Thursday, May 8, 2008

Local Schools Show Their Excellence

(From the May 8, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune)

When I was asked by the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation to speak at their annual “Excellence in Education” dinners, which recognize students who are in the top 10 percent of their graduating class and the teachers who inspired them most.

Obviously, these people have a handle on excellence in education. But I thought I would affirm their accomplishments and possibly inspire them further with my personal thoughts on what makes education excellent. I hope they inspire you as well.

1. Excellence in Education is Hard Work.

Students honored by the Foundation are in the top 10 percent of their class. But that is just evidence of their excellence, not what makes them so.

I’m sure the parents, teachers and friends of high achieving students know how much time they spend reading, studying, asking questions, writing and re-writing. Some students may appear to be naturally smart, but there is lots of work involved that people don’t see. As Sophocles said: “To DO is to learn.” That implies activity associated with learning. In other words, work.

2. Excellence in Education is Curiosity

To be excellent in education, you need to wonder. You need to go beyond the bare minimum, completing an assignment exactly as asked. We overuse the word “wonderful” to mean something trivial, as in “have a wonderful day.” In fact, the word means full of wonder. That’s what makes education excellent as well, on the part of both students and teachers. Both need to maintain a constant curiosity, to wonder about why things work the way they do, how to try things differently, what other people think, and so forth. Assuming you already know everything is boring. Having a sense of wonder makes life, truly, wonderful.

3. Excellence in Education is Broad and Deep

It was Aristotle and the Greeks who first introduced the idea that people should be broadly educated in the basic subjects: math, science, language, music, art etc. Colleges continue that tradition today in what is called a “liberal arts education.” It means that you have a liberal helping of ideas, concepts, theories and experiences in your education.

How does this relate to your eventual career? Look at it like weightlifting. If you are on a sports team—football, volleyball, whatever—you no doubt practice the fundamentals of the sport. But you also probably did something called training—lifting weights, running and so forth. Now, on game day, you don’t take the field and rip off 10 reps on a bench press. But, by having done the training, you are better able to tackle, block, bump, set spike—whatever the sport requires. The same is true of a broad and deep education. It gives you the mental muscle to handle new educational challenges.

4. Excellence in Education is Passion

College professors are required to write a philosophy of teaching. As part of mine, I include this line from the poet William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.”

So, what does that mean?

Here’s what I think. Education, certainly excellent education, is not about filing up your head with facts. You might all remember that funny cartoon where a little boy in a classroom raises his hand and when the teacher calls on him he says: “My brain is full. Can I go home?” We laugh because that’s ludicrous. Our brains are not receptacles that can be filled up with information. They are much more complex.

That’s why excellent education is about lighting a fire. That means, getting something started, being inspired. I think this notion speaks to teachers who experience the thrill of former students contacting them to say what they are now doing and relating it to being inspired by their teaching. That ‘s a great result of teaching, and a sign of excellence.

Fire brings warmth and light. I hope our local students’ future education is so excellent that they are not merely filled with facts, but warmed and enlightened by it.

5. Excellent Education is Attractive

I have a colleague who says this to his students. Only he uses a word that really gets their attention: “studying is SEXY!”

Maybe you are surprised by this. My colleague’s point is that too many students think ‘excellent” students are geeks or nerds or dorks whatever word kids use today to describe young people who study a lot. That’s wrong. It is so immature to be attracted to other people merely by their body, or the fact that they wear the currently popular brand of jeans, torn in just the right spot, with the specific logo. What mind-numbing conformity.

Rather, I encourage young people to seek out friends who can have entire conversations without using these words: awesome, amazing, like, or dude. People who are deep thinkers and command extensive vocabularies should be the ones exalted, not derided, in our schools. Yes, it’s sexy to be well educated. I encourage students to not hide their excellence, but to share it and seek it out in others.

6. Excellent Education is Ongoing

It was very impressive to hear about what these local ‘excellent’ students plan to do next. Most of them are going on to college. But I reminded them that even after getting their degrees, I hope they continue a love of life-long learning. If you work hard in school, the joy of learning becomes contagious. It’s a habit for life. People who get this realize that education is not about filling up their heads, like buckets of information. It’s about being drawn to the warmth and light of a fire. I would hope all members of the Tri-Cities community are inspired by the excellence of our area students and teachers.

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