Will it get in the way?

I have an acquaintance who’s a published author but never quite got the hang of spelling.  And a friend who’s a research scientist with a PhD who has never been able to add or subtract very well.

Spelling and quick mental computation can be helpful, without a doubt.  But even for their highest-order relatives (like professional writing and scientific research), proficiency in some things we call basic are not necessarily necessary.  What we often forget to ask ourselves, when kids are struggling, is whether or not the absence of a particular proficiency is going to get in the way. Is our attention in the places where we actually want it?  Are we sometimes (or often) distracting ourselves and kids from pastimes that will prepare them for what they’re best suited to?  I’ve quoted Stuart Brown before, regarding a discovery of the Cal Tech Jet Propulsion Lab:

“Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been the United States’ premier aerospace research facility for more than seven decades… [In] the late nineties, the lab’s management was saying, ‘JPL, we have a problem.’ As the lab neared the new century, the group of engineers and scientists who had come on board in the 1960s, those who put men on the moon and built robotic probes to explore the solar system, were retiring in large numbers. And JPL was having a hard time replacing them. Even though JPL hired the top graduates from top engineering schools like MIT, Stanford, and even Cal Tech itself, the new hires were often missing something. They were not very good at certain types of problem solving that are critical to the job.  The experienced managers found that the newly minted engineers might excel at grappling with theoretical, mathematical problems at the frontiers of engineering, but they didn’t do well with the practical difficulties of taking a complex project from theory to practice…. They found that in their youth, their older, problem-solving employees had taken apart clocks to see how they worked, or made soapbox derby racers, or built hi-fi stereos, or fixed appliances. The young engineering school graduates who had also done these things, who had played with their hands, were adept at the kinds of problem solving that management sought. Those who hadn’t, generally were not. From that point on JPL made questions about applicants youthful projects and play a standard part of job interviews.”

It’s not that offering a child the chance to learn to spell and calculate has to mean that that child won’t have the chance to play, or problem-solve, or the myriad other things there are to do in the course of a day.

But imagine a child who is quick and accurate with mental computation, because that’s where we’ve put our emphasis, but the child can think of only one way to solve any given problem.  She’ll get all our accolades as a young student, all the support and encouragement she’ll need to be successful throughout her young academic career.  But as an engineer?  Or as a doctor?  She’ll be missing a key ingredient.  Or a child who spells flawlessly, never misses an editing mark on his daily proofreading exercises, can organize a paragraph with precision, but doesn’t much like stories.  He’s encouraged to major in English, goes on to study creative writing or journalism.  But he’s missing a key ingredient.

What do they actually need, and will the things we’ve always held as paramount really hold kids back if they’re not mastered?  Answering the question requires a bit of imagination and a lot of pragmatic perspective.  What are these things really useful for?  What do they actually bear on?  And what are the actual building blocks for success and security?  My author and scientist friends would tell you it’s not spelling or computation.  They’re living proof of that.

This could feel like good news or bad news.  I think it’s good news, if it means that we can let go of the traditional mandates that wreak such havoc on the confidence of young people and waste so much of their time, in the often false name of preparation.  It might feel like bad news in the sense that it means we can’t just keep sending them to school, trudging them through standardized progressions of academic material. At least not if we really want them to be prepared for (and inspired to go after) the kinds of livelihoods that are actually out there. It’ll take more in the way of imagination, and actual information gathering.  We’ll have to look at what it really takes to make it in the world today, what actual jobs and professions require of their employees and participants.  And then we’ll have to invent what the pathways to those true requirements might look like.  Lots more effort, but if it means we end up with young adults who are truly prepared, not just academically apt, such that they can get busy solving problems, finding purpose, supporting themselves, it’ll have been worth it, and then some.


One Response

  1. Just imagine if we organized schools around answering this question using a truly individualized design!

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