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?