Room to Grow: Allowing Children to Become Experts

We spent some time at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture recently. I am always amazed and inspired by experts in any field who endlessly dive deeply into a subject, with love, passion, and purpose, unveiling important discoveries and sharing perspective-changing experiences. Today was no exception; I was awestruck by everything from geological diversity to masterful playing of ancient instruments. But I was also saddened, mourning the many genius discoveries that we miss out on because of our nation’s approach to education.

One of the ideals I set out to pursue in my work in educational leadership was deeper learning rather than broad, surface-level learning. I wanted to allow children, yes, even young children, to become experts who could know a field deeply and share their learning with others. It works! Kids love it; adults are awestruck by the amazing young brains that know more than the adults on their topic. But it doesn’t work…because we also want kids to know a little bit about a lot…and in the process we slowly suffocate that inner curiosity of so many students because they are not curious about the “right” things, the things our nation has deemed necessary for every single little human being to know. Don’t get me wrong – I understand that every little human being should learn to read and write and calculate simple equations because these are skills needed for a comfortable standard of living in modern society. But what diseases have we not conquered? What life-saving technology do we not yet have? What international miscommunication persists? All because so many young minds have checked out for lack of interest in this broad knowledge and skills base we insist every little human must muscle through and conquer regardless of strengths, weaknesses, interests, and passions.

Some say we shouldn’t limit young children by allowing them to become fully absorbed in one interest.   Oh, friends, but this isn’t limiting them. Interests and passions ebb and flow. Many adults change careers multiple times. To learn to think deeply, commit to a course of study, and become an expert is a gift. Why do you think the phrases “geeking out” and “what do you geek” are trending? Because everyone enjoys pursuing an interest deeply, no matter how fleeting the interest or temporary the season! And have you read the studies about prior knowledge, reading levels, and domain specific vocabularies?   Research indicates that children who are well versed in a topic will demonstrate higher levels of proficiency reading complex texts and higher levels of content recall when reading about that topic. This means allowing students to become experts in something they love increases their reading skills. For more information on the idea that knowing a subject deeply increases one’s ability to interact with complex texts, check out Effect of Prior Knowledge on Good and Poor Readers’ Memory of Text by Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie or The Challenge of Advanced Texts: The Interdependence of Reading and Learning by Marilyn Jagger Adams.

I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not sure how to accomplish this in mass through public education, but I dream of participating in a society committed to getting there. I want legislators, educators, and industry leaders to commit to working together to empower our youngest citizens to become experts rather than generalists, to pursue becoming experts in things that interest them, and in so doing, to unleash the power of the many young citizens that society has limited by trying to make them masters of everything instead of allowing them to become world-changing experts at something that ignites the fire of learning within them.

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