October 21, 2012
JoEllen Zacks: Road less traveled can be the path to success for West Virginia

"He will insist on doing his work in his own way." This was among many criticisms leveled at 15-year-old John Gurdon by his Eton schoolmaster, who advised the boy that his goal of becoming a scientist was "quite ridiculous."

Chastened, Gurdon studied classics at Oxford, but never lost his scientific curiosity. "At school I used to grow thousands of caterpillars to make moths, to the intense annoyance of my tutor," he once joked.

After encouragement from his mother, he returned to his first love, and began a life of scientific research for which Gurdon, now 79, was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

In an age of unprecedented change and challenge, our society needs to cultivate, not criticize, young independent thinkers like Gurdon. Unfortunately, our education system is largely designed to do the opposite. Obsession with standardized testing, rigid grade classifications, lock step learning and disruptive schedules are just a few of the accepted "norms" of traditional schools that conspire to derail dreams and stifle innovation.

It's not surprising, considering that American schools grew out of the Prussian model, created to transform peasants into soldiers and workers and instill obedience to centralized authority. Horace Mann, the "founding father" of American education, imported this prototype after traveling to Prussia in 1843. Its imprint was unmistakable. As Ellwood P. Cubberley noted in his 1922 text Public School Administration, "our schools are factories in which the raw product (children) are to be shaped and fashioned."

If widgets are the desired outcome, our schools are working just fine. However, if innovation is a priority, schools must retool and adopt systems proven to promote creativity and exploration.

Among the most successful is the Montessori method, designed to work with, not against, human nature to help children develop problem-solving skills.

The approach is named after Dr. Maria Montessori, Italy's first female physician. A humanitarian and devout Catholic, Dr. Montessori founded the Casa dei Bambini for impoverished and disabled students in Rome in 1907. She observed that young children possessed an innate curiosity and desire to learn and believed the teacher's role was to guide students toward, rather than impart, knowledge and understanding.

"Free the child's potential, and you will transform him into the world," she said.

Among Montessori's many innovations were mixed-aged classrooms, individualized learning and long, uninterrupted blocks of work time.

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