Our best hope for the future is to develop a new paradigm of human capacity to meet a new era of human existence. We need to evolve a new appreciation of the importance of nurturing human talent along with an understanding of how talent expresses itself differently in every individual. We need to create environments—in our schools, in our workplaces, and in our public offices—where every person is inspired to grow creatively.
—Sir Ken Robinson, The Element
Ella is a child. She is a vibrant and spunky child. She speaks her mind and fills her days with important thought. She questions the world around her with the inquisitive nature that every child naturally possesses. Ella is a thinker. However, she does not appreciate classically delivered academic material. Where a conversation should take place, a lecture turns her inward. When a math worksheet stares at her blankly, she yearns to add color and glitter. She is perfectly capable of learning the concepts handed to her, but she is disappointed that the delivery is not more fitting, more interesting, or more relevant to her place and time in the learning process. She will tell you exactly how she would like to learn if she is given the chance. She will gravitate toward appropriate levels and engaging concepts. She despises an idle mind, as most of us do. As a learner, Ella is among the most proficient.
Ella’s life changed this school year. She was placed in a classroom that did not appreciate her ability to learn and grow at her own pace. She was criticized for the things she didn’t yet know. She was labeled and identified as someone who needed remediation. Ella is one of the smartest children I’ve ever met. One need only have a conversation with Ella to recognize her depth, cognitive skill, and inquisitive nature. However, a conversation is not an acceptable assessment tool, apparently. And, unfortunately, individualization of educational material must take place publicly, in a world of sameness, embarrassing instead of helping. This school year, Ella had to fight for her confidence. Ella was forced to learn the way everyone learned each day. She defied it at first. She faced loneliness and ridicule. Several months later, she now plays the game; she has succumbed to the sameness in which she is immersed every day.
And she is doing fine. Just fine. She is surviving.
Prior to this school year, Ella’s approach to learning and development was on its own course, supported by nurturing adults and endless resources. Cruising along nicely, she was engaged in the world around her at a level few get to experience. She loves science most. She can engage in a scientific discussion for hours. She loves writing—words flow beautifully and creatively, though they lack correct spelling. She enjoys mathematical concepts when they really click.
She prefers to work with tangible items when learning math. Algorithms are not clear to her until she has had the opportunity to experientially absorb the concept. Ella’s approach to mathematics takes more time than the student next to her, who prefers an algorithmic approach. She is also a proficient observer. She observes social situations and interactions between classmates, often commenting insightfully about her observations. She tests predictions and engages in social connections of all kinds. Ella is in a mode of constant contemplation. She may be a budding sociologist, or biologist, or actress, as performance is another passion of hers.
Ella is the poster child for someone who will thrive in an individualized, flexible, creative educational environment. Ella is the poster child for children.
Her story must be told. She will be just fine, learning, testing, going through her education, going through the motions. She will learn the standards, Common Core and otherwise. She will become a point of data. She will live for after-school activities and weekends and dance recitals and swim meets. She will fight to belong during the school week, but she will not give in to peer pressure, as she is too strong. She will grow and graduate. She will pursue a path, a career. But what if potential, passion, and innate talent lie beneath the surface for a lifetime? What if sameness convinces this talented individual that she must continue following suit, fighting to fit in, and going through the motions? Have we not stifled greatness by allowing an individual to survive rather than thrive? And then, consider the millions who are merely surviving. And then, consider that millions and millions could be thriving.
The flowers are wilting.
Humans are not fit for the environment in which we immerse them during years of formal education.
Sameness is incongruent with our natural tendencies, our innate abilities, and our true potential. American children are wilting.
The longer we wait, the longer we continue anti-nurturing our youth, the worse our problems will get. The following story sheds light on the extreme sides of educational progress as well as the lack thereof. It is a metaphor meant to make us think about educational evolution and the results of a less than nurturing environment.
The Tale of Two Gardens
Once upon a time, there was a vast garden full of seeds of many kinds. Within every seed lay the building blocks of possibility—passion, innate talent, skill, desire, unique nature, and great potential. The seeds required great care, as the future lies within them.
