If only we weren’t so much like the fleas…

Remember how a pack of fleas confined to a jar will learn to bounce around only as high as the lid? After the lid has been removed, they’ll behave as though it’s still there.

This story gets lots of mileage as a motivational tool: Don’t be a flea!  Venture beyond perceived limitations that may not really be there!  The analogy to learning and education is somewhat tired and obvious at first – kids bounce around exploring their environment freely until school starts and then the jar forms around them, limiting what’s possible. It’s not necessarily the result of anyone’s malice or mistake, it’s just that that’s how we do it.  We decide where the jar’s going to be for kids – what they need to know, how much of it they need to know, when they should stop learning that and move on to something else.

What’s worth deeper consideration is that our similarity to fleas extends to the tendency to pass on learned limits to future generations.   We want a better life for kids than we have been able to realize, but only if in the course of it we don’t feel belittled or uncomfortable in any way.  What we are comfortable with is when kids follow a familiar path but produce better results than we did.  That makes us proud. They get better grades because we provide them with a better school with smaller classes and good funding.  They get into better colleges (or college at all) because they did well at the better school.  They get a higher paying job thanks to that better college thanks to the better performance in the better school, etc.

It’s another thing to demand something entirely else.  If a child resists traditional academic expectations because, for example, he needs more time to work on inventing and gathering technical knowledge, it doesn’t occur to us that maybe he’s doing exactly what we’re saying we want him to do: aiming even higher than his parents were invited to aim, demanding the possibility of more satisfaction and accomplishment than was made available to them.  Instead we tend to respond as though the child is ungrateful or spoiled for pushing back.  But he’s not.  He’s just trying to tell us that the lid’s gone.

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