why was this girl in school?

Last night I watched a lovely speech by a 19 year old “scientific prodigy”. In her speech, she talks about a family trip to the Grand Canyon she took with her family when she was nine years old. Never an avid reader, her attention was drawn to a book about the Ebola virus epidemic. She became enthralled with the book and decided that she wanted to do research in neuroscience one day. From that time on she read every book on the subject she could get her hands on. By the time she was 14 she was begging for the opportunity to work in a research laboratory, and within a couple of years was designing her own experiments and making important contributions to her field.

It was apparent listening to this young woman that she had amazing powers of perception and critical thinking. In science, you need to ask the right questions. Being able to do so requires an appreciation of “the big picture”. You also need to be able to design experiments that test that specific question. Most of us require years of specialized training in research to reach the point where we’re able to tackle difficult subjects, but this girl is already doing what many PhD’s are still trying to do, and she’s only just starting University.

Several things struck me about her story:

  1. her interest was sparked by picking up a book while on vacation: this was not something that was introduced to her through school as “required reading” or as part of any curriculum
  2. she took the initiative to go out and find books relating to the subject that interested her; you can best believe that these books were not the ones she was being given to read in school
  3. note that she needed no coercion to do this; it was not part of any mandatory education scheme; she had an interest and she pursued it on her own
  4. by age 14 she was ready to go work in a laboratory and do productive science; she doesn’t elaborate on whether this was part-time work or a summer job, but presumably the time she spent in the lab was limited by the requirement that she attend high school for the next 4 years

I had to ask myself: what was the point of this young woman ever attending school? Everything she learned to get to the career she wanted for herself was done on her own merit, with her own motivation and self-direction. School could not provide her with the level of stimulation and information she was ready for. And while she didn’t elaborate on where she got her powers of critical thinking (other than to note that her grandmother was a scientist), it’s a safe bet to say that she didn’t learn those skills at school.

I know – I was a product of the school system, too. It took me several years to “get” how scientific research is done. I see student after student come through my lectures, I mark their exams, and I see how little they understand critical thinking. And these students are the “cream of the cream”. They were A students just to get accepted into university, and then doubly A students to get accepted into our program. These are kids with 98% averages, and most of them are completely stumped when I pose an exam question requiring more than just regurgitating notes they took in class. I could write a whole ‘nother post on that subject (and I probably will), but suffice it to say that schools utterly fail at teaching the kind of critical thinking that this woman was naturally gifted in

Though I doubt most other people even noticed this aspect of her speech, what I got from it was a shining example of what children can and will accomplish when they are motivated, inspired, and driven to pursue that which interests them and which stimulates their natural curiosity. Her story demonstrates the sheer uselessness of school, because there was nothing in her formal education that led to her success. Had she been a homeschooled kid she likely would have been working in labs at an even earlier age and making important discoveries even sooner, since she wouldn’t have had to waste 75% of her time going to high school. Not that she isn’t young enough already to be achieving so much; my point is simply that school was not just “not helpful”, it was a hindrance.

Watch the video. When she speaks, she radiates the kind of raw enthusiasm, passion, and the sort of excitement that moves scientists everywhere to seek, to ask, and to explore. I know what she is feeling, and it is truly wonderful. That is the sort of passion that drives, and it is sadly absent in most classrooms.

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2 thoughts on “why was this girl in school?

  1. Shawna

    Wonderful story!!!

    All I can add in regards to what the classroom may have provided would be basic reading skills that allowed her to read the book she picked up…but then again that could have been something she learned at home or would have learned on her own had she been home or unschooled.

    I have a 20 yr old son who hated reading, failed his English classes almost each year in high school and re-did them in summer school to pass. One day he picked up a silly Harry Potter book all on his own (as our District had banned them as curriculum after some very religious mothers created a commotion when the 4th grade teachers read them in class) and he was hooked. Not only on reading, but he sat down and wrote and entire novel!

    The writing was good, I scanned it as I was sure it would just be silly fluff (I had been a high school English teacher at one time and students who did poorly in class surely couldn’t write novels worth anything!) I was pleasantly surprised and have agreed to help him publish it.

    He was turned off to the required reading as a child, he hated the busy work that is such a part of highschool English calssrooms, he refused to participate and instead took the fail and completed the work in 4 weeks rather than the 4 months that was assigned…and he had the ability to read and write all along…he just needed the freedom. How I wish I had known about homeschooling back then.

    It amazes me what our young people are capable of…if only we would give them the time and opportunity to blossom and grow without the constraints of the public classroom all day long! And how they would learn to think if we weren’t training them to the tests.

  2. Rolfe

    That made me think. Her story about learning on vacation reminded me that this is how I’ve always learned best. Even in graduate school when I had no classes and was free to study whatever I wanted, I still learned things best when I felt I was “off duty”.

    I think that this happens because when I’m learning for fun, there are no limits to the questions I can ask, so I think critically and thoroughly. When I was learning in school, I got the answer “that is beyond the scope of this class” a lot. Eventually that taught me not to ask. School is about skills, and there is no point wasting time on skills that aren’t on the checklist.

    When I was in grad school, of course it was my fault that I still thought that way.

    In any case, I loved your post. Some kids really want to learn, and sometimes school is a silly place for them to be. We should ask “why is this kid in school?” more often.

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