Think Different (Or: Do as we say, not as we do.)

The other night my teaching partner and I, along with two of our students, gave a brief presentation to our local School Board Trustees outlining the basic tenants of our Autonomous Learner Model-inspired two-year gifted students program. At the conclusion of our small talk, our superintendent offered praise to our learners’ poise and confidence in following the Mayor’s presentation to the daunting group of elected officials, and noted that our district, and public education in general, is headed in the direction of the type of differentiated instruction paramount in the TALONS classroom. Needless to say, in an age of consistent, and staggering, budgetary shortfalls in our local school districts, it is encouraging to hear positive words from the top of our local school organizations, and to know that we are ahead of the curve.

I heard one of our vice-principals say last week that, “My daughter’s not an identified gifted student, but that’s the type of learning I want her to be doing.” (Students must be designated as ‘gifted’ and so-eligible for our district’s Student Services funding to be able to apply to TALONS.) And I agree with him; it’s not that our model would only work with gifted learners. (Indeed, George Betts intended to have the model extended to students with learning disabilities and the general population of schools.)

When I teach courses to the general student body at our school, I use the same guiding principals as I do in a class where each of my 28 students has an Ministry of Education required Individual Education Plan (as they do in the gifted program). According to my course evaluations, the high achievers learn more than they would in a class they might have otherwise aced; and the low achievers tend not to fail with the same regularity. When they do, in fact, I would chalk up much more of their inability to succeed in the classroom setting to such poor prior experiences with any of the following: English, learning, teachers, or education in general (my students are generally 14 or 15 by the time they get to me, and hence have some fairly entrenched habits and perspectives). I failed one student in all of the 60-some students I taught through English 9 last year: the straw that broke his academic back was a report – oral, video, written or in a form of their choosing – on the touring schedule of the student’s favourite band. More differentiation (or less) would not have been likely to affect the outcome, I doubt.

Really, how could one fail in a system that is based upon working toward an individualized set of goals in relation to the mandated government curriculum? Yes there will be shortcomings in ability, prior knowledge, or other limiting factors. But how well are our schools prepared to create the type of learning, and learners, we claim to seek on a daily basis?

Heidi sent me the video at the top of this post on Twitter the other day, asking if the TALONS students had seen it. And they may have: it’s a popular tv spot for a company that has seized the modern zeitgeist to create revolutionary solutions to Herculean problems, featuring counter-cultural icons who have defined the last fifty years in areas from science, to politics, to arts and music and the ongoing struggle for freedom.

When I look out across my class on a given afternoon, I am constantly witness to the germination of passions and ideas that could well become the embodiment of Apple’s urging, to Think Different. Our students are lucky to be in a classroom where such diversity is encouraged. But I wonder how well they would be served in many other ‘average’ classrooms (which I am quick to point out are not always the result of poor teaching or under-qualified teachers, but the constraints placed upon our modern classrooms), and to answer that question, I look to the educational experiences of the faces in the clip attached above, many of whom no doubt learned to become those “crazy enough to believe they could change the world” not because of their education, but in spite of it.

Albert EinsteinFrom Wikipedia – Einstein clashed with authorities and resented the school’s regimen and teaching method. He later wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strictrote learning. In the spring of 1895, he withdrew to join his family in Pavia, convincing the school to let him go by using a doctor’s note.[7] During this time, Einstein wrote his first scientific work, “The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields“.[15]


Bob Dylan From –  Late in 1959 Dylan enrolled in the University of Minnesota, but his love of music soon overpowered any academic ambitions and the following year, after spending a summer in Denver honing his stage persona, he dropped out and moved to New York to immerse himself in its incipient folk-revival scene. While in New York he also sought out his hero Woody Guthrie, spending as much time as he could at the ailing musicians bedside.   Martin Luther King, Jr.From Wikipedia – skipped ninth and twelfth grade and enteredMorehouse College at age fifteen without formally graduating from high school.[10] Richard BransonFrom Wikipedia – Branson has milddyslexia and had poor academic performance as a student, but discovered his ability to connect with others.[6] John Lennon (with Yoko Ono)- From Wikipedia – Lennon failed all his GCE O-level examinations, and was only accepted into the Liverpool College of Art with help from his school’s headmaster.   R. Buckminster FullerFrom Wikipedia – He was expelled from Harvard twice: first for spending all his money partying with a vaudeville troupe, and then, after having been readmitted, for his “irresponsibility and lack of interest”. By his own appraisal, he was a non-conforming misfit in the fraternity environment.[2] Many years later he would receive a Sc.D. from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.   Thomas Edison From Wikipedia – In school, the young Edison’s mind often wandered, and his teacher, the Reverend Engle, was overheard calling him “addled“. This ended Edison’s three months of official schooling. Edison recalled later, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.” His mother homeschooled him.[2] Much of his education came from reading R.G. Parker’s School of Natural Philosophy and The Cooper Union.   Muhammad Ali – From Wiki Answers – Muhammad Ali dropped out of Louisville Central High, a local basketball power, finishing 369th of 391 seniors in the class of 1960, and often traveling to fight on weekends.


