Here is the transcript of a TEDx talk I recently delivered at TEDxMarinAcademy. The theme of the event was Positive Change, and the purpose of my talk was to lay out, as clearly as possible the argument in favor of a major overhaul in our system of education. I will post the video when it becomes available.
THE NEED FOR POSITIVE CHANGE IN EDUCATION
I ask questions. I always have. It is what drives me in life. And I try to ask the big ones. Like, where did we come from? What are we supposed to be doing? And I think these are rather important questions. Otherwise, how do we know that we are doing it right?
I ask the same questions about education. Where did it come from? What are we supposed to be doing – in school?
So, tonight I want to talk about education, and I want to begin with questions. For starters, why education? Why systematize learning, something that happens quite naturally, all the time, school or no school? And why school? Why locate our system of learning in a building?
If you haven’t asked these questions, how do you know we are doing it right? Here are some more.
Why classes? Why do we have classes? I don’t mean why do we gather together in rooms to learn, although that is a good question, too. I mean, why do we coalesce a collection of skills and concepts around a single topic and lay out a sequential course of study – like a recipe. Because it is, isn’t it? A class is like a recipe for learning. It’s like baking a cake. It has a list of ingredients – we call it a syllabus. It has a sequence of events, a list of things to do in a particular order – we call it an assignment schedule. And it has a predictable outcome. Serves 18. And we assess the cake against a standard set of evaluation criteria – flavor, texture, fluffiness. Why do we do that? Why is that our model of learning? I wonder.
Why tests? Why the sit-down, short-answer or multiple choice, pencil and paper tests? Why measure the value of what you know and what you can do by doing something later life does not value and you won’t be asked to do again outside of school. (The DMV notwithstanding, of course.) In any case, I do wonder. And there are plenty of questions to be asked about schooling.
Why group students for learning by age? This one baffles me. Is age that significant? Should students all be learning the same thing at the same age? Should students all be learning the same thing? – now there’s a question.
What we know is that human beings are wonderfully differentiated, each in possession of a unique set of strengths, weaknesses, interests, and challenges that change over time. Different things become relevant at different times. Why, then, group students by age and have them all doing the same thing at the same time? I wonder.
Here’s another question:
If high school didn’t already exist, if we didn’t know what high school was, what would we create to serve the purpose? And what is the purpose of high school education? What is it for?
I believe the purpose of education is to assist individuals in reaching their highest potential in community with others and in service to the common good. That’s pretty much it, isn’t it? Education is about your personal potential, it’s about living together, and it’s about the common good. Great. So, if that’s what it is for, are we doing it right? And why are we doing it the way we are doing it?
Well, as it turns out, there are some answers.
Before about 150 years ago there was no common system of what would come to be known as public education in this country. State-funded, relatively-open schooling for all did not exist before about 1860. People did not go to school then the way we do now. At that time, cities were growing and the urban population was expanding, and a group of folks – educators, politicians, business types – got together and created a system that would prepare almost everyone for citizenship in an increasingly industrialized society. What they came up with was the foundation of American public education and it had a very specific purpose: To meet the needs of the emerging industrial economy and consumer-based society.
Industrialization? You mean factories? Yes, I mean factories. Production facilities for products for large markets. Consumerism? You mean buying things? Yes, I mean buying things. The acquisition of tangible goods beyond what is required for daily life. Am I saying that we have been convinced to buy things we don’t need and it is related to schooling? Yes. I am.
Think shoes for a minute. How many pairs of shoes do you own? Personally, I own many. The fact is, one pair of shoes can get me to work, up the mountain, out to dinner, dancing, anything I need. And yet, I have shoes. Dozens. I have shoes I never wear. Don’t you? Ever wonder about that? How did we get convinced to buy all these shoes?
I have said that the industrial influence on education was profound. If you wanted to profit from an emerging industrial economy, you needed two things. You needed the capacity to produce products and you needed people to want to buy those products. How do you get that? You educate for it. You create a system that conditions people to want more than they have. Consumers.
If you want to think about how schooling is like a consumer economy, just ask yourself who is selling what to whom and what is the price?
