It’s 6:41AM. I am walking my 9-year-old and 6-year-old to the bus stop. Sometimes, we talk about why the moon is still out in the morning, and other times we admire the speed of the clouds racing through the sky. Right before they climb the stairs aboard the big cheese, I hug them, tell them I love them, and remind them to ask great questions.
They both smile with familiar, but slightly puzzled looks and say, “Okay, Dad”.
Fast forward a few hours, and I’m back at the bus stop for the return trip.
With the full spirit of the post-school afternoon, my 9-year-old charged off the bus for a quick hug. I asked him if he brought up any great questions. He told me that the teacher asks the questions. They answer them. They really can’t just ask questions.
As a parent, you run across various pivotal moments that present an opportunity to encourage, comfort, enlighten or inspire. In this particular moment, I was struggling with my own disappointment with his response. My disappointment was not with him, but with the situations and the environment that led him to believe that students don’t ask questions.
It stirred up a deep desire to explore the public education system …
What are they learning?
How are they learning?
Are they just memorizing facts?
Does he have the opportunity to be creative?
Is the process getting him excited to learn?
After silencing my overactive prefrontal cortex, I suddenly realized that I was the only thing standing in the way of a snack and playing with his buddies. With a quick close, I told him that we learn by asking great questions.
After a quick smile, he raced to embrace the freedom of the afternoon.
We live in a very solid public school district with great teachers that provide a safe, positive environment for my kids. This is not a rant against teachers. Most of the teachers that I know are passionate and sincerely care about teaching. While my kids spend over 1,200 hours per year in school, their education is 100% my responsibility.
It was time for me to get educated on education.
I ran across a brief history of public education presented by Sal Khan, who is the founder of the Khan Academy. The Khan Academy is a non-profit that offers an accessible, online platform for free education.
Khan points out the following key facts:
Our public education system has not changed in more than 120 years.
Every child is grouped based on original date of manufacture.
These groups move along a predetermined assembly line for twelve years.
Keep facts in brain for a week.
Spit facts out before you forget them.
The system known as the Prussian education system was developed in the 18th century, and it was originally brought to the United States by Horace Mann. While government provided education for all was a definite game-changer, it may be worthwhile to think about it’s factory-style approach.
These qualities are spot on if you are producing billions of bottle caps. However, if your goal is to develop creative minds prepared to solve exponential challenges that haven’t even been presented to us, it may require a different approach.
Alvin Toffler from his book Future Shock:
“Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed. The problem was inordinately complex. How to pre-adapt children for a new world – a world of repetitive indoor toil, smoke, noise, machines, crowded living conditions, collective discipline, a world in which time was to be regulated not by the cycle of sun and moon, but by the factory whistle and the clock.”
David Brooks (New York Times):
“The American education model…was actually copied from the 18th-century Prussian model designed to create docile subjects and factory workers.”
I grew up in the public school factory, and many will say that I turned out okay.
Some would argue that the verdict is still out.
One of my best memories of school goes back to 5th grade at Latimer Lane Elementary School in the sleepy little town of Simsbury, CT. My teacher’s name was Mr. Carpenter. He was one of the cool teachers. What makes a teacher cool? My definition now would probably land somewhere between passion and patience, but my ten-year-old mind would argue that it was because he was a former lacrosse player, and that was really exciting because my buddies and I were sports junkies.
Every day at recess we manufactured intricate details of championship games complete with player back stories and imaginary crowds who’s collective auditory presence sounded similar to the hush of air loosely guided by my two hands from my mouth.
We lived for recess.
Football, soccer, kickball, four square, dodgeball, and whatever else we could drum up.
Rain was the arch enemy of recess.
It was the James McCullen Destro XXIV to your GI Joe.
The Skeletor to your He-Man.
I recall one cloudy day that seemed to get more cloudy and dreary with each passing minute. During the lessons that day, my friends and I kept tabs on the weather hoping for a break. Unfortunately, the clouds turned into rain, and dodgeball turned into the dreaded indoor recess.
Mr. Carpenter pulled out eight chessboards, and set them up at various desks across the room. If our thoughts were automatically amplified and projected from our subconscious, you would have heard a collective sign followed by a youthfully harmonized, “Booooooorrrrrrrring”.
As any great teacher does, Mr. Carpenter ignored our negativity and proceeded to show us the game of chess. By the end of recess that day, the binary collection of plastic characters and folded cardboard had conquered our attention and our imagination.
The next day was beautiful, sunny and perfectly appropriate for a triumphant return to playground sports. Guess where Mr. Carpenter’s entire 5th grade class was during recess? In the classroom, deeply engaged in individual battles between good and evil emanating from eight chessboards. I fondly recall many other recesses that year spent trying to figure out how to take my opponent’s Queen.
Thank you Mr. Carpenter for teaching us something beyond what the system required.
Back to the factory …
How can a system that hasn’t changed in 120 years prepare my kids for their future?
Short answer … It might not be.
The jobs that my kids will pursue likely haven’t been invented yet.
When do kids get to chase down and explore crazy ideas?
