(Just as former President Carter once confessed, this author probably has as many dreams about inappropriate affairs with young women as any other man. But what follows was a nightmare that perhaps only an old teacher might have.)
As I gradually regained consciousness after a night's sleep, the fate of a small patch of weeds nagged on my mind. In the dream a small garden had been growing up against the back of the school gymnasium, out of sight from most who pass by the school. Now it had been mowed down and replanted into lawn. The new school administration thought that uniform grass would look better and be easier to maintain. And the new science teacher was too busy trying to get all students to achieve the national science standards to ask about the foibles of the former science teacher.
Had the new teacher asked, that teacher might have heard that the taller clump by the gym was suitable for making reeds for musical instruments. But the clump is gone now, so that option had vanished. The original package of seed, planted long ago, had provided another inexpensive trick used to hook a few students into a life long interest in science. Of course kids don't all show the same interests. So the challenge was to find activities which would motivate their own unique study of some aspect of the universe. Once hooked, students were generally much more eager to learn all related science and seldom ever created discipline problems. A student or two might be intrigued how to make a reed instrument, how the sound is generated, and all the various parameters which effect the quality of sound. While experimenting to gain some of the answers using the same techniques professional scientists do, the students would gain insights into the essential character and features of the science process often missed by those who just study science by textbook, worksheet, and teacher led sessions. The challenge for the old teacher was to gather a large enough repertoire of ideas, topics and needed resources so every young student mind would find something of personal interest to investigate.
For an older generation before home computers or even color television, it wasn't unusual to get a small chemistry set for a birthday present from a distant aunt, or an electric train set from dad. As I laid there in bed, I recalled as a child receiving a small package of miscellaneous items with an instruction booklet for magic tricks. While these may have been gifts chosen by relatives who didn't know my current sweater size, such gifts introduced me to fascinating aspects of the world. The sections of train tracks wouldn't stay together so I had to learn enough carpentry to mount them on a sheet of plywood conveniently supported atop saw horses. The empty patches of plywood beyond the tracks beckoned the construction of a model town and country side developing skills such as painting and gluing. And troubleshooting train operation problems taught about electricity and its control. Such interests developed at home or school generated a thirst for understanding about the world and techniques for solving problems with creative solutions.
But now with the national science standards, the no child left behind mantra, and the extensive standardized testing created by the nation's test writing industry, the new teacher finds little time to consider personalizing learning to inspire any unique student interests. In the national attempt to teach every child the same, basic science content outlined by the national standards, there is no class time left for diversity. And since so many of today's students find the required science dull and of little interest, it is a real challenge to get students to even learn the fundamental formulas and do the assigned problem sets. Often class time must be spent on those because many students refuse to complete assigned homework, and many who do just copy it from their classmates or former students who and the foresight to keep old work for younger brothers and sisters. Since very few teachers have developed any systematic ways to catch such cheating (bypassing the intended learning), such shared efforts are often the best way for grade conscious students and parents to reap the benefits of top grades.
The nightmare wasn't that the old clump of reeds was itself all that valuable. Its original cost was certainly small. The loss was the method of eduction which the reeds represented. A uniform standard education for all students may be impossible to achieve except in some watered down, trivial form. And it is unlikely that achieving such a uniform education, producing clones with identical experiences, understanding and skills, will be beneficial to either the individuals or the country. What is lost is the ideal that every person is an individual with an unique set of interests and abilities. In a world were no single person can excel at all understanding and all tasks, it seems like an educational system which develops each person as much as possible would be far superior to a system intent on reaching a national standard which all can achieve. The loss of such educational goals seems to be the real national nightmare!