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Stop Stealing Dreams
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.... the Harlem Village Academy school is simply about people and the way they should be treated. It’s about abandoning a top-down industrial approach to processing students and embracing a very human, very personal and very powerful series of tools.
.... the transformation that happens when a kid actually learns to love music. For one year, two years, even three years, the kid trudges along. He hits every pulse, pounds every note and sweats the whole thing out. Then he quits. Except a few. The few with passion. The few who care. Those kids lean forward and begin to play. They play as if they care, because they do. And as they lean forward, as they connect, they lift themselves off the piano seat, suddenly becoming, as Ben calls them, one-buttock players.
More books on Schools
Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system.If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, he will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.
The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake: We spend a fortune teaching trigonometry to kids who don’t understand it, won’t use it, and will spend no more of their lives studying math. We invest thousands of hours exposing millions of students to fiction and literature, but end up training most of them to never again read for fun (one study found that 58 percent of all Americans never read for pleasure after they graduate from school). As soon as we associate reading a book with taking a test, we’ve missed the point.
The tools to make smart decisions: Even though just about everyone in the West has been through years of compulsory schooling, we see ever more belief in unfounded theories, bad financial decisions, and poor community and family planning. If the goal was to raise the standards for rational thought, skeptical investigation, and useful decision making, we’ve failed for most of our citizens.
If school’s function is to create the workers we need to fuel our economy, we need to change school, because the workers we need have changed as well.The mission used to be to create homogenized, obedient, satisfied workers and pliant, eager consumers.No longer. Changing school doesn’t involve sharpening the pencil we’ve already got. School reform cannot succeed if it focuses on getting schools to do a better job of what we previously asked them to do. We don’t need more of what schools produce when they’re working as designed. The challenge, then, is to change the very output of the school before we start spending even more time and money improving the performance of the school.
School’s industrial, scaled-up, measurable structure means that fear must be used to keep the masses in line. There’s no other way to get hundreds or thousands of kids to comply, to process that many bodies, en masse, without simultaneous coordination.And the flip side of this fear and conformity must be that passion will be destroyed. There’s no room for someone who wants to go faster, or someone who wants to do something else, or someone who cares about a particular issue. Move on. Write it in your notes; there will be a test later. A multiple-choice test.
School has become an industrialized system, working on a huge scale, that has significant byproducts, including the destruction of many of the attitudes and emotions we’d like to build our culture around.
The next century offers fewer new long-lasting institutions (we’re seeing both organized religion and the base of industry fading away), to be replaced instead with micro-organizations, with individual leadership, with the leveraged work of a small innovative team changing things far more than it ever would have in the past. The six foundational elements are taken for granted as we build a new economy and a new world on top of them.
Amplified by the Web and the connection revolution, human beings are no longer rewarded most for work as compliant cogs. Instead, our chaotic world is open to the work of passionate individuals, intent on carving their own paths.That’s the new job of school. Not to hand a map to those willing to follow it, but to inculcate leadership and restlessness into a new generation.
The industrial revolution wasn’t about inventing manufacturing, it was about amplifying it to the point where it changed everything. And the connection revolution doesn’t invent connection, of course, but it amplifies it to become the dominant force in our economy.
Connecting people to one another. Connecting seekers to data. Connecting businesses to each other. Connecting tribes of similarly minded individuals into larger, more effective organizations. Connecting machines to each other and creating value as a result. In the connection revolution, value is not created by increasing the productivity of those manufacturing a good or a service. Value is created by connecting buyers to sellers, producers to consumers, and the passionate to each other.
Transparency in the traditional school might destroy it. If we told the truth about the irrelevance of various courses, about the relative quality of some teachers, about the power of choice and free speech—could the school as we know it survive? What happens when the connection revolution collides with the school? Unlike just about every other institution and product line in our economy, transparency is missing from education. Students are lied to and so are parents. At some point, teenagers realize that most of school is a game, but the system neer acknowledges it. In search of power, control and independence, administrators hide information from teachers, and vice versa. Because school was invented to control students and give power to the state, it’s not surprising that the relationships are fraught with mistrust.
