Why is exceptional work treated as such an exception?

My daughter Kate, of whom I am incredibly proud, took part this morning in the 2008 Tournament of Minds. She was part of her school’s entry into the annual event, which is run as an activity for the kids in the school’s gifted and talented program.

The performance by the students was quite amazing.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Tournament of Minds event, the students are given a scenario to which they must respond.  This response is typically done in the form of a dramatic stageplay, but getting to the point of performing that stage play requires a huge amount of cross curricula learning to take place.  There is lots of behind the scenes research, teamwork, collaboration, literacy and creativity.  Teams must write, direct and produce the act, create all the props, and meet strict guidelines as to allowed times, materials and so on.

The scenario this year was that a famous author (chosen from a list of possible authors) had lost their memory. To try and reinstate the author’s memory they had to be visited by at least 5 of their more memorable characters.  Kate’s group chose Shakespeare.  So in the video below, you’ll see an amnesic William Shakespeare visited by Romeo and Juliet, Puck, Hamlet, Macbeth and Helena, who all do their best to bring back the Bard’s memory of himself and his work.

Here’s the video of the piece…  it’s about 8 minutes and the sound is sometimes a little soft, but is, I think, worth watching.

I think you’ll agree that the performance done by the students was clever, funny, insightful and creative.

These are students in Years 7 to 9 (ages 12 to 15) and what impresses me most is the fact that the study of Shakespeare does not typically take place in these years.  So, apart from a basic cursory knowledge of Shakespeare, these students pieced together this play, taking excerpts from a number of different plays and characters and combining them into a collective piece that I think works very well.  Not only that, they have managed to string the rest of it together with original writing and dialog that is inventive, rhyming, poetic and witty, and completely in keeping with the sorts of language that Shakepeare himself might have used.  The students had several meetings in school time, and also self-organised a Saturday to get together and watch some Shakespeare videos so they understood a little more about the characters and themes they ought to be tapping into.

Add to that the way they have written, memorised and performed the final piece, and I think you’d have to agree that it’s a pretty exceptional piece of work.  (And I say that not just because my daughter was in it… but she was the one playing Romeo in case you were wondering.)

But here’s the real question… why is this sort of thing the exception, and not the rule? Why do these sorts of activities only seem to exist in schools in the form of programs that take kids away from “normal lessons” so they can participate?  Surely, the sorts of skills and learning that take place in these kinds of activities are valuable on so many fronts that EVERY student could benefit from them, not just the so-called elite few that get chosen for gifted and talented programs?  While a handful of kids are withdrawn from regular classes to do things that are genuinely rich, cross-curricula, multi-literate learning experiences, the majority of kids stay in class and get bored to tears with textbooks and worksheets and subject-based teaching.  Where is the logic here?

If you look at all the truly great things that schools do with kids, so many of them are run outside the realm of regular “school”.  The things we do in “class” are so often the mundane, predictable and regimented stuff.  The really interesting stuff, the stuff that kids look back on and remember, the stuff that often defines who kids grow into in later life, is all this “other” stuff that is too often classed as “extra curricula”.  Dramatic performances, musicals, sporting events, art shows, fundraising events, computer programming competitions, online collaborative projects, and so on… why do schools consistently manage to treat the really interesting stuff as the added extras, rather than accepting that this is where so much of the truly valuable learning takes place.

The term “extra curricula” translates literally as “beyond school”.  How come our kids manage to do such amazingly great things, not because of school, but in spite of it?

When will we rethink school so that exceptional work stops being the exception, and instead become the rule?

CC BY-SA 4.0 Why is exceptional work treated as such an exception? by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

5 Replies to “Why is exceptional work treated as such an exception?”

  1. Chris, simply that many parents have figured out if you are going to leave education to teachers, then you will get what you get. It needs teacher buy in, and as we know, teachers are interested in ‘how many hours am I on class’ – how much time will I get off class if I do this – and if the answer is zero – then they want to know how much time the next person is putting into the extras – so they are doing about the same.

    Forget the teachers, just work with the kids – they actually appreciate it. If you feed pigeons, they just keep returning to crap on your window sill.

  2. This is such a simple idea yet it has enabled children to produce some exceptional work. The more we, (as educators who are always looking for ways to inspire, encourage and actively support students and their learning) share these examples of excellent practise, the more likely it will be that our children will benefit by being classrooms that aren’t using worksheets or textbooks to learn stuff.

    I now intend to use this idea (in a much simpler form)to allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of a character when we finish our next literacy Character Study.

    I’m certainly not interested in how much time I will get off if I do something outside of the class and there are a lot of teachers out there who are always looking for ways make the mundane, predictable but ever-so-necessary stuff, fun inside the classroom.

  3. I think the problem runs deeper than unmotivated teachers. If teachers were allowed to have greater control over the curriculum and material they teach, I think we would see more creative expression in the realm of teaching. This day and age, we are so focused on accountability that we stifle otherwise creative individuals from doing their jobs.

    Any reasonable person can see that the exercise in this post is a highly valuable academic pursuit. But politicians and administrators want the academic value quantified, analyzed and justified until it is such a chore that it is easier to stick to the most basic curriculum plans.

    Free the teachers from administrative drudgery, and you will see more creativity in the classrooms. I agree we should have accountability, but the bulk of this accountability should happen upon entry into the profession. I think it should be harder to become a teacher. I think we should have professional standards that really mean something when we become teachers.

    Can you imagine what it would be like if a doctor had to justify to some higher authority every decision they made while practicing their profession? “I am writing this antibiotic prescription because recent research indicates a 95% probability of curing this type of infection.”

    I don’t know about you, but if the doctor gives me something for an ailment and it works, I don’t go back to see them so they can document my PHO’s (Patient Healing Outcomes). We ask teachers to do that sort of thing all of the time rather than implicitly trusting that they will do what is best for their students in their professional opinion. Part of the trouble is that teachers do not undergo the rigorous culling process that other professional fields tend to do, so we do get plenty in our profession making poor choices.

  4. Thanks Chris,

    A couple of things: We need teachers who are brave enough to take the risks in mainstream classrooms to forego content teaching and have students engage in the types of activities as described above. It’s clear that students will learn the content anyway…

    Then we also need students who are able to cope with the challenge of the activity. I’ve met too many who just want to ‘do the book’. We need to encourage them to take the risks as well. Getting them outside that comfort zone, stretching their ideas on what learning might be and supporting them if they don’t quite hit the mark.

    … as Bill suggests, there also needs to be whole school support. The mind boggles if we could get it to work!

  5. Hi All,

    My 2 daughters, now in there 20s used to love ATOM, it was one of their favourite things at school and they did quite well in it. I also aw some amazing performances in the finals.

    I remember a sleepover when I could hear the girls talking and they were discussing how boring school was.

    “Why can’t it be like Tournament of the Minds” one of them said.

    A point about ATOM is that the teachers role is strictly controlled and defined as a facilitator and the team can get kicked out if the teacher does more than that. The teacher needs to commit a lot of time but is not allowed to take control.

    I always found that part especially interesting.


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