Snowflakes—every single one of them different from another. You have likely pondered this concept for a lifetime. Not one single snowflake like another…all those mountains of snow…worldwide…winter after winter? As a child, you studied them, examined them on your mitten. As thoughtful humans, we find this concept perplexing and fascinating.
We give snowflakes more credit for their individuality than we give students.
Sameness is far-reaching. Sameness is tricky. It has appeal. It has ramifications. Sameness is very destructive. Sameness is a concept that humans must challenge for progress to take place. It is a concept we must continue to explore and ponder.
Prior to elementary school, students generally enjoy a life of natural development. Young children are permitted to learn by playing, interacting, and exploring. They require a creative and flexible setting. As their educators, parents, and advocates, we respond. We speak of attention spans and understand that preschoolers have a threshold for direct instruction. We know that each child may be at a different phase in his or her development, and we allow that development to flow naturally.
Likewise, prior to elementary school, individuality is honored. Preschoolers are celebrated for the unique things they say and do. Adults appreciate their innocent and fresh view of the world. People laugh when they say something cute or clever. Preschoolers get to enjoy a few years of completely unfettered development as individuals. They learn who they are. They explore their own preferences—fire trucks, baby dolls, blocks, dress-up clothes, coloring pages. Individuality is developing—preference of activity is allowed and helps shape personality, confidence, critical thinking, and independence.
In our culture, the concept of sameness is introduced at the beginning of elementary school. When they enter elementary school, students of the same age are grouped in a classroom. Students of the same age are subjected to the same lessons, the same time frames, the same limitations, and the same expectations.
Academically, anyone not reaching such expectations is targeted. We must intervene, or diagnose. We must respond, now. Because a student is not meeting a specific level of proficiency, it is believed that he needs intervention. We focus resources on making sure this student meets our grade-level standards of sameness. Students excelling beyond this chosen level of proficiency are targeted as well; special programs attempt to serve those who can think and perform beyond the expectations we have set in place. But we continue to pour resources into a flawed structure. We spend energy and resources in the attempt to bring all students to an arbitrary mark set by the flawed concept that each human develops at the same rate and should be capable of the same benchmarks.
Instead of enhancing individuals, we spend countless dollars and days cultivating sameness.
The idea that every student is expected to reach the same academic level during the same academic year will most likely seem ridiculous in the future, if we begin to question it now. Furthermore, a student who is not reading at grade level in third grade likely has very intelligent interests outside of his self-perceived “boring” reading assignments. If parents, teachers, and society in general, were to let go of grade-level expectations, our students would be much better off. Many students would surpass expectations in math, while moving slowly toward them in language arts. Some would take their time through concrete mathematical topics while writing poetry that would rival the world’s best. Some students would soar above their age-based peers in all subject areas, and some would happily take their time. Regardless, each student would find value in learning and progressing at his own individual pace where learning and knowledge carry meaning, all the while enjoying a community of others who respect the inevitable differences in each other.
While the ramifications of sameness within the realm of academics are destructive, the biggest tragedy of sameness is the social ramifications. Too many children are afraid to stand out. Many children would prefer to sit in the wings and not be noticed by their peers. Children of all ages desire social acceptance. In an environment that fosters sameness, the expression of individuality is a risk to children who fear that stepping out of established norms will invite criticism. Such children suppress their desire to express themselves, and they unknowingly begin to lose their sense of individuality.
Academic and social ramifications are inescapably intertwined. Ironically, posters line the walls of classrooms touting individuality and acceptance. “We are all special.” “We are all unique.” As a culture, we are attempting to respond to a very deep and very real problem by hanging posters. Band-Aids to treat a fractured bone. Our educational structure models a lack of acceptance; it models a lack of individuality both academically and socially, and then we tell children that they are special, unique. We tell them to be kind and accepting. We tell them that they can each reach their potential and that everyone can succeed. However, children learn what they live, not what they’re told.