Quick announcement: I will be appearing tonight on Huffpost Live, at 5:30 p.m. PST (California time). If you’re around, I’d love it if you could tune in. J The topic will be ADD/ADHD, and I’ll apparently be there to balance out the perspective by offering my view that ADD is not some deficit, but rather the next stage in our evolution.
Disclaimer: This particular subject has been incubating for a while, and well, it decided to plop out today. But I’m going to warn you right up front. This is another one of my huge, long epic posts, because it’s a huge, epic topic and I wanted to do it justice. Also, it’s been quite a while since I’ve published one of these beheamoths. Plus, I’m naturally wordy. So, you know, there’s that.
In my post about ADD, I argued that today’s kids are much less willing to be trained into focusing on something that they don’t give a flying crap about than previous generations were. I also proffered that if we’re having to medicate such large numbers of our kids to fit the system, maybe it’s not the kids who are broken. Maybe it’s the system.
A quick search in Google will show that just about everyone agrees that our current education system is no longer working. Theories as to why that is, however, vary widely. Some people think it’s all a conspiracy – the Illuminati and their evil henchmen are deliberately dumbing down the general population (and apparently, we’re letting them). Others blame it on the absence of funds, or discipline, the breakdown of family values, or the fact that God doesn’t get to come to school. In almost all cases, the outlook is bleak – we’re all getting stupider and there’s not much we can do about it. Well, I’d like to first call bullshit (we are NOT DE-volving!!) and offer an entirely different perspective, if I may.
We didn’t actually get it wrong
While there was a time when I subscribed to conspiracy theories (and I still don’t judge those who do, I just find them far too negative to be productive), I don’t believe that the original public education system was put in place to dumb us down. I don’t believe the intent was that sinister, but actually quite appropriate for the times. It’s just that the original design, much like the steam engine, making fire by rubbing two stones together, and the mullet, is WAY past its expiration date.
We didn’t always have free public education. There was a time when entering the clergy was the only way one could learn to read and write. Religious institutions then began setting up private schools, where those who could afford it could receive an education. It wasn’t until the 1800’s (exact dates vary by region of the world) that widespread public education became the norm, and even then, it was generally only at the basic level. Higher education (meaning high school and beyond) was still reserved for the privileged, since it didn’t seem to be necessary or even beneficial for the masses. It wasn’t until literacy rates had begun to climb all around that it became apparent that the general population, and society, would actually benefit from further education.
All of these developments can be seen as a natural product of our continuous evolution. It wasn’t like widespread education was on the agenda but was being deliberately thwarted by anyone. We first had to recognize that a literate populace might be a good thing and then figure out a way to implement a system to accomplish that. We really kind of had to invent a system of public education from scratch, and we actually did a pretty decent job. Think about it: Worldwide, we went from being an almost completely illiterate bunch of farmers and craftsmen who thought the world was flat, to a society of people who can use their smartphones to access satellite images of any point on this Google Earth. And even if we do use a disproportionate amount of that power to look at LOL Cats (and I’m in no way saying that’s a bad thing), the fact remains that we now have more access to information and the power to use and understand it than we’ve ever had before. The educations system may be broken, but it did manage to get us this far, and that’s no small accomplishment. Let’s give credit where credit is due.
That being said, we can’t just slap an “upgrade” sticker on a gramophone and call it an MP3 player. Simply making a few changes to revise our current system isn’t going to get us there. And that’s not just because we now know so much more about how human beings learn than we did at the turn of the 19th century. It’s mainly because the old system of education was based around completely different goals than the ones we have today.
Churning out good little factory workers
The public education system that’s in effect today was put in place largely to prepare the populace for the industrial age. As we moved away from mom and pop shops, and what was essentially an economy fueled by independent contractors, and started to build factories with conveyor belts, we needed to train workers who would be willing to perform simple tasks over and over again. Whereas a craftsman used to build an entire table, a factory worker might spend all day, every day, making only table legs, never coming in contact with the final product. This is something called “segregation of duties”, and it’s still widely practiced in many large companies today.
Large, complex jobs are broken down into smaller, simple tasks. Each worker only has to know their own task instead of training to complete the entire project, making training faster and easier and allowing for much more efficiency and consistency. And this approach does work – in fact, mass production depends on it. Conveyor belt type production churns out much larger amounts, and more consistent products than single item production.
