by Dean Joyce Feucht-Haviar on February, 2012 – Not long ago I was talking with a colleague about science education in the schools. He said that we need to do more to get younger students excited about science. I said, "No we don't." My colleague was somewhat surprised at my view. But, I said, we don't really need to get children excited about science; we just have to stop taking away their enthusiasm for it. I haven't encountered many young children who weren't full of curiosity about the world around them. They are naturally inclined to explore and to wonder – they are full of questions and are ready to experiment to learn how the world works. They have all the basic instincts of a scientist in the making. So what happens to those habits of mind and eagerness to explore the world?
Hard to know for sure, but our approach to education doesn't have much room for that kind of exploration. By and large, we don't allow a child to shape his or her own learning by the questions she asks. We don't really allow children to pursue their own questions and interests as far as they wish. Instead, we have a curriculum built on someone else's sense of what one should learn, when and how. Learning becomes disconnected from our own intellectual curiosity – someone else takes over our education, and we become passive receivers of the education others think we should have. It seems we forget altogether that we started out playing an active role in determining how we explored the world, what questions we asked and how we allowed one question to lead to another.
"Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are, of course, many reasons for that. Among them, the fact that it is impossible to teach each student by starting with that student's own questions and building on that individual student's ability and wish to learn, when each teacher has a class of 20 to 50 students. But, that doesn't change the fact that for the most part we start out as learning machines – we are each curious, eager to learn and full of wonder. We see things distinctively.
Each of us is a unique mind. We ask questions in different ways – we explore from a different (our own) perspective. Give us a box of crayons and some blank paper as a child, and we are all happy to create. And we create quite different things if not instructed to create something specific. As very young children, we don't worry about being an artist or about how others will value our work – we are too wrapped up in the joyful engagement of making and watching the images emerge. We sing. We build. We tell stories. We experiment (sometimes called play at that age).
Unfortunately, what most of us learn in school – among other things – is that most of us aren't artists (but, then again, we are), that only a few are good writers or musicians (but music speaks to us as does the written page – and we each have stories to tell and songs to sing), that science is hard and complex and involves a lot of math so that only a few will be scientists (but we remain explorers all – wondering why and why not).
Asked if they are creative early on in their educational life, nearly all will say yes. Ask them about five years later, and far fewer say they are creative. Wait another four or five years and ask again, and relatively few say they are creative. So what happened? Given how much our collective future depends on our collective ability to be creative and innovative in professional, community and personal life, this is not a promising trend. I also find it remarkably sad. You can read more about this fading of our own sense of creativity across the years of our formal education in an interesting and useful book called Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer.
I meet people all the time who, as mid-career professionals, are still limited and allow themselves to be defined by what someone told them early on in their educational lives. People say things to me like "I could never be an engineer," or "I have always wanted to get my master's, but I am not a very good writer," or ….. There is an endless list of limitations that are imposed on us. But, when you explore those limitations, by and large, they are not based on any real limitation or inability. Instead, they are based on assumptions about what is possible for us and what isn't – they are based in our accepting what someone said in our early education or what those around us thought possible. Once we believe something is out of reach, often we don't even try, because another thing we learn early on is a deep fear of failure. Better not to try than to risk failure. But, in reality, it is perfectly all right to try, and it is also perfectly fine to fail – sometimes many times – along the path to achieving something of importance to us. As a matter of fact, as they say, if you don't fail periodically, you are not trying anything new. (You are not growing or reaching for your higher aspirations).
We were probably closest to being right when, in our early years, most of us said we were creative. We are – in different ways (and that is a good thing for the human community – different minds, different ideas, different possibilities for solving our most complex problems … we need all the distinctive minds we can to become fully engaged). Yes, we likely are all natural creators, but we may not have learned to exercise that capability. It sometimes takes a bit of courage to be your own self and not the version of yourself in that too narrow a sense of your own capabilities, and too constrained a sense of what is possible for you.
If you wanted to be an engineer, could you be … why not? Might it require some hard work and dedication? But, what kind of profession doesn't require that? I was talking a couple of weeks ago to the chair of our computer science department about what it would take for someone who graduated from college with another major to transition into computer science. He said it would take about 10 courses in computer science to prepare to enter a master's degree program in computer science. What if someone with a background in the arts decided to pursue computer science? What kind of creative energy and new possibilities would flow from that combination of ways of working and seeing possibilities? Would we all benefit from having more individuals seek broader paths and new combinations of professional fields? Probably so.
Whether one looks at it from the point of view of our economic future or from the perspective of "quality of life" and the future of the global human community, we need every distinctive mind we can get. Do we each have limitations? Certainly. Are there some matches that are better for our talent set and turn of mind than others? Without a doubt. But, it is also the case that, by and large, we are constrained far more by what others have told us about our strengths and limitations, what society assumes about who we are and what we can do, and by our own fears (amazing how many people live a life defined mostly by fear), than we are by the realities of our limitations and capabilities. I once heard a story about an elephant that was chained in its early life so it can only walk so far in a rather large field. The chain was taken away, but the elephant still walked only so far, because that was the message the chain had imparted in the elephant's early years. Many of us stop because we imagine the chain. But really, who told you that you couldn't … and do you really believe they knew? Or is it you who will decide how far you will go in life, and what path you will take?