The other day, I posted a link to this TED Talk by Seth Godin along with some of my personal comments on Facebook. I’m a fan of Mr. Godin’s work, and also an avid reader of books on alternative and progressive education. I wasn’t expecting anyone to raise any eyebrows at the share. We all have a funny habit of assuming that other people think just like us, and I’m not an exception. So I was surprised when a family friend and educator commented on my status update and raised some questions. There was no judgment in his reaction, just, “Hey, I’m not sure this provides the whole picture. Here’s what my experience is.”
I really respect this man and his long-withstanding dedication to both his students and his field of expertise. And so the things that he said in response had a lot of weight. They made me stop and think. And think and think. And so presented below are the points that this teacher brought up and my responses to them.
Students don’t want to learn things because it’s not preferred – they’d rather do things that bring pleasure.
So kids don’t want to learn because learning isn’t fun. Well, why isn’t it?
I think we’ve bought and sold this lie that learning isn’t fun for long enough. And it’s totally understandable why. Traditions are hard to break free from. When kids have a slew of ancestors who are alcoholics, it’s likely that they themselves will become alcoholics because there’s a culture and history of alcoholism established in their lives (source). So the fact that learning has been seen as this boring but necessary chore since forever makes it hard to break the cycle. The associations are already established.
We should be working to make learning more fun, more relevant, and more compassionate.
Students would rather have fun than prepare for the real world – and that dreaded thing called work.
One thing I have to wonder about is how much my schooling actually prepared me for the real world. I think that most schooling isn’t real world applicable at all. All those years of math? Yeah, I only use basic algebra every other day or so — and that’s only when I’m too busy to Google the word “calculator.” Literature classes? Shakespeare isn’t going to (directly) make me a better programmer or businessman or accountant.
We can talk for hours about these things indirectly improving your critical thinking skills. But if we really want to improve critical thinking skills, just use Shakespeare and finding the area of a triangle as tools. Don’t dedicate your classes to the individual tools or the toolbox itself, dedicate your classes to building the birdhouse.
And I now I have to wonder. Why is work dreaded?
Work should only be one of two things: as a means to an end or as an end in itself. The work that you’re doing can be something that “pays the bills and makes your hobbies possible” or “is a direct stepping stone to something bigger and better.” Or it can be something that you feel energized and excited by, literally your Life’s Work. To my mind, these two types of work are the kinds of work we should be encouraging our kids to go after. We should empower them to find ways to do the things they like. Work shouldn’t be dreaded or hated or soul-sucking. At worst, it should be neutral and tolerable.
If we have the honesty to admit to ourselves and our kids that we actually dread working, then we’re half-way to solving that problem. There are lots of life hacktivists and snake-oil-selling digital nomads prancing around nowadays, but there are also lots of legit ones. The world is changing. Work is changing. I have hope that education will catch the wave soon enough. But let’s stop telling our kids to do things they hate “because that’s what you’re supposed to do.” Let’s stop doing work that we dread.
No matter how much I prepare or try to inspire, some kids just aren’t interested.
This is one of the biggest challenges teachers face, I think. You can never please everyone, no matter how much you want to. There will always be some kids that you can’t reach.
The best thing you can do is be authentic. You’re most charismatic and inspiring when you truly believe in what you’re saying and doing. Your inner fire will show on the outside. The ones who put their wick to your flame will benefit greatly. But even when we personally aren’t passionate for something, we can still respect and admire those who are.
Growing up, one of my best friends was obsessed with American football. Specifically, he loved the Vikings. And I mean loved. He wore the team’s colors to school, knew all the players’ stats and bios, and made predictions for all the games and player trades. In contrast, I couldn’t care less about sports in general, let alone his favorite team. I had and still have no interest in what school this player went to or which team the Vikings are playing this weekend.
To be honest, this guy’s obsession did get annoying every once in a while. But at the end of the day, this kid was great. Everyone loved him despite his quirkiness. I couldn’t identify with his love for football and the Vikings, but his passion was admirable — and even adorable.
His passion never infected me. I never got excited about football, and I probably never will. But I can appreciate that some people really like it. When we’re authentic and passionate, we give other people a chance to appreciate authenticity, passion, and diversity. So even if students aren’t interested in the topics you’re presenting to them, you’re still giving them an opportunity to learn something. They can learn to respect other people, other ideas, and other choices.
Many kids don’t have the motivation to learn things because they’d rather play video games or be with friends.
-Dr. Laurie Barron, principal of Smokey Road Middle School
When you feel respected and understood by someone, you’re ready to listen them. Ken Robinson gives an account of this principle and it’s effects in the school environment in his book, Creative Schools. Here is an article published in the Huffington Post that summarizes the account described in his book.
The importance of being listened to and understood (especially in the parent-child relationship) is also explored in this spoken word performance by Suli Breaks.
--George Engelhard Jr. and Judith Ann Monsaas in Grade Level, Gender, and School-Related Curiosity in Urban Elementary Schools, The Journal of Educational Research, vol 82
Ken Robinson, an educator from the United Kingdom, says that kids are naturally curious and that schools are killing creativity. I think that his claim that kids are naturally curious stands on its own. Everyone goes through the “why? why? why?” phase growing up. As humans we like to understand and manipulate the world around us.
