It Takes All Kinds

“What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.”

Henry David Thoreau

Kids come in many different varieties. It’s remarkable how different even two siblings can be from one another. This is certainly the case with my own two kids. They vary widely in everything from their personalities and temperaments, to their likes and dislikes, to their individual talents and strengths. On the whole, we celebrate the diversity and uniqueness of children. It is the wonder and joy of having kids that we get to watch them grow and develop in surprising and unexpected ways. But once kids reach school age, parents and teachers often go to great lengths to help them adjust and adapt to life in the classroom, where every child is expected to do exactly the same work in exactly the same way for years on end.

The other day I was talking to one of the parents here at the Macomber Center.  He told me that he and his wife came to a point with their kids when they could see that traditional school was not working. They decided they needed to make a change. This is what finally brought them to the Macomber Center. Referring to his son, he said, “We wanted to set him free to become his own person.”  This really struck me. Not only does it go to the heart of what the Macomber Center is about, it is also the reason I love having my own son here. I never know on any given day who he will gravitate to, what he will be interested in, what he will take away from the experience, and where it will lead him next. This is what education should be about, giving kids the freedom and support they need to discover the world for themselves and begin to shape themselves as they move through it.

Traditional education is based on the opposite approach: it takes kids of every different stripe, with widely varying temperaments, interests, and approaches to learning, and subjects them all to exactly the same set of procedures, measuring them every step of the way, with the end goal of producing a uniform, standardized product. As people in the world of self-directed education like to point out, our schools were originally created for the purpose of supplying the industrial economy with workers who were already used to falling in line, taking orders from above, staying at one station for long periods of time, and focusing on the same tedious work, day after day. But these schools have long outlived their purpose, so it is no surprise that many parents in the 21st-century are feeling that traditional school is out of step with what they want for their kids.  Schools were never designed to help foster those unique qualities that make one child stand out from another. In fact, school suppresses children’s unique talents and gifts in favor of strict adherence to a one-size-fits-all curriculum, and it promotes only those strengths and abilities that can be measured by standardized tests.

Allowing kids to be themselves not only makes for happier kids, it also happens to be the best way to prepare them for the future.  I recently read a terrific new book called “The Gardener and the Carpenter” which reinforced this idea from an angle that I had never considered. The book is by Allison Gopnick, a leading evolutionary psychologist. In the book, she argues that the high degree of variability among individual children is a product of our evolutionary history and serves a very important purpose. Throughout our evolution, she claims, humans have had to face unexpected changes in climate, physical environment, and social structure, and so we have evolved to vary widely in our abilities and temperaments in order to be flexible and adaptable in the face of unpredictability and change.  

"By varying what individual children are like, how they think and develop, and what they learn from others, all those children stand a better chance of survival when things change.  As a result, we can expect a great deal of apparently random variability in the temperament and development of children and in the behavior of adults... From the point of view of evolution, trying to consciously shape how your children will turn out is both futile and self-defeating. Even if we humans could precisely shape our children's behavior to suit our own goals and ideals, it would be counterproductive to do it. We can't know before hand what unprecedented challenges the children of the future will face. Shaping them in our own image or in the image of our current ideals might actually keep them from adapting to changes in the future."

If the diversity and uniqueness of children is an asset, particularly in today’s fast changing and unpredictable world, if it is something to be fostered rather than suppressed, shouldn’t it be a primary focus of education? It should stand to reason that the best sort of educational environment is one where kids are exposed to as many different adult models, as many different varieties of information, and as many different experiences as possible, in order to support the variety and variability of each child's developmental course.

In an age-mixed, interest-mixed community like the Macomber Center, kids are exposed to a much wider variety of possibilities then they would ever be exposed to in a traditional classroom where everybody is focused on the same material. Between the six staff, who all have vastly different interests, backgrounds, and personalities, and the kids, who range in age from five to seventeen years old, all pursuing their own various interests, the Macomber Center contains a tremendous variety of activity.

Just take this past week, for example. Mark helped some kids film a new episode of Space Thieves, taught some other kids how to play one of their favorite songs together on different instruments, and lead a large group of kids in his wildly popular acting and improv class. James lead a reading group, tutored in Latin, and played hours of gaga ball and back-and-forth tag. Amy gave Ben Rubel and me some voice coaching to help us in our barbershop quartet and she also hosted a Skype meeting for the whole community with an engineer from SpaceX. Dan helped one kid learn how to use a soldering iron for some projects he's planning, helped someone else build a robot, and tutored some older kids for the SAT.

The Macomber Center is based on an idea that predates the industrial model of education, an idea that is as relevant today as it ever was in the past: The great potential within each of us lies not in our capacity to conform to an external standard but to discover our own unique set of talents and strengths and develop those as much as we can and learn to engage the world on the basis of those talents and strengths.