Thursday, August 12, 2010

Of Dogs And Students

I own copies of First Break All The Rules:  What The World's Great Managers Do Differently, Now Discover Your Strengths, Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance, Teach with Your Strengths:  How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students, and Strengths Finder 2.0.  Each of these books assert that people have different aptitudes and they should find ways to maximize their strengths instead of always working overcome weaknesses.  To use a sports analogy, these books assert Ichiro Suzuki shouldn't try to hit 40 home runs in a season and Jim Thome shouldn't try to steal 40 bases.  Ichiro is a great singles hitter and base stealer and Thome is a great power hitter.  Both men will be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame because they stick to their strengths.

Marion Brady, guest blogging at the Washington Post's Answer Sheet, puts a canine spin on using strengths.  Brady observes that "among the people for whom herding sheep is serious business, there is general agreement that Border Collies are better at doing what needs to be done than any other dog. They have ‘the knack.’"  Lest he be accused of being a "breedist" or whatever the PC term would be for unjustly favoring one breed over the other, Brady points out "[i]f you’re lost in a snowstorm in the Alps, you don’t need a Border Collie. You need a big, strong dog with a really good nose, lots of fur, wide feet that don’t sink too deeply into snow, and an unerring sense of direction for returning with help. You need a Saint Bernard."  He also points out that the Fox Terrier is great at protecting chicken coops. 

Brady concludes, "It isn’t that many different breeds can’t be taught to herd, lead high-altitude rescue efforts, or kill foxes. They can. It’s just that teaching all dogs to do things which one particular breed can do better than any other doesn’t make much sense."

Brady continues the analogy to condemn NCLB.
. . . . If that fact makes you optimistic about the future of education in America, think again about dogs.
There are all kinds of things they can do besides herd, rescue, and engage foxes. They can sniff luggage for bombs. Chase felons. Stand guard duty. Retrieve downed game birds. Guide the blind. Detect certain diseases. Locate earthquake survivors. Entertain audiences. Play nice with little kids. Go for help if Little Nell falls down a well.
So, with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top as models, let’s set performance standards for these and all other canine capabilities and train all dogs to meet them. All 400 breeds. All skills. Leave No Dog Behind!
Two-hundred-pound Mastiffs may have a little trouble with the chase-the-fox-down-the-hole standard, and Chihuahuas will probably have difficulty with the tackle-the-felon-and-pin-him-to-the-ground standard. But, hey, no excuses! Standards are standards! Leave No Dog Behind
Brady is preaching to a choir of at least one when he illustrates that people's strengths differ, and that NCLB is idiocy.  He does, however, ignore the fact that schools failed to teach students to emphasize their strengths and focused instead on fixing weaknesses long before NCLB.  The number of remedial classes has always exceeded the number of advanced classes.  Students with no aptitude for algebra were forced to take Algebra II or another advanced math class to get a diploma.  Students who can't see symbolic stars when hit with the symbolic hammer were forced to take four literature classes in order to graduate.

Let me offer a caveat here.  Public education should provide students with the basics necessary to function in the contemporary world.  Our increasingly fragmented society might be better served if more people shared knowledge of the same literature.  Some required classes are necessary.

Even with that caveat, the students who excel at finding out what's wrong with a car engine probably should be encouraged to develop that skill.  Students with a great personality but an below average intellect should be taught how use those people skills to their advantage.  Both types of students probably should be allowed to skip an fourth literature class or a third science class.  Instead, they should be taught how to prevent an employer from taking advantage of them.  They should be taught how to make themselves so valuable as a mechanic or waitress or salesperson that no one will even think about firing them even if they are in a low level job.

Brady will probably be excoriated for comparing students for dogs.  Some PC folk will probably be upset because I'm saying that some students have a better intellect than others.  It's not in vogue to make such assertions.  Apparently, people are all interchangeable parts that can learn everything and be proficient in everything.  If that's true, Ichiro should swing for the fences tonight,  and Chihuahuas should be used as seeing eye dogs.

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