Rethinking Expectations

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I was at a meeting last week with a group of local adults who want to make positive changes in education. We had just partnered up to share our “I” stories, if you will, and then those stories were brought to the whole group in a very brief synopsis. It was an opportunity to hear about each of our experiences and the unique moments in our lives that had led us to that room. Despite our differing backgrounds, we all share the common goal of finding alternative approaches to education for our youth.

As I sat talking with my partner, she said something that got me thinking. We were talking specifically about the expectations that are put on students in today’s “traditional” classroom – sitting quietly in rows, keeping up with standardized pacing through the lecture-heavy delivery of standardized content, recalling unnecessary information, producing quality results on high-stakes, standardized tests that only serve the purpose of ranking students against one another – you get my point.

Somewhere within the conversation, my partner said, “We just expect way too much from our students.”

I knew what she meant, and I did not disagree with her in that moment, but I knew I would walk away to write about it sometime soon. I do disagree. In fact, I think it’s the complete opposite. We expect too LITTLE of our students. I just finished reading A.J. Juliani’s newest book entitled The PBL Playbook. In it, he asks the question, “How many times do our kids finish and create something in school but not learn anything because they are following prescribed steps and guidelines?”

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Anyone can be compliant. NOT everyone can think critically, articulate their thoughts with clarity, express their creativity with confidence, problem-solve on the spot, collaborate with others, or persevere through personal and professional obstacles and failures. These skills need to be taught, and they need to be cultivated, nurtured, and given the space to develop and mature over time. That is what “school” should be about. We do not expect ENOUGH from our students.

I recently watched a TED Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. In her talk, she addresses the history of the word, “genius.” When you think of the word, it is likely that certain names come to your mind – Einstein, Musk, Mozart. In the fourteenth century, people were not referred to as being a genius, but rather they had a genius – a gift, a talent, an intellect unique to that person. It wasn’t until the 1600s when the use of the word began to morph, and by the 1700s, the original use had fallen out of public vernacular and those with an innate ability or exceptional natural capacity became referred to as being a genius, ultimately decreasing the population of people who could fall into a “genius” category.

In her talk, Gilbert expresses concern for the impossible expectations we set on that small group of people – artists, intellects, and other “geniuses.” She explores the thought of bringing back the idea of searching for the genius that exists in each of us rather than specifying a rare person as being a genius. How wonderful does that sound? I want to spend my days as an educator helping my students to find their inner genius.

As A.J. Juliani states, “Years later, I can’t wait to see what students will say about how their project-based learning and creative work in school led to them finding their life’s task and becoming masters at whatever they set out to do in this world.”

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