The connection economy destroys the illusion of control. Students have the ability to find out which colleges are a good value, which courses make no sense, and how people in the real world are actually making a living. They have the ability to easily do outside research, even in fifth grade, and to discover that the teacher (or her textbook) is just plain wrong.
When students can take entire courses outside of the traditional school, how does the school prevent that? When passionate students can start their own political movements, profitable companies, or worthwhile community projects without the aegis of a school, how are obedience and fealty enforced? It’s impossible to lie and manipulate when you have no power.
In Texas, the contract even includes tickets and fines for students as young as ten years old (and if they aren’t paid by the time the student is eighteen, he goes to jail).Beyond the draconian, barbaric frontier schooling techniques in Texas, though, we see a consistent thread running through most of what goes on in school. The subtext is clear: “Hey, there are a lot of kids in this building. Too many kids, too many things on the agenda. My way or the highway, son.” Precisely what a foreman would say to a troublesome employee on the assembly line. Not what a patron would say to a talented artist, though.
There really are only two tools available to the educator. The easy one is fear. Fear is easy to awake, easy to maintain, but ultimately toxic. The other tool is passion. A kid in love with dinosaurs or baseball or earth science is going to learn it on her own. She’s going to push hard for ever more information, and better still, master the thinking behind it. Passion can overcome fear—the fear of losing, of failing, of being ridiculed.The problem is that individual passion is hard to scale — hard to fit into the industrial model. It’s not reliably ignited. It’s certainly harder to create for large masses of people.
Our new civic and scientific and professional life, though, is all about doubt. About questioning the status quo, questioning marketing or political claims, and most of all, questioning what’s next. The obligation of the new school is to teach reasonable doubt. Not the unreasonable doubt of the wild-eyed heckler, but the evidence-based doubt of the questioning scientist and the reason-based doubt of the skilled debater. Industrial settings don’t leave a lot of room for doubt. The worker on the assembly line isn’t supposed to question the design of the car. The clerk at the insurance agency isn’t supposed to suggest improvements in the accounts being pitched. In the post-industrial age, though, the good jobs and the real progress belong only to those with the confidence and the background to use the scientific method to question authority and to re-imagine a better reality.
Walmart has more than 2 million employees around the world, and perhaps a thousand people who set policy and do significant creative work. Most of the others are hourly employees, easily replaced with little notice.The bottom of our economy has gone back into the past, back into alignment with what school has perfected: taking advantage of people doing piecemeal labor.This is not the future of our economy; it is merely the last well-lit path available to students who survive the traditional indoctrination process. If we churn out more workers like this, we will merely be fighting for more of the bottom of the pyramid, more of the world market’s share of bad jobs, cheaply executed.
The good jobs of the future aren’t going to involve working for giant companies on an assembly line. They all require individuals willing to chart their own path, whether or not they work for someone else.
The jobs of the future are in two categories: the downtrodden assemblers of cheap mass goods and the respected creators of the unexpected.
It’s not easy to find young Anglo kids in Cleveland or Topeka who crave Tandoori chicken or Shrimp Vindaloo. And yet kids with almost the same DNA in Mumbai eat the stuff every day. It’s clearly not about genetics.Perhaps households there approach the issue of food the way school teaches a new topic. First, kids are taught the history of Indian food, then they are instructed to memorize a number of recipes, and then there are tests. At some point, the pedagogy leads to a love of the food.Of course not.People around the world eat what they eat because of community standards and the way culture is inculcated into what they do. Expect- ations matter a great deal. When you have no real choice but to grow up doing something or eating something or singing something, then you do it.If culture is sufficient to establish what we eat and how we speak and ten thousand other societal norms, why isn’t it able to teach us goal setting and passion and curiosity and the ability to persuade?
How not to teach someone to be a baseball fan: Teach the history of baseball, beginning with Abner Doubleday and the impact of cricket and imperialism. Have a test.Starting with the Negro leagues and the early barnstorming teams, assign students to memorize facts and figures about each player. Have a test. Rank the class on who did well on the first two tests, and allow these students to memorize even more statistics about baseball players. Make sure to give equal time to players in Japan and the Dominican Republic. Send the students who didn’t do as well to spend time with a lesser teacher, but assign them similar work, just over a longer time frame. Have a test.Sometime in the future, do a field trip and go to a baseball game. Make sure no one has a good time.If there’s time, let kids throw a baseball around during recess.Obviously, there are plenty of kids (and adults) who know far more about baseball than anyone could imagine knowing. And none of them learned it this way.