The gardeners of this important garden were well trained. They were trained in research and in best practices, up-to-date methods and strategies. They were well versed in the seeds they would encounter and in the stages of development, from seedling to a mature budding flower. They were instructed in the individual nature of every type of plant and agreed to care for each plant’s unique needs. They were dedicated gardeners, ready and willing to take on the rewarding challenges of nurturing such a valuable garden.
As the gardeners gained their certificates and licenses and headed out into the workforce, they were wide-eyed and hopeful. They could barely hold back their excitement. They felt well prepared and eager to put their knowledge and their skills to work.
The gardeners were both hired by the Powers That Be and began their very important work. They watered their seeds day in and day out. They watered with love. They watered with acceptance. They watered with hope and trust, confidence and creativity, as that was what they knew they should do.
The seeds were given the very best. The gardeners continued on, happy and fulfilled. The seeds began to emerge. All was well.
The Powers That Be then offered new watering cans to his gardeners. The watering cans contained methods and tools. The gardeners happily watered with these, and the seedlings responded positively. All was well.
The seedlings continued to grow, little by little emerging from the soil. All was well.
But as the days passed, the Powers That Be began to measure the seedlings. He felt he had to make sure the flowers were receiving the right ingredients and that they were growing to the best of their abilities. So he measured and measured and measured. He felt the gardeners must be accountable for the growth of their seedlings; therefore, measurements were necessary. And funding for watering cans and nutrients necessary for flowers to grow—these were tied to measurements. So the measuring and the measuring continued. Day after day, the seedlings were measured. The gardeners were then given new watering cans meant to assist in the measuring. The Powers That Be presented cans filled with what he was told were “grow-faster ingredients” called standards, Common Core, and additional accountability. The loyal gardeners continued watering and measuring as they were instructed to do.
But as he measured again and again, growth began to slow. The Powers That Be was not satisfied. He measured and measured and forced the gardeners to begin watering more diligently with these “grow-faster ingredients.”
The gardeners began to lose hope, began to lose passion, but were loyal to the Powers That Be and trusted that the Powers That Be was offering the best of ingredients to their precious seedlings.
But because measurement after measurement did not present desired results, the Powers That Be reached for yet another set of grow-faster ingredients to fill his gardeners’ cans—Pacing Guides, mandates, and assessments. The gardeners looked at each other questioningly, as something was beginning to feel very wrong. The gardeners began wondering if they still liked gardening, or if they really were cut out for a different profession.
More measuring, more grow-faster ingredients (rigidity, sameness, rules, old ideas, restrictions, leveled instruction, remediation, comparisons, more structure, pressure, lack of creativity, less art).
And then one day, long into the measuring and the watering with rigid ingredients, the gardeners began to remember their own training from way back when—training that included watering with much different ingredients. Together, they began discussing the tools they had been taught to use. Differentiation, individualization, and diversity—all of which were the opposite of the sameness and standards that the Powers That Be had insisted they use. They remembered that healthy flowers need experience, projects, and cooperative learning. Flowers were to be watered with patience and encouragement and praise and guidance, not pressure, rigidity, and comparisons. Flowers needed hands-on experiences to flourish and cultivate their innate skills. Relieved to know that they had been traveling the wrong course, they presented these ideas to the Powers That Be, certain that he would agree and would change his course as well.
Unfortunately, the Powers That Be was not at all receptive to the gardeners’ pleas to change course. He had spent massive amounts of money on his measuring, and he was unwilling to see past it. He knew that his flowers were not growing fast enough and tossed around terms such as Gardening Reform. But, his idea of reform was more of the same, while expecting different results. But many, many followed him blindly. Many, many did not question him, for he was—after all—the Powers That Be.
From that day forth, the gardeners no longer worked in the same garden. The Powers That Be built a fence to separate them, as one gardener was willing to continue a standardized course, but the other was not.
Two gardens—worlds apart. One garden named What Is and the other garden named What Could Be. One garden watered with sameness and measurements. The other with the best of ingredients, recognizing each flower is unique; each flower grows at his or her own rate and has much to offer the world if given a nurturing, enriching environment.
