There are three types of children parents and teachers should worry about – They are students like Zoe, Mia and Daniel.
We should worry about academically-talented students like
Zoe, who everybody thinks is doing a wonderful job in school. Zoe’s parents worry about her because she isn’t being challenged, has no creative outlets and complains of boredom.
We should worry about students like Mia, who is subjected to damning terms like “just average.” She is no less bright than Zoe and has a head full of ideas and images. But because she has an average IQ and average reading and
math skills, everybody thinks Mia is doing the best she can. Except her parents. They know that her strengths and interests lie far outside of the core four subjects taught in school.
And of course we worry about students like Daniel struggling with school-defined learning difficulties. Daniel may struggle with everything that is taught on a standardized test but he has no problem learning game strategies, the names of hundreds of birds and how to build most everything from block towers to the new garden shed in his backyard. He has great social skills, incredible curiosity and is a creative problem
solver. He may go far in life if we can just look past his academic struggles.
Just because Zoe does “well” in school doesn’t mean that her education is developing a full range of life enhancing capabilities. Just because Mia has an IQ and grades in the average range doesn’t mean that she’s not bursting with talents and interests and curiosity about this world. Just because Daniel struggles to learn and score doesn’t mean he
is out in the field pursuing his interests in all things that crawl and fly. “Is their current education expanding their ability to reason, make informed decisions, and, perhaps life’s biggest challenge, deal with relationships?”
I wouldn’t be worried about these students if we had bigger goals for education. Zoe may be excelling academically but there is more to life than fractions, sentence structure, war stories and sub-cellular structures. Her parents would like Zoe to develop her creative side, refine her perceptual skills and push her imagination. While Zoe’s parents can promote this side of her with extracurricular activities why aren’t schools providing these opportunities to all students, including ones without the financial means or time?
Middling Mia’s parents look at their daughter and see anything but average. They see a child with deep insight into herself and with empathy towards others. They see a child who cares about the world she lives in, a child with an excellent capacity to help. They see too many of her classmates crippled by emotional turmoil, relationship issues and who lack a basic understanding of themselves. They see these forces spill over into the classroom, forcing teachers to focus on behavior as much as learning. Why aren’t social and emotional learning central to the curriculum? What is the school doing to reduce the stress and anxiety that cripples far too many students and robs them of the emotional and cognitive vitality essential to learning?
If you ask Daniel’s parents about his learning disability, they will tell you, like his ADHD, that it is largely created by the way we teach children. Daniel exerts endless attention to the natural world as he spends all his free time out in the woods and stream behind his house. He may struggle to memorize
multiplication facts, but has learned the names and habits of dozens of birds. In school he may appear bored and unfocused, but at home he is one motivated, engaged kid. The phrase “Square peg in a round hole” is often heard in schools to describe not just kids like Daniel, but whole categories of students. Kids are coming to school with many different sizes and shapes of peg while the round hole is getting awfully small. The content grows increasingly narrow and abstract just as the personal and social needs grow more diverse.
Maybe we need an educational system that emphasizes perceptual skills and creativity as much as fractions. Or one that delivers instruction in rich and diverse ways. Or one that understands that children will succeed based on social and emotional skills as much as algebra. Kids have such great capabilities to learn and needs to fulfill. Why can’t we develop an educational system that moves in this direction?