In Search of a Stimulating Education

In search of a stimulating education, I’ve jumped through hoops to bypass prerequisites and other requirements, starting college before finishing high school, starting graduate school before finishing my undergraduate degree, hopping from degree to degree, and waiving prerequisites.  I frequently have students who have skipped a year or more in various academic subjects, I’ve helped students as young as 9 take classes at the local University, and I’ve supported many parents in search of a stimulating, challenging, and appropriate education for their gifted child.   

 

Year after year, parents listen to educators tell them that “next year will be different,” “next year will be more challenging.”  These words give us hope year after year until finally, we can no longer hold onto that hope for we’ve been disappointed one too many times.  

If you’re lucky, your gifted child may have access to an advanced curriculum by skipping ahead a grade or more for either a single subject or their entire school day.  While this may seem like the best available option, it’s not unusual for parents and gifted children to realize that this isn’t a long-term solution. The next grade is more of the same – memorization and conformity.  New information presented in the same way is not challenging or stimulating for the child that yearns to understand the “how” and the “why” — for the child that seeks understanding — for the child that simply needs to understand how it all “fits” together.  

I slept-walked through grade school, completing homework before the class period was over and taking tests without ever really studying.  I carefully concealed photocopied pages of books in my binder to read, I brought extra workbooks and textbooks to class, and I spent a whole lot of time teaching myself to draw Looney Toons.  When I reached high school, I signed up for all the Honors classes. I had hope once again. It didn’t last long. Class was just boring. Homework was boring. For the first time in my life, I had to study – for one class – Honors Biology.  It wasn’t that it was difficult or challenging; I merely had to spend time memorizing the information. Even then, I wondered, isn’t there more to this? Sure, I can memorize the stages to mitosis and meiosis, but why? What’s the point? Wouldn’t it be better – more productive – more applicable – to discuss the implications of this information?  To write a paper that synthesizes the information rather than being able to parrot back definitions?

I spent the majority of my high school years avoiding class.  I spent a lot of time working on the school newspaper when I suppose I should have been in other classes.  Each year, I dropped more and more Honors classes as I realized that they didn’t teach me more – they didn’t challenge me – they just filled my time with extra homework.  More of the same. Not different. Just more.

I started taking classes at the university during high school.  I took a music theory class that, once again, just demanded memorization – memorization of content that I’d covered at music camp more than 5 years prior.  I took a freshman level expository composition class. The biggest struggle – finding time to write the papers in between working on the school newspaper, marching band practice, and my job as a graphic designer.  We read interesting essays that COULD have produced intellectually stimulating conversation in the classroom, but instead the “themes” we wrote about felt pre-determined. Our interpretation of the text felt stifled.  

I took classes in music theory, literature, women’s studies, psychology, education, and more.  Some classes were lectures with no intent of allowing students to participate in the conversation.  Simply memorize the material, sit for an exam, and leave. These classes could easily be replaced by online courses with video recorded lectures.  More often than not, the exams were multiple choice – graded by a computer. Some classes were smaller and designed for conversation – in theory; however, it is the responsibility of the instructor to moderate a conversation – to come prepared with topics and questions that open a discussion with differing viewpoints.  It is the responsibility of the students to care enough to participate. It was rare that I would find myself in a class with more than one other student willing to participate. Even then, the conversation seemed predetermined. Isn’t the purpose of our education to ask and find answers to questions? So, why does it seem as if so many educators abhor the idea of their students asking questions? They so often cringe at questions that ask to go beyond the curriculum – to go deeper – to find meaning in the information beyond simple acknowledgment and subsequent memorization.  

Would transferring schools provide me with a more academically inclined environment?  I tested out classes at other Universities; the results were the same. Would graduate school be different?  I’ve heard people say that the purpose of an undergraduate degree is to study the answers that already exist and have existed for years, your graduate studies are designed to examine new research, and your advanced graduate studies (doctoral degrees) are your opportunity (finally!) to ask your own questions.  

I hung onto the hope that this would be true. Then, I reached my graduate studies, and I was sorely disappointed.  It feels the same. Read a textbook. Take an exam. Perhaps write a paper or two. The content isn’t much different.  In fact, I’ve been able to re-use parts of some papers 3 times or more between undergraduate and graduate studies. School seems to be more about exams than anything else.  Those exams seem to be a testament to your test taking skills and dedication to memorization than to your ability to understand, synthesize, discuss, and apply knowledge. To me, that is what education is about — being able to USE your knowledge and skills.  

Albert Einstein once said, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”  This is a philosophy that I find is so often absent in our education system — a system that demands conformity, celebrates mediocrity, and runs from curiosity. This is a system that extinguishes the passion and creativity present in our young gifted children.  This is a system that I struggle with — a system that I simply cannot imagine raising a child in — a system for which I seek an alternative.

I may not have found this education for myself, but I can provide it for the future generation. My greatest joy in life is watching my students learn and grow — supporting students as they learn how to learn — learn how to think — to “turn their brain back on” — to ask the questions that they’ve kept to themselves for so long.  

Albert Einstein’s words are the foundation that I’ve built HEROES Academy on — a system that encourages individuality, celebrates excellence, and nurtures curiosity.  It is from this journey — my own education — my siblings’ education — that I’ve resigned that, for me, I may never find this, but I can create it so that future generations may have the opportunity to participate in an education that teaches students how to find the answers to their questions. Education should be an enlightening experience.  Learning should be fun, not because we “gamify” the experience but because the actual act of learning — of feeling yourself learn — is exhilarating.  When my students’ eyes light-up during that “ahah” moment of discovery, I know that I’ve created this environment — an environment that nurtures their innate creativity and intelligence and allows them to flourish.  ​
 

 

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