The industrialized, scalable, testable solution is almost never the best way to generate exceptional learning.
It used to be simple: the teacher was the cop, the lecturer, the source of answers, and the gatekeeper to resources. All rolled into one.The Internet is making the role of content gatekeeper unimportant. Redundant. Even wasteful.If there’s information that can be written down, widespread digital access now means that just about anyone can look it up. We don’t need a human being standing next to us to lecture us on how to find the square root of a number or sharpen an axe.
What we do need is someone to persuade us that we want to learn those things, and someone to push us or encourage us or create a space where we want to learn to do them better.
Compliant, local, and cheap: Those were the three requirements for most jobs for most of the twentieth century. Only after you fit all three criteria was your competence tested. And competence was far more important than leadership, creativity, or brilliance.If you were applying to be a forklift operator, a receptionist, an insurance salesperson, or a nurse, you showed up with a résumé (proof of a history of compliance), you showed up (proof that you lived somewhere nearby), and you knew about the salary on offer (of course).School didn’t have to do anything about the local part, but it sure worked hard to instill the notion that reliably handing in your work on time while making sure it precisely matched the standards of the teacher was the single best way to move forward.And it certainly taught you to accept what those in authority gave you, so the wage was the wage, and you took it until someone offered you a better one.
The secret to LEGO’s success was the switch from all-purpose LEGO sets, with blocks of different sizes and colors, to predefined kits, models that must be assembled precisely one way, or they’re wrong.Why would these sell so many more copies? Because they match what parents expect and what kids have been trained to do.There’s a right answer! The mom and the kid can both take pride in the kit, assembled. It’s done. Instructions were followed and results were attained.LEGO isn’t the problem, but it is a symptom of something seriously amiss. We’re entering a revolution of ideas while producing a generation that wants instructions instead.
There are two recessions going on.
One is gradually ending. This is the cyclical recession. We have them all the time; they come and they go. Not fun, but not permanent.
The other one, I fear, is here forever. This is the recession of the industrial age, the receding wave of bounty that workers and businesses got as a result of rising productivity but imperfect market communication.
In short: if you’re local, we need to buy from you. If you work in town, we need to hire you. If you can do a craft, we can’t replace you with a machine. No longer.
The lowest price for any good worth pricing is now available to anyone, anywhere. Which makes the market for boring stuff a lot more perfect than it used to be.Since the “factory” work we did is now being mechanized, outsourced, or eliminated, it’s hard to pay extra for it. And since buyers have so many choices (and much more perfect information about pricing and availability), it’s hard to charge extra.
Thus, middle-class jobs that existed because companies had no choice are now gone. Protect ionism isn’t going to fix this problem. Neither is the stimulus of old factories or yelling in frustration and anger. No, the only useful response is to view this as an opportunity. To poorly paraphrase Clay Shirky, every revolution destroys the last thing before it turns a profit on a new thing.
The networked revolution is creating huge profits, significant opportunities, and a lot of change. What it’s not doing is providing millions of brain-dead, corner-office, follow-the-manual middle-class jobs. And it’s not going to.
Industrial jobs no longer create new industrial jobs in our country. A surplus of obedient hourly workers leads to unemployment, not more factories.On the other hand, creative jobs lead to more creative jobs. Self-starting, self-reliant, initiative-taking individuals often start new projects that need new workers. In my opinion, the now politicized role of “job creator” has nothing at all to do with tax cuts and everything to do with people who trained to have the guts to raise their hands and say, “I’m starting.” An economy that’s stuck needs more inventors, scientists, explorers, and artists. Because those are the people who open doors for others.
There’s a myth at work here, one that cannot and will not be seriously questioned. The myth says:
Great performance in school leads to happiness and success.
And the corollary:
Great parents have kids who produce great performance in school.
