It is not incredible or amazing when kids do remarkable things. It is incredible that schools stop kids from doing that work every day.

A 15-year-old boy believes he has discovered a forgotten Mayan city using satellite photos and Mayan astronomy.

“William Gadoury, from Quebec, came up with the theory that the Maya civilization chose the location of its towns and cities according to its star constellations.

“He found Mayan cities lined up exactly with stars in the civilization’s major constellations. Studying the star map further, he discovered one city was missing from a constellation of three stars.”

It’s a fabulous story, and William Gadoury deserves a great deal of credit, but what’s the problem here…

Watching TV morning news we bounce from this story to that of 14-year-old Taylor Rosenthal and his First Aid Vending Machine.

And how many tales like this might we find if we look? Though two places we’d be least likely to find this kind of invention and discovery are our middle schools and high schools. There we will discover kids with all the passions and determination of William and Taylor, but they’ll be sitting bored to death listening to trivia and staring blankly at PowerPoint slides (or maybe Google Presentation slides).

A group of our high school kids built a Sailbot — an autonomous sailing vessel — that beat a dozen college teams in races on Boston Harbor.

What was your biggest achievement at the age of 15? Well, a Canadian teenager may have outshone the experts…” said the BBC about the Mayan city discovery. But perhaps if you’d been allowed to chase the interests you were passionate about at 14 or 15 your biggest accomplishment might have been a robot sailboat able to navigate through winds and waves, or maybe a digital, laser guided training device for baseball pitchers, or an amazing piece of music, a fabulous ‘film,’ a brilliant story, a highly useful phone app, or maybe a Virtual Reality tour of one of America’s great historic sites.

Nick Anglin began developing his invention in summer school after sixth grade.

Kids are capable of all of this if we give them time, space, and some of the resources they need.

Of course in a typical school day we offer them none of that. Unless we decisively break our own habits.

This is where even “Project-Based Learning” fails — and why in our schools we consider PBL just an early step on the path we need to trod. Because unless PBL morphs into at least “Problem-Based Learning,” or better still, “Passion-Based Learning,” it remains constricted by the teachers’ imaginations.

And that won’t really unleash human potential.

I often tell the story of watching 7-year-olds at CoderDojo. So 7-year-olds in CoderDojo begin working in Scratch and within an hour or two they’ve learned all about negative integers. And by day two many are on to slope intercept. If we let them run, we know — we’ve seen them — they may be programming microcomputers in Python by the end of the week. There is no “they’re not ready for this yet” when kids are following passions, building on their own ideas, and feeding off the creativity of each other.

Will every child given the space to create discover an ancient city or build a best selling mobile app? Of course not. But our evidence is in — they will all leap forward in their learning, and we can stop pretending to worry about “project-based” plans, about differentiation, about personalization, because the kids will begin to do all of that for themselves.

Every day I get to see the amazing stuff the supposedly “hard” kids are doing, in tool studios, in music construction studios, in video labs, in our libraries, in many cases in our hallways. They are inventing, building, designing, exploring, creating, and mastering the knowledge they need, in ways that just does not happen sitting in a classroom with mass instruction.

So stop watching reporters telling you — in shocked tones — of the accomplishments of teens, and let those teens in your school break out of the classroom walls and your master schedule, and begin to amaze you directly.

  • Ira Socol

Author, Dreamer, Educator: A life in service - NYPD, EMS, disabilities/UDL specialist, tech and innovation leader for education. Co-author of Timeless Learning

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