We’re Not Merely Wasting Talent. We’re Poisoning It!

Gerald Aungst wrote a comment on yesterday’s ..Reflections from Educon.. blog post, which was mostly a reflection of a podcast interview I listened to yesterday with Richard Branson.  It started with…

I’ve read the biographies (in various forms) of several currently-successful, mostly famous people who the world would consider highly talented, perhaps genius. The common theme in all these stories? School didn’t work for them. They floundered, or even failed, marking time until they could get out and follow their passions.

I started a reply, but I feel so deeply about this issue that I wanted to elevate my reply to full article status.  There is a Chinese idiom that I have become aware of on my trips to China and Hong Kong, Losing Face — although the later, converse of the saying, saving face, seems to be more frequently used today.  I was especially aware of the concept when working with ministry officials, who seemed especially careful not to do anything that might cause embarrassment or cause them to not want to show their face — to lose face. 

I remember once, when I was to speak to a group of elite teachers, no one, among the ministry members on hand, had ever heard me speak.  To introduce me, and then watch me fall on my face, would have hurt the reputation of the person making the introductions.  So they had the youngest and most recently hired member do the introductions.  I do not know if he is not the minister of education or sweeping a factory floor.

What deeply concerns me about this issue of “failing” in school, in spite of (or perhaps because of) valued talents, is that not succeeding in the regimented environments that tend to result from high-stakes testing is far more face-losing today than it was when Richard Branson was in school — and therefore, far more likely to poison the person’s future.  This is tragic, but even more so, because some of these talents that are are practically ignored by high stakes tests are exactly the talents that are so important today — essential to adapting industries and societies.

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6 thoughts on “We’re Not Merely Wasting Talent. We’re Poisoning It!”

  1. David,

    I enjoyed educon tremendously and I am going to be processing this experience for quite some time. I am also troubled by this thought of failure. I find some irony in the fact that our connotation of failure in schools is so simplistic. The big letter F.

    Our schools need to be places driven by inquiry, places where we talk openly about our failures and relish the opportunities to learn from mistakes (big and small). I feel like a hypocrite quite often working in a structure that I feel is
    under-performing and this has nothing to do with NCLB and AYP.

    How do we get the message out to the masses that we are failing our students? Remaining stagnant is really the only false move. (I guess oxymorons like that are expected in our educational system.)

  2. David, I feel like this is a good news bad news situation. The good news is that we are creating ways for students to learn outside the class with online courses and such and that is fine for those who can do that. The bad news is that our society uses school as daycare. Many parents are only concerned that they can drop off the kids for the day and go to work. They are not invested in the actual education of their children. I don’t blame individual parents so much as our society at large. We all need to understand what we are losing. That one angry student who drops out of school may be the one who would have discovered renewable energy or a cure for a disease. We will know we have made it when they stop making movies about “inspirational” teachers who made a difference in a bad school. I hope I live long enough to see it.

  3. Hi David,
    This conversation says both what I’ve always thought and worried about, and all that I disagree with. It really depends upon the student I’m thinking of. Some students always seem to succeed even despite our lack of connection with them. Others never seem to succeed despite our attempts to connect with them. I think that no matter what the advances in education, no matter what the access to the global conversation, Branson, Bill Gates, and others find the key to success within themselves. Our response as educators always seems to be, “Why didn’t I see that? How many more of him are not succeeding because of me?” While it’s true that we must always evolve our practices to be current, progressive, challenging, and rewarding for students, I don’t think I want a profession that is constantly questioning its own efficacy to the point at which we feel we have failed the students. High stakes tests are another issue entirely, and on that I fully agree with you. Having just gone through a round of Provincial exams, and watching the discouragement on my students’ faces realizing they studied the wrong thing, or weren’t able to retain the exact wording of a definition DOES make me feel I have failed them. Thank you for the continued conversation and the constant food for thought. I’m rarely left sitting on the fence in response to your posts.

  4. Each posting I read leaves me pondering my own life experiences and contemplating my value as a teacher of middle school students. I often think this level is where we hook ’em or loose ’em on their attitude toward school. If middle school is not a success for them they spend their high school days counting down until they can get out of here.
    Anyway, each of us can only draw on the experience we have and I can reflect on both success and failure in making a school year successful for my students.
    This post brings to mind one of my students whom is brilliant but refuses to do homework or writing assignments. It seems she retains everything she learns and is extremely creative and analytical about everything. Good grades are not important to this child, learning is. Unfortunately, the grade book never reflects all that she is and it greatly bothers me. Others, too, are in the same boat, thriving inside their minds and hearts but struggling according to the books. I fear these are the ones who will grow to hate “school” but I hope do great things in spite of it.

  5. I was struck by a comment made by one of Christian Long’s students at Educon on Sunday. He said, “I had no idea so much thought went into our education.” Perhaps if we were more transparent with parents and students about the amount of work that we really do put into thinking about how to make education better, the issue wouldn’t seem so black and white, and we might be better able to recover when we do fail.

  6. Hi David,
    Very interesting your comments about saving face. I am not sure if you are intentionally linking the lack of risk taking and the standardized testing to the Hong Kong and China situation but it is appalling how unadventurous the education system for locals is here. I have totally given up on working with the EDB of Hong Kong unless they are prepared to insist that decision-makers in schools come to workshops and are prepared to make change. You probably know about the ludicrous situation with “Liberal Studies” which has been introduced into the curriculum in Hong Kong. It is supposed to be a chance for collaborative learning and “novel forms of assessment”. It is SO outside the comfort zone of every Hong Kong teacher that they all teach from a text and set common standardised assessments. It has been a monumental flop!

    Hong Kong has a very long way to go! They bring David Warlicks, Michael Fullans, Jamie McKenzies, and others out to speak here and pick up on absolutely none of what they hear.
    I have been trying to get the education secretary to come to conferences like the 21st Century Learning @ HK conference which I brought Wes Fryer, amoung others, out for last year but they do not even reply to emails and phone messages. Very Sad!!

    The education system for nationals in Asia still has a long way to go before it starts producing students capable of creativity and self-directed inquiry.



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