Educate for Conformity or Educate for Innovation?

Do we educate for innovation or conformity?

Image: CC by 2.0 Laurence Simon

David McCullough’s book The Wright Brothers is a captivating look at Orville and Wilbur Wright. The brothers were considered peculiar, aloof, single-minded,  solemn, and obsessively drawn to their own pursuits. Neither of these self-taught engineers possessed a high school diploma. In pursuit of their ambitions, the Dayton, Ohio men spent weeks at a time camping on the sand of steamy, mosquito-infested Kitty Hawk, N.C. in order to study flight as directly as possible. There they watched seabirds for hours, sometimes flapping their wrists and elbows to better understand the motion of bird wings.  Local residents assumed these two awkward, unsociable men were “nuts.”

As I read this book I’m reminded of kids I know. Kids lit from within by their own enthusiasms. Kids with labels and kids without.  Kids like mine, kids like yours.

One of those kids is named Aiden.  He attends a regular third grade classroom and, because he’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s, he also has an aide for part of the day. Her job is to reinforce, over and over, the exacting demands of his assignments along with other classroom requirements.  (We now know too much help can be counterproductive.) His aide says Aiden quickly comprehends the material but sees little purpose in doing assignments to prove it. His resistance is growing. He reminds me a little of another boy labeled “underachiever.”

Aiden spends hours each week with various therapists working on his speech and coordination.  His progress is tracked in excruciating detail and he’s made aware, sometimes minute to minute, where his deficits lie. It’s exhausting for him. He’s bored. He’s frustrated. He wants to do what he’s interested in and that means anything that has to do with bicycles.

Aiden reads adult-level books about bike repair, bike trips, and bike history. He’s memorized the offerings in bike catalogs from different manufacturers down to individual parts. He draws plans of bikes and will talk at length about them. His dream is to build a self-designed bicycle. Experts assure Aiden’s parents that their son must not be allowed to indulge in his love of bike-related learning except as a reward for meeting incremental goals in school and therapy. Aiden’s mother says when she follows their advice Aiden becomes withdrawn, often barely speaking at all. “He’s himself when it has anything to do with bikes,” she says.  “He just comes alive.”

His mother never expected Aiden to have problems in school since he’s so obviously intelligent. She saw signs of this early on.  As a toddler Aiden was skilled at putting together increasingly difficult puzzles. He was mesmerized by anything with wheels, especially his toy cars but also the wheels on bikes and strollers. He’d lie with his head on the ground slowly moving any object with wheels back and forth to observe the movement. He was also able to draw perfect circles, interlocking them in complicated patterns. When he was about 18 months old his eager engagement with people had noticeably declined. So had his early verbal skills. He became a quiet little boy wrapped in his own fascinations.

When I ask her to talk about Aiden’s best times she describes what many of us consider our own best times —-when we’re deeply absorbed in a state of flow or struck by awe at the world around us. One of those times was when Aiden was four years old. His grandfather, who has since passed away, came for a visit with three bicycles he’d picked up on trash collection day. He and Aiden spent an entire day fixing those bikes together. His mother said he still talks about that day. Another time his family drove to Ohio to visit the Bicycle Museum of America.  Aiden was wonder struck, spending hours looking carefully at each display. This is a memory he cherishes. (Each to his own, his sister describes that place as the most boring ever).

Many children develop unevenly.  Asynchronous development is particularly common in gifted children. A child may show artistic promise and read as well as students many years older, yet be well below grade level in math. All sorts of attention is focused on getting that math score up rather than letting the child’s best abilities afford her a strong sense of self, a sense that she’s capable of learning whatever she’s ready to learn, to let her discover all sorts of ways to love math as it reinforces her artistic and literary inclinations. Our strengths have a way of helping us learn more while pulling our abilities up in all areas, a concept often called  by snappy terms like customized education and personalized learning.  (A concept homeschoolers already know inside and out.)

Aiden’s fascination with bicycles is teaching him history, geometry, physics, technical drawing, and much more  —- a self-education far more in-depth than the curriculum he’s expected to follow. Yet the very thing he loves is taken away until he meets the next demand, and the next, and the next.

We work hard to fit young people into the world of today, forgetting they are here to create the future through ideas, innovations, and solutions. A future that relies more on eccentricity than conformity.  A future where the most gifted rarely fit the norm. That doesn’t mean we must push our children toward what society considers greatness, but to recognize that living with meaning, joy, and purpose is also a form of greatness. Perhaps a far more necessary greatness.

We need to nurture our children in ways that brings forth who they are, what James Hillman calls the “acorn” that’s exhibited in a child’s particular fascinations. Let’s not blunt the (sometimes exasperating, often inexplicable) uniqueness every child brings to life by tossing a blanket over light that doesn’t shine as we expect it to. Let’s remember history is full of “peculiar” people whose unconventional ideas still send us aloft.

13 thoughts on “Educate for Conformity or Educate for Innovation?

  1. I find it incomprehensible that Aiden’s educators aren’t utilising his love of bicycles to teach him all the things they want him to know, and provide him with a path towards all the things he wants to know. I would have thought that was basic good sense. But then, I’m a homeschooler. Your child loves bicycles (or dinosaurs or Little House of the Prairie?) There are literally thousands of ways you can create effective learning within the frame of their passion!

