How do you measure a human being?

I used to teach music lessons on the campus of an elite private school. The kids and parents tended to be a very intense and driven bunch, even from preschool. These were kids who were heavily invested in getting things right, and achieving.

I was working with a little boy of six. We had been working together for a few months, and he was struggling with a piece (or so he thought). He was actually doing very well and progressing nicely, but it wasn’t fast enough for him. It was very much like working with the highly driven adult doctors and lawyers that I was accustomed to.

At one point, he exclaimed, “I’m already six years old!!! It’s too late! I’m so behind, and I’m never going to get this!”

It was, on one level, hilarious, because here was this tiny person thinking he was all washed up. But the emotions were so real to him. It became clear to me from that moment how fundamentally irrational it is to think that there is some external timeline that we human beings have to satisfy in order to be acceptable — and that if we fail in this timeline, that who we are and what we do has no value.

If this kindergartener felt an acute sense of failure at not being able to follow through on his own expectations of himself and I could see so clearly the ridiculousness of his expectations being the problem and not the child himself, then perhaps my own expectations of myself were also ridiculous.

Perhaps any objective measurement of a human being is fundamentally arbitrary and flawed.

Our society's obsession with measurement starts at birth. Our height and weight and Apgar scores are recorded when we are born, and then every few months children are checked and measured according to percentiles for every possible physical measurement and tracked for every developmental milestone.

But the truth is that we are all very different, and the timeline is only so helpful in helping us to identify potential problems caused by those differences.

If one child learns to sit up at five months of age and another is delayed until seven months, the child who sat at five months is not ultimately a better sitter than the other. If one child speaks in full sentences at eleven months and the other isn’t speaking full sentences until 24 months, it doesn’t mean that, twelve years later, the one is a better speaker than the other.

And if it does, so what? Do we expect that everyone has to be equally good at everything? No, that’s obviously absurd. What’s necessary is that we all achieve a baseline of competency in a given area, and a delay does not necessarily indicate that this competency will not be met.

Unfortunately, the data is interpreted this way all the time. I have spoken with so many parents who believe that their child is “tone deaf” because she hasn’t developed a strong sense of pitch (that is, being able to sing a melody accurately) by the age of four. Worse, parents use this as justification for not pursuing any music instruction.

This is all the result of a fixed mindset (per Carol Dweck) in which we believe that whatever our capacity is is unchanging and we are unable to learn or grow beyond our current capability.

All of these external measures place a lot of pressure on human beings, who are susceptible to suggestion and whose reality can be fundamentally altered by repeated statements and beliefs of those around them.

We see this all the time with kids who struggle with executive functioning. They see that the kids around them are able to follow directions, while they themselves are unable to remember what the directions they were just given. The child concludes that she is stupid, when the reality is that she needed the directions to be repeated or written down. Because our reality tends to create itself, she is seeing more and more evidence that she is stupid, and continues to fall and fail. After a while, she is no longer trying to remember what the directions are. Hence, we have the classic pattern of forgetting assignments and “slacking off,” all from a root of observing the way she is falling short of her classmates in one particular area and extrapolating a lifetime of being “less than.”

We also see this phenomenon with kids who aren’t on the rigorous schedule of learning to read that is required from so many elementary schools these days. Though learning to read is a complex and individual process just like learning to walk or speak, we force it onto a particular timeline and someone who is not on that timeline is “late.” Obviously, for a certain population of dyslexics, late reading is an issue. However, there are many early indicators of dyslexia that can be identified. The problem isn’t that a person is late — it’s fundamentally a different way of seeing the world that can be diagnosed and addressed.

On the other hand, what of the child who is not dyslexic but is still not reading by the end of kindergarten? This child causes everyone worry. This child is going to be labeled and put in special classes, and will consequently develop a sense of otherness that no one should have to experience.

At the Little Middle School, we identified a group of students who routinely struggle to complete work on time (or at all). Because of our firm belief that no one is lazy and everyone wants to grow, we figured that there was some obstacle for these kids. There was something going on in their brains that was preventing them from being able to turn work in on time. If we were able to address this obstacle, then perhaps their performance would improve.