It doesn’t matter that neither of these is true. What matters is that finding a path that might be better is just too risky for someone who has only one chance to raise his kids properly.
The industrial model of school is organized around exposing students to ever increasing amounts of stuff and then testing them on it.
Collecting dots. Almost none of it is spent in teaching them the skills necessary to connect dots. The magic of connecting dots is that once you learn the techniques, the dots can change but you’ll still be good at connecting them.
What’s the point of testing someone’s ability to cram for a test if we’re never going to have to cram for anything ever again? If I can find the answer in three seconds online, the skill of memorizing a fact for twelve hours (and then forgetting it) is not only useless, it’s insane. In an open-book/open-note environment, the ability to synthesize complex ideas and to invent new concepts is far more useful than drill and practice. It might be harder (at first) to write tests, and it might be harder to grade them, but the goal of school isn’t to make the educational-industrial complex easy to run; it’s to create a better generation of workers and citizens.
In the post-industrial model, though, the lectures are handled by best-in-class videos delivered online. Anything that can be digitized, will be digitized, and isolated on the long tail and delivered with focus. What’s needed from the teacher is no longer high-throughput lectures or test scoring or classroom management. No, what’s needed is individual craftsmanship, emotional labor, and the ability to motivate.In that world, the defend-all-teachers mindset doesn’t fly. When there is no demand for the mediocre lecture-reader, the erstwhile deliverer of the state’s class notes, then school looks completely different, doesn’t it?
Consider the suburban high school with two biology teachers. One teacher has an extraordinary reputation and there is always a waiting list for his class. The other teacher always has merely the leftovers, the ones who weren’t lucky enough to find their way into the great class.When we free access to information from the classroom setting, the leverage of the great teacher goes way up. Now we can put the mediocre teacher to work as a classroom monitor, shuffler of paper, and traffic cop and give the great teacher the tools he needs to teach more students (at least until we’ve persuaded the lesser teacher to retire).
The role of the teacher in this new setting is to inspire, to intervene, and to raise up the motivated but stuck student. Instead of punishing great teachers with precise instructions on how to spend their day, we give them the freedom to actually teach. No longer on the hook to give repeat performances of three or four lectures a day, this star teacher can do the handwork that we need all star teachers to do—the real work of teaching.
The freshman soccer team at the local public school has a fairly typical coach. He believes that his job is to win soccer games.Of course, this isn’t his job, because there isn’t a shortage of trophies, there isn’t a shortage of winners. There’s a shortage of good sportsmanship, teamwork, skill development, and persistence, right?There are sixteen kids on the squad. Eleven get to play; the others watch. One popular strategy is to play your top eleven at all times, and perhaps, just maybe, if you’re ahead by five or more goals, sub in a few of the second-string players. (Actually, this isn’t just a popular strategy—it’s essentially the way nearly every high school coach in the nation thinks.)The lesson to the kids is obvious: early advantages now lead to bigger advantages later. Skill now is rewarded, dreams, not so much. If you’re not already great, don’t bother showing up.
If the goal of the team was to win, that would make sense. But perhaps the goal is to teach kids about effort and opportunity and teamwork. Isn’t it interesting that the movies we love about sports always feature the dark horse who dreams, the underdog who comes off the bench and saves the day? What would happen to school sports if the compensation of coaches was 100 percent based on the development of all the players and none of it was related to winning the game at all costs?
We live in a culture where a politician who says “it’s simple” will almost always defeat one who says “it’s complicated,” even if it is. It’s a place where middle school football coaches have their players do push-ups until they faint, but math teachers are scolded for giving too much homework. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were legendary intellectuals. Bill Gates and Michael Dell are nerds. But still, the prevailing winds of pop culture reward the follower, the jock, and the get-along guy almost every time. Which is fine when your nation’s economy depends on obeisance to the foreman, on heavy lifting, and on sucking it up for the long haul. Now, though, our future lies with the artist and the dreamer and yes, the person who took the time and energy to be passionate about math.
