5/19/2011 5:49

Required to fail

A society passes judgement on itself whenever it requires one of its members to fail. The opposite attitude is the one expressed by the high school principal when I commented on his serving as a doorman after the band concert. He said, "Whatever you need."

What brings this thought to mind is a particular student I know who is struggling with his high school classes. That he is struggling is important to my point. This student is willing to work hard; his frustration is that long hours of effort do not bring success. (My diagnosis is that that he is unskilled in extracting key ideas, especially hierarchies of ideas.) The response -- the only rational response -- is to avoid making large investments of time wallowing in efforts that are not rewarded.

Unfortunately, we have not offered him a more effective alternative. We have merely demanded a kind of success which he is not currently able to achieve.

In the process of evaluating this student's situation, it was noted that he did not have an "Individualized Educational Program". Having an "IEP" allows the institution more flexibility in identifying and responding to a student's specific needs.

In fact, every student should have an individualized education program. Some students are provided an instutional IEP by the school bureaucracy. Others have parents who can shape their individualized education. The students who are most adept at navigating the educational environment create their own plans.

That is what I did in actual reality. I set my own goals and determined my own path to achieve them. Sometimes the institutions thwarted my plans, but other times they were strongly supportive.

In high school, for example, I was prevented from achieving some goals for breadth of education (the school wouldn't enroll me in some classes that were not in the college track) and they weren't quite ready to allow a student-invented philosophy course for credit (although they did listen to the idea and even put it on the official agenda). On the other hand, I was supported in doing some of my math classes as independent studies, in creating an uncredited computer science program, and in leveraging the resources of the university.

The same approach worked during my years of employment, at least most of the time. My goal was to have access to large, powerful computers so that I could play at my hobby -- and get paid for it. In return, I would create software which would help the organizations perform their functions better. When that program finally failed (after 37 years) I simply walked away.

Which is precisely what this high school student is being tempted to do. The plan he has isn't working. Who wouldn't walk away? But -- to what? When I walked away from employment I had a new plan for supporting myself and for achieving my goals. For my high schooler to succeed, he does not need new admonitions to succeed; he needs a new plan. If he had the right set of skills, he would already have made that new plan himself. He does not.

What should we be providing to this student, who works hard but misses the point? We should offer him what his high school principal suggests: Whatever he needs. If society judges itself whenever it requires failure, it also judges itself when it permits success. I prefer the latter.