I was talking to a friend this weekend. He mentioned how broadly distributed intellectual potential is among the population, and it got me thinking....
When I was a kid, I played games at recess and ran around. I swam butterfly for a year in high school. I played some tennis. A few coaches commented that I have decent hand/eye coordination and was reasonably quick. I was nothing special, either way... unless what I needed to do required both my feet to leave and then to return to the ground! In that case, failure was (and is) a reasonable expectation, and an injury, quite possible. Unless I'm going to be landing in water at the end, this whole "leaving the earth's surface" thing is clearly something my brain doesn't process well at all.
I was lucky, since I was a girl - the fact I was eager to play sports successfully offset my comparative lack of height as well as my leaping challenges. But for many boys, Physical Education class was a nightmare of humiliation, where coaches had achievement expectations that the boys just didn't have the inclination to train for and in many cases lacked the physical talent to meet.
Those same boys grew up in many cases to be academically successful men; fathers, who could determine funding priorities and administer school districts. I'm not sure this is related, but my son's academically excellent public school has a Physical Education department whose grading requirements for an A- in 9th and 10th grades are apparently "successfully changes into PE clothes." There is no required physical education at all for 11th and 12th grades. The coaches do care a lot about the teams, but not at all about educating anyone of even average physical talent.
In other words, I suspect that since PE was difficult for people who weren't talented athletically, it was curtailed and then turned into an utterly useless program. Imagine what would happen if we taught math that way? If you're not "math team" caliber, you show up for class, play math-based games if you want to -- hang out and talk to your friends if not -- and then you get an "A-" so long as you don't cause any problems.
I believe we need to create "learning environments" for physical learning in the schools. Teachers ridiculing kids who can't make the quota of pushups isn't okay; but neither is saying "voila! no need for push-ups!" I think understanding how to deal with the wide distribution of physical talent will help academics find innovative new approaches for managing the wide distribution of intellectual talent.
So back to the conversation with my friend, because there's another part to this, centered around the wide disparity in IQ that schools have to deal with, and how that affects the way people approach their lives, particularly how they approach conflict.
I don't actually have any answers to the questions he raised. But I have been thinking a lot about, specifically, the role of public education beyond the education of specific intellectual skills.
I have seen bright children become so competitive that they lose all sense of empathy. I have seen average children become so insecure and anxious they get sick. I have seen children (and adults) become violently angry and destructively frustrated when they just can't "get it," particularly when the pressure's on and the stakes are high.
I believe the future of education has to be team-based, because we can't afford, as a society, to exacerbate impulsive anger in children who aren't succeeding at the moment, whether they're just not smart enough or they're just generally prone to anger or impulsivity, or they are having short term personal crises. Having social support helps people feel calmer, and gives them confidence they'll weather whatever they need to face.
We need to know a lot more about how to integrate people who are experiencing failure, anger, and obsession. We have an idea of how to create an intellectual learning environment: it's okay to try, mistakes are tolerated, unpacked, and knowledge is gained. Now we need to learn how to create learning environments that accommodate emotional learning.
And we have to expand those domains to encompass a way to differentiate the curriculum for a very wide disparity in natural talent.