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 Aiden’s mother says when she follows their advice Aiden becomes withdrawn, often barely speaking at all.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.

Say Yes to Your Weirdness

We tend to suppress certain aspects of ourselves in order to fit in. (Although when we display whatever weirdness is ‘in” I think that’s also a sort of conformity too.)

When I was growing up I did everything I could to hide what was odd and different in myself, letting out the funnier aspects in measured doses with my friends but keeping most tucked tightly in some inner compartment of my being. (To some extent I still do. You probably do too.)

I hope my kids have felt freer to express their own weirdness whether an early fascination with vacuum cleaners, a passion for forensic pathology, or unstoppable investigations of science-related oddities but I know for sure they are far more complex beings than their mother imagines.

Looking up the word “weird,” I see that its original meanings have to do with living out our uniqueness.

  • wyrd (fate or personal destiny)
  • wurđízwurd, wurt, urðr, worden (to become)
  •  wert (to turn, rotate)
  • wirþ, weorþan (to come to pass, to become)
  • weorþ (origin, worth)

Mythologist Michael Meade, founder of Mosaic Voices, says has plenty to say about that in an interview,

When I work with youth, I try to assist them in discovering their own unique essence. The sad fact is that everything in this culture is working against that essence. Mass culture is opposed to the uniqueness of individuals. Young people, whose job it is to become themselves, are walking into a culture whose goal is to turn them into everybody else. What I try to do is help young people realize who they already are inside. American culture says that you must make something of yourself, but the mythological understanding is that everybody already is someone. They have a seeded self at birth. As soon as young people are aware of the uniqueness inside them, they can begin to manifest the stories they’re carrying.

Meade’s comments echo a remarkable book, The Soul’s Codeby the late James Hillman. Hillman described each of us as coming into the world with a uniqueness that asks to be lived out, a sort of individual destiny which he termed an “acorn.” It’s a remarkable lens to view who we are. A child’s destiny may show itself in all sorts of ways: in behaviors we call disobedience, in obsession with certain topics or activities, in a constant pull toward or away from something. Rather than steering a child to a particular outcome, Hillman asks parents to pay closer attention to who the child is and how the child shows his or her calling. He also asks each of us, at any age, to listen to our weirdness. It’s integral to who we are on this moment-to-moment path of becoming.

What makes YOU weird?

Here are a few more thoughts on the matter.

“Whatever makes you weird, is probably your greatest asset.” Joss Whedon

There’s a whole category of people who miss out by not allowing themselves to be weird enough. ~ Alain de Botton

If you think people in your life are normal, then you undoubtedly have not spent any time getting to know the abnormal side of them. ~Shannon L. Alde

It ‘s weird not to be weird. ~ John Lennon

Blessed are the weird people – poets, misfits, writers, mystics, painters & troubadours – for they teach us to see the world through different eyes. ~ Jacob Nordb

 “Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision…” ~Cecil Beaton
“There is no such thing as a weird human being. It’s just that some people require more understanding than others.” ~Tom Robbins
“It’s not so much what you have to learn if you accept weird theories, it’s what you have to unlearn.” ~ Issac Asimov

“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr

All images courtesy of pixabay.com.

Recognizing Each Child’s Particular Genius

 

Free Range Learning, children's gifts,

A child’s gifts can be difficult to recognize, perhaps because they tend to unfold in mysterious ways. What we might consider idiosyncrasies or problems may very well indicate a child’s strengths. Oftentimes we can’t see the whole picture until long after the child has grown into adulthood. It’s worth remembering we can’t easily see our own gifts either, even though they have whispered to us of destiny or wounded us where they were denied.

A little girl creates chaos with her toys. She won’t put blocks away with other blocks nor put socks in her dresser drawer. As a preschooler she creates groupings that go together with logic only she understands. One such collection is made up of red blocks, a striped sock, spoons, and marbles. She sings to herself while she rearranges these items over and over. The girl is punished when she refuses to put her puzzles away in the correct box or her tea set dishes back together. She continues making and playing with these strangely ordered sets but hides them to avoid getting in trouble. This phase passes when she is about nine years old. Now an adult, she is conducting post-doctoral studies relating to string theory. She explains her work as a physicist has to do with finding common equations among disparate natural forces.

