan, Italy. Within a year, still without having completed secondary school, Einstein failed an examination that would have allowed him to pursue a course of study leading to a diploma as an electrical engineer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He spent the next year in nearby Aarau at the cantonal secondary school, where he enjoyed excellent teachers and first-rate facilities in physics. Einstein returned in 1896 to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where he graduated, in 1900 as a secondary school teacher of mathematics and physics."
It seems even with his keen mind and his intensive studies at home, it wasn't until he was exposed to "first-rate facilities" and "excellent teachers" that his young mind finally blossomed to become one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th century.
What is it about traditional education that often gets it wrong when it comes to brighter students. Albert Einstein is only one of many examples of intelligent youngsters whose fine young minds were turned off before they could even be turned on. There are many other examples such as: Charles Darwin who did poorly in medical school and would have been a total failure except for his passion for botany.
Sir Isaac Newton was a delicate child and a loner. His elementary school work was described as "rather poor" and even in university he was a pretty mediocre student. As a boy, Thomas Edison was told by his teacher that he was too stupid to learn anything. Basketball legend Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team as a sophomore.
A newspaper editor fired Walt Disney because he "lacked imagination and had no good ideas." Winston Churchill failed the 6th grade. And finally the story of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg dropped out of high school in his sophomore year. He was persuaded to come back and placed in a learning disabled class. He lasted a month and dropped out of school forever.
We know about these famous examples because a combination of circumstances allowed them to succeed in spite of the odds. Many others I'm sure are not as lucky. The road to success is littered with the casualties—highly intelligent youngsters discouraged by those who are supposed to inspire them. Students who, because of a sensitive nature common among the superbright, simply give up and end their existence in mediocrity.
This scenario is more common than you might think. The superbright, contrary to popular myth, are often not precocious and they are frequently handicapped by the very intellect that is supposed to be to their benefit. Self-doubt brought on by their intellectual honesty is not uncommon and is generally misconstrued as weakness by those too stupid to know their own limitations. With those kinds of handicaps they are not likely to prevail in a world where bullies are tacitly encouraged.
So, you say, what does it matter? In our open society we can only guarantee equality of opportunity, we can't guarantee the outcome. "Besides", we ask rhetorically "doesn't cream rise to the top?" It really depends on you definition of 'cream'.
We must be careful not to confuse a guarantee of mediocrity with equal opportunity. Only when we insist on the highest standards for each of our students and demonstrate the wisdom to know what that standard is, will we nurture and encourage everyone to achieve their personal best. This means we must make the effort to constantly evaluate each student and apply the appropriate encouragement.
It's not streaming but... The ability to memorize reams of stuff should most certainly be encouraged in potential actors. It is clearly wrong for the budding scientist where attention to detail and an introspective approach might be more useful. Youngsters that show an obvious interest in physical activity might be encouraged to engage in various sports, and so forth. There are no hard and fast rules of course, but the mentoring should benefit first the student then the teacher.
One way to achieve this is to study successful models. Some years ago saw the publication of a popular piece of pop culture called "In Search for Excellence". This book from the hand of Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr. took the 'radical' approach that if you want to create an excellent company, simply study the ones that already are.
By extension, if you want to create an excellent educational environment, do some case studies on outstanding individuals who credit their success on their educational experience. Simple eh? I'm willing to bet that somewhere along the line the "first-rate facilities" and "excellent teachers" that were so helpful to Einstein will probably figure into the equation.
So how do we get there from here? First, we must realize that "good schools" already exist and "good teachers" already exist. Our challenge is to build on this core. Will it cost a lot of money? Perhaps. As a general rule, quality does not come cheap. By the same token, an across-the-board funding increase will not necessarily set everything right.
It is admittedly hard to create a good learning environment in a building that is in decay or badly located. On the other hand some of the worst education comes out of the finest architectural temples. Good, dedicated and inspiring teachers deserve all the financial rewards we can give them. Yet I am sure there are very few dedicated members of the profession for whom that would be a primary consideration.
Armed with this insight we can arrive at a preliminary plan of attack. To review, an expensive, well staffed infrastructure and facilities in addition to highly paid teachers while a nice touch, will not give us the outcome we seek. What is needed is to ignite in each and every youngster, the desire to achieve their personal best.
If that means a star turn in athletic achievement, then let's encourage that. If it means a deep involvement in art, literature and drama, let us not stand in the way of any child that shows promise. Above all let us not stifle the creative scientific mind by insisting on mind-numbing irrelevancy in the way we teach tomorrow's scientists to wonder and explore.
If you are beginning to suspect that the key to this enlightened approach to teaching lies with enlightened teachers you are absolutely right. Also, the crushing mediocrity that stifles the creative child has the same effect on creative teachers. One of the most mind numbing influences in our modern institutions is the pathological need of those in charge to be in control.
This comes down to leadership qualities and pitfalls. As in any endeavour, great leaders lead and nudge, mediocre ones, coerce. To quote H. Gordon Selfridge:
The boss depends on authority; The leader on good-will.
The boss inspires fear; The leader inspires enthusiasm.
The boss says "I"; The leader says "WE".
The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown; The leader fixes the breakdown.
The boss says, "GO"; The leader says "LET'S GO!"
In our headlong rush to create mass-produced education we have perhaps lost sight of one very simple fact. Schools don't teach, teachers teach. Taking that one step further, teachers don't teach, students learn. Our modern lexicon has given us a wonderful term, facilitator. That's what teaching is all about. To all present and future teachers, let me ask one simple question. Do you want to facilitate learning or do you want to control the child?
What about the various levels of administration that run our schools. How intrusive is that; how controlling? Managing the financial aspects of these major institutions is generally a pretty straight-forward accounting exercise but even here it's been shown that a creative approach will tend to channel funds into the most productive areas. As to the administration of content, here especially Selfridge's "rules" are going to be the most relevant.
Ultimately there is only one bottom line. It's nice to be at the top of the pyramid running your education department with efficiency and taxpayer approval. As an administrator it's nice to have a smooth running school with all the pieces neatly in place. As a teacher it's nice to be part of a union that protects your behind at every turn. If however each and every student isn't given the chance to develop his or herself to the maximum potential, what's the point?
I've spoken with enough teachers to know about the difficulties. Every one has a horror story about "the problem student" or any of a number situations that can derail the most well-meaning approach. I guess as a society we have to ask, do we continue to divert our efforts into propping up mediocrity. Is political correctness a good enough reason to deprive especially our bright students of the very resources our public education is supposed to provide?
If we don't come up with the right answer we not only fritter away the lives of some very promising individuals, we also deprive our society of their potential contribution. This contribution may mean a cure for a major disease or it could lead to a more enlightened political or judicial infrastructure. If we cut them off at the knees, we will never know. The choice is ours to make. We can continue to talk about it or instead, make some positive changes.