The other night my teaching partner and I, along with two of our students, gave a brief presentation to our local School Board Trustees outlining the basic tenants of our Autonomous Learner Model-inspired two-year gifted students program. At the conclusion of our small talk, our superintendent offered praise to our learners’ poise and confidence in following the Mayor’s presentation to the daunting group of elected officials, and noted that our district, and public education in general, is headed in the direction of the type of differentiated instruction paramount in the TALONS classroom. Needless to say, in an age of consistent, and staggering, budgetary shortfalls in our local school districts, it is encouraging to hear positive words from the top of our local school organizations, and to know that we are ahead of the curve.
I heard one of our vice-principals say last week that, “My daughter’s not an identified gifted student, but that’s the type of learning I want her to be doing.” (Students must be designated as ‘gifted’ and so-eligible for our district’s Student Services funding to be able to apply to TALONS.) And I agree with him; it’s not that our model would only work with gifted learners. (Indeed, George Betts intended to have the model extended to students with learning disabilities and the general population of schools.)
When I teach courses to the general student body at our school, I use the same guiding principals as I do in a class where each of my 28 students has an Ministry of Education required Individual Education Plan (as they do in the gifted program). According to my course evaluations, the high achievers learn more than they would in a class they might have otherwise aced; and the low achievers tend not to fail with the same regularity. When they do, in fact, I would chalk up much more of their inability to succeed in the classroom setting to such poor prior experiences with any of the following: English, learning, teachers, or education in general (my students are generally 14 or 15 by the time they get to me, and hence have some fairly entrenched habits and perspectives). I failed one student in all of the 60-some students I taught through English 9 last year: the straw that broke his academic back was a report – oral, video, written or in a form of their choosing – on the touring schedule of the student’s favourite band. More differentiation (or less) would not have been likely to affect the outcome, I doubt.
Really, how could one fail in a system that is based upon working toward an individualized set of goals in relation to the mandated government curriculum? Yes there will be shortcomings in ability, prior knowledge, or other limiting factors. But how well are our schools prepared to create the type of learning, and learners, we claim to seek on a daily basis?
Heidi sent me the video at the top of this post on Twitter the other day, asking if the TALONS students had seen it. And they may have: it’s a popular tv spot for a company that has seized the modern zeitgeist to create revolutionary solutions to Herculean problems, featuring counter-cultural icons who have defined the last fifty years in areas from science, to politics, to arts and music and the ongoing struggle for freedom.
When I look out across my class on a given afternoon, I am constantly witness to the germination of passions and ideas that could well become the embodiment of Apple’s urging, to Think Different. Our students are lucky to be in a classroom where such diversity is encouraged. But I wonder how well they would be served in many other ‘average’ classrooms (which I am quick to point out are not always the result of poor teaching or under-qualified teachers, but the constraints placed upon our modern classrooms), and to answer that question, I look to the educational experiences of the faces in the clip attached above, many of whom no doubt learned to become those “crazy enough to believe they could change the world” not because of their education, but in spite of it.
Albert Einstein – From Wikipedia – Einstein clashed with authorities and resented the school’s regimen and teaching method. He later wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning. In the spring of 1895, he withdrew to join his family in Pavia, convincing the school to let him go by using a doctor’s note. During this time, Einstein wrote his first scientific work, “The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields“.
Bob Dylan – From NNDB.com – Late in 1959 Dylan enrolled in the University of Minnesota, but his love of music soon overpowered any academic ambitions and the following year, after spending a summer in Denver honing his stage persona, he dropped out and moved to New York to immerse himself in its incipient folk-revival scene. While in New York he also sought out his hero Woody Guthrie, spending as much time as he could at the ailing musicians bedside.
R. Buckminster Fuller – From Wikipedia – He was expelled from Harvard twice: first for spending all his money partying with a vaudeville troupe, and then, after having been readmitted, for his “irresponsibility and lack of interest”. By his own appraisal, he was a non-conforming misfit in the fraternity environment. Many years later he would receive a Sc.D. from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
Thomas Edison – From Wikipedia – In school, the young Edison’s mind often wandered, and his teacher, the Reverend Engle, was overheard calling him “addled“. This ended Edison’s three months of official schooling. Edison recalled later, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.” His mother homeschooled him. Much of his education came from reading R.G. Parker’s School of Natural Philosophy and The Cooper Union.
