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Albert Einstein

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“Human beings cannot live below their level of capacity without disturbance. You may call it a matter of conscience; for conscience is the instinct of self-preservation applied to the mind.”

– Toward a Psychology of Art: Collected EssaysBy Rudolf Arnheim

During an interview with one of my prospective students last month, I asked him to tell me about his favorite subject in school. “History!” he exclaimed. I followed up, and asked him to tell me why history was his favorite. The response from this insightful 8-year-old was, “Because I think it is interesting to see when we have learned from the past, and all of the times that we have not.” This wisdom is certainly something to consider as we realize that much of what works for our gifted learners is something that can be uncovered, rather than discovered.

In his book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson referred to Albert Einstein as “The patron saint of distracted school kids everywhere.” A few years ago, in a Los Angeles Times article, he went on to explain how many traits of the young Einstein in academia, like his being a slow reader, have caused much speculation over the years about how one of our world’s most famous brainiacs may have struggled with a developmental disorder. Of course, those of us in the land of twice-exceptional children find this conclusion perfectly natural.

Einstein struggled in school like many gifted kids. From an early age, he was quite frustrated by the rigid discipline imposed upon him and throughout the course of his speckled educational career, his rejection of what he came to expect from “school” as an institution grew. Later in life he stated, “The worst thing seems for a school principally to work with methods of fear, force and artificial authority. Such treatment destroys the healthy feelings, the integrity and self-confidence of the pupils. All that it produces is a servile helot.” Perhaps the only positive result from the majority of Einstein’s formal educational career was the development of a sense of skepticism and the willingness to challenge existing notions.

While most people are aware that Einstein had a troubled early educational career, many people do not know that he did, in fact, have a school experience toward which he felt fondly. This took place at Aurau where the school instructional philosophy was based on the teachings of educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi who felt it was important to appreciate the “inner dignity” of each child.

Pestalozzi began his quest to improve education out of a concern for the social conditions that existed during the late 1700’s and he strived to establish equal opportunity through education. He believed that the resources necessary when obtaining an education were within the reach of every individual, as they exist in the natural world, which surrounds all of us. His philosophy supported achievement of balance in life and a belief that individuals should focus on their minds, bodies and souls equally and with regards to instruction.

In the classroom, Pestalozzi promoted hands-on activities and experimentation, along with keen observation and reflection. He opposed methodical lessons and a focus on “correctness,” which had been traditional in curriculum. Overall, he firmly believed that children should be free to learn through experience, both socially and through their activities. He believed that the acceptance of children and their individual natures encourages self-confidence, allowing them to feel secure enough to explore and develop their own education and ideas about the world. Similar to Montessori in some ways, his goal was to develop a learning process in which students make observations, reason independently and arrive at their own conclusions based on personal experiences, both cognitive and physical. His understanding was that through these experiences students develop personal responsibility as opposed to responsibility toward the expectations of others. This was in place of the traditional process of education which existed at the time which he felt planted the thoughts and habits of others in the minds of children, thus stifling their individuality altogether.

It was at Aurau, while under the umbrella of Pestalozzi’s philosophies, that Einstein is thought to have developed his first genius visualization of the speed of light and it has been said that Einstein truly enjoyed his learning experience there. That is powerful, given that he was a young man who had grown to detest school and who many assumed would amount to nothing.

So, what can we learn from young Einstein, and the past?

  • Our most challenging children are often the most brilliant.
  • Skepticism and the willingness to challenge existing notions may be signs of genius.
  • The most important tool for effective instruction is making sure that students know that they are respected and cared for as individuals.
  • The potential of our young learners is an extension of their individuality, not their ability to conform to the thought framework of others. An authoritarian, fear based environment is damaging/does not support success.
  • As individual confidence increases through successful independent experiences, so does intrinsic motivation toward learning as well as the desire to develop personal responsibility.

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