The garden named What Could Be began to thrive instantly. The minute the gardener began watering with new cans full of creativity, freedom, diversity, independence, collaboration, projects, and experiences, the flowers began to flourish. Feeling safe in their soil, which was full of nurturing ingredients and community, the seedlings began to develop vibrant petals and leaves. One leaf was the color of peace, one the color of passion. One petal the color of kindness, another the color of fulfillment. Confidence, skill, talent, and laughter began to emerge. Growth of satisfaction, work ethic, independent thinking, and security popped up from the soil. Passion to grow higher and to progress began to grow. Suddenly, petals of hope, perspective, love, integrity, creativity, and companionship were budding all over the garden.
The gardener of the garden named What Could Be began to measure as well, as he knew that the sight of a flourishing garden alone would not be enough to convince the world. His measuring sticks were much different than the old, expensive measuring sticks that contained benchmarks and age-based skill requirements of preconceived levels. His measuring sticks contained marks such as loves learning, engaged, happy, passionate, talented, independent, confident, progressing, resourceful, collaborative, innovative, curious, solves problems, participates, responsible, respectful. He measured often to make sure that his flowers met these important aspects of their growth. Most of the time, simply working with his flowers and being a part of their daily growth was measurement enough. Knowing that no flower fit a perfect mold, each measurement had to be individualized and personal. And generally, the flowers themselves spoke up about how their growth felt. The flowers themselves helped the gardener know best what each needed.
The garden named What Is slowly began to grow leaves as well, but they were not vibrant. The flowers struggled to become what they should have been. They produced petals of various dull colors, such as doubt and fear. Often a leaf of boredom sprouted out, and occasionally rebellion and bullies grew forth. Most of the leaves were frustrated. Low self-esteem was obvious as the flowers developed, producing mean and judgmental leaves. Some of the flowers were violent, some despondent, some full of anxiety. Some remained terribly self-conscious throughout their lifetime because their true nature was never nurtured. Negativity surrounded the garden of What Is. Many flowers became lonely or lost their sense of self. Many never found a passionate course to follow, as they were never encouraged or allowed to seek such elements.
Of course, the garden of What Is did produce some stronger flowers in the midst of the struggles. These flowers were at the top of the measuring sticks. They carried names such as Survivor, Grew Just Fine Watered by a Standardized Can, Fit the Mold, Obedient, Creatively Nurtured Evenings and Weekends, Inspired Despite a World of Sameness. Luckily, they did not question the Powers That Be and grew at an acceptable pace within his garden. One will always wonder, though, would even their petals have been bigger, brighter, and more filled with passion, had they been watered with more nourishing cans?
Ella was uprooted from What Could Be and transplanted into What Is. But she is a survivor. She is creatively nurtured evenings and weekends. She will grow forth, as will many. But the garden of What Is simply is not an optimal environment for her growth.
For many decades, our very important gardens have been suppressed and have cultivated sameness, when other nutrients stand by well studied and eager to participate. When will we take notice? Which garden should America’s students reside in—What Could Be or What Is?
The reality of What Is…
It is my belief that schools, administrators, and teachers have the best of intentions. Each exists to educate and serve students. Administrators and teachers, in general, enter the profession to give of themselves and nurture youth. I contend that the reality of What Is is not a result of ill intent, nor is it a result of negligence or lack of effort. Year after year, day after day, the world of education attempts to improve, reform, perfect its practices, increase accountability, and unfortunately tighten its reins, all in an attempt to improve its dire situation. But more of the same, essentially redoubling efforts, will simply not bring about the change that is necessary.
The reality of What Is is a place where sameness reigns. What Is is a place where individuality is not celebrated, individual passion is not fostered, and individual pacing and/or learning styles are not honored. What Is—a place where community is lacking and whether or not you “fit in” makes or breaks your existence. It is a place where many students lose sight of their true nature in order to please or to become what others ask of them. It is a place where true passion and innate talent get very little attention. It is a place of too much boredom, unnecessary information, and irrelevant assessments. It is a place of gross amounts of wasted time. It is too often a stifling place, a dulling place, a frustrating place.
In an attempt to score higher, tighten down, force accountability, compete with the world on standardized tests, and claim that our educational system is among the best, the American educational system has gone backward. It has digressed rather than progressed.
The reality of What Could Be…
Change is possible, even easy. To change our educational system from What Is into What Could Be, we need only begin.