My good friend and colleague commented the other day about a study that compared twins. He remarked about how much genetics plays a role in how we all develop our personalities. Not what we look like, but our personalities. And also our ability to learn. Twins brought up in completely different places have the same favorite flavor of ice cream or like the same kind of music. And their aptitudes for learning seem bizarrely connected to their genetic connection. I had read some of the same studies and we had fun marveling at how much of a factor genetic predispositions play.
My mind shifted trains of thought in the discussion as we mentioned autism and the roles that seem to be played by genes and the true reality of our ability to teach our students something new. During our conversation, as we pondered various aspects of the issue, I reconfirmed my own belief that you can’t really speed up learning. A student will understand the concept of dividing fractions when he or she is ready and our best efforts to bring enlightenment prior to that moment in time is somewhere between stubborn determination and an inability for us (teachers) to see the light. This comment is not meant to be belittle the teacher’s ability to provide great scaffolding to prepare for each day’s opportunities for learning. Great scaffolding brings confidence. But all the scaffolding imaginable can not change the cognitive realities. Perhaps those who work with the youngest learners see this reality most vividly. Maybe those early teaching years when I spent some time with kindergartners ingrained in me this reality. When kids are ready they will make the cognitive connections at which we marvel.
For this reason I am a big advocate of learning modeled and built around the idea of creating situations where cognitive steps forward are ready to be engaged in, but only as each student is ready. I think of learning as being a playground, an exploratory lab, or even a garden. In the play ground each individual makes his or her own realizations in the right moment as they explore (with a teacher’s guidance), and the excitement of discovery should be accompanied by a wondrous celebration. In the garden students can marvel at the way things grow, the way they taste, the bees that help, the meals earth brings us, and the ways everyone can be part of a sustainable relationship with our envrionment. From this viewpoint concepts like photosynthesis can be explored on many, many different levels of conceptual difficulty and each learner will be in a different place for grasping the nuances of the concept.
With such a analogy in mind, policy makers should have to question testing and how it relates to how we judge the “intelligence” of each student. My friend was hopeful that some day even high school seniors would be judged not on a test, but on a portfolio that subjectively laid out a story of the person as a learner and didn’t focus on a specific, standardized, objective evaluation made to see if each young person’s cognitive development, measured in numbers and decimals, were located at the right number. Hmmm. We don’t expect every kid to be at the “right” height or weight. We are more concerned that good habits are encouraged. We want to see the laughter of swinging on a swing or learning to ride a bike. When the rider is ready, we can help celebrate the moment. Classrooms should be places of support, getting ready for that magical moment when the feet come off the ground. In the meantime we (teachers and learners) support each other, learn to balance, to laugh, and to smile at each instance of success. Most of all, to be glad that you came to school that day; and not harped on, or ridiculed for not being “feet up” yet.