The only problem was that humans aren’t machines and didn’t readily adapt to doing the same damn thing over and over again, while being kept on a need to know basis regarding the bigger picture (and never needing to know). But we were on the cusp of our next stage of evolution, the Industrial Era. And so, we began to train and condition our youth for the factory environment, using the public education system.
How schools are like factories
Working in a factory type environment (and I use the term “factory type” because most corporations are still run this way today, even if the jobs are far removed from an assembly line), requires conformity above all. If it’s your job to create widgets, and nothing but widgets, you can’t just suddenly start making doohickeys instead, just because you had a sudden doohickey related flash of inspiration. You have to be willing to work in a bleak environment, day in day out, focusing on something you really don’t care about (how much can one care about widgets?), and following orders without question. Independent thought is not only discouraged, it’s detrimental and therefore squashed. I mean, imagine if all the assembly line workers suddenly started to ponder the validity of making widgets, in the grand, cosmic scheme of things. How many widgets would be sacrificed to philosophical musings, I wonder?
So, schools were set up to mirror the factory environment, allowing educators to train children to give up their independent thought and creativity at an early age.
- Subjects were separated – much like tasks being separated in the factory environment, and were (are) most often presented independently of their application. Just like the worker may not have known all the end products his widgets were ultimately used for, so was the student kept in the dark about how good grammar, or math and science skills might’ve been directly applicable in his own life. This is still the case today. Most students have no idea why they have to learn what they’re told to learn, just as many office workers have no idea why they have to produce report after useless report.
- The ending of segments of time were marked by the ringing of a bell, exactly the same as in the factories in the early 19th century.
- Students were told exactly what to learn, regardless of their interests. They were taught to focus for long periods on subjects they didn’t care about. This was useful for creating factory workers who would have to perform the same boring job over and over again.
- Risk taking was discouraged and punished with humiliation. Answers were either right or wrong, and not open to interpretation. In the olden days, the teachers didn’t just shame you for getting the answer wrong, they might’ve even put you in the corner with a dunce hat on your head. Peer pressure was used to get children to conform to the rules.
- Students were judged on a set of arbitrary and often changing criteria, which they didn’t fully understand, in an effort to instill in them the sense that they could never fully grasp the big picture and should leave it to the teachers/authorities/management to tell them what to do.
Training obedient factory workers may have helped us usher in the Industrial age, but since we’re now in a completely different era, and stepping into yet another phase of our evolution, this system of education is simply no longer relevant, and isn’t really adaptable to our current needs. That’s because this way of conformist thinking runs counter to how humans are designed to process information.
There’s never just one answer
In school, we’re told there’s only one right answer, and we’re taught exactly how to arrive at it. We’re given one conclusion and one path to arrive at it. But that’s not how reality works! There’s rarely just one answer to any question and there’s certainly never just one path to that answer. Different people will use different paths to get to the “correct” answer (this is apparent in the different learning styles), and may come to vastly different conclusions, which, when seen from their own perspective, could all be seen as valid.
But students are taught to shut off their brains (all but the ability for rote memorization) and blindly accept not only that there is only one answer, but that there is only one way to reach it.
When I moved from Germany to the U.S., I was 9 years old. At this point, I had been taught to do quite a bit of math, and was well ahead of the other kids in my class. The problem, however, was that I had been taught to use a different method to arrive at the correct answer. In fact, since I was good at math, I usually just did it in my head. This was unacceptable to the teacher, since it wasn’t just important that I arrived at the correct answer, but that the path which I had used to get there be tightly controlled, as well. I was required to show my work, which was then deemed “wrong”, even though the end result was right. Don’t even get me started on the spelling tests I failed because I’d inadvertently used British English spelling.
Needless to say, that didn’t sit well with me. They were essentially telling me that the way I was thinking was incorrect, even though I’d arrived at the right result. The process by which I’d attained the answer didn’t conform, and, as f*%#ed up incredulous as this may seem, that was almost more important than the answer itself.
