Why does one person sail through schooling while a sister or
brother suffers through the grade structure as if each year were a jail
Why do so
many smart people flounder through public school like fish caught in a
net? Or accumulate a record of
detentions and instant recognition by the principal responsible for discipline?
who discover or create a niche for themselves often hate school. One young woman, now a college junior and
who was almost a stereotypical cheerleader and member of the in crowd,
says her high school years were wasted.
She got through it by concentrating on the social life and taking a
course load that got her out in three years.
research on individual differences and how we learn allows us to speculate on
part of the answers.
have different learning clocks. A
student may be ready to read, say, at eight years instead of six—so she spends
three years feeling stupid—or she’s ready to tackle algebra at ten, but she has
to sit through years of stupefying boredom.
students have a dominant sense of learning, just as important for dealing with
daily life as being right- or left-handed, that doesn’t fit the popular
mold. We no longer force left-handed
people to write with their right hands, but we think nothing of forcing
auditory learners, who learn by listening, or kinesthetic persons, who learn by
doing, to sit silently for hours with books their only source of instruction.
doing some things wrong, we’ve been doing them wrong a long, long time. Egyptian papyri bear the copying work of
school children: letter forming exercises, lists of nations, phrases of moral
instruction. In the archives of Duke
University there is a bit pf papyrus with margin notes that mention Argos,
Troy, and Helen.
friend whose experience includes both upstate New York and Nevada, points out
schools have used many of the same methods for centuries because these methods
work. There have been always, he says,
students who don’t like or fit the system; that’s the way people are.
high school principal and superintendent of schools in Illinois, Bill Hayes,
had this comment, “Schools are very narrow minded and short tempered in dealing
with someone who disagrees with the way they have their system set up.”
the people who don’t like the way things are effect changes when they get their
chances. Sometimes they give up.
number of years, I was a teacher, director, and curriculum coordinator in a
cooperative high school that served five separate school districts. The students who came to our school were
creative, talented, and bright. Some of
them were angry. Most had one thing in
common—they didn’t fit the stereotypes.
had a number of young men and women who suffered from a lack of goodness of
fit. When I remember some of them,
their individualities stand out like sapphires sparkling in a fuzzy web.
wanted to be an auto mechanic after she graduated, and she was already working
through an apprenticeship despite a ton of pressure from her family and friends
who insisted that girls didn’t repair cars.
had an unusually large number of musicians, so large that for my own
satisfaction I did the numbers.
According to the statistical software I used, the probability was less
than .005 that, strictly by chance, one school would have so many young men
whose tests indicated music as the primary interest in their lives.
are born musicians hear music and rhythms in everything around them, the sound
of air brakes on a truck, the beat of tires hitting pavement grooves, voices
blending in a crowded hallway. These
students might thrive in a school where there is as much emphasis on music as
there is on sports in the traditional secondary schools. History can be learned through studying and
listening to the changes in musical tastes over decades as well as through
memorizing data. Playing in a band is
the usual compromise.
appeared, at first, to fit the stereotype our culture constructs for young
women. She was thin to the point that I
wanted to grab her and start spoon-feeding her chicken soup. Her long blond hair shined and waved around
a thin face what was expertly made up.
Her clothes bore the approved labels.
One of the
most fascinating things about Stephanie was that through the influence of a
former boyfriend she had developed a hobby.
She raised goats for showing in competition. Trophies and aware ribbons adorned her room at home. This was what consumed her interests and
Steve was a
talented mechanic who was left in charge of two older brothers while his
parents, both truck drivers, made long-distance runs form ocean to ocean. The brothers, serious burly men who would
tolerate no problems from their younger sibling, where the guardians who came
to parent conferences. They looked
overpowering, tall, scowling, and obviously able to lift tall buildings. I hesitated to say anything that might be
used against Steve once the family returned home.
however, was real pain in the neck. He
hated schools, teachers, “busy work” assignments, person in authority, a lot of
his fellow classmates (“these dumb jerks”), and who knows what else. Steve invented a device that simplified
unloading large trucks. A trucking
company purchased Steve’s invention for a good sum, which Steve used to set himself up in business
after he got out of school, and today he is a successful business man. I doubt that he ever learned to tolerate
a few magnet or theme schools sprinkled sparingly like exotic spice,
traditional high schools are designed to fit no one, although many students do
fit will enough that they prosper.
Goodness of fit is a real-world phenomenon that really does matter. There exists somewhere a public high school
for performing arts, a school of science and mathematics, a school for creative
writers and artists, a school of applied sciences. Somewhere. As yet, none
except that for applied sciences is in my neighborhood.
choose, if they can, to work and live among people of similar lifestyles and
interests. It makes nights more
interesting, morning more worth getting up for. Artists like access to galleries, musicians to concerts and
opportunities to make music with other musicians. Golfers prefer neighborhoods with golf courses. Hikers look for open countryside. Athletes want handy gyms, handball and
college is the first opportunity most of us have to find a goodness of
fit. College is the single most
important leap, outside choosing a life partner, in creating the kind of life
we really want. Somewhere is the
college that fits our learning styles, personalities, and interests, where
there never again need be more square pegs pounded into round holes.