Muhammad Ali – From Wiki Answers – Muhammad Ali dropped out of Louisville Central High, a local basketball power, finishing 369th of 391 seniors in the class of 1960, and often traveling to fight on weekends.
Ted Turner – From Wikipedia – Turner initially majored in Classics. Turner’s father wrote saying that his choice made him “appalled, even horrified,” and that he “almost puked.” Turner later changed his major to Economics, but he was expelled before receiving a diploma for having a female student in his dormitory room.
Maria Callas – From Wikipedia – Initially, her mother tried to enroll her at the prestigious Athens Conservatoire, without success. At the audition, her voice, still untrained, failed to impress, while the conservatoire’s director Filoktitis Oikonomidis refused to accept her without her satisfying the theoretic prerequisites (solfege). In the summer of 1937, her mother visited Maria Trivella at the younger Greek National Conservatoire, asking her to take Mary as a student for a modest fee.
Mahatma Gandhi – From Wikipedia – In 1885, when Gandhi was 15, the couple’s first child was born, but survived only a few days; Gandhi’s father, Karamchand Gandhi, had died earlier that year. Mohandas and Kasturba had four more children, all sons: Harilal, born in 1888; Manilal, born in 1892; Ramdas, born in 1897; and Devdas, born in 1900. At his middle school in Porbandar and high school in Rajkot, Gandhi remained an average student academically. He passed the matriculation exam for Samaldas College at Bhavnagar, Gujarat with some difficulty. While there, he was unhappy, in part because his family wanted him to become a barrister.
Amelia Earhart – From Wikipedia – Amelia and Muriel (she went by her middle name from her teens on), remained with their grandparents in Atchison, while their parents moved into new, smaller quarters in Des Moines. During this period, Amelia received a form of home-schooling together with her sister, from her mother and a governess. She later recounted that she was “exceedingly fond of reading” and spent countless hours in the large family library. In 1909, when the family was finally reunited in Des Moines, the Earhart children were enrolled in public school for the first time with Amelia entering the seventh grade at the age of 12 years.
Alfred Hitchcock – From Wikipedia – Hitchcock was sent to the Jesuit Classic school St Ignatius’ College in Stamford Hill, London. He often described his childhood as being very lonely and sheltered. Hitchcock left St. Ignatius to study at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation in Poplar, London. After graduating, he became a draftsman and advertising designer with a cable company.
Martha Graham – From Wikipedia – While the social status in which she was raised contributed to her access to education and refinement, it would also work against Martha. As the eldest daughter of a prominent physician, and a Presbyterian family, Martha was strongly discouraged from considering any career in the performing arts.
Jim Henson – From Wikipedia – In 1954, while attending Northwestern High School, he began working for WTOP-TV creating puppets for a Saturday morning children’s show. After graduating from high school, Henson enrolled at University of Maryland, College Park, as a studio arts major, thinking he might become a commercial artist. A puppetry class offered in the applied arts department introduced him to the craft and textiles courses in the College of Home Economics, and he graduated with a B.S. in home economics in 1960. As a freshman, he was asked to create Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. The characters on Sam and Friends were already recognizable Muppets, and the show included a primitive version of what would become Henson’s most famous character, Kermit the Frog.
Frank Lloyd Wright – From Wikipedia – Wright attended a Madison high school but there is no evidence he ever graduated. He was admitted to the University of Wisconsin–Madison as a special student in 1886. There he joined Phi Delta Theta fraternity, took classes part-time for two semesters, and worked with a professor of civil engineering, Allan D. Conover. In 1887, Wright left the school without taking a degree (although he was granted an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University in 1955).
Pablo Picasso – From Wikipedia – the family moved to Barcelona, with Ruiz transferring to its School of Fine Arts. Picasso thrived in the city, regarding it in times of sadness or nostalgia as his true home. Ruiz persuaded the officials at the academy to allow his son to take an entrance exam for the advanced class. This process often took students a month, but Picasso completed it in a week, and the impressed jury admitted Picasso, who was 13. The student lacked discipline but made friendships that would affect him in later life.
It’s not that they were each rebels, renegades or educational outliers: Martin Luther King and others were academically as endowed as many meeting with success in our modern schools. But how well are our schools and present-day classrooms equipped to produce the types of thinkers listed above?
What grade would Bob Dylan be getting in your class?