Ted TurnerFrom Wikipedia – Turner initially majored in Classics. Turner’s father wrote saying that his choice made him “appalled, even horrified,” and that he “almost puked.”[8] Turner later changed his major to Economics, but he was expelled before receiving a diploma for having a female student in his dormitory room.[9]


Maria CallasFrom Wikipedia – Initially, her mother tried to enroll her at the prestigious Athens Conservatoire, without success. At the audition, her voice, still untrained, failed to impress, while the conservatoire’s director Filoktitis Oikonomidis refused to accept her without her satisfying the theoretic prerequisites (solfege). In the summer of 1937, her mother visited Maria Trivella at the younger Greek National Conservatoire, asking her to take Mary as a student for a modest fee.


Mahatma GandhiFrom Wikipedia – In 1885, when Gandhi was 15, the couple’s first child was born, but survived only a few days; Gandhi’s father, Karamchand Gandhi, had died earlier that year.[9] Mohandas and Kasturba had four more children, all sons: Harilal, born in 1888; Manilal, born in 1892; Ramdas, born in 1897; and Devdas, born in 1900. At his middle school in Porbandar and high school in Rajkot, Gandhi remained an average student academically. He passed the matriculation exam for Samaldas College at Bhavnagar, Gujarat with some difficulty. While there, he was unhappy, in part because his family wanted him to become a barrister.


Amelia EarhartFrom Wikipedia – Amelia and Muriel (she went by her middle name from her teens on), remained with their grandparents in Atchison, while their parents moved into new, smaller quarters in Des Moines. During this period, Amelia received a form of home-schooling together with her sister, from her mother and a governess. She later recounted that she was “exceedingly fond of reading”[18] and spent countless hours in the large family library. In 1909, when the family was finally reunited in Des Moines, the Earhart children were enrolled in public school for the first time with Amelia entering the seventh grade at the age of 12 years.


Alfred HitchcockFrom Wikipedia – Hitchcock was sent to the Jesuit Classic school St Ignatius’ College in Stamford Hill, London.[6] He often described his childhood as being very lonely and sheltered. Hitchcock left St. Ignatius to study at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation in Poplar, London.[12] After graduating, he became a draftsman and advertising designer with a cable company.[13]


Martha GrahamFrom Wikipedia – While the social status in which she was raised contributed to her access to education and refinement, it would also work against Martha. As the eldest daughter of a prominent physician, and a Presbyterian family, Martha was strongly discouraged from considering any career in the performing arts.[citation needed]


Jim Henson From Wikipedia – In 1954, while attending Northwestern High School, he began working for WTOP-TV creating puppets for a Saturday morning children’s show. After graduating from high school, Henson enrolled at University of Maryland, College Park, as a studio arts major, thinking he might become a commercial artist.[6] A puppetry class offered in the applied arts department introduced him to the craft and textiles courses in the College of Home Economics, and he graduated with a B.S. in home economics in 1960. As a freshman, he was asked to create Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. The characters on Sam and Friends were already recognizable Muppets, and the show included a primitive version of what would become Henson’s most famous character, Kermit the Frog.[7]


Frank Lloyd Wright From Wikipedia – Wright attended a Madison high school but there is no evidence he ever graduated.[3] He was admitted to the University of Wisconsin–Madison as a special student in 1886. There he joined Phi Delta Thetafraternity,[4] took classes part-time for two semesters, and worked with a professor of civil engineering, Allan D. Conover.[5] In 1887, Wright left the school without taking a degree (although he was granted an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University in 1955).


Pablo PicassoFrom Wikipedia – the family moved to Barcelona, with Ruiz transferring to its School of Fine Arts. Picasso thrived in the city, regarding it in times of sadness or nostalgia as his true home.[7] Ruiz persuaded the officials at the academy to allow his son to take an entrance exam for the advanced class. This process often took students a month, but Picasso completed it in a week, and the impressed jury admitted Picasso, who was 13. The student lacked discipline but made friendships that would affect him in later life.

