This is not a story of wealth and poverty in the traditional sense, but it does address the issue of opportunity, and the decisions made when learning design lacks the context required to motivate individual learners within a system.
The two students at the heart of this story are sisters, raised in moderate circumstances in one of the richest cities in the world. Their education began as it does with so many children in this city, with an anxious parent researching pre-school opportunities at the elder child’s birth, making the round of school visits when that child turned two years old, taking the radical chance of applying to only one of the top contenders, and being lucky enough to get accepted.
It continues with the nail-biting episodes of applying with the second sibling during a re-examination of the school’s sibling policy and the fortune of acceptance despite clear criteria communicated during the whole nail-biting episode.
Fast forward past the elementary and middle school years except to acknowledge the drama therein regarding out-of-catchment campaigns and testing aimed at both parents and children trying to prove their suitability in these new arenas. We land now at the high school years at two of the top public high schools, two of the most difficult to get into but worlds apart in their focus, numbers of students, and, perhaps the only way to articulate this . . . spirit.
In one school, the student shared the hallways with 500 or so other classmates and maintained a high average in what the school proclaimed to be a progressive curriculum, mostly made of core subject areas (college prep), and sought to enhance her studies with electives more in line with her personal interests, creative writing and the visual arts.
In the other school, the student spent her day with over 2000 other students, all pursuing their degrees in a two-pronged, arts and academic focused curriculum that required three periods of study in the arts on top of the traditional academic subject areas.
The student in the first school began to question the validity of her studies early on and became particularly agitated as the college selection process geared up in junior year. The majority of her free time was spent on her own arts projects in somewhat solitary pursuit of accomplishing goals set for herself in areas totally outside the realm of the school curriculum. By the fall of her senior year, she had left school, no longer able to continue within a system that did not map to her own set of core values. She eventually completed her high school diploma working with an accredited online school, where she was able to incorporate her love for the arts into her final requirements, working closely with a set of dedicated faculty who understood, nurtured, and respected the additional effort required to complete projects in this manner.
The student in the second school thrived in an environment designed to nurture both academic and artistic talent. Performance was embedded into the curriculum and continuous improvement measured for both artistic and academic pursuits. Family involvement in the form of concert attendance, studio meetings and regular discussions over new pieces being studied and practiced was a natural byproduct of the school design.
Both students demonstrated highly creative instincts throughout childhood, lovers of literature, storytellers both, and both placed high value on the creation of (albeit different) artistic products. What happened during their final years within the compulsory educational system provides a cautionary tale for all of us, particularly those of us charged with the design of learning experiences across the educational continuum. Context is of vital importance, even and perhaps especially for our youngest of learners. While the context evolves as you move from youth to adulthood, from student to worker, most of us need a reason to be learning something. The more context we can provide, and the earlier we do so, the better.