I heard a story once that really resonated with me (I will share it as best as I can from memory), in where an artist is creating art on the street, and a person walks by and wants a picture drawn of themselves. The artist shares the price of fifty dollars to the patron, to which they agree, and so they start to draw. Ten minutes later, the artist completes the beautiful piece that is so amazingly creative. Even though the patron is very happy with the creativity and the high quality of the piece, they challenge the cost of fifty dollars, believing that something that took such a short time to create should not have the high price tag. The artist responded, it took me ten years to be able to do it in ten minutes; much of the work that I have done to be able to draw this picture so quickly, you have never seen.
This story really resonated with me as I was reading article after article tonight about the battle between the “basics” versus “innovation” in education. It seems that you may be on one side or the other, but here I lie in the middle. To be able to be innovative in any area, there often needs to be a fundamental understanding of basic concepts. To be a great musician, at some point, you would have had to learn some basic concepts of music. The speed that you may have learned them in can vary from person to person, but you learn them. The best writers in the world at some point learned how to read and write. There are always exceptions to the rule, and I am sure that the real life Matt Damon from the movie “Good Will Hunting” exists, but this is not the norm.
I believe that the “basics” in many areas are still important in our world, and maybe sometimes I guess that is an assumed notion. But I also think that many students didn’t learn the “basics” in the way they were taught when I went to school. I think about those students and then how we have access to so much information in our world from educators, parents, students, and communities, that the opportunities to help as many kids as possible is something that we need to access and capitalize upon. But I also think about my own experience in school, and even though in grades one to probably around grade seven, my marks were usually in the top three of all students in my classroom, yet I never felt smart enough because I wasn’t ever number one. Being ranked in school continuously led me to the Ricky Bobby belief that “if you’re not first, you’re last”, and I kind of mailed it in for the rest of the time as my student, was barely accepted in university, and struggled academically for years. I knew the basics but never really saw myself becoming anything. I never saw myself as a writer, a mathematician, a scientist, or anything academic. And do you know why I went to university? Because my parents made me go. Not because I had an epiphany when I was six years old that I was going to be a teacher and did everything to get to that point. My parents expected me to go to university so I did, and after four years of floating around, I then decided to go into education. I took six years to get a four year degree.
So why did I do well in my first years of school? To please my teachers.
Why did I get through university? To please my parents.
And why did I become a teacher? Because I didn’t really know what else to do.
At about the age of 31, was the first time I identified myself as an educator not by profession, but by passion. That took someone tapping into my strengths and interests, and helping me see those things in myself.
At about age 35 is when I first viewed myself as truly a learner. And now five years later, I am starting to see myself as a writer. In eighteen years of school as a student, writing paper after paper, I never once saw myself as a writer, but at the age of 35 where I felt I could finally explore my own passions, did I even start to really go deep into my own learning. And after almost 1000 posts am I starting to see myself as a writer. I am thankful that I have found a love for what I do, and I do not see it as a “job” but as part of my being. That is a beautiful thing.
Did my experience of school help me get here? Absolutely, and I am thankful to so many teachers who spent so much time helping me to create the opportunities that I have today. Without those “basics”, that were not only reinforced in my education, but also at home, amongst a myriad of other factors, I would not be doing what I am doing today. The question I have though is why didn’t I see myself as those things earlier? More importantly, as an educator, how do I help students see themselves in that light as well. Believe me, as someone who believes powerfully in the notion of “innovation in education”, I still cringe at spelling mistakes. I hate them. I would love kids to be able to know their times tables, not simply discount them as something a calculator will do for them. But here is the thing…You might know how to read and write, but that doesn’t make a you writer. If you are a writer though, you know how to read and write; that’s a given.
As I think about the next time someone challenges me with the question, “what about the basics?”, my thought is that there are so many educators that not only want that for our students, but so much more. My parents came to Canada not to provide the same opportunities that they had back in Greece, but to create something better. That is my drive as an educator; to create a better version of school than what I experienced. It is not that I think less of my own teachers as a student, but that I want to build on what they have done. My hope is that the future teachers of the world will not recreate what this generation has done, but make something so much better. Is that not our wish for each generation? To do better than what we have done?
What made the artist spend ten years to be able to draw the picture in ten minutes? It was not only practicing the basics, but at some point, they were inspired and saw themselves as an artist. Hopefully schools can be a part of that spark.