A young boy’s high energy frustrates his parents. As a preschooler he climbs on furniture and curtain rods, even repeatedly tries to scale the kitchen cabinets. When he becomes a preteen he breaks his collarbone skateboarding. He is caught shoplifting at 13. His parents are frightened when he says he “only feels alive on the edge.” Around the age of 15 he becomes fascinated with rock-climbing. His fellow climbers, mostly in their 20’s, also love the adrenaline rush that comes from adventure sports but help him gain perspective about his responsibility to himself and other climbers. His ability to focus on the cliff face boosts his confidence on the ground. At 19 he is already certified as a mountain search and rescue volunteer. He is thinking of going to school to become an emergency medical technician.

James Hillman explains in his book, The Soul’s Code,

I want us to envision that what children go through has to do with finding a place in the world for their specific calling. They are trying to live two lives at once, the one they were born with and the one of the place and among the people they were born into. The entire image of a destiny is packed into a tiny acorn, the seed of a huge oak on small shoulders. And its call rings loud and persistent and is as demanding as any scolding voice from the surroundings. The call shows in the tantrums and obstinacies, in the shyness and retreats, that seem to set the child against our world but that may be protections of the world it comes with and comes from.

Yehudi Menuhin, one of the preeminent violinists of the 20th century, became fascinated when he heard classical music on the radio as a three year old. He wanted to feel the same rich notes coming out of a violin in his hands. His parents lovingly presented him with a toy fiddle. He drew the bow across the strings and was horrified at the cheap squawk the toy made. Enraged, he threw the instrument across the room and broke it. His imagination had already taken him to the place in himself where beautiful music was made and he was unable to bear that awful sound. We normally call that behavior a “tantrum.”

Then there’s R. Buckminster Fuller, whose young adult years were marked with struggle. As a college student he hired an entire dance troupe to entertain a party, and in that one night of excess he squandered all the tuition money his family saved to send him to school. In his 20’s he was a mechanic, meat-packer, and Navy commander before starting a business that left him bankrupt. After his daughter died of polio he began drinking heavily. By conventional wisdom he’d be considered a total failure at this point. But while contemplating suicide, Fuller decided instead to live his life as an experiment to find out if one penniless individual could benefit humanity. He called himself Guinea Pig B. Without credentials or training Fuller worked as an engineer and architect, inventing such designs as the geodesic dome and advancing the concept of sustainable development. He wrote more than 30 books and registered dozens of patents. Fuller once said, “Everybody is born a genius. Society de-geniuses them.”

Few young people have clear indications of their gifts. Most have multiple abilities. A single true calling is rarely anyone’s lot in life as it is for a legendary artist or inventor. Instead, a mix of ready potential waits, offering a life of balance among many options. When we emphasize a child’s particular strengths we help that child to flourish, no matter if those gifts fall within mainstream academic subjects or broader personal capacities. Traits such as a highly developed sense of justice, a way with animals, a love of organization, a contemplative nature, the knack for getting others to cooperate—-these are of inestimable value, far more important skills than good grades on a spelling test.

Free Range Learning, all kids geniuses,

Although society confuses genius with IQ scores, such scores don’t determine what an individual will do with his or her intelligence. In fact, studies have shown that specific personality traits are better predictors of success than I.Q. scores. Genius has more to do with using one’s gifts. In Roman mythology each man was seen as having a genius within (and each woman its corollary, a juno) which functioned like a guardian of intellectual powers or ancestral talent.

What today’s innovators bring to any discipline, whether history or art or technology, is a sort of persistent childlike wonder. They are able to see with fresh eyes. They can’t be dissuaded from what they want to do and often what they do is highly original. Sometimes these people have a difficult personal journey before using their gifts. Their paths are not easy or risk-free, but the lessons learned from making mistakes can lead to strength of character.

We must leave ample space for these gifts to unfold. This takes time and understanding. The alternative deprives not only the child, it also deprives our world of what that child might become.

Acknowledging that each person is born with innate abilities waiting to manifest doesn’t imply our children are destined for greatness in the popular sense of power or wealth. It means that children are cued to develop their own personal greatness. This unfolding is a lifelong process for each of us as we work toward our capabilities for fulfillment, joy, health, meaning, and that intangible sense of well-being that comes of using one’s gifts.

 

This article is an excerpt from the book Free Range Learning. It was also published in Life Learning Magazine