From the Left



Diverse Pathways in Education and Life, Part I: The Real-Life Stories of Pedro, Cliff and Lauren

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

Those of us who teach, whether at the K-12 or college levels, come across thousands of students during our careers. They are all different, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Yet after decades of tinkering with grading systems and standardized tests, we have not come up with adequate -- or fair, I would say -- assessment tools that take into consideration, and adjust for, a host of factors including the much-talked-about "learning styles" (verbal, visual, auditory, etc.).

Students with the learning challenge of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for example, generally do not receive grades that reflect their often-extraordinary academic and social abilities. They may write the most imaginative paper but get a low grade because they turned it in late or lost it on the bus.

In my more than 35 years of teaching, at high school first and at the college level later, individuals with ADHD have been some of my brightest and most creative students.

Pedagogical research has demonstrated that some students, males in particular, lag months if not years behind in maturity; yet we assess their academic performance, skills and behavior as if all students of the same age are equally mature.

Scores of studies on brain development have demonstrated that key parts of the brain do not reach maturity until around the age of 25, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which regulates emotions and impulses and allows individuals to assess risks accurately and make long-term plans.

Yet by the age of 25, we are all expected to make mature decisions about some of the most important aspects of our lives: where and what to study, where to live and work and, in many cases, with whom we hope to spend the rest of our lives.



The following are real-life stories of students who were late to mature, had difficulties focusing on their assignments, were fearful about speaking in public, made bad decisions about school attendance or simply had different learning styles. With time and effort and with the support of caring parents and teachers, they matured, learned to focus, overcame the fear of public speaking, and learned to make wise life and education decisions that led them to self-fulfillment and career success.


I know a student, let's call him Pedro, who loved math growing up because he enjoyed the challenge of solving problems in his own creative ways; in tenth-grade geometry he was fond of playing with proofs. When the high-noon time of algebra (and later algebra II) arrived, he was taught to memorize formulas, something that did not appeal to his unformulaic brain. His high school math grades, except in geometry, ranged between C-minuses and D's.


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