The traditional factory-like system of education would say "absolutely not." Kids are meant to be passive. They are in school to absorb knowledge, to listen to the teacher, to sit quietly and follow along, to behave. These are the standards on which they are judged.
At High Meadows, I regularly observe powerful evidence of the capability of young people that flies in the face of such small thinking. On Thursday mornings this spring, I am mentoring a group of fourth and fifth graders who are engaged in inquiry through our International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program. We discuss the progress of their inquiries that will lead to a capstone public exhibition at the end of the school year.
The central idea of the students' inquiry is Humans have the ability to act on their beliefs and values to improve the relationships and health in their communities. From there, my small group narrowed their focus to Supporting medical research improves the quality of life for people today and future generations. Individual students are studying advances in research in ovarian cancer and cystic fibrosis. One student is studying how medical research on humans in space can help people here on earth. They share research studies, email responses from experts, and questions they have devised for interviewing more experts and those affected by disease. The sophistication of their thought--and their ability to accurately and passionately speak about their work--is nothing short of remarkable.
These mornings always remind me of how capable our young students really are. It saddens me that some schools treat kids with what amounts to intellectual and social disrespect. It's no wonder so many of them dread going to school.
This morning, the students were brimming with vivid excitement as they told me about their visit to a science museum yesterday. "There was just one thing," one of them said. "They wouldn't give us a tour guide because they said fourth and fifth graders are too young to understand and don't behave well." Despite that caveat, they led themselves through the exhibits with fascination and purpose. And good "behavior." Another student continued, "We almost told them that we were older kids who are just small for our age." Now there's some higher-order humor for you.
So back to my original question: Are 10-year-olds truly capable? At the best schools (including High Meadows, of course) the answer is an emphatic "absolutely!"