We need to truly nurture the potential of students in schools

Darragh details how schools should nurture students’ interests and draw out their individual potential for a more meaningful education.

Written by Darragh Walsh


For many people, school is often not the most enjoyable experience. Learning can feel boring, irrelevant and stressful, to name a few.

I believe school could be more meaningful and fulfilling for every student. It should be a place where your interests are built upon and your individual strengths are brought out. One of the Latin roots for education is ‘educere’ which means ‘to draw out’ as in to draw out the gifts and potential of students.

However, I ask you and myself: are our individual potential and strengths truly drawn out by our education system? I am fearful that throughout the system the answer is ‘no’.

I would like you to imagine a child sitting in the back of some teacher’s class, who never raises her hand and fails most of her tests. Inside her is an interest in experimenting with nature which, if nurtured and drawn out, will lead her to discover the cure for cancer.

But her potential will never be realised. She will never save millions of lives or win the Nobel Prize because in class there was no focus on developing her interest and her only worth was judged by her test results.

I fear we as a country do not realise or nurture the vast-ranging potential of students in our strict and narrowly defined education system

The key to unlocking our potential in education

We all have unique sets of interests. There is a well accepted theory that there are two types of motivations: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation is having the motivation to do something for external factors such as to get a reward or avoid punishment. An example of this is working in a job just to make money or tidying your room so you don’t get in trouble with your mam.

Intrinsic motivation is doing something for internal factors, like doing something solely because you enjoy doing it/find it interesting. For example, playing the tin whistle solely because you enjoy doing it instead of just doing it because you had to in school. We get intrinsic motivation when we follow our interests.

Intrinsic motivation in my mind is the most powerful motivator. When we are doing something for internal reasons, we find what we are doing enjoyable and fulfilling. This drives people to explore, develop and dedicate countless hours to their interests. What seems like work to others is fun to the person following their interest. Intrinsic motivation has been shown to be the best motivation in the long term. It’s through intrinsic motivation that people achieve great things.

A system even Einstein failed

As Einstein famously said, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.”  I am of the belief that this world is and has always been developed and transformed by people not that different from you or me, by people motivated by their interests or a dream.

Einstein’s curiosity started at the age of 5 when he was fascinated by the physics of his father’s compass. When he was in school he loved science and maths, but he was unhappy as he hated tests and not being able to learn what he was truly interested in. 

Describing how his teacher told him that he would never amount to anything, Einstein said, “I failed the system and the system failed me.” 

But a miracle happened. When Einstein was in school, a university student by the name of Max Talmey saw Einstein’s interest and gave him books on physics and mentored him through his early life. I fear if it were not for Max Talmey, Einstein’s potential would not have been fulfilled.

A student-centred education system

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but wood to be ignited.” – Plutarch

We need to put more focus on igniting and nurturing the interests of students and on fostering their individual potential. This was acknowledged in Education Minister Foley’s statement on February 29th on the senior cycle reform where she stated “It is vital that the education and the opportunities they [students] receive in their school life at second level develops them academically, nurtures them as people and supports them to grow their talents, interests and skills.” 

I am sincerely grateful for the dedication given by teachers, administrators and others to provide for us, but also for the Department of Education’s commitment to creating a more modern system that brings out the potential of students. However, to fully foster the potential and interests of each student, we need to put focus on each student.

Educators constantly say how schools need to be student-centred so students can thrive. But with our ‘one size fits all’ system (1 teacher for 24 students), there is not enough focus on each student so that they can fulfil their individual potential in schools.

Reaching every student’s potential

I know there are challenges, but we can and need to meet them. We must invest in our future and we must rethink our aged philosophy of education. The current assessment and one-size-fits-all system is discouraging us like it did Einstein, from learning in a way that we can reach our potential.

In an education system that nurtures and values interests, each student will be enabled to reach their full potential. The current one-size education model does not fit all. We need a model that is truly centred around each student and their needs. We should look at enhancing education with technology to assist teachers and empower students.

Nelson Mandela once said; “Young people must take it upon themselves to ensure that they receive the highest education possible so that they can represent us well in future as future leaders.” To prepare for the future we all desire, we must now all ensure we ourselves get the best possible education system. 

Simply put, we need an education system that truly draws out students’ individual potential.

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