While Lisa Burman was engaging in quality conversations with groups of students in preparation for ‘the book’ (and as an extension of her love for ongoing research) she uncovered an interesting phenomenon. Lisa became involved with uncovering the underlying schema surrounding children’s views on intelligence. She believes that children are capable of expressing insights about these ‘big ideas’ but are not often asked to do so. In an informal setting she met with small groups of three or four students and asked “What do you think smart means?” and “How do you know that someone is smart?” Student response to the open ended questions prompted quite differing feedback from the students in kindergarten and first grade.
The young ones in kindergarten responded by detailing events and skills associated with the home and their lives outside of school. The things they considered ‘smart’ and deemed worthy of mentioning seemed to be inspired by motivation, curiosity and drive. The responses were 'from the heart' and not formulated to match any preconceived ideals of 'right' answers or predicting what Lisa wanted to hear and supplying it.
The first grade students (many in my class) replied to the same questions by listing academic skills; “smart means being a good reader", "Sally is smart because she is good at math" etc. There was no mention of who they are outside of the school environment.
Lisa brought this news to me and of course I was perplexed. In our conversation we began to wonder if schools are narrowing children’s perspectives on what it means to be smart. Does this narrowing perspective increase the longer the student stays in school? What happens to children as they transition from one grade to another? Why do they start to view themselves as ‘student's’ first without considering themselves as well rounded individuals capable of what Howard Gardner describes as multiple intelligences? Why is it considered smart to calculate the answer to a mathematical question but not to figure out a winning strategy in basketball?
I think back to my own education and the archaic design of schedules and structure that continues to pervade education as a whole. Schools still operate under a factory model reflective of the industrial revolution. Classes are regulated by bells, children are taught to sit in rows and raise their hands as they progress through stratified grades. It has the feel of an assembly line. In my most recent class (Ethnographic Studies) we spent some time grappling with this issue. America is so ingrained with this way of thinking about education that we cannot fathom breaking the mold and reformulating things to fit with the information age of today’s world. We are still operating under the one room school house mentality in many respects.
I am not sure how to address all of this. I am certainly not in a position of power to introduce changes even if I knew what they might be. I simply find it a shame that as children shuffle along in the system a bit of their personality, individualism and motivation is eroded and replaced by conformity and standardization.
Is this what we want for our future?