I am currently visiting a school in Philadelphia and I was reminded of an old quote I first discovered years ago. It was published as part of a collection of quotations and adages in 1938 by Mary Pettibone Poole, in Philadelphia.
“To repeat what others have said, requires education;
to challenge it, requires brains.”
Schools have changed a lot in the 89 years since Poole made her remark but much remains the same. Educators must still teach key, foundational knowledge to students – this is the bedrock of wisdom. But the best educators are even more interested in using knowledge as a catalyst to inspire their students to ask interesting and important questions and to solve interesting, meaningful, challenging problems.
This is where really powerful learning begins.
If you look back into human history and pull a list of the greatest teachers of all time, you’ll probably end up with names including:
- Anne Sullivan (teacher of Helen Keller)
- Maria Montessori (of discovery learning fame)
- John Locke (philosophy of character first and academics later)
- Jaime Escalante (known for his work teaching maths to troubled students in Los Angeles.)
- Albert Einstein
- Marva Collins
- Madenjit Singh (educating the poor in Cambodia)
What is it that makes these educators particularly brilliant? Partly, it’s fate. In each of the above cases, there were factors that assembled to create an opportunity for great impact. But it’s much more than that.
Whilst this is a very diverse list of people from different times and cultures, they share two fundamental similarities.
First, all of them were, to some degree, controversial in their time because they saw a different way. They bent rules and harnessed disruption and innovation as a source of energy. And this energy helped light a previously unseeable pathway ahead. Escalante taught ‘unteachable’ kids to succeed. Montessori challenged entrenched norms about teaching and, in the process, revolutionised primary education. Collins opened a ‘school’ for impoverished youth on the second floor of her own Chicago home.
Second, all of these great teachers knew that education, ultimately, is not about literacy and numeracy but, rather, about sculpting the character and lives of their students. They possessed a deep sense of purpose – of wanting to contribute to making the world a better place. And, in all cases, this fuelled heightened emotional engagement and deep passion in their students.
First, innovation & hope. Second, inspiration.
Therein is a lesson for all educators.
I had the privilege today of attending a welcoming of the Irish Special Olympic Team to Dubai in readiness for the upcoming Games. I was reflecting on why I came away from the event feeling so inspired. And I think it comes down to witnessing a very raw, unadulterated version of the human spirit.
Under the UAE’s National Policy for Empowering People with Special Needs, people with special needs or disabilities are referred to as ‘people of determination’. I love that. These fellow people face obstacles that I could never truly understand – and yet they achieve and succeed anyway. They know their goal is going to be an immense challenge and so they just dig deeper.
There is nothing more inspiring than that.
All of this made me wonder: if our primary goal as educators is to genuinely inspire our students, how often did I role-model struggle? How often did I allow my students ‘behind the curtain’ to see obstacles I was battling? How often was my determination really on show?
In a way, the Special Olympics are a window into some of the most beautiful and fundamental elements of our humanity. When we’re willing to open our hearts, we see that we share so much in common. And it reminds us that, whilst we each carry the burden of our own personal challenges and battles, we are blessed as a species with an incredible depth of spirit fuelled by determination and hope.