So kids are naturally curious and creative, but their environment can dramatically affect how long this curiosity lasts (source). Of course, that environment is multi-faceted. It includes school, home, and friends. So schools are’t solely responsible for the decline in interest of learning, but I’m sure we can all agree that playing the blame game will get us and our kids nowhere. So change has to start somewhere, and I think schools should be leading the movement.
It’s not that kids lack the motivation to learn, and so we have to force them to learn (because “we’re older, more experienced, and know better”). They came to us as creative, curious individuals, and that creativity and curiosity was stomped out through years of schooling. There’s a problem with seeing our kids as unmotivated and incurious, but not seeing that a large part of this is own our doing. It’s like kicking someone in the leg and then asking why they limp everywhere. It’s ineffective, and it’s psychologically and emotionally harmful (very similar to victim-blaming).
Education as we know it is the problem. The system is all wrong. The students and teachers are doing their best within a broken, poorly designed system. It’s not the students’ or teachers’ fault that nothing is working. But the reality is that the system needs to be redesigned.
How do you assess someone to find out if they have mastered the content?
In short: portfolios, projects, and experimentation.
No one taught me anything about personal finance or the value of money. I learned from experimenting. One thing that surprised me is that the more money I have, the less valuable it is. Suddenly other things become important to me when I have more money than I need to live comfortably: experiences (traveling, eating out), personal projects (writing, teaching), and general free time, to be specific.
See you on Monday!
Everyone loves talking about how entitled millennials are. So here are some ideas that will give our students more autonomy and responsibility. Let’s give kids more space to create and work things out on their own. Let’s stop threatening them with letters in the alphabet and telling them how hard they’re going to fall. Let’s stop instilling a fear of failure in our kids. And let’s introduce a project-oriented approach to learning instead of a test-obsessed one.
And I don’t mean projects on the rhyming scheme of Lady Macbeth’s monologue in Act II, Scene I. I’m not talking about projects where you have to give a play-by-play of the Cold War. Facts and figures often aren’t real-world applicable. They’re not immediately useful or fun. What’s fun is the synthesis of facts and figures and the dots you connect with them. Building things is fun. Creating things is fun. And building and creating have value.
Often times kids are forced to focus so narrowly on tests that they fail to internalize the things they’re learning, they fail to connect the dots, and they fail to create anything out of the knowledge they spend so much time with. The test-oriented system prevents students from creating, building, and connecting.
We spend weeks in nearly every history class learning about the Cold War, but not Russia today. Sometimes I hear people say about present-day Russia, “Geez, it’s like those guys are stuck in the mentality from the Cold War,” like it’s an old thing already buried by time. They’re oblivious to all of the results of the Cold War, the Russian spirit itself, and how those things (plus economics, religion, and philosophy) affect geopolitics today.
There’s no connection. Everything we’ve learned is distant and impersonal. Again, the test-oriented system prevents students from connecting the dots. The only thing testing creates is narrow-mindedness and dependence. It needs to go.
It might seem pretty scary to think about throwing out testing and a lot of other things when we talk about revamping education. The unknown is scary. But there are much better ways to assess someone’s abilities than passing out a multiple-choice test (or even a long-response one!).
Portfolios, projects, and experimentation.
Instead of testing, we should take a project, portfolio, and experimentation-style approach to both assessment and learning. Failure should be encouraged.
Your students may create some really shitty apps or poorly edited films. They may have terrible business ideas. Their beach clean-up projects may make an even bigger mess. They may make terrible arguments and communicate badly with the community. But the only way to learn is to make mistakes. So let them go out and fail.
Often times, the personal defeat you feel when you fail is painful enough (as talked about in this book). You don’t need someone lording over you, shaking your failure in your face in writing, telling your parents, and giving you harsh criticisms. Don’t misunderstand me, feedback is great. Constructive criticism is wonderful. Honesty is essential. But you don’t need to compare your C grade with little miss Sally Perfection’s A to improve or to learn. You just need to pick yourself up, and go out and try some more.
Portfolios, projects, and experimentation are the assessment strategies of the future. Do you question a programmer of her abilities when you see the app she created or her GitHub profile? Do you question the marketing abilities of a guy who has 10,000 followers on Twitter and guest posts featured on Forbes? Do you doubt the writing skills of a person who’s published a novel that’s been purchased thousands of times on Amazon? No. Because they have results. Their results and success exhibit their skills. Portfolios, projects, and experimentation are the future of learning and assessment.
We’re all born with an innate, natural curiosity to understand the world around us. But somewhere along the line, school stomps this out of us and replaces our creativity and curiosity with obedience, narrow-mindedness, a fear of failure, and resentment for learning. The problem doesn’t have anything to do with the students or teachers. The problem is the system itself. It’s broken. And instead of letting it stumble along, we need to knock it down and rebuild it.
So I insist. Get rid of testing. Throw out homework. Stop devaluing trades. Quit instilling a fear of failure. And give students the space and autonomy they need for the creative process to take place.
RSA ANIMATE: Changing Education Paradigms
Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education
Alternatives to School: Democratic Education
The Future of School
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big