When I was in sixth grade, my teacher, Mr. Lovejoy (at Broad Ave Elementary School), had me tested using the Stanford-Binet IQ test. I did pretty well. He decided that his classroom was not the place for me but that he, as a mentor, would work well. So he started giving me college textbooks and free rein to create science experiments for other students. I spent most of my sixth-grade year creating a science lesson and then watching as other students used it to see how they learned, and then changing the experiment based on what I learned. Or, most of the time, just doing something completely new based on whatever I was reading.
The science station was a broad science station, so I created learning experiences for everything from geology to chemistry and biology. Of course, I had no idea what an opportunity I had been handed. It was one of the best learning experiences ever. And there were no tests in these tasks. Ever. I showed Mr. Lovejoy the center and told him why I did what I did and how it worked, and that was it.
I was very lucky. We need to create more of these mentor-based, peer-learning environments. We need to create more luck. Educators should attempt to identify passion early and let it blossom and pass their learning and observations through the system. Our industrial age bias is creating a straight pipe with smooth edges. We push children in one end and expect smart, engaged adults to come out on the other, ready for college. Yes, that is an oversimplification, but so is our standards-based approach to learning. If we let children co-create their pathways based on passions (yes, the passion of the week is OK), then we will open our learning systems up to the creative chaos that created some of the best minds, including Franklin and Jefferson. Look at how they learned. Look at how seemingly undisciplined and contrarian they were. We don’t like the unruly and the contrarian, so we ask children to output that not in the classroom but outside the classroom, which then creates attention issues inside the classroom, and discipline problems in the larger world.
Let’s engage kids where they are. Let’s help them find a passion, perhaps even burn through it to another passion. But let’s, above all, keep them engaged in learning and exploration from the earliest age – and in visceral, hands-on ways that provide multi-sensory feedback and multi-modal learning. Let them talk about what they learn, demonstrate it – and above all, fail at it. Don’t give a back grade to an experiment that fails – give a good grade for the process of discovering the failure.
And BTW, the parents are going to get involved, so make that more transparent – and encourage it. My daughter Alyssa built an electric house in elementary school. And so did Dad and Uncle Steve. It had the coolest switches, but Alyssa did more wire routing than circuit design. If we were less competitive and more inclusive, we would have gone more for the experience than for the grade—but these days, grades start early because if you don’t learn that, you don’t get into the University of your choice. I would much rather see colleges accept people based on their proclivity to think than their ability to pass a standardized test.
Perhaps someday Stanford will find its students who can still build an electric house and explain it in 12th grade, rather than selecting for someone who can answer a trigonometry problem but doesn’t care in the least that they can and wants to stop answering them as soon as possible. When we align passion with performance, as the barriers to success fall away, we will find our children will surprise us in amazing ways – and we will stop talking about the failure of the system and instead about our hopes for tomorrow.