I heard Scott Barry Kaufman on The Leonard Lopate Show yesterday. You can listen to it here:
But I got stuck on one small interaction. Kaufman said that we should respect children's dreams. Lopate replied that letting children pursue their dreams makes for a chaotic classroom, if one child wants to draw a picture while another child wants to do scientific experiments. (I'm paraphrasing. Those might not have been his precise examples, but you get the gist of his point.)
This annoyed the crap out of me.
There is a difference between treating children with respect and letting them run wild. There is also a difference between respecting a child's wishes and not asking them to do anything else.
It is our job as adults to educate children. We have to help them develop into adults who can function in the world. I agree with Kaufman's premise that we put too much emphasis on testing and in the process we expect everyone to be good at the same thing. Testing measures a very small range of skills, and there are many useful skills that cannot be tested with a bubble sheet.
However, limiting children by holding them to the dreams they have when they are children is no better. Children have very little experience. They do not understand the scope of the world or even the scope of their own strengths. As they develop, they change, and they are able to learn new skills. It is our duty to expose children to many different kinds of thinking as they grow both so that they can get some sense of what they do not know and so that they can find new things to dream about.
But yes, we should respect children's dreams. I respect Boo's dream to become an Olympic swimmer. In respecting that dream, I enroll her in classes and let her join swim teams where she can refine her skills and practice competing. I will encourage this dream as long as it lasts, partly because there is the remote possibility that she can achieve it, but more importantly because I believe it is good for children to push themselves until they find their limits. However, I still send her to school and camp where she is expected to learn the skills and rules of other sports. She has come to enjoy soccer, and yesterday she asked if she can learn to play lacrosse. Perhaps this will not change her dream, and swimming will always remain her favorite sport. Perhaps she'll find a sport she likes better. Either way, she benefits by learning different ways to use her body, by refining skills that require different talents, and by finding out her strengths and weaknesses. She has come to enjoy playing soccer with her friends at recess. If she never joins a soccer team, she has already benefitted from being forced to try a sport that did not interest her at first.
The same applies to academics. Yes, we should respect the dreams and talents of our children. Teachers should ask those who love art to illustrate things in the classroom. They should also ask those who dislike art to try illustration because they will learn something from it. Especially during the elementary years, children should not be specializing. They do not know enough at that age to make such an important decision. We can respect a child's dream while still asking her to challenge herself, while exposing her to the dreams of others, dreams she may not yet have the capacity to imagine.
Kaufman's point is that everyone has strengths and there are many kinds of intelligence in this world. I agree with him. I just wish he had set Leonard Lopate straight.