Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Education and passion

I was listening to a TED talk two nights ago when I heard a very interesting story about a lady called Gillian Lynne (the story starts at 15:15 in the video). The story goes that there was once an eight-year-old girl who was, in the storyteller's words, "hopeless" at school; teachers complained she had difficulty concentrating and couldn't sit still. They suspected that she had a learning disorder. So her parents took her to see a specialist, who, after listening to Gillian and her mother, told Gillian that he had to speak to her mother privately. The two adults withdrew from the room, but before doing so, the doctor turned the radio on.

They stood outside the room and watched as Gillian began dancing to the music. The doctor turned to the mother and said, "Mrs Lynne, Gillian isn't sick -- she's a dancer. Take her to a dance school."

And her mother did.

"We walked in this room, and it was full of people like me: people who couldn't sit still, people who had to move to think," Gillian recalled.

In the end she became a soloist with the Royal Ballet Company, eventually founding her own dance company and going on to choreograph and direct shows on film, television and stage -- including Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats and Phantom of the Opera. (Here's her list of achievements, if you're interested.)

What fascinates me about this story is that it could so easily have gone the other way. If her parents and teachers and the doctor had tried to push her into the conventional "student" mould, none of this might have happened. As the storyteller (Sir Ken Robinson) noted, "Someone else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down."

Sometimes I wonder how many of our students we are doing a disservice to by expecting them to fit into our "assembly line" system of education. How many of them would be outstanding or do great and wonderful things if they weren't trying so hard to fit into the accepted mould.

And sometimes I wonder how different I might be if my parents had been able to see outside that conventional academic mould and encouraged my interest or aptitude in writing. "We didn't stop you from doing it," my dad said recently, when I mentioned that I would have appreciated more support. Well, yes, but you never seemed particularly interested in it either!

Anyway, that's pointless speculation. I was watching another TED talk last night and decided to google the speaker, psychologist Dr Dan Gilbert, to find out more about him. (By the way, you should absolutely listen to the talk -- it might change the way you make certain decisions!). I was fascinated to learn that Dr Gilbert had been a high school dropout -- I wish I knew why, I'm so curious.

The story goes that he wanted to write science fiction, so he decided to take a writing course at the local community college. But when he arrived at the college, the writing course was full and the only course still available was psychology. In his own words: "I thought, That's got something to do with crazy people; maybe I'll write a story about a crazy person some day. I told them to sign me up." Long story short, he got hooked on psychology and is now a professor at Harvard, winning awards for his research, and has written a book. Not science fiction, though!

To me, the most wonderful thing about both Gillian Lynne and Dan Gilbert is that they both got to pursue their passion. The scary thing is that the conventional route was just rubbish at getting them there, and they could so easily have missed it. Yes, Dr Gilbert ended up in academia, which is not exactly unconventional, but he's only there because he wants to be there. It was a choice he made. None of those "ten-year plans" kinda stuff, where you plot to climb up the career ladder simply because it's there and that's what others expect of you.

Among my circle of friends I am one of the most unusual ones, having studied law, worked in journalism, then admin, then moved into teaching. I was determined to find my passion, and refused to settle for "a job". But I suspect that many people settle, not least because it's scary to go out into the unknown and deal with the uncertainty of being able to earn a living doing something new, but also because many of them simply do not know where their passion lies. I mean if you take Dr Gilbert for example, he certainly didn't have any inkling that he was going to discover the spark that would drive him for the rest of his life when he signed up for that psychology course!

I'm saddened by the fact that our schools and our education systems do not do much to celebrate the individual or help children develop as individuals. We don't help them to discover and nurture the unique talents that might help them become successful in the future. One reason for this is that our definition of "success" is so narrow. As Sir Robinson says, "Our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there's a reason: the whole system... came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas: Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top... the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence because... the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they're not beause the thing they were good at at school wasn't valued or was actually stigmatised."

We tend to view white-collar professionals as more "successful"; this is mostly based on the size of their paycheques and the material things that they own. But I've often wondered: if that is the ultimate most desirable goal for everyone, who will help me fix my car when it breaks down? You never hear anyone say, "I want to be a mechanic"; people say, "I want to be an engineer." And if a kid were to say to his teacher that he wanted to be a mechanic, she might very well tell him he was aiming too low, or that he could do better for himself. But if no one wanted to take on blue-collar jobs, I think the world as we know it would collapse. Whereas if there weren't any white-collar workers, I daresay the world would still trundle on happily without too much interruption.

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