Underestimating the Capacity of Children

homeschooling my story Nov 04, 2012

This week I've been noodling about the goals of America's primary education system. For our team project in my MBA program, we decided to focus on 4th grade literacy scores to tell the story of the education system with a causal loop diagram. And while I think this story is compelling, and ultimately very disturbing in ways, I feel as if we have lost sight of our initial motivation and passion about the subject. So I wanted to take this opportunity to document my thoughts and passion before it gets lost in the shuffle of school, so that I can come back and pick up where I left off sometime in the future.

I was listening the the audio version of The Art of Possibility and was surprised at the emotional response I had to the chapter on Giving an A. There is a part of the chapter where Ben Zander describes a time when a member of his orchestra (Anne) played Mahler's Ninth Symphony for her 5 year-old niece (Katrine) on vacation and was surprised to find the child incredibly interested in the 90 minute piece. When she introduced the music to Katrine, she described a fantastical story of a princess and a dragon as they listened. After a bit, Katrine asked to hear the music again and then asked her auntie, "What is this story really about?" Anne described Mahler's incredibly tragic life and that this was the last piece of music he wrote after being told he was dying. His intention with the music was to say good-by to everything and look back over his life, and with his music, Mahler attempted to put 'everything in life in his symphonies - so anything that can be imagined can be heard in them if you listen carefully enough.'  Katrine immediately understood and asked to hear the piece hundreds of times over that summer and got to see it performed live. After watching her auntie play in the live performance, she wrote a letter to Ben that said, "Ben Zander, Love Katrine. Thank you for Mahler Ninth. I loved it." Ben carries this note with him everywhere he goes to remind him of "how seldom we pay attention to, or even look for, the passionate and the extraordinary in children - how seldom we give children an A."

And my heart stopped because I have found this to be true as I raise my children and talk to other parents. I was shocked when I started introducing principles of mindfulness to my children at 5 or 6, something I'd been working on for a couple of years. The truth was they understood the idea of living in the moment way better than I did and had a lot to teach me about living with your whole heart. Ideas of social responsibility or environmental stewardship make sense intuitively to children and I believe are unlearned somewhere along the way of growing up. Kids are attuned to beauty around them in a way that adults have to be very conscious about. I believe that we are our most authentic self as kids, and that as we grow up we make ourselves fit societal norms and expectations of those (flawed) adults around us. We live into a story of who others see us to be. I also believe that as adults, some of the greatest work we can do to find happiness is to reconnect with who we were created to be - and the strongest clues are memories from childhood.

When I think about developing an educational vision for my children, I want for them to be nurtured into their whole selves. I like Michaelangelo's perspective that when he looks at a piece of stone he can see the statue within and views his job as chipping away at the extraneous pieces to reveal the beauty that was already there. I think our job as parents and educators, is attuning to our kids in a way that we can help them along that path of authenticity - acquiring skills to be successful in life and also helping them to be happy. Imagine if every child in the world had an adult attuned to their needs!

This seems like it might be a universal desire of parents. I can't see how this intention could be highly controversial. I can see how people might fight over what is the responsibility of schools to a vision like this given limited funds. But I think we've gotten lost somewhere along the way. Take a look at this infographic:


What if we also looked at critical thinking? Or social and emotional intelligence? Or creative and divergent thinking? Don't we think these are the skills that are really required to be successful in the new economy?

In Immunity to Change, Keagan observes that "we now live in a global economy characterized by rapid change, accelerating scientific and technological breakthroughs, and an unprecedented level of competitiveness. These developments create demand for higher levels of education and training than were required of previous generations...What is not understood is that these developments also create new demands on our psychological resources. Specifically, these developments ask for a greater capacity for innovation, self-management, personal responsibility, and self direction....Today, organizations need not only an unprecedentedly higher level of knowledge and skill among all those who participate but also a higher level of independence, self-reliance, self-trust, and the capacity to exercise initiative."

Although we have made progress over the past 30 years, it is inexcusable that 23% of Seattle students at a 4th grade level do not meet basic standards of reading.

But I don't think that just getting kids to be able to read and write is enough to expect out of our educational system at this point. And I don't think enough conversation is happening at that level.


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