Morning at the Sorenson household. Pandemonium. It is a school day. And it is the middle of winter. Dry skin, tired eyes, and noise – lots of noise. Where’s the coffee? Watch out for running children as you move about the house, trying desperately to reach the sounds of percolation and transport the precious nectar to a safe zone without it sloshing on your hand. The frenzy reaches a crescendo as the flashing lights of the approaching school bus come into view.
Where’s my school folder?
Please put on a hat – it’s below zero.
I swear, my boots were right here!
Did you get something with protein for breakfast?
Why do I have to eat breakfast?
The bus is here. Hurry so you don’t miss it!
Can you sign this field trip form? It’s due today.
Two children hurry out the door, jackets half-zipped, one shoe untied, backpacks hanging open, half-eaten toast balanced precariously on a mittened hand. They reach the front step together, and from there their paths diverge, though they have a common destination.
There is a fresh dusting of snow on the ground that bears witness to their passage. The chaos gives way to a sudden calm in the house, as the big yellow monster gathers the children and spirits them away to the halls of learning. I am left, coffee safely in hand, pondering the footprints in the snow.
One set heads straight down the front sidewalk, turning left at the street corner towards the waiting bus. The tracks are close together, indicating a steady walking pace.
The other set of tracks careens off across the yard on the shortest trajectory to the bus stop, down one small hill and up another. The tracks are spaced, indicating a running pace.
There are many personality tests on the market these days, and there are shelves of books analyzing the different ways people learn. These are often complex, difficult to understand, and sometimes contradictory. But they all point to the fundamental truth that people are different and they learn in different ways. Why do we so often default to a single method of instruction?
Take my children as an example. One of my boys is a take-the-sidewalk type of person. He is careful and methodical. He learns the rules that have been established and finds his way through life by following the guidelines. It does not matter that the sidewalk has just as much snow as the yard this morning – the sidewalk is for walking. This does not mean that he is a Lemming, blindly going where he is told. He observes and questions the rules to find out why they are there, and then he acts accordingly. He can sit still in the classroom and be a model student for his peers. He is quiet during church services, and can stand and sit when he is supposed to. Standardized tests are easy for him.
My other son is a cut-across-the-yard type of person. If there is a snow bank to climb over, all the better. His socks have holes in them. If you need a volunteer for a potentially embarrassing or particularly challenging task, choose him. He likes to see how far he can push the boundaries and how much he can question people before they snap. Rules only matter if breaking them gets you in trouble. I get frequent calls from the principal. In church, he gets a whole pew to himself so that he can lie down, roll on the floor, color, and drive toy cars. He’ll take your stupid standardized test, but only if you give him a pizza party for getting a good score.
Now, we all know that we need both types of genius for a functioning society. We need established metrics and we need innovation. We need those who set the rules and those who conduct experiments. We need rocket scientists and people to ride the rockets to Mars. But we also know that our society tends to reward one and punish the other, especially when it comes to our children. Our public schools spend millions of dollars and precious educational time on standardized tests that prioritize the sidewalk type of learning. Christian education, in spite of numerous advances and great glimmers of hope, remains doggedly focused on direct instruction in the classroom. The paved sidewalk from baptism to Sunday school to confirmation class to the empty reward of church membership is crumbling, and too few of us recognize that faithful people are taking alternate paths.
The glorious thing is that my children learn from one another. One learns to take risks, go against the flow when necessary, and not take life too seriously. The other learns the value of obeying the rules and how cooperation can lead to success for everyone. They both need guidance, mentorship, and encouragement for what they do well.
How are you interacting with young people? What instructional methods are you using that are valuable for both the sidewalk strollers and those who cut across the yard?
As a parent, I worry about both of my children because I see them growing up in a world that values one path over the other. I fear that my yard runner will be undervalued for his unique gifts and that his creativity will be stifled in favor of conformity. I fear that he will arrive at his destination and find the doors closed because he did not take the prescribed path. I see churches doing this to many in our society.
I fear that my sidewalk stroller will get so much positive reinforcement for following the prescribed path that he will be reluctant to take risks and incapable of encountering failure. I fear that he will reach the point where the sidewalk ends or where it crumbles and not have the capacity to blaze an alternate route.
But I do not let the fear overwhelm me. Truth be told, I am more hopeful than fearful. We have teachers, coaches, and camp counselors that recognize the unique gifts of the children in their care. We have opportunities to read, play, experience the outdoors, and encounter people from diverse backgrounds. These children will grow into amazing adults that will change this world for the better.
Maybe I can encourage one of them today. Maybe I can challenge one. Maybe I can listen to one and learn something new. Maybe I can walk alongside them on their journeys – whether on the sidewalk or across the unbeaten path – and help them see something in a new way.
I smile at the footprints in the snow and take a sip of my coffee. This is going to be a better world, and it starts today.