When Benjamin Bloom studied his 120 world-class concert pianists, sculptors, swimmers, tennis players, mathematicians, and research neurologists, he found something fascinating. For most of them, their first teachers were incredibly warm and accepting. Not that they set low standards. Not at all, but they created an atmosphere of trust, not judgment. It was, “I’m going to teach you,” not “I’m going to judge your talent.” As you look at what Collins and Esquith demanded of their students—all their students—it’s almost shocking. When Collins expanded her school to include young children, she required that every four-year-old who started in September be reading by Christmas. And they all were. The three- and four-year-olds used a vocabulary book titled Vocabulary for the High School Student. The seven-year-olds were reading The Wall Street Journal. For older children, a discussion of Plato’s Republic led to discussions of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Machiavelli, and the Chicago city council. Her reading list for the late-grade-school children included The Complete Plays of Anton Chekhov, Physics Through Experiment, and The Canterbury Tales. Oh, and always Shakespeare. Even the boys who picked their teeth with switchblades, she says, loved Shakespeare and always begged for more. Yet Collins maintained an extremely nurturing atmosphere. A very strict and disciplined one, but a loving one. Realizing that her students were coming from teachers who made a career of telling them what was wrong with them, she quickly made known her complete commitment to them as her students and as people. Esquith bemoans the lowering of standards. Recently, he tells us, his school celebrated reading scores that were twenty points below the national average. Why? Because they were a point or two higher than the year before. “Maybe it’s important to look for the good and be optimistic,” he says, “but delusion is not the answer. Those who celebrate failure will not be around to help today’s students celebrate their jobs flipping burgers.… Someone has to tell children if they are behind, and lay out a plan of attack to help them catch up.” All of his fifth graders master a reading list that includes Of Mice and Men, Native Son, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, The Joy Luck Club, The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Separate Peace. Every one of his sixth graders passes an algebra final that would reduce most eighth and ninth graders to tears. But again, all is achieved in an atmosphere of affection and deep personal commitment to every student. “Challenge and nurture” describes DeLay’s approach, too. One of her former students expresses it this way: “That is part of Miss DeLay’s genius—to put people in the frame of mind where they can do their best.… Very few teachers can actually get you to your ultimate potential. Miss DeLay has that gift. She challenges you at the same time that you feel you are being nurtured.
Carol S. Dweck (Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success)