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A Qualitative Education

Thoughts & Reflections

We hear so many wonderful stories.

Not only from children, as they learn to navigate their world, so new and wondrous, but also from parents, as they observe their children, with such pride and amazement. One of our very favorite recent accounts involves a former student of ours, and an amazing description of her independence, fortitude and ultimately, accomplishment, as relayed by her mother.

This particular student, whom some might classify as being extremely modest, often exhibited timid tendencies, especially when she engaged with new activities. In our estimations, it wasn’t necessarily the outcome that she was apprehensive about, as there was nothing that she tried and couldn’t achieve. Rather, it was her willingness to divorce herself from her own expectations and dive right in to unfamiliar situations. Said differently: this five-year-old student was afraid to try new things, because she was worried that she might fail.

Our task, as guides, was to nurture her development.

Over the Summer, this student took swimming lessons. The instructor was exceedingly supportive, especially physically, as she braced her unsteady, uncertain movements. Essentially, and from our understanding, the swimming instructor would place her hands beneath the student, to guide her and keep her afloat. The reassurance in the water meant everything.

Then, one day, after weeks of practice and subtle encouragement, our five-year-old student turned to the swimming instructor and confidently said, “I think you should let me go. Otherwise, how can I learn to swim on my own”? Years worth of support and furthering suddenly buoyed forth. An exhibition of independence and a willingness to engage the world was demonstrated. Needless to say, the student quickly became the captain of the pool.

There are so many lessons to be learned from this account, one of which leads us to an important and timely question. Namely, how can you teach, let alone measure, qualitative results? By qualitative, we mean, creativity, independence, determination, patience, perseverance, compassion, dedication, humility, modesty, collaboration, etc. The intangibles that often comprise a constructive life.

Which is to say, what type of educational system, or characteristics, would account for these types of metrics? On top of that, how would you stimulate, as opposed to suppress, their delicate growth? How can you say, “By the age of x, your child will tell their swimming instructor to let them go?” A different system is at work.

While some individuals think these qualities can’t be assessed, others argue that we simply need a new set of terms by which to have the conversation. A new vocabulary, so to speak, and, ultimately, a new type of yardstick by which to measure the output. How would you quantify the independence that the five-year-old exhibited with the swimming instructor? As usual, Ken Robinson is particularly helpful on these matters.

The traditional system of education, which most of us are familiar with, since most of us attended, was primarily set up to assess quantitative outcomes. These may include, but are not limited to, timed tests, pop quizzes, multiple choice questions, and other standardized evaluations. Everything is centered on this method of examination.

The ambition of this type of educational system was put into place to quickly ascertain results across a large swathe of students, and compute those results against local and national averages. Understandably, perhaps, it wasn’t designed with the individuals ability or interest in mind.

As a product of the Industrial Revolution, one can easily see, through a certain lens, how this type of educational system made complete sense. Education wasn’t about the pursuit of interests, or even passions, it was about the preparation of basic, fundamental, technical skills, the mastery of which was needed to enter the work force. Yet, as we all know, this way of thinking about education, no less than the economy, is completely changing. For some, it has already, irrevocably, changed.

What about qualitative assessments, then, which often take time to manifest? As demonstrated in the swimming lesson example above, how are those types of qualities fostered? How are they nurtured, not to mention, measured? How do you assess, in good faith, creativity, for instance? By what standard are these types of practices evaluated? In a wonderful, almost paradoxical statement, it’s as Lewis Carroll says –

You can’t measure Alice growing, only her growth.

Where does this leave us? Moving forward, as a society, it becomes a question of where we choose to place our emphasis. What values do we want to place on qualitative traits? We would love to hear your thoughts and learn about your stories. We’re sure you have them too. They might make for a wonderful conversation about a qualitative education.


Written by:

Bobby George

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