    I am also bemused by the idea that, once a child has comprehended some piece of learning, they have to repeatedly prove it. That’s not only a waste of time, but it can shut down their brain, cause them to block out the information, and ultimately turn them off to learning.

    I want to know Aiden’s fate. Will he be stuck in that dreary classroom environment forever, or will he be rescued so he can work towards designing an amazing bike – and then another amazing machine – and then another – leading him who knows where? Hopefully, nowhere outside his own true soul.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Teachers I know get into the profession to see that spark of aliveness in their students, but they’re so constricted by the test-heavy approach of today’s schools that there’s little they can do to customize education. I remember my dad, an elementary school teacher his whole career, letting kids do all sorts of independent projects while excusing them from more rote assignments. (I also read my dad’s copies of John Holt books back when I was a 5th grader!)

      I talked to Aiden’s mother and his aide for this post. Both of them grieve that he’s not trying harder but insist he has to succeed in the milieu of school in order to succeed in life…..

      Liked by 2 people

      • There are many wonderful schools and especially many, many wonderful teachers. Sorry, my response was a little too hasty and riled up. I myself loved school for much of it, mainly because I was frequently blessed with awesome and thoughtful teachers. The problems lie on the whole with the system itself.

        I do hope Aiden succeeds and I wish his family all the best, I know their opinion about school is the norm and of course they are the ones who know Aiden best and have his needs most at heart.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I have tears in my eyes, Laura. Tears for Aiden, tears for all students like him. So many of these “peculiar” kids are brilliant. I have one of my own. I’m not going to lie– many days he drives me, despite my best efforts, to the brink… but I love him dearly. He is brilliant, and passionate, and creative, and he WILL do something AMAZING one day. He needs the support to get there. Not just from ME, but from the village. I wish more folks were open to seeing the light in others. Thank you for this!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Same old problems as always with our educational approach. Every generation or so someone ‘rediscovers’ the cosmic truth that ‘children’s play is their work’. In between, and in most of America especially, our format for children’s school time repeatedly crushes enthusiasm, Asperger’s Dxg or not. Children can only endure so much without exhibition of permanent anxiety and acting out with various depressive or destructive behaviors.
    My good fortune has been to work with young children most of my life, where my daily personal energy is nurtured through exploration alongside them. Yet I still find the cyclic advocacy struggle exhausting. We regularly adopt the latest and most appealing educational approaches only to maintain the same underpinnings that have failed our children for decades: public, private, and charter alike. But a few parents and administrators are understanding, innovative and brave enough to back their instincts with a curriculum that allows young children to explore and experience the world with the joy in their untainted natures.
    One of my own children also ‘suffers’ from Asperger’s Syndrome, with emphasis on ‘suffers’. Years of struggle with the system and its expectations have derailed his instincts. Constant pressure from those who ‘teach’, intermittent awareness of individual learning style, and grade level structure led to his social development peaking in grades 5/6, repeating 8th grade, and leaving high school without graduating in his last year. He would sometimes spend multiple class periods per day in restroom hiding to avoid peer and teacher confrontation. Now nineteen, he’s a musician, a lover of words, and an advocate for the less able/fortunate, struggling to make personal sense of baffling surroundings.
    Sadly, I do not foresee fundamental educational change without adjustment to the reverence we pay professionals compensated in exorbitantly disproportionate ways. There are a few who lend their good fortune to support and exploration of educational reform: meanwhile generations of children continue to be at risk for not rising above the dispiriting schooling experiences of their first eighteen years.
    Thank you for your blog, Laura, and continuing insights…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Many varieties of children such as these thrive in Montessori schools! I celebrate over a dozen of their stories in “Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful”! I’ll send you a copy if you send me a mailing address. It galloping read that will make you laugh and make you cry.

    Thank you for your inspiring and powerful work!

    Donna Bryant Giertz

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  5. I homeschooled my daughter, who also has Asperger’s (now defunct in the new DSM and re-labeled autism). We were mostly unschoolers who followed her passions in fantasy and theater. Through these interests she learned about history — political, economic, and artistic — figurative language and imagery, literary structure, and science. But even more importantly, when she, like Aiden, “came alive” through her interests, she was able to lessen anxiety and improve her social skills through interaction with people who shared her fascinations. In fact she has astonished me by actively pursuing, through theater mime and movement classes, those nonverbal body-language aspects of social interaction which are hardest for her. She’s now a theater major at a small liberal arts college. She had no problems making the change from homeschooling to structured school at that age and has a straight A average, because she is able to choose from classes that interest her rather than sit through what is mandated for all.

    I believe there have been multiple studies done which show that some people, particularly those with what might sweepingly be called “right-brained” or non-neurotypical wiring, NEED to have engagement before they can learn, process, and retain effectively. Without engagement, these kids are set up to fail, to be remediated, bored, and stressed. Without a sense that their interests are legitimate and that these interests develop strengths, they are set up to feel that they are failures.

    I understand and empathize with Aiden’s mother’s and aide’s beliefs, because early on I shared them; but the more we come to understand about people who are differently wired, the more it is clear that to “succeed” in the current public (and most private) school environment, these children are going to end up being shortchanged and feeling like failures in what may be far more important areas of their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

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