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Op-ed: The need for variety in a student's education

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Several years ago, a shy 14-year-old eighth-grade Farmington boy accomplished a self-chosen homework project that seems almost unbelievable. Steven (not his real name) composed a piece of music for full symphony orchestra, strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion, music for at least 16 different kinds of instruments!

Steven’s musical composition was so good it was chosen to be played at the Utah Music Educators Conference. Did this young man go on to become another famous composer like Mozart or Andrew Lloyd Weber? No, Steven had to spend much time studying higher math, and other subjects he would never use, in order to graduate from high school. The required curriculum sucked the creative juice right out of him. Steven’s gift was left to shrink and die.

How can this tragedy be avoided in the future? How many adults in this country have talents and undeveloped gifts because they attended schools that imposed a limited, narrow curriculum? We propose a different approach as expressed by Kristine Barnet in her book, “The Spark.” “What are your children good at? Let that define them. Create motivations that are self-driven. Let them pursue what they love.” Kristine helped her autistic son, Jacob, become a theoretical physicist and candidate for a Nobel Prize by helping him grow in what he was good at doing and feeding his interests.

Nearly all states have a narrow, limited curriculum that focuses on helping students learn how to do things they don’t know how to do. What will happen if we change our approach to help students find their talents and build on things they know how to do — if we build on assets rather than trying to overcome deficiencies?

There is an infinite number of ways in which children are talented. It will be the obligation of the teacher to make available a wide variety of learning possibilities and allow the child to choose what she or he desires to learn. Children learn through playing activities, self-selected reading, modeling others, project learning, mentoring relationships, acting experiences, service learning and many more. Older children can learn in many ways: apprenticeships, field work, exploratory projects, role playing, research, volunteer work and peer teaching. The important principle is this: If given an array of learning possibilities, children will choose to learn what is in their best interest. Utah needs to add more courses for high school and make all courses elective.

Currently there is a rush toward early childhood education. We must avoid imposing academic learning on children before they are curious about it. Professor David Elkind said, “When we instruct children in academic subjects … at too early an age, we mis-educate them; we put them at risk for short-term stress and long-term personality damage for no useful purpose. There is no evidence that such early instruction has lasting benefits, and considerable evidence that it can do lasting harm." Early education is appropriate if children are provided a vast array of experiential learning opportunities including play, visiting various places, listening to stories, acting out events, drawing and painting pictures and listening to good music.

If we believe that each student is unique and meant to be so, we must stop trying to standardize them with a common, limited curriculum and stop using the often harmful, detested testing for student uniformity. On the other hand, children joyfully respond with amazing, creative achievements when their unique talents are appreciated and helped to develop. Student-centered, teacher-controlled education is so vastly better than subject imposed education that we should embrace it as soon as possible.

M. Donald Thomas is a former Salt Lake City superintendent of schools and now a national education consultant,

Lynn Stoddard has many years of experience as a teacher, principal, author and conference speaker,