But as a rising industrialist, you also needed people to work the factories – and it is tough work on an assembly line. Long hours. In rows and columns. Doing repetitive tasks. Mostly alone. With strict time limits. Deferring gratification. And producing products that are subject to evaluation based on standardized measures of quality.
What? Does that sound familiar? Actually, I hope not. Not too familiar. I was talking about working in a factory, but it describes the current dominant paradigm in education in this country very well.
So, the emerging industrialists needed people to work the factories and people to buy the products. But they needed something else too. They needed to control for creativity. Because it turns out that creativity in a factory setting is a liability. If we are being honest, we do not want people on an assembly line coloring outside the lines. An entire line of widgets assembled … creatively. No. We want outcomes to be measurable, predictable, and consistent, and we want to be able to track productivity and to control for quality. So, creativity in an industrial economy becomes a liability.
And the raft of research that tracks the decline of creativity in students through schooling is well known. Creativity declines in school. But why is that? What happens in 12 grades of school that makes creativity so unlikely? I wonder.
I was speaking to someone recently and she told me a story of her son, a 7th grader at a prominent Marin middle school. She said one day she was called in for a parent conference. Apparently something had happened and they needed to talk. So, she went and as she tells it, the science teacher’s chief complaint about her son was that he was singing in class. Singing. Well, you know. That is understandable. Singing during a test or a silent reading period or something. But, it wasn’t that. They were doing a lab – conducting an experiment, working in pairs or trios and apparently there was quite a bit of activity and chatter in the room already. But this behavior, she was given to understand was unacceptable. Singing is not called for on the lab instructions, is it?
I tell this story not to out these teachers but because it illustrates something about the system and what the system values as worthy evidence of quality performance. The fact is that singing may well have been a sign of engagement. This boy’s mother was so convinced – he is generally an A student.
Exceptionally curious. Extremely bright. Fully engaged. But no where on the plan does it call for singing. Singing is not a part of learning. Is it? And it is not on the rubric! – so singing becomes, by definition, out of bounds. My point is, what our system can’t predict, it can’t tolerate.
But you know things have changed around here lately. The economy is no longer simply industrial. It is post-industrial. Unto informational. We accept the idea that anything that can be automated, will be. Why will anything that can be automated, be automated? Because machines are programmable, controllable, predictable. And people are not. People are creative. They don’t do those jobs as well. And so manufacturing jobs in are in decline. We have a system of education in this country that trains people to do jobs for which they are not well suited and that are increasingly unavailable.
At the same time, our most innovative companies have recognized the value of human creativity in the work place. I heard recently that Apple’s motto is, “If you want to be managed, you are not employable.” If you want to be managed, you are not employable. It is an interesting idea, isn’t it? There was a time when part of being employed was being told what to do. Not so much anymore.
I had an interaction with a student a few years ago that illustrates what I mean.
We were beginning the process of writing an essay – a literary analysis – and I had just finished a lesson on thesis statements and how to craft a powerful thesis out of real questions students really have about the text. My argument was, in fact still is, that a great thesis depends on great questions, and if you are going to write the essay they need to be your questions. At the end of class one of my students approached me, quite concerned. In fact, she was on the verge of frustrated tears. So we talked and at one point she said to me, “All of my other teachers have simply told me what to write, and I have written it, and I’m good at that.” That’s really what she wanted me to know. “But you’re not telling us what to write.”
And I said, “That’s right. I can help you learn to write well. I can coach you on form and style. I can give you strategies for diction and syntax and even idea generation. And I can help you understand the text. But I can’t ask your questions for you and I can’t tell you what to write.”
The point is, if you want to be told what to write, if you want to be managed, you are going to find it hard to find a job that is creative, innovative, and part of positive change for the future.
You know, Google, I hear, has a 20% rule. That is, 20% of the time, one day a week, employees can spend pursuing their own, creative projects. People work alone, in pairs, in groups. And many of these ideas fizzle out, fail, go nowhere. But some of them do go somewhere. And Google trusts this.
