The Ability Paradigm

Posted by on Nov 12, 2008

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a professional baseball pitcher more than anything in the world.  I’d go outside and throw a tennis ball against my front steps and play every ricochet as if it were a batted ball.  I’d write out a lineup of the Cubs vs. whomever they happened to be playing that day, and I’d play out a full nine inning game.  I even recorded the stats for every player.  If it rained out, I’d wad up a pair of socks and hit them around my front porch with a wiffle ball bat – still keeping copious stats.  Now that I think of it, this is the first time I’ve ever admitted this in public.  I imagine my wife has never been prouder of me.

When I got older, I graduated on to pickup games at the schoolyard near my house.  I played little league, high school, and eventually college baseball.  I worked as hard as I could, and I always kept the goal of becoming a professional front and center in my mind.  I worked out six days a week (wish all that work was evidenced a bit more obviously now days), and I went to pitching lessons in the offseasons.  I knew what I wanted, and I worked with every bit of who I was to get there.  There was only one problem.  I wasn’t good enough.

I always had visions of throwing a baseball 95 miles per hour, but despite all my concerted efforts, I never managed to break 82 on the radar gun.  I just didn’t have the physical ability to do so.  I could have tried harder, I guess, but I’m not sure there was much more with which to try.  I could have gone to more clinics, lifted more weights, done more drills, ran more miles, or even watched more tape, but in the end, I don’t think it would have made a difference.  My body just wasn’t made to throw as hard as I wanted it to.

I believe there’s something very significant here.  We all have obvious physical limitations.  When we look at kids today, it would be absurd to expect them all to perform the same on any given physical task.  Think of what would happen if we said that every kid in 8th grade had to run a 6 minute mile.  Or that every 5th grader had to be able to do 25 pull-ups.  Or even 5 pull-ups.  It would be absurd.  Now think of the obvious parallel to learning.

Why is it when it comes to learning that we expect every kid to be able to perform at the same level?  When will we realize that kids are just as different mentally one from another as they are physically?  Not all kids can think at 95 miles per hour.

I know some people will disagree with me.  There are those who think all kids have the capacity to pass all of our given standards on performance assessments, but think about how fundamentally wrong that is.  If all kids can pass the standard, then what kind of rigor is built into the standard?  It would be an obvious sign that our expectations were too low as there would be at least 25% of the students who wouldn’t even have to try to achieve passable marks.  Conversely, if the standard was more rigorous and required much more effort of the students, there would be a percentage of the population who couldn’t possibly achieve passable marks.  It’s an indefensible notion to think that we can build tests that are appropriately difficult for all students and that all students can potentially meet the standard.

Some would say that I’m advocating for lower expectations for our kids.  I would counter just the opposite.  I expect every student in our world has the potential to achieve and perform at the very best of his or her abilities.  That he or she can apply all of his or her skills and thinking to any problem at any time.  To me, that is the absolute highest expectation there is.

If my goal in playing baseball had really and completely been to throw 95 miles per hour, I would have been a complete failure.  I would never have measured up, and I would have grown to resent the game.  Instead, I gave every bit of what I had, and I just enjoyed playing the game.  I believe we need to be very wary of setting up expectations that all students should be expected to perform and strive for the same goals.  If we do, too many students will think themselves complete failures, and they will grow to resent learning.  Instead, I think we need to let kids give every bit of what they have and just enjoy the process of learning.

Thanks to Anne Ruthmann for the Flickr image.


  1. Brendan
    November 13, 2008

    Nice analogy,

    I sometimes wonder if NCLB is trying to set a bottom standard that 80% of students should cross without thinking and 100% of students can pass with help or if they are setting a true standards. In which case around 20% of students should fail to meet those standards in a given test cycle.
    Is it a case of T-ball where everyone gets to bat and no one keeps score or is it real competition with winners and losers?

  2. Ira Socol
    November 30, 2008

    This is the problem with our entire structure of education – the very nature of ranking students, of measuring all against a single standard, is a belief system based in Calvinism and Mercantilism (market Capitalism) which has nothing to do with humanity or human potential. No, no one can “grow up to be whatever they want to be.” (I usually illustrate this by saying that no matter what I do, I’ll never be able to reach the top shelves in the market without some “assistive technology” – like a ladder, a grabber, or climbing on the lower shelves). Humans are not born the same, and they can not follow the same paths even if they are to end up in the same place.

    School is about two ideas – one is conversion – the changing students from who they are into who we want them to be. The other is industrial processing, the repeated stamping of students to change them into the product we need them to be. In both cases failure is the student’s fault – they are insufficiently holy (Calvinism, destined for Hell), or they are flawed raw materials (Industrialism, unsuited for the manufacturing process).

    The idea that people would find pleasure in their own capabilities, in the way your post concludes, is antithetical to both of these purposes of school.

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  6. Horikov
    March 5, 2012

    Об инвестировании в ПИФЫ и Акции простыми словами. – инвестирование


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