What period is creativity? What time does imagination class start?
Is it before lunch or after recess?
Sorry, boss …
Get back to your seat.
Memorize these facts.
Hold them in your brain.
Prove to me that you can spit them back out by choosing A, B, C or D.
Then I’ll provide numerical feedback to confirm or deny your intelligence.
WHY ARE WE MEMORIZING FACTS?
Information is more accessible than ever in the history of humanity.
What if we focused on learning creative ways to use that information to solve the most interesting challenges in the world?
Is the current education system squashing creative thinking?
Short answer … Maybe.
In their book, Break-Point and Beyond, George Land and Beth Jarman conducted a long-term study on 1,600 kids between the ages of 3-5 years old to measure their divergent thinking capabilities. Divergent thinking is the ability to approach a challenge in multiple ways, or the idea that there isn’t just one correct answer to a given problem.
How the heck do you test divergent thinking?
Questions like this one:
How many uses can you come up with for a paper clip?
Somebody scoring average for divergent thinking would be able to provide 10-15 uses.
Somebody scoring in the genius category would rattle off 100 or so.
98% of these 1,600 kindergarteners scored in the genius category.
Here comes the bad news:
1. Five years later, the same group was tested again and the number dropped to 32%.
2. Similar studies conducted on a group of 200,000 adults resulted in only 2% scoring in the genius category.
Are there alternatives to the factory?
Short answer … Hell yes.
Meet Peter Diamandis, Seth Godin and James Watson.
If you’ve read other posts, you’ll find the name Peter Diamandis familiar. Peter is one of the co-founders of Singularity University, X Prize, and he is the best selling author of Bold and Abundance. I love Peter’s thoughts on reinventing education.
What if this was the new Elementary school curriculum?
(from Reinventing How We Teach Our Kids – Peter Diamandis)
Storytelling & Communications
Remember Walt Disney and his pitch for Snow White?
Nothing goes anywhere without a great story.
Finding passion is about discovery and experiencing what others love doing.
Curiosity & Experimentation
It’s actually awesome not to know the answer as long as we cultivate the drive to find it.
Persistence & Grit
These are learned behaviors.
Enough to understand how to apply it.
Actively putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to appreciate their position.
Ethics and Moral Dilemmas
Defined by discussing real-world issues to develop a solid moral compass.
Creative Expression and Improvisation
Exposure to different types of creative expression and resourcing individual interests.
Coding is the basis for computer science. Computer science is the future.
Entrepreneurship and Sales
Two critical foundations for the sustainability of great ideas.
Learning a new language fires the awesome areas of the brain.
Seth Godin is the best-selling author of books like Linchpin, Tribes, The Dip and Purple Cow. His blog is considered required reading by most entrepreneurs. Seth refreshed the idea of graduate-level education through his ALTMBA program. ALTMBA is a 4-week online leadership and management workshop taking a new approach at developing next generation leaders. Seth believes kids need to learn how to lead, and learn how to solve interesting problems.
“The way you teach your kids to solve interesting problems is to give them interesting problems to solve. And then, don’t criticize them when they fail. Because kids aren’t stupid. If they get in trouble every time they try to solve an interesting problem, they’ll just go back to getting an A by memorizing what’s in a textbook … I really don’t care how you did on your vocabulary test. I care about whether you have something to say.” – Seth Godin
James Watson is the co-founder and director of innovation for The New School in Atlanta, GA. He believes high school should be a daring adventure that connects college preparatory learning with real world exploration. I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in entrepreneur pitch meetings with the talented and inspiring students of TNS. We listened to eleven thoughtfully developed and beautifully presented pitches for companies that the students had founded.
NeuroSyn – This student was focused on battling the ADHD epidemic by providing an alternative to medication. He built a device that will train attention through the use of music.
The Daily Optimist – This one was my favorite. Most traditional news is depressing and can feed humans with ammunition to complain. This entrepreneur is focused on writing news from the future. Imagine jumping in a time machine to a point in the future, and working backwards to create the solution instead of merely stating the problem. She plans to bring this program to schools across the state as a creative writing exercise.
These two entrepreneurs are juniors in high school.
If you are the owner of a 120-year-old factory, wouldn’t you be concerned that it’s critical systems may start to fail? What if you were responsible for cultivating the widgets produced in that same factory? Not many products can survive over a century without some innovation and reinvention.
Why do we think our school system is immune to these challenges?
It’s not realistic to think that the system will change overnight, but all schools in the current system are not bad. Even if these factories don’t change, I am comforted by the presence of forks on the path of learning and discovery that inspire divergent thinking and creativity. Thankfully, the world has thoughtful teachers like Mr. Carpenter, visionaries like Peter Diamandis, programs like Seth Godin’s ALTMBA and passionate protectors of the creative mind like James Watson.
Teaching reinforces learning, and by removing ego as a teacher, you are always a student. As I continue my journey as both student and teacher, my lesson plan is sure to include the value of a thoughtful question and the creativity in multiple answers.
Here’s to being the change that you want to see in the world.