Educating for Human Greatness

The title of this piece is the goal of my friend Lynn Stoddard, who has worked for over 50 years as an elementary school teacher, principal and consultant. His goal is to elevate the profession of teaching and inspire teachers to truly facilitate the development of a young human being rather than merely instruct them on standardized curriculum so they can pass the tests. I am aware of no greater contemporary champion for a holistic approach to teaching and education consistent with the great education innovators of the 20th Century like John Dewey, Waldorf founder Rudolph Steiner, and Maria Montessori.

From chapter 1 page 1 of his book Educating for Human Greatness, Lynn frames the challenges for the profession of teaching in the current US educational context…

In 1983 a National Commission on Excellence in Education issued a “Nation at Risk Report” and set in motion a series of government imposed reforms, all based on a false goal: student achievement in curriculum. One of these reforms, “No Child Left Behind,” put extra pressure on teachers to ignore the diverse needs of students and, instead, standardize students in reading, writing and math. More recently the U.S. Department of Education has installed a set of national standards for student uniformity. Subject matter specialists, along with major influence from business and industry, have decided what all students should know and be able to do at each grade level. Tests are administered to assess student learning of the prescribed material. In some cases the tests are used as an assessment of the quality of teaching. This top-down, misguided pressure is evidence that public school teaching is not regarded as a profession in our society.

I note the hard line Lynn takes against standardized curriculum, later calling it an “obsession”, and saying that it goes beyond constraining our youths’ in school learning and is in fact creating a “mass mind-set” and turning unique young human beings into trained widgets.

From Lynn’s half-century of experience, including conducting surveys of parents in his home state of Utah, “teaching curriculum” should not be the object of education. Curriculum is a tool but not the goal of education. The goal is to help young people grow as people. Lynn has his “Seven Priorities” rubric, which in classic teacher fashion all start with the same letter…

Identity – Help students learn who they are – as individuals with unlimited potential, develop their unique talents and gifts to realize self-worth and develop a strong desire to be contributors to family, school, and community. Nurture health and physical fitness.

Inquiry – Stimulate curiosity; awaken a sense of wonder and appreciation for nature and humankind. Help students develop the power to ask important, penetrating questions.

Interaction – Promote courtesy, caring, communication and cooperation.

Initiative – Foster self-directed learning, will power and self-evaluation.

Imagination – Nurture creativity and creative expression

Intuition – Develop emotional intelligence, the sixth sense. Gain the ability to recognize truth with the heart as well as intellectually.

Integrity – Develop honesty, character, morality and responsibility for self.

Here is a classic manifesto of the holistic teacher, to nurture the whole person – mind, body and soul – so that person can develop to their full potential. Instructing students on a standard curriculum so they can demonstrate that knowledge acquisition on a test just does not cut it! Instead we are talking about teachers who are truly gifted and multi-dimensional professionals.

Looking back on my own experience as a kid in school and later as a parent of kids in school, I would say only perhaps ten percent of the teachers I have encountered fully practiced nurturing these seven attributes. I suspect a others might be capable of such but felt it was impossible or otherwise inappropriate given the constraints of the school environment including the pressure to “teach to the test”.

But I think Lynn’s high “bar” for teachers does beg the question if the teaching profession as presently constituted and compensated has the impassioned, talented and skilled people to meet this challenge and provide this level of support for their students (given state “educrats” somehow loosening the reins on standardized education). It is one thing to be able to nurture these seven qualities in a single or several young persons (as a parent might do). It is yet another to do so for a classroom full of thirty kids or more!

Lynn shows the zeal of a die-hard progressive and social activist when he poses questions like, “What if you were to discover that many of the brilliant, talented people wasting in jails may be there partly because our society failed to nurture each person’s unique potentiality?” Behind that question is perhaps an impossibly utopian vision that schools and teachers should be able to develop their charges and transform society for the better.

Another provocative question he asks is, “What if you were to discover that students, teachers, and parents are all innocent victims of a false philosophy of education, and that all three of these groups promote this philosophy consciously or unconsciously?” I for one appreciate this challenge to the limitations of conventional wisdom and failure to be aware of and move beyond the path of least resistance. Lynn rejects a whole laundry list of conventional education related wisdom put forward mostly unchallenged by politicians that he labels as “tradition”.

