Tag Archives: Grades

The Palace of Discovery

IMG_6968Days of Discovery – Monterey Bay Aquarium

“The Palace of Knowledge is different than the Palace of Discovery.” Mary Oliver

As students go back to school, and even at very young ages experience the mounting pressure of being judged on their “knowledge” it is important for both parents and teachers to think about what knowledge truly is, and whether or not it can be tested, bell curved, and graded. Is knowledge acquiring a perfect score of 100%? If one’s intellect can be confirmed as superior by A grades, by being able to re-state exactly what has been told to us, students might as well be on a conveyor belt that boxes up perfectly educated children and spits out discards, those who just won’t fit in that box, misfits whose report cards generally fall into the standard deviant, below average range.

I recently had the experience of watching a dedicated team of staff divers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Days of Discovery spend hours in the water with several groups of children… Children whose disabilities and special needs ranged in varying degrees of severity, those with cognitive impairments such as Down Syndrome and autism, others with physical restraints, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, cerebral palsy…
These children, some of whom are paralyzed and others whose own minds keep them bound, were, for a short time released… floating freely in the bounty of the Aquarium’s Tide Pool, discovering the startling cool water, the clamminess of kelp, and the delicate whorl of the tidal snail.

Watching their alert faces and expressions of joy there is no doubt that they were learning, but were we to test them on their experience how would they fare? Can a child’s mind be evaluated on the intricate neural connections that are made by the scent of the sea, the spikiness of a sea star, or the ability to trust a smiling stranger in a scuba mask? Can what the heart discovers be graded? I would not want to be the one who has to decide such a complex and intimate attainment.
Regardless of age and regardless of subject, the more that we can impart the glory and the wonder of the world to students, the more they will learn. Learning is not static. Information continuously flows from one synapse to another creating patterns of recognition and understanding that build knowledge. It cannot be forced or coerced into being. It cannot be accurately labeled as above or below average.

What can educators learn from the children that participated in the Days of Discovery program? That all children have special needs, wants that are so well hidden we often can’t recognize them. Champion the child that doesn’t fit into a standardized mold. Trust that knowledge is being imparted in different ways to each child and, knowing this, to offer a variety of ways to learn.

Brilliance is often overlooked because it is defined by creativity which cannot truly be measured. Be wary of putting to much emphasis on testing, for children will universally shut down if they are shamed by poor grades. I witnessed a child at my local library the week that school began put her head down and cry twice within a half hour over homework, her mother becoming increasingly impatient and irritated with her as she erased her answers again and again. Ask yourself what will be learned from this experience.

There has to be a better way to teach in which students are seen as explorers, encouraged to float freely in this odd and beautiful world – where knowledge is not judged by quarterly report cards, but in the soul, a sacred and individual palace of discovery.


young scientistMichael Esgro 1991 – Volunteer D.O.D. Scuba Diver – Lifetime Explorer



The Power of “I Don’t Know”

photo (1)



It is difficult not to idealize our children, and in fact, unconditional love promotes security and self esteem. We believe that our child will move mountains. But expecting too much from children can be unrealistic and detrimental. When we proudly display only A+ papers and gush over accomplishments, we set our child on a pedestal, a lonely and uncomfortable perch. Our love becomes conditional in the child’s mind and she believes that she will not be valued unless she consistently performs well.

Expecting to see disappointment in a parent’s face at a less than stellar grade, a child may feel shame and try to hide what he perceives to be a failure by making excuses, “It was the teacher’s fault.” “The room was too noisy.” “The boy next to me was talking.” The wish to bask in the limelight of being superior is tempting. Awards bolster this position and second or third place becomes not good enough. This begins, in the young student, a process of over functioning – dysfunctioning by another name.

An extolled child is not allowed to be forgetful, messy or dreamy. Being gifted carries the weight of the gift. Adults ask what the child wants to be when he grows up and act less than satisfied if the answer isn’t in the PhD range. After a time a child will internalize this search for the Holy Grail of Harvard, and self doubt will grow as he wonders, as anyone might, if he is up to the task, and if not, is he still special?

It is difficult for a child labeled as exceptional to say “I don’t know.” yet this simple sentence is a powerful knock on the door of knowledge. Saying “I don’t know.” allows the child to take off the genius mask and just be herself. It gives her room to realize her own limitations, to accept having them, and to gain self-respect by bounding beyond them. “I don’t know.” is one of the most intelligent sentences anyone can utter. It drives scientific discovery, exploration, innovation, insight, and creativity.

“I am always doing what I cannot do, in order to learn how to do it.” Pablo Picasso

No one likes a “know it all” because we sense how false this stance is, how ego driven. Admitting our ignorance of a particular subject makes us vulnerable, in the best of ways. It opens us up to ideas, new ways of seeing, epiphanies! and it takes courage. Thinking one “knows already” can lead to a shutting out of other’s opinions – a form of narrow mindedness and prejudice that is unhealthy, unadvised, and not something we wish to instill in our children.

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.” Leonardo da Vinci

When children ask questions it shows that they are listening and thinking. It is important to take every question seriously, even if it seems silly. In doing so we show by our attitude that not knowing, and seeking out answers, is as honorable as any gold plated trophy. As tempting as it is to Google answers to inquiries, use curiosity to instill a respect and appreciation of books. Let questions lead directly to the local library, where, whatever the subject, from worms to shooting stars, dozens of books are available to take home. Let your children know that you don’t judge intelligence by grades, that a lower score is not a stigma but an opportunity, and an important part of how everyone learns. It is how one handles mistakes that defines one, not the errors themselves.

“…if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.” Neil Gaiman

Knowledge is not only a cognitive pursuit. It is an emotional and spiritual one as well, that thrives in an atmosphere of freedom. Your child may well be bright, but let him embrace enigmatical darkness, it is often by candlelight that the most profound truths are revealed.