North County Outlook - Community newspaper serving Marysville, Arlington, Tulalip, Smokey Point, Lakewood

Ice Cubes or Snowflakes? The Big Question in American Education


Jim Strickland

How are human beings like snowflakes? If you ask grandparents they will tell you that every child is bright and beautiful in their own unique way, and that is what makes them so special. But the full realization of children's gifts and talents is not a given. Certain conditions are required for this unique beauty to develop.

In discussing the kinds of crystals created from the simple process of water freezing, James Gleick in his book, "Chaos: Making a New Science," compares the formation of ice cubes with that of snowflakes: "When solidification proceeds from outside to inside, as in an ice tray, the boundary generally remains stable and smooth... But when a crystal solidifies outward from an initial seed - as a snowflake does, grabbing water molecules while it falls through the moisture-laden air - the process becomes unstable... New branches form, and then subbranches ... The final flake records the history of all the changing weather conditions it has experienced, and the combinations may as well be infinite." The process of freezing from the "outside in" compared to crystallizing from the "inside out" produces dramatically different results.

A snowflake is beautiful example of individuality and intricate beauty that naturally develops in an atmosphere of freedom. You cannot "mold" a snowflake, but only create the conditions where it can grow.

What we often find happening in schools is that educators love to talk the talk of snowflakes - every child a unique and precious individual - while continuing to walk the walk of ice cubes - every child molded to fit a uniform pattern. The emergent nature of a more student-centered approach to education requires that we relinquish our obsession with controlling the end results and support the unique pattern of each individual child to develop.  This demands trust in growth, respect for the child, and faith in the process. Do we have the moral and political will to develop atmospheres that truly nurture positive human differences?

All over America there are outstanding teachers who swim against the current of an imposed curriculum in order to help students develop like snowflakes. David was a student who had a lifelong dream of becoming a firefighter. Since none of his required courses seemed to fit into what he needed, he became disenchanted with school and began missing classes. A caring and perceptive teacher saw what was happening and arranged with the local fire chief and school administration for David to spend time learning from the firefighters at the nearby station. To make a long story short, David got the education he needed without graduating from high school and went on to become a highly qualified firefighter and fire safety specialist.

The sad part of this story is that the teacher who saved David and many others from falling through the cracks eventually found the pressure to produce "ice cubes" too great, and so decided to resign and do other things. It was a tragic loss to the profession. How many students have suffered over the years because of the loss of creative teachers like this? How many adults have talents lying dormant inside of them because they attended a school system that is obsessed with having uniform graduation requirements?

Lynn Stoddard

We have a decision to make in American education. Are we going to continue trying to force young people into a standardized, uniform mold, or are we going to create the conditions for individual greatness to flourish? In other words, do we want ice cubes or snowflakes? Our answer makes all the difference.


Jim Strickland is a teacher at Marysville-Pilchuck High School and an advocate of Student Centered Education.  He can be reached at

Lynn Stoddard has over 50 years experience as a teacher, principal, and educational leader. He is author of four books and numerous articles, including Educating for Human Greatness. He can be reached at


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