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Lessons from a Lawnmower: Thoughts on Education

Last Saturday I was outside fighting another losing battle with the weeds that love the unlandscaped area that surrounds our property. I was armed with a little electric lawn edger that was no match for the legion of noxious brambles. As I contemplated my fate, a portly, spectacled young man drove up on a four-wheeler.

"Kyle", as I'll call him, introduced himself as being fifteen years old and looking for work. He was high on the social awkwardness scale, the pinnacle of which I myself occupied at that age, so I was impressed with his ambition and outgoing manner.

It became quickly apparent that Kyle is very mechanically minded. He was trying to earn enough money to buy a broken lawnmower from a neighbor to fix up and resell. He related story after story of small engines he had repaired; weed whackers, mowers, even ATVs. Technical terms and intricate descriptions of engines, repair processes, and lessons learned flowed freely.

I mentioned that I had a twenty-year-old lawn mower that I kept around to mow weeds that no longer worked. It had performed faithfully until last season and my wee mechanical skills proved to be no match for whatever ailed it.

He agreed to tackle the project, we agreed on a price, and he rode home to gather some supplies. Upon his return he handily dismantled part of the machine, describing each step and what he thought might be wrong as he went. In short order he had it working again, much to my surprise and the dismay of my weeds. Kyle then spent some time working in the hot sun, I paid him and he left.

Not long after, another neighbor who knows Kyle remarked to me that Kyle is functionally innumerate, meaning that he has little concept of time or numbers, and faces significant struggles in school as a result.

I thought about what school must be like for Kyle. Our educational system is essentially one-size-fits-all. Some variation in electives is allowed for personal interest, but everyone is required to cover "the essentials" at the same age, the same pace, and the same starting point, regardless of their individual needs or aspirations. What if there was a model that allowed Kyle to approach the essentials from the context of what he has an aptitude for and already excels at? How differently might his mind take hold of those ideas? How much more confidence in himself might he have? How differently might he be treated by his peers?

Albert Einstein is credited with saying, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."

I don't have the answer to this dilemma. Our schools are filled with hard-working men and women dedicated to their students and the idea that education is the great equalizer and door to opportunity. I honor them, especially right now as they struggle with doing their job in the midst of a global pandemic.

I wonder how different education might be if we altered the model itself, if we encouraged innovation in the education space by allowing entrepreneurs to create radically different, market-driven approaches for different children and allowed educators much more freedom and leeway to tailor learning to the aptitudes of their students. There are many hurdles and sacred cows that would have to be addressed.

But I think of Kyle and other children I know and I believe it would be worth it.

Thanks to my friend and educator, Anya, with whom I shared this story and who encouraged me to share it.

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