Google Earth came out of their 20% rule. Did you know that? It was somebody’s independent study project. Google, like other companies in the business of innovation and creativity, has figured out that good, new ideas come from people seeking answers to their own questions, and being allowed to risk failure without penalty. So, the 20% rule.
Why not a 20% rule for school? One day a week kids can learn whatever they want? I wonder.
Failure, incidentally, is the other thing that the industrial model of schooling gets wrong. In school, failure is one the worst things that can happen. Right? The F. We give it its own letter and its own lexicon of euphemisms. In fact, in some cases a failure on an assignment is never redeemable. It has to be right the first time. And maybe now you can see why. In industry, failure can be catastrophic. If you fail to sew the seam, make the weld, install the circuit, the thing doesn’t work. And that is a deal breaker if you are trying to sell it. In the production of products, failure is to be avoided at all costs.
So, if school is preparing you for work in an industrial economy, failure has to be discouraged. Vilified. Punished. But what if school were not preparing you so much to produce products as to make positive change in the world? Failure in any field based on innovation is a pathway to success. Right? We know this to be true. Failed attempts are keys to later success. The design firm IDEO uses the mantra “Fail early, fail often.” Pixar uses the same idea – so I hear. Why? Because they like things not to work? No. Because failure is the goal? No. It’s because they know the value of a failure well made. They know that innovation depends on repeated attempts. They know that creativity requires feeling the freedom to fail. They are destigmatizing failure.
If schools are preparing students for a job market that is not about working in a factory, and is about innovation and creativity, then we should be teaching our students to fail early and often and to learn and improve from their mistakes. And the process of failing well should be encouraged, designed, assessed, evaluated, measured, rewarded.
Crazy ideas? Not at all. They work. But schools don’t do these things because they are stuck in an outdated model that has not seen change since its inception. It is time we moved on.
So, how do we do it better? No. Scratch that. Let’s ask a different question. How do we do it differently? Because I don’t think we need to do what we have been doing better or more or harder or more on time or with stronger study habits or with more sleep. We need to do something very, very different.
And I have some ideas. There are three things any school that is thinking about its future has to do today:
The first thing we have to do is shift the paradigm. The curriculum is no longer ours and we must stop thinking of schools as delivery systems for information. Every one of us carries the entire internet in our pocket and content is not what we are selling anymore. The curriculum is free and available to anyone with a connection. So, educators need to shift their thinking and their self conception from deliverers of content to facilitators of learning. Step number one: we begin to see ourselves as educational choreographers (or what some have called learning ecologists) and not task-masters in the delivery of content.
The second thing we have to do is personalize education. We have to stop telling kids what to learn as if we knew what content would be useful five years from now. We don’t. We have to start asking different questions: What do you want to learn? What will be your process? And what will success look like for you and how will we measure it? We have to involve kids much more deeply in determining and defining their own learning pathways. And we have to help kids identify their interests and develop them into passions so that they can lead lives of fulfillment and joy at the intersection of what they are good at and what they find valuable. So, step number two is moving from standardized curriculum to personalized learning.
And finally, we have to take the concept of relevance much more seriously. Students should be working and learning in the real world, on actual problems that actual people face, and they need to see the relevance of their learning in the impact it has on people’s lives. Students should be presenting their understandings to authentic audiences of evaluators – their teachers as well as people they do not already know. Because a pencil and paper test does not measure the kind of understanding that is valued by the world we are preparing these kids to change and to heal. But a performance of learning to an audience they don’t already know does. Step number three: abolish the pencil and paper test and move to performance assessments and real world projects.
You know, it is critically important for schools to realize and respond to the fact that students today have access to all of the information they would ever need. The internet is truly a game changer. So, the question is no longer, What do you know? It is, What can you do with what you know – and for whom? Students can be trusted with their education. They might need mentoring, guidance, coaching, as do we all, and there might be failures along the way, in fact I hope so, but students no longer need us to give them the answers.
They need to be put in charge of their own education, they need to put in touch with the thing itself, not its facsimile, and they need to be asked to show what they know and what they can do in authentic situations.
This is the agenda education for the 21st century.