It’s not that they were each rebels, renegades or educational outliers: Martin Luther King and others were academically as endowed as many meeting with success in our modern schools. But how well are our schools and present-day classrooms equipped to produce the types of thinkers listed above?

What grade would Bob Dylan be getting in your class?

5 thoughts on “Think Different (Or: Do as we say, not as we do.)

  1. I put this video on my blog a couple (maybe even 3) years back in a post I called ‘Square Peg Round Hole’ in which I took many other people’s ideas about how schools don’t fit students and put them on one place.

    It’s no secret that the things we do for our top kids, and those things we do for our lowest kids inevitably help others as well. I think programs like yours can help to foster classroom environments that actually think about individual leaning needs rather than the dominant ‘teach to the masses’ approach.

    For the ‘misfits’ that you mentioned above, that struggled in school, how many of them do you think would have thrived in the TALONS program?

  2. Firstly, let me say-that was a really good commercial. And it does make you think.

    All the people on there were formed as much by their environments as they were by themselves. They were made through a series of reactions-Einstein didn’t like the German militarism that was present in the school, he rebelled against them, the school reacted, and he was pushed away from it, leading him to become what we know him as today-a revolutionary thinker.

    As a student in TALONS, I think I am qualified enough to comment on this too. Giving us our freedom-as much as we complain about the class sometimes(and of course we do)I think all, or at the very least most, of us know how much happier we are to be in this class rather than the regular system.

    And certainly, all education should be like this-alas for budgets. Before entering TALONS, most of my friends were just like the people in TALONS-but not gifted. There are also those who genuinely do not care about school, but if all school, beginning in kindergarten, was like this(or better, as there is no limit to stop at) then that would likely be changed.

  3. I had the pleasure of seeing the TALONS group present at the Board meeting last week. Bryan and his teaching partner did great. But (sorry Bryan), the two students who presented I think blew the Trustees and others away. For kids in grade 10 to be that articulate, confident, and obviously intelligent… wow. They definitely need the flexibility of a gifted program. I wonder though if a TALONS type program was available to all kids whether that would increase the life chances of all kids?

    By the way Bryan et al, you were a hard act to follow at the Board meeting 🙂

    Cheers – Brian K

  4. Hi Brian, I’ve glad the ad got you thinking! It’s often what I watch when I’m feeling discouraged, intimidated, afraid, doubtful, overwhelmed, incapable…

    It reminds me that I need to persist, even when it’s not easy or even when no one agrees with me – because, after all, these amazing “crazy” ones faced adversity and found a way to believe…

    I often wonder how many bright, creative, highly sensitive people have held back, felt incapable, or learned to dwell on their faults rather than revel in their strengths? How often does fear or self-doubt lead to unfulfilled potential?

    When I sat in a room at Northern Voice 2009 with a group of such amazing thinkers and saw them all nod their heads when one mentioned “imposter syndrome” – it boggled my mind that we could all have such fear of someone discovering that we’re “not all that” after all… When in reality, we’re probably all so much more than that!!

    This is the damage that the traditional school system has wrought on the very creative, novel problem solvers that this world needs (now even more than ever, I think)!

    It is absolutely true that I want this kind of learning for all children, AND I also stand by the need for the “gifted” learners – because the high intensity, sensitivity, creativity and “different” thinking of these students puts them at higher risk of losing their sense of self in a system that values conformity and obedience.

    My hope is that we can both meet the immediate needs of our gifted learners through programs like Talons AND focus on sharing the learning, approaches, methods of marking, ideas (and more) with the rest of the system, so that this model can spread and ripple out for all students to benefit from!

    I believe that truly differentiated learning will result in a mix of traditional pedagogies and project based, autonomous learning. I hope that we will remember that the current system has worked well for some people, so that we can keep the parts that work and layer on new techniques in order to meet the needs of even more. We have to be careful not to change the entire system to meet the needs of the ones it previously failed, only to leave another group of students under served as a result!

    The “crazy ones” are often our leaders. As much as I love this video, I’m also aware that it glamorizes these leaders and neglects to honor the solid, continuous contribution of our farmers, electricians, plumbers, builders, mechanics, engineers, and every other kind of worker that keeps our world going!

    We will truly move forward only when we respect ALL individuals and their contributions towards the whole!

    There’s still much to think about, yes?

Comments are closed.