Friday, April 26, 2013


I’m going to begin this blog with that ages-old, tired, lame high school debate trick. I’m going to define the word I’d like to discuss. Honestly, folks, it needs to be done this time. Please really read this definition; try to get your mind around it.

exceptional (adjective)
      1. Forming an exception: RARE
      2. Better than average: SUPERIOR
      3. Deviating from the norm: as
    a. Having above or below average intelligence
    b. Physically disabled

Have you read that? Have you absorbed it? Okay, now, let’s get down to it.

Do you know anyone—anyone at all—who does NOT fit into that definition?

Let’s take me, for example. I am definitely rare; I’m sure many people would say, “Thank goodness for that!” I am an exception in lots of ways: I dislike condiments, I’ve never seen E.T., and I memorize weird things (like the text from a nightshirt I had when I was eight) but forget important ones (like whether I fed the dog last night).

In some ways, I’m better than average. I am probably superior to most people in memorizing thirty-year-old nightshirts. On the other hand, I fall far below average when it comes to the kind of intelligence that lets you learn a series of actions by imitating someone else’s actions and I always diagram three-dimensional situations backwards—just ask my physics, math, and costume design teachers.

I might be considered physically disabled by my fear of heights. It completely prevents me from doing certain things, like riding open escalators. I also have flat feet, knocked knees, and a more-than-usually-lazy left leg.

Does any of this keep me from functioning? No! I ride elevators instead of escalators. I’ve read maps, followed sewing patterns, and even designed costumes. I had to work a little harder at it, but I earned a black belt. I just start from where I am and take the next step. And I’m not alone in that. THAT is the one universal thing about how everyone learns.

Let me repeat that: EVERYONE learns by starting where they are and taking the next step.
Yes, EVERYONE. And, no, he's not really playing a song--but he may someday.
Now is the time on sprockets when we rant…

So, let’s discuss the concept of “Exceptional Student Education.” Based on our definition of exceptional above, which students are NOT exceptional? When you consider the variables (traditional intelligence, emotional intelligence, and all the seven other types of intelligence, social maturity, learning style, perceptual differences, physical differences, experiential differences, cultural differences, neurological differences, and personality types) how can any one student be exactly like another?

They can’t. There is no norm; average is an arbitrary designation that applies to, at best, one or two of those variables. Any child who makes it through the modern American school system without being considered exceptional just hasn’t been caught yet.

Yes, I said caught.

Ever since I read it—in junior high or high school, I forget which—“Harrison Bergeron” has been my nightmare. If you haven’t read it, do. Kurt Vonnegut foretells a future in which everyone is physically forced to be average. And the folks in that world do a pretty good job covering the major variables listed above.

Stop and think about education today, though. Do we see where our children start and take them to their next step? Or do we use social pressure to squish a large number of them into the average mold (ignoring any exceptions that we can possibly ignore—that we haven’t caught) and then trim off the ones that won’t fit, shunting them into exceptional classes and schools?

Is the point of our current system to educate each child or to treat the largest possible number of them in the exact same way for a set number of years?

I realize there are huge practical considerations involved in revolutionizing our education system, but I believe it starts with a new mindset among consumers (taxpayers, parents, guardians, mental health professionals, advocates, relatives, educators, doctors).

Rather than squabbling over resources for each exceptional group, let’s look for ways to address that one universal: every child starts somewhere and then takes the next step. Let’s look at the success of multi-age classrooms, the success of Finland, the success of team teaching, the success of peer teaching. Let’s educate, value, and compensate teachers who have the ability to work with children as they come to us.

Let’s look at the success of martial arts, a centuries-old system that operates on the principle of setting high expectations and progressing at an individual rate through the steps. The steps are the same for each student, but the journeys are individual. No student is “not enough” because each student must only do better than he or she did last time. Every student can take ownership and responsibility and pride in that.

Let’s abandon useless conventions like strict age-grade level correlations and trigonometry being a “better” math than accounting. Let’s embrace real-world learning like the students who designed a 100 mpg racecar. Let’s admit that not everyone needs to know how to scan a poem to live a fulfilled life.

Yes, I, the poet revolutionary, just said that. Not everyone needs—or wants—to know how to scan a poem.

Most of all, let’s make it a good thing to admit that, in some instances, we are the fish and will never be able to climb the damn tree. But we sure would love to challenge a three-toed sloth to a race through a coral reef….

Disclaimer: My family is lucky to live in a county with great schools and our children have been blessed to work with some gifted educators. But I’m going to write about what I see and what I think about the system, whether our children are navigating it pretty well or not.

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