Last Thursday and Friday I had the great fortune of attending the Momentous Institute's Changing the Odds Conference in Dallas. It's an amazing event, with perhaps the most stellar line-up of big-name presenters, as you'll see by the names sprinkled throughout this post. The theme was Chaos to Connection, and the program unfolded in a way that fit that perfectly. It also touched upon multiple aspects of education in a very holistic fashion--mind, body, and spirit.
Any time I attend such an event, I like to spend some time reflecting and trying to integrate the pieces into a single big idea. With any luck, it won't be one of the more explicit ones. (You can read two such pieces after last year's event: one here and another here.) This this I was having some trouble coming up with anything even though so much of the experience has resonated with me. Then, on Saturday night, some friends invited us to see the musical Matilda. This morning the seeds of an idea began to sprout. This process post is an attempt to see how they grow.
If you know the story of Matilda, based on the book by Roald Dahl, you may just want to skip to the next paragraph. Matilda is a little girl who is incredibly smart, so intelligent that a friend worries her brains will ooze out of her ears. Her intellect appears mainly through her voracious readings, and I won't tell you the other ways so that I don't ruin the story for anyone. Her parents are psychologically abusive, and she attends a hellacious school dominated by the bullying headmistress Agatha Trunchbull. She insists on strict rules and procedures and calls the children maggots; punishment is swift and brutal. Trunchbull refuses to see anything special in Matilda except that might be a threat in some way. The heroine is Miss Honey, Matilda's teacher, who overcomes her own fears to help Matilda.
In some ways the connection to the conference is rather obvious, in that many of the speakers focused on helping students overcome trauma. The institute focuses heavily on social-emotional health of children; one goal is to help children learn how to help their glitter settle.
But as I've been swirling my mental kaleidoscope, another idea has emerged. Yes, Matilda is an exceptional child. But an underlying message of the conference is that all people--especially all children--are exceptional. Thus I've discerned an unstated but loud cry for greater non-standardization of education. It's necessary for both individual development but also an educational system that serves everyone.
The amazing Story Corps project led by David Isay reminded us how each individual has a powerful story. Those stories guide us, shape our perspectives, forge our character, and give us something powerful to contribute. We can learn from each other, We heard how blogger Glennon Doyle Melton survived the depths of her mental illness and now sees it as what enables her to inspire others. Paul Quinn college president Michael Sorrell told of how his near death from a cardiac event led him to become a better leader. All that makes sense when we think about how, as Daniel Pink illustrated, true motivation depends on autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Similarly, author of The Gift of Failure Jessica Lahey argued that children have to be able to discover on their own what they can and cannot do in creating their own checklists. None of this happens in a world of rows and worksheets and bubble tests. In fact, psychologist Lou Cozolino explained how the assembly line system of education can inhibit learning because of how the social brain works best.
For me, this boils down to three key issues as identified by Sir Ken Robinson. He said it's a matter of considering conformity versus diversity; compliance versus creativity; and linear versus organic. I see the question as practically rhetorical. I say "practically" because the ideal remains so elusive for far too many young people. They lack opportunities, or their talents go unrecognized or are devalued. We spend too much time focused on what kids should do...and not enough allowing them to discover what they could do. We're too much about efficiency and quality control; any flaws must be immediately fixed. If they're extreme enough, we scrap that product. There are those fortunate few who drop out at some point and succeed anyways. We tend to glorify them and hold them out as examples of how school doesn't work for everyone. True enough. But we forget about the much greater number who end up struggling for the rest of their lives. Yes, the standard approach works well enough for the majority. But is that good enough? Don't we want more for each individual?
That's why we don't just need teachers. As educators we need to see ourselves as what Kevin Carroll called catalysts. We have to be the agents that spark change--on our own little corners, in schools and systems, and for each child. Then each will feel valued and empowered. Rather than merely conform, they will live per some lyrics from Matilda's "When I Grow Up":
When I grow up, I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you need to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown up.
(When I grow up)
Doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
nothing will change!
It doesn't mean that everything is written for me.
If I think the ending is fixed already,
I might as well be saying
I think that it's OK!
Just because you find that life's not fair
When I grow up
Just because, I find myself in this story,
And that's not right!