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One Alien’s Report on the Current State of Education on Earth

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I don’t know if you’ve heard the big news, but we’ve been recently visited by an alien. His name is Cretal, and he is from the planet Zoran. He was sent over to Earth to study humans and how they achieve personal contentment and happiness in life. Cretal arrived without any knowledge of the labels we put on people; all he saw before him were billions of individuals who differed in many ways. In case you haven’t already read his report on one of the other major news outlets, here are his primary findings.

Cretal’s Report

Cretal first did a systematic analysis of everyone on earth and discovered that humans vary on a large number of different dimensions. The number of dimensions filled over 400 pages of his notebook, but he starred some of the most reoccuring ones: verbal ability, mathematical ability, spatial ability, artistic ability, music ability, dance ability, acting ability, intellectual curiosity, imagination, introversion, extraversion, agreeableness, compassion, sensitivity, conscientiousness, neuroticism, emotional intelligence, passion, grit, self-regulation, mindset, communication skills, and leadership skills.

He conducted further analysis and found that at any single moment in time, every single human on Earth had a different combination of characteristics, with differing areas of strengths and weaknesses. Looking at human development, he found that every single characteristic was capable of significant change across the lifespan, with the development of each characteristic developing through a delicate interplay of nature and nurture that was inseparable at any moment in time.

Fascinated by the immense diversity among humans, Cretal quickly became overwhelmed and decided to divide his research up into the investigation of different human populations. He began with adults, and found that human adults tend to be interested in engaging in domains of achievement that are a good match to their strengths and interests, and satisfy their fundamental human needs for competence, autonomy, relatedness, and uniqueness.

When he looked at specific domains—including theatre, film, architecture, art, music, creative writing, mathematics, physics, biology, and psychology— he noticed a few things. First, it seemed as though each domain was characterized by a different set of characteristics that were important for publicity recognized success. For instance, human scientists seemed to be much more restrained and patient than human artists, who seemed to be much more spontaneous and interested in emotional expression and intuition. He was also struck by how much empathy and compassion was seen in the healing professions.

But Cretal was even more intrigued with all the variation he saw within in each domain. Every human seemed to bring to the table a different set of personal characteristics, and the top creators in any domain– those who fundamentally moved the field forward– appeared to have a unique signature of personal characteristics. When Cretal conducted a developmental analysis of how people ended up in different domains, he found multiple paths to the same outcome, with people mixing and matching their own unique set of personal characteristics in different ways. For instance, he noted a huge difference in vocal quality between Pavarotti and Bob Dylan, but also remarked in his notebook that both had achieved outstanding recognition in the musical performance domain.

At this point, Cretal was bursting at the seams to go back to planet Zoran and tell his fellow Zoranians about the diversity of characteristics and pathways to success among humans, especially since they were so skeptical that humans could be ingenious enough to obtain their personal goals through multiple routes. But Zoran had one more population to study before he could return: children. Zoran thought to himself, Surely, education prepares children for the realities of the adult world, appreciating individual passions and proclivities, and helping them get to where they want to go in their own way and at their own pace?

Cretal was shocked by what he actually found. While he noted there were some forms of education called “alternative education” that took into account the realities of human development, he couldn’t believe that the large majority of schools on Earth– particularly in the United States sector of Earth– had educational structures so opposed to human individuality. As he zoomed in on these restricted environments, he was aghast to see that everyone was grouped by such an arbitrary criteria as age and grade, were being forced to take the same standard curriculum, and were all being assessed in the same way.

Children who were learning too slowly or too quickly relative to their same-aged peers were placed in “special education” programs, either to help them develop the skills necessary to raise their standardized academic test performance, or accelerate their performance on these standardized tests. He was surprised to find out that many schools refused to even recognize that there were students who really could benefit from acceleration in academic domains, or could greatly utilize resources in non-academic domains (e.g., art, music, vocations, social entrepreneurship). What became clear to Cretal was that this state of affairs left many of the students who were ready and interested in engaging in more stimulating academic and non-academic material at any moment in time bored and unhappy.

But his big alien eyeballs almost exploded out of their sockets when he found out that students were hardly ever asked directly about their own personal needs, which made him wonder if schools based need entirely around their need for standardized test accountability. Not only were the social and emotional needs of the students rarely considered, but neither were their personal goals, dreams, and aspirations, or the many personal characteristics each student was bursting to express that could have been gifts in a much less restricted environment.

Incredibly confused, Cretal returned to his planet to report his perplexing findings. On the spaceship flight back home, he wrote up his report. His conclusion?

Humans are an advanced civilization all right: they are really advanced at limiting the incredible intellectual and innovative possibilities that exist in all of their inhabitants.

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

For more on intelligence and the many paths to greatness, see my forthcoming book “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined“, coming this summer from Basic Books.

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Moulton 4:00 pm 05/13/2013

    “Wonderful!” ~Barsoom Tork, Anthropologist from Mars

    See also the OCEANICAL Traits …

    “The Last Thing In the World”

    … and getting up a Full Head of STEAM …

    “Our Place In the Cosmos and the Role of STEM in the Advance of Civilization”

    This message is brought to you by Barsoom Tork, Anthropologist from Mars, who approved of this message.

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  2. 2. John A. 5:49 pm 05/13/2013

    Not only were the social and emotional needs of the students rarely considered, but neither were their personal goals, dreams, and aspirations, or the many personal characteristics each student was bursting to express that could have been gifts in a much less restricted environment.

    What does “social and emotional needs” refer to? Romance? Friendships? Family issues? Should schools be involved in such things? Goals? At least half of teenagers have no goals, other than to date that hot girl in math class. What “intellectual” “aspirations” do most schools not service? Math and science, sports, music, theater, history, reading and writing, all are covered in schools. What intellectual would not find something that they could enjoy? Students are forced to take classes they might not like, but is it a very good idea to tell every 6th grader who doesn’t totally love math that he doesn’t need to do it? Sure, everyone’s hobby isn’t individually taught, there is no class on how to build model airplanes, but that is because schools have a X-to-1 teacher-student ratio. There is, however, another institution that Cretal never mentioned. In this institution there are adults who are deeply dedicated to each child’s unique emotional and social needs, each student’s unique hobby, each student’s fears and aspirations. That institution is called the family.

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  3. 3. rshoff 8:38 pm 05/13/2013

    well… I really think an alien would see us as all the same. It would have difficulty differentiating between us. You see, I observe that we humans share an incredible commonality. The difference between the brightest and the dumbest of us is not that great at all. Especially when compared to this advanced species that can perceive us as intelligent at all.

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  4. 4. rshoff 8:40 pm 05/13/2013

    btw, I completely (as in absolutely) agree with John A’s comment. (sorry John, please don’t be offended!).

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  5. 5. marclevesque 6:55 pm 06/15/2013

    @John A.

    Creating an Environment for Emotional and Social Well-Being – An important responsibility of a Health-Promoting and Child Friendly School


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