Teaching Fish to Climb Trees

4887724254_ea7967acf7_oThere is a famous quote from Albert Einstein that many teachers like to quote: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Most often I see this quote associated with the high-stakes testing movement, and other forms of education reform. I actually used to nod my head when I read this quote, silently saying “Yep, that’s right. You can’t force a student to be something they aren’t.” Shame on me. Agreeing with this quote is giving in to the notion that kids have limitations they can’t overcome. And that’s not right.

Instead, my motto this year is focusing on “teaching fish how to climb trees”. Crazy? I don’t think so.

The mudskippers are probably the best land-adapted of contemporary fish and are able to spend days moving about out of water and can even climb mangroves.

Yep, that’s right. The ol’ mudskipper fish can climb a tree. I’m sure all it’s fish friends and teachers probably told him it was “impossible” or that he’d be “stupid” to try it. But he went with it anyway, and eventually joined the ranks of flying and jumping fish as geniuses.

As a teacher, I realize that my students may come into class with varying levels of skills and talents. I see the same thing as a coach. But it would be foolish for me to pidgeon-hole any of my students or players into a “role” or “category”. Usually, it’s those students who overcome obstacles and the “impossible” that end up being remarkable. And that’s what I want all of my students and players to be: remarkable.

Here are just a few examples of student’s “climbing trees”:

  • Nick D’Alosio started his company “Summly” at age 15. At age 17 he sold it to Yahoo! for $30 million. Nick said in a Business Insider interview: “When I founded Summly at 15, I would have never imagined being in this position so suddenly. I’d personally like to thank Li Ka-Shing and Horizons Ventures for having the foresight to back a teenager pursuing his dream. Without you all, this never would have been possible. I’d also like to thank my family, friends and school for supporting me.”
  • Katie Davis left over Christmas break of her senior year for a short mission trip to Uganda and her life was turned completely inside out. She found herself so moved by the people of Uganda and the needs she saw that she knew her calling was to return and care for them. Katie, a charismatic and articulate young woman, is in the process of adopting thirteen children in Uganda and has established a ministry, Amazima, that feeds and sends hundreds more to school. You can read about her story in Kisses From Katie.
  • When 12-year-old Steven Gonzalez Jr. was diagnosed Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, a rare form of cancer, doctors said that he had a 2% chance to live. But he beat the odds and survived, though his weak immune system forced him into isolation for 100 days. He credits video games for helping him through the rough experience. Gonzalez wanted to help other cancer patients his age, and so he created a video game, Play Against Cancer, in which players destroy cancer cells illustrated as green ghosts. He also developed The Survivor Games, a social network and online community for teen cancer patients.
  • 5-year-old Phoebe Russell needed to complete a community service project before she could graduate from kindergarten. Uninterested in a lemonade stand, she saw a homeless man begging for food and decided to raise $1,000 for the San Francisco Food Bank. Her teacher tried to lower expectations to something more reasonable, but Phoebe’s heartwarming appeal to leave soda cans and donations at the school snowballed. Before she knew it, Phoebe had raised $3,736.30– the equivalent of 17,800 heated meals. via Listverse

These are just a few of the thousands of stories out there of kids doing the impossible. I’m sure there are many stories of teachers doing the impossible. So go ahead and tell your students to dream big. I’m going to be busy teaching fish how to climb trees. I hope you join me.

Check out the hundreds of teachers doing 20% time and Genius Hour in their classes. The inquiry-driven education movement has never been stronger and I want you to be a part of changing education history. Each week I’m going to send out an email highlighting a specific story about inquiry in education. Interested in reading it? Sign up below!

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Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Sue says:

    Thank you for sharing your thought and believing in our kids and encourage them to pursue their dreams. Yes encourage them to dream big.

  • Michael Sheehan says:

    While I strongly agree that we should encourage kids to pursue their dreams, the reform movement wants to put every kid into a box. Improved math and ELA scores at the expense of the arts, business classes, trade school, etc. We are killing kids dreams and passions in order to feed the pockets of testing companies and politicians.

  • Paul Solarz says:

    Great article A.J. – it really made me think about that quote differently!!!

    I actually have this quote hanging up in my room (one of only two quotes I have), but I have always interpreted it differently with my students. I tell them that I believe we are all gifted/intelligent but in different ways. So many kids feel that grades and performance in school is what determines intelligence, but I tell them that we all have our gifts in different areas. Someone who gets straight A’s in reading, writing, and math isn’t any smarter than someone who can compose and perform a piano solo or someone who can recreate a scale model of the Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks. We all show our smarts differently, but unfortunately our society has always attached intelligence with performance in academic subjects. I don’t want to judge a fish by how it climbs a tree, just like I don’t want to judge my students on how they perform on tests and worksheets. This belief has really inspired my students to aspire for so much more because they no longer feel defeated by previous years of bad grades, or the idea that I will some day “discover” that they aren’t as smart as I might have thought they were!

    Either way we interpret the quote, our students are benefiting from it! I bet Einstein knew that would happen! What a guy! 🙂

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks for the comment Paul! I do think there are different ways of looking at this quote. Like you, I just want students to know that a square peg can fit through a round hole if you work at it and think differently.

      Love what you are doing with your students. Keep sharing!

  • Damien G. Hughes says:

    In principle, I agree that every fish should be given an opportunity and even encouraged to learn how to climb trees. However, there are two sides to every coin:

    Don Grushkin is a professor at California State University, Sacramento. He has a Ph.D in language, reading, and culture. He wrote a thought-provoking response to a Quora question: “How do born-deaf people learn to pronounce words or adjust sound volume, in case they speak?” In his reply, he states the dangers of hearing people becoming preoccupied with having deaf people learn to produce spoken language and the lifelong damage it can cause to overall learning.


    After reading the artcle, I substituted “teaching people who are deaf to speak” with “teaching fish to swim”. Can you teach a fish to climb trees? Perhaps. Should a fish be encouraged to push beyond its limits and attempt to climb trees? Definitely. But should the entire educational system be geared towards having one expert tree-climbing fish stand in front of 30 fish every day and emphasize the importance of learning the skill of tree climbing in such a way that both the fish’s grade and sense of self worth is dictated by his or her ability to accomplish that specific task? Absolutely not.

    Because for every fish that’s successfully taught to beat the odds and learn to climb the tree, there’s another fish that can’t climb a tree (or maybe barely can with great effort but will never feel comfortable around his or her tree-climbing peers). But maybe that fish can compose music as good as Mozart or dreams of one day learning how to travel to distant galaxies to explore uncharted bodies of water to swim in. And those fish (each having different strengths and weaknesses) are every bit as talented as the fish who learned to climb a tree.

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