We gathered these students in an anti-procrastination workshop. AS we began to delve into their beliefs around schoolwork, it became obvious that a huge factor in their struggles, universally, was fear of looking dumb. They all expressed that they are afraid that they are dumb, they’re afraid of looking dumb, and that being confronted with work they don’t know how to do or work that they should have done makes them feel dumb. As, you know, human beings, they opted to avoid these feelings if possible.

Now, these are all kids who have learned about the difference between the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. On an intellectual level, they understand that the problem isn’t being “dumb” and that anyone can learn. But on a personal, emotional level, they did not believe this. They believed that they were stupid and that it was hopeless.

It takes a lot of work to even get students to the point that they are willing to admit that they have these feelings. For most of them, it was the result of months of effort and coaching. But having these feelings and beliefs out in the open allowed us to talk about them and work on fixing the problem. We saw these students become more empowered and take more ownership of their work, and they became invested in pursuing strategies to improve their organization and executive functioning (for example, documenting their assignment due dates on their phone and setting alarms). But without addressing the underlying issues, these kids were never going to implement solutions. The situation just felt too hopeless to them.

The bottom line is that comparing ourselves to others is toxic. We see this in well-documented studies on the harmful effects of social media. That means that we, as adults, need to be aware of when our tendency to compare students to each other is causing harm (probably 100% of the time).

What if we allow each student, each human being, to be on his or her own developmental timetable?

This doesn't mean that we don’t intervene when we see that skills aren’t developing. But we calibrate our expectations to what that student is capable of, and release the pressure to perform according to what someone else is capable of.

But won’t this cause students to fall behind?

I have two answers to that:

1) Students fall behind anyway — they just become invested in covering it up; and

2) We are overestimating the power that we have to push students onto a particular timetable and underestimating each student’s own investment in their own growth.

In other words, if a student wants to grow, he will.

It’s an incredible thing that happens when you let students know that they are in the driver’s seat of their own education (and indeed, their own life).

A student who is empowered to see that her education is her own responsibility and her own accomplishment will grow much faster than a student who waits to be told what to do and is operating only to win the approval of the adults in her life.

But how do we measure growth? How can I make that statement if I’m not comparing students to each other?

Well, if we let go of the external yardstick that we use to measure ourselves, we become much more focused on process.

If I have been assigned a chapter to read (say, on the ancient civilization of Mohenjo-Daro), I will pursue this task very differently if I’m out to prove to my teacher that I read it versus deciding on my own terms that I want to understand the material.

If I have my own reasons for wanting to learn about this topic, I will reread paragraphs that are unclear. I will take notes. I might even seek additional resources on this topic beyond the three pages in my book. In 2017, that is supremely easy: Youtube, Wikipedia, and countless other resources are just a click away.

I will ask questions on things that are unclear. I’ll look up the meaning of words I don’t know. I’ll tell someone else about what I am learning in an effort to make it clear in my mind (or because I’m so excited about what I’m learning that I just want to share it).

Because I’m paying attention to my own growth, I’m going to make the investment on my own to learn the material.

Now, does this difference in investment be measured on a test? Yes and no. The irony is that a lot of the growth experienced by the person who takes ownership of his or her own learning cannot be measured by the same old test that everyone is going to take. A lot of the growth is illegible - that is, difficult to measure.

If you give me a third-grade spelling test, I am going to get 100 on it. That doesn’t measure my ability to spell in general — it only measures my ability to spell those ten words.

So the student who is learning about Mohenjo-Daro has learned a bunch of information beyond what is going to be tested. She’s also improved her skills of analysis, note-taking, assimilating information, research, and more — and none of this will be picked up by a typical test. But these are the skills we most want to develop. These skills actually accelerate the process of gaining new information.

And, significantly, the student in this example has no “head trash” holding her back. She’s not wasting a lot of time thinking, “I can’t do this, what’s the point.” She’s just doing the work. It’s a powerful thing.

Bizarrely, the shortcut to high performance is to let go of the compulsion to measure performance by some external standard.

Instead, we can empower students to care about measuring themselves according to their own standard: their goals for growth and learning.

However, this doesn’t work if it becomes just another thing that the student is going to have to do to satisfy us.

It does not work if we trick the student into thinking that they are growing on their own terms, but we’re still cracking the whip.

It only works if we are authentically, truly empowering the student to grow on his or her own terms.

Casey von Neumann