I think that part of effective schooling is helping students calibrate their dreams. Big enough doesn’t mean too big—so big that your dream is a place to hide.The student who dreams of playing in the NBA, starring in a television show, or winning the lottery is doing precisely the wrong sort of dreaming. These are dreams that have no stepwise progress associated with them, no reasonable path to impact, no unfair advantage to the extra ordinarily well prepared.School is at its best when it gives students the expectation that they will not only dream big, but dream dreams that they can work on every day until they accomplish them—not because they were chosen by a black-box process, but because they worked hard enough to reach them.
Typical industrial schooling kills reading. Among Americans, the typical high school graduate reads no more than one book a year for fun, and a huge portion of the population reads zero. No books! For the rest of their lives, for 80 years, bookless. When we associate reading with homework and tests, is it any wonder we avoid it? But reading is the way we open doors. If our economy and our culture grows based on the exchange of ideas and on the interactions of the informed, it fails when we stop reading. At the Harlem Village Academy, every student (we’re talking fifth graders and up) reads fifty books a year. If you want to teach kids to love being smart, you must teach them to love to read. If the non-advantaged kids in Harlem can read fifty books a year, why can’t your kids? Why can’t you?
There are tons of ways to get a cheap, liberal education, one that exposes you to the world, permits you to have significant interactions with people who matter and to learn to make a difference (start here). Most of these ways, though, aren’t heavily marketed, nor do they involve going to a tradition-steeped two-hundred-year-old institution with a wrestling team. Things like gap years, research internships, and entrepreneurial or social ventures after high school are opening doors for students who are eager to discover the new.
Apple just built a massive data center in Malden, North Carolina. That sort of plant development would have brought a thousand or five thousand jobs to a town just thirty years ago. The total employment at the data center? Fifty.Big companies are no longer the engines of job creation. Not the good jobs, anyway.What the data center does, though, is create the opportunity for a thousand or ten thousand individuals to invent new jobs, new movements, and new technologies as a result of the tools and technology that can be built on top of it.
There is a race to build a plug-and-play infrastructure. Companies like Amazon and Apple and others are laying the groundwork for a generation of job creation—but not exclusively by big companies. They create an environment where people like you can create jobs instead.
If we’re inventing a new business model or writing a new piece of music or experimenting with new ways to increase the yield of an email campaign, of course we have to be willing to be wrong. If failure is not an option, then neither is success. The only source of innovation is the artist willing to be usefully wrong. A great use of the connection economy is to put together circles of people who challenge each other to be wronger and wronger still—until we find right. That’s at the heart of the gas station question: discovering if the person you’re interviewing is comfortable being wrong, comfortably verbalizing a theory and then testing it, right there and then. Instead of certainty and proof and a guarantee, our future is about doubt and fuzzy logic and testing.
Can anyone make music? Ge Wang, a professor at Stanford and the creator of Smule, thinks so. The problem is that people have to get drunk in order to get over their fear enough to do karaoke. Ge is dealing with this by making a series of apps for iPhones and other devices that make composing music not merely easy, but fearless.He’s seen what happens when you take the pressure off and give people a fun way to create music (not play sheet music, which is a technical skill, but make music). “It’s like I tasted this great, wonderful food,” he says now, “and for some reason I’ve got this burning desire to say to other people: ‘If you tried this dish, I think you might really like it.’” His take on music is dangerously close to the kind of dreaming I’m talking about. “It feels like we’re at a juncture where the future is maybe kind of in the past,” he says. “We can go back to a time where making music is really no big deal; it’s something everyone can do, and it’s fun.”
Who taught us that music was a big deal? That it was for a few? That it wasn’t fun? It makes perfect sense that organized school would add rigor and structure and fear to the joy of making music. This is one more symptom of the very same problem: the thought that regimented music performers, in lockstep, ought to be the output of a school’s musical education program. It’s essential that the school of the future teach music. The passion of seeing progress, the hard work of practice, the joy and fear of public performance—these are critical skills for our future. It’s a mistake to be penny-wise and cut music programs, which are capable of delivering so much value. But it’s also a mistake to industrialize them.
