Schools that nurture individual greatness

Wednesday , August 13, 2014 - 12:00 AM

Guest commentary

In a few days another school year will be upon us. Will it be business as usual? Utah has a subject-centered system that tries to standardize and make students fit a predetermined curriculum. Would you rather have a system that aims to develop the unique, unlimited potential of each student?

Consider the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained and only he knows the key to his own secret.”

If Emerson’s words are true, then who should choose what each child should know and be able to do? In a compulsory, subject-centered system, “experts” decide what all students are supposed to know and be able to do at grade-level check points. The subject matter content is chosen before the student ever enters the classroom.

In contrast to this is a student-centered system wherein the subjects are chosen “after” the teacher learns who the students are and what they can do.

The main focus in student-centered teaching is students themselves. When I was an elementary school principal, the teachers held interviews with each child’s parents, soon after school started in the fall, to learn more about each student and form a partnership to help the child grow in three primary dimensions of human greatness: Identity, Inquiry and Interaction. A focus on Identity led us to have great respect for student uniqueness and the importance of magnifying individuality.

This led to a discovery that makes the big difference between student-centered education and subject-centered education: When teachers and parents focus on the development of individual potential, subject matter content shifts from being the goal to that of serving as a means of helping students grow in the dimensions of human greatness. It becomes necessary that students have an unlimited number of choices of subjects to help them develop their unique talents and gifts.

It is an interesting paradox that students learn reading, writing and arithmetic better when they are not the main goals. Students learn basic skills when the development of curious inquiry is a primary focus. Children become voracious readers when they learn how to ask great questions and have time for sustained silent reading.

Some teachers help students gain inquiry power by inviting students to learn how to use question-starting words like: who, what, why, when, where, is, does, can, how, which, would, were, is, do, did, may, are, could, should, shall, have and will. One of the characteristics of student-centered education is for teachers and parents to build the power of asking important questions.

Using a variety of subjects as a tool to help students grow as individuals – rather than having a limited, pre-selected compulsory curriculum – makes a big difference. Tooling up for it is as easy as teachers talking with each student’s parents and forming a partnership. A day should be set aside for teachers to ask parents who their child is and how they can work together to help him or her grow as an individual with unique needs and potential.

After many years of refining student-centered education, four more dimensions of greatness have been added: Initiative, Imagination, Intuition and Integrity. Along with Identity, Inquiry and Interaction, they form a framework for redesigning education to meet the needs of individual students. When parents and teachers unite to help students grow in what we now call the seven “powers” of greatness, schools become more interesting, exciting and joyful.

Lynn Stoddard, a retired educator, is author of Educating for Human Greatness and numerous articles on student-centered learning. He can be emailed at

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