Under the heading of “Political Interference”, Lynn criticizes the drive in recent decades by legislators and businessmen to reinforce a traditional view of school (and the meekness of teachers not to resist this more forcefully)…

The new motto, higher standards, was not a call to redesign education. It was merely a summons for teachers to do what they have been expected to do all along – mold students into a common form, but at a higher level. It was a tradition that must be obeyed. The governors and business executives, without any input from educators, opted to maintain a system of education patterned after factory, mass-production assembly lines. In this system educators are not viewed as professionals who can make decisions about the needs of children, but as line workers who must carry out the mandates of managers.

This is the voice of a true “progressive”, reminding us that the goal should be to progress, that is to move forward, not merely build upon and reinforce tradition.

Lynn calls out and elaborates on six pivotal progressive education principles to help us move beyond tradition and conventional wisdom…

Value positive human diversity – Resist standardizing students and instead nurture each to develop their unique gifts, talents, abilities and skills to benefit society.

Draw forth potential – A process of “loving interaction” brings forth the best in each student (rather than focusing on overcoming “deficits”) and is the opposite of filling them with information.

Respect Autonomy – Encourage and expect students to be responsible for their own education.

Invite Inquiry – As opposed to imposing compulsory learning.

Support Professionalism – Do not treat teachers as assembly-line workers by mandating what and how they teach.

CommUNITY for Great Schools – Parents should move from being “spectators” of the education process to full participants as partners with teachers and their kids.

I suspect some of the teachers I know would argue that they are already doing all this even in the context of our current highly standardized, test obsessed schools. As a parent (and not a formal educator) I have my doubts.

Though I admit there are some truly gifted teachers out there, I suspect that the natural talent and acquired skills to do all this in and for a classroom of even twenty students is a fairly rare skill, and certainly above and beyond what can be expected of teachers, given how much we pay them. Imagine trying to put a sufficient number of teachers that meet Lynn’s high “bar” in front of our 57 million young people of school age. That’s roughly 2 million stellar teachers. No offense to the teaching profession, but I don’t think any profession in the US can boast 2 million stellar practitioners.

But if we are truly talking about shifting the paradigm of education from a top-down hierarchy of control to internally motivated learners directing their own education, maybe kids can spend a significant amount of their time involved with each other or with other adults who are not necessarily teachers, but otherwise interesting and talented people. Time spent in the presence of a real teacher, that meets Lynn’s qualifications, can be the exception rather than the rule.

Maybe the title of “teacher” should be reserved for a smaller more select group of highly-paid professionals while a larger pool of “instructors” have a lesser expectation to just know and be able to convey their subject matter when students choose to partake of such instruction. The “teacher” would function more as a counselor or consultant, interacting with the student for only an hour a day or even just an hour a week, now completely relieved of the custodial function that is the other function of today’s schools.

I’d say Lynn’s provocative ideas raise more questions than answers. But then inspiring inquiry is what a great teacher is all about!

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7 replies on “Educating for Human Greatness”

  1. Thomas Priest says:

    This is a breath of fresh air after years of stifling education through “No Child Left Behind.”

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    From the point of view of a teacher in school-based education, Lynn has a great holistic vision! Hopefully his ideas can catch fire with his teaching peers and even the educrats who pull the ed strings from the state capitols.

  3. David Mellor says:

    This great work “Educating for Human Greatness” could only be accomplished by one who is fully dedicated, committed and has a superior understanding of the educational needs of children. From first-hand experience I know this description fits Lynn.

  4. Cooper Zale says:

    David… I agree that Lynn is dedicated to being the quintessential holistic teacher. If a young person is looking for a gifted teacher, they could probably not do much better. That said, I think a lot of kids do better in their development if they direct the bulk of their learning themselves outside of a school or a formal learning environment, what is called unschooling, maybe engaging teachers like Lynn in perhaps an occasional “consulting” role.

  5. David Mellor says:

    Cooper, it is interesting that you mention unschooling. In recent weeks I have been very conerned over a jr. high age grandson’s education. It seems that he is gaining nothing from school. However, while at home he has many interests and keeps busy with a variety of activities like building, repairing any broken item and doing anything that requires use of his hands. It appears formal education just take life out of him.

  6. Yvonne Siu-Runyan says:

    Stoddard’s EDUCATING FOR HUMAN GREATNESS is an inspiring book that just makes sense!

    What ever happened to a humanistic education? Now education is racing…something is woefully wrong with mindset. The test and reward/punish model, so prevalent everywhere I turn, is the wrong approach.

    Let’s indeed educate for human greatness.

  7. Cooper Zale says:

    Yvonne… I think humanistic education has been hiding in the margins and shadows for the past 200 years always getting pushed back into those shadows by the dominant paradigm of mandatory standardized instruction.

    Thanks for the comment!

    Cooper Zale

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