Let’s define dumb as being different from stupid.Dumb means you don’t know what you’re supposed to know. Stupid means you know it but make bad choices.Access to information has radically changed in just ten years. Kahn Academy, Wikipedia, a hundred million blogs, and a billion websites mean that if you’re interested enough, you can find the answer, wherever you are. School, then, needs not to deliver information so much as to sell kids on wanting to find it. Dumb used to be a byproduct of lack of access, bad teachers, or poor parenting. Today, dumb is a choice, one that’s made by individuals who choose not to learn.
The people who are picking the college, though, the parents and the students about to invest four years and nearly a quarter of a million dollars—what are they basing this choice on? Do they have any data at all about the long-term happiness of graduates? These schools aren’t necessarily good. What they are is famous.Loren Pope, former education editor at the New York Times, points out that colleges like Hiram and Hope and Eckerd are actually better schools, unless the goal is to find a brand name that will impress the folks at the country club.
“I’m not paying for an education, I’m paying for a degree” In the words of a Columbia University student, that’s the truth. If you choose to get an education at the same time, well, that’s a fine bonus, but with free information available to all, why pay $200,000 for it?
Over the last twenty years, large universities discovered a simple equation: Winning football and basketball teams would get them on television, which would make them more famous, which would attract students looking for a good school. Once again, it’s the marketing problem of equating familiar with good.Since 1985, the salary of college football coaches (at public universities) has increased by 650 percent. Professors? By 32 percent.
There is no question that over this time, the quality of football being played has skyrocketed. Attendance at games is up. Student involvement in sports spectating has gone up as well. And the fame of the schools that have invested in big-time sports has risen as well.What hasn’t improved, not a bit, is the education and quality of life of the student body.In fact, according to research by Glen Waddell at the University of Oregon, for every three games won by the Fighting Ducks (winners of the Rose Bowl), the GPA of male students dropped. Not the male students on the team—the male students who pay a fortune to attend the University of Oregon.Further research by Charles Clotfelter, a professor at Duke, found that during March Madness, schools that had teams in the playoffs had 6 percent fewer downloads of academic articles at their libraries. And if the team won a close game or an upset, the number dropped 19 percent the next day. And it never rose enough later to make up for the dip.We get what we pay for.Colleges aren’t stupid, and as long as the game works, they’ll keep playing it. After the University of Nebraska entered the Big 10, applications at their law school went up 20 percent—in a year when applications nationwide were down 10 percent. As long as students and their parents pay money for famous, and as long as famous is related to TV and to sports, expect to see more of it.
A degree from an Ivy League school is a little like real estate in a good neighborhood. It makes a lousy house better and a great house priceless. We make all sorts of assumptions about fifty-year-old men (even fictional ones—Frasier Crane went to Harvard) because someone selected them when they were eighteen years old.
Many good suggestions but I think you're looking at it the wrong way. You're thinking "How can we improve schools" instead of "What is the best way to learn".
The ideal, 'perfect' teacher would have these qualities: be an expert in all academic fields, an expert in all methods of teaching and motivation, and have maximum empathy with the student at all times - understanding when and how to cheer, to sympathise, to encourage, to calm, to distract. And that ideal teacher should be someone the child admires and respects - a grandmother when he's 5, Buzz Lightyear when he's 8, a sports star when he's 13, Albert Einstein when he's 18.
Obviously no human being comes close to this ideal. But in the near future avatars will. (Robert Heinlein suggested something like this in his Heechee series with Robinette Broadhead's individual advisors). They provide an individual, BESPOKE education.
The infrastructure behind this is obvious. I envisage something like an educational Wikipedia. Someone (anyone) can suggest a draft syllabus for any subject. This will be simply (a) What you need to know/be able to do, to be considered an expert in this subject
(b) The stages towards that knowledge (c) these are the levels of expertise.
Basically a big spreadsheet. Lesson 1 has content defined in column A. Col B is a link(s) to text file for those who want a written explanation. Col C links to the video lectures teaching by TELLING) Col D links to visual demonstrations (teaching by SHOWING) Col D links to simulation games (teaching by DOING)
Finally, I don't think we need a political revolution to move to this model. The Industrial Revolution was never legislated - the factories just happened to be a far more efficient way to deliver the product, and the old ways simply withered.
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