A recent issue of Time magazine launched the new “Kid of the Year” recognition. Along with this year’s selection of Gitanjali Rao, the magazine profiled four other young people whose accomplishments, imagination, and engagement in life are impressive. As I read about them, I couldn’t help imagining them among the thousands of other students I have known as a high school teacher and administrator. These five students illustrate the potential in all young people and make me wonder why more never achieve what these five did.

Last week, a student reminded me: “I am someone who relies a lot on being given strict guidelines to follow,” Sarah said. “I can knock out an analytic or research paper and get good grades. But when I have to rely on my own mind, nothing comes to me.” Her observation resonates with my experiences in schools. Schools are really good at strict guidelines — the graduation requirements, course loads, schedules, assignments, right and wrong answers.

I recall vividly the moment when I was a junior in high school and had the same sort of epiphany as Sarah. I loved sciences and had decided to major in chemistry in college. But during that spring, I realized that I could not think like a scientist. I wasn’t a creative thinker, couldn’t formulate a hypothesis, couldn’t design an experiment. I could memorize just about anything, and in a system that equated learning with remembering stuff, I was rewarded with excellent grades and high scores on standardized tests. One afternoon, I met with my science teacher and explained my discovery. He looked at me quizzically, head tilted slightly to the right, as though he were studying a new life form, and said, “Don’t be silly. You’ll do fine.”

Seems as though nothing much has changed in the 60 years between my school days and Sarah’s. Despite some scattered exceptions, schools simply are not designed to foster independence or deep engagement. Their design is more likely to produce obedience and dependency than divergent, creative thinking. Students are expected to care about and learn things that matter to adults. Adults ask the questions; students memorize the answers. Students also learn to parrot the thoughts and follow the steps to solutions that their teachers expect. The behaviors and results are baked into the model itself. I am not blaming teachers. In fact, I adored my science teacher; he kindled my love of science. And Sarah likes her teachers. The point is that everyone — students, teachers, administrators — is a prisoner of this system, imaginations chained to the wall.

Teachers, too, lament their students’ inability to think. Eric, for example, described his frustration: “When I tell my advanced photo students, juniors and seniors in high school, that for a whole semester they will be working on a project driven by their own interests, I mostly get I’m-not-sure-what-to-do looks. They have so little opportunity to think this way that they are not  in touch with what they are curious about.”

School doesn’t have to be this way. Most teachers are like Eric — eager to inspire and help all their students become Kids of the Year. School mission statements promise to instill creativity and independent thinking and talk about the importance of social-emotional learning and differentiated instruction, yet existing policies and structures tend to work against these goals in their homogenized, one-size-fits-all rigidity: the same graduation requirements for all students, the same course loads, the same schedules, the same assessments and standardized tests, the same expectations for everyone — all determined by adults.

Recently, I read an appeal on a community chat from an administrator. She observed that many ninth-graders were struggling in their required physics class: “I’m seeking research to support offering physics in upper-class grades. Alternatively, if any of your schools offer exceptions to students taking physics during a required year, what criteria are used?” Educators no longer even trust their own observations. This administrator can see that many ninth-graders are not ready for physics, but in order to change the system, she seeks research to support what she already knows to be true. She must provide data to convince others to loose the bonds of tradition. If the research doesn’t exist, her next strategy is to find a policy that might allow individual exemptions. Why an exemption? Why not change the policy? Why not imagine schools that give educators and students the freedom to develop rigorous, individualized programs of study based on students’ interests and genuine questions — a system that actually nurtures motivation, independent thinking, and self-reliance?

Hopeful Insights

If research has shown us anything over the last 20 years, the most hopeful insights are those into how people actually learn. Antonio Damasio (University of Southern California) writes, “Emotion is the rudder for thought,” and his colleague Mary Helen Immordino-Yang writes, “We think in the service of emotional goals.” She goes on to say, “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about.” If the disruption caused by Covid has taught us anything, it’s that strong individual motivation is essential for meaningful, deep engagement in learning. The time seems right for educators to take the lessons from neuroscientists and Covid to heart. Hope lies not in “returning to normal” but in clearing away the rubble and building exciting new schools.

The question isn’t whether physics should be required for ninth-graders or seniors. The question is, how do we create schools that provide students sufficient time during each day to pursue interests and questions that matter to them? How do we create schools that promote deep, original thinking? Once educators have figured that out, they are likely to discover very different answers to the questions of whether and how physics might fit into any given student’s program of study.

Sarah and her peers have the same potential as Time‘s kids of the year. They deserve schools designed to develop that potential. They deserve schools structured to, as Gitanjali Rao says, “Find that one thing you are passionate about and solve it.” Let’s create schools that enable them to rely on their own mind.