In Junior high, I changed schools in the middle of the year. My first week in science class, we took a test, and one of the questions was: Give an example of molecules in a solid state, a liquid state and a gaseous state. Now, given that I hadn’t been present for the lesson this example was referring to, I wasn’t aware of the “correct” answer and simply used my brain (*gasp). The question hadn’t specified that the answer had to be one type of molecule that could exist in all three states, but had simply asked for examples of all three. And so, I wrote Liquid: Mercury, Gas: Hydrogen and Solid: a chair. I got the question wrong. The correct answer was “water”. When I challenged the teacher on the fact that my answers were not incorrect given the wording of the question (I was stickler for semantics, even then), I was told that Mercury and Hydrogen were ok, but the chair was wrong. When I asked in confusion if everything wasn’t actually made of molecules, I was told “Yes, but those are different kinds of molecules.” I’ve never been able to get a scientist to explain that one to me.
I don’t blame the teachers, mind you. The whole education system was designed to squash independent thought, so any evidence of it has to be unacceptable.
The measure of success has changed
For the majority of the twentieth century, we were convinced that the goal was to get a good job, and our education system was our ticket to that. If we studied hard and got a degree, we’d be guaranteed a nice, solid position in some big company where we could work obediently until retirement. This was the carrot they lured us with and the consistent answer to the question “Why do I have to learn this stuff?” Well, times have changed. No one seriously expects guaranteed employment anymore, and a degree is by no means an automatic route to success. Ordinary people can become rich with one innovation, and it’s now more possible than ever for one person to have a measurable impact on society as a whole, if not the entire world. Our dreams have changed, and we’re no longer content to look forward to a good solid factory job. We want more. And we certainly don’t all want the same thing. And yes, I realize that there are those who would rather return to the good old days, but as I said, you can DE-volve, so just suck it up, already.
Being successful has come to mean so much more than having security. For many, it means great wealth (which already represents a huge shift in consciousness. People didn’t used to feel empowered enough to even dream of being wealthy and/or changing the world. Now, it’s everyday news). But for more and more people going through the great awakening and who have reached the next level of understanding, it means happiness. In either case though, whether you define success in terms of money or awesomeness, our current education system just isn’t conducive to that outcome.
Free, passionate thinkers wanted
If you want to foster innovation, the best way to get there is to allow anyone, not just a select few, to come up with solutions. And that means fostering independent, creative, lateral (vs. linear) thinking. It means allowing ourselves to go down any path we choose and see where it leads, and accepting all answers as potentially valid. It means taking a look at the assumptions that were made in the asking of the question and allowing for those assumptions to change.
We can’t just stop telling kids HOW to think, though. We also have to stop telling them WHAT to think. You’re never going to get true innovation and world changing ideas by putting a bunch of baseball fans in a room and asking them to solve football’s problems. Sure, they can learn all about football over time, but if that’s not where their passion lies, they’ll never dig into the subject the way they would with baseball. Think about it: when you’re really into something, you think about it night and day, not just while you’re “on the clock”. You can’t help yourself. You dream about it, talk about it, read about it, ponder it, question it, dissect it and put it back together. You do all this not because you’re told to, but because you want to. No one needs to motivate you. When you have a problem you really care about, you put everything you’ve got into solving it. Combine this passion with free, lateral thinking and you’ve got a recipe for true innovation. Remove one, or in the case of our education system, both, and you’ve got a recipe for an unmotivated, unhappy, seemingly lethargic, disgruntled, resentful workforce and student body. Is this starting to sound familiar?
The big paradigm shift
Before you despair about the state of our education system and how we’re all doomed, let me point out that the solution to this problem is already under way. First of all, human nature is stronger than any man made system. Innovators have been making new discoveries all along, even if they did so more in spite of the education system and less than because of it. Artists have been creating, thinkers have been thinking, and college dropouts have been discovering world changing technology in their garages. It’s not like we’ve been living under a rock all this time and are somehow just now discovering our power. We’ve had the power all along, and we’ve been using it, just not on as large a scale as we are about to.
Kids have been resisting the education system for ages (I certainly did), and are doing so more and more vehemently (and successfully!). We can try to medicate them into submission and conformity all we want, it won’t work. There’s too many of them, and the adults are starting to wake up, too. New schools with radically different learning systems are already cropping up, and what seemed like a bunch of hippy nonsense just a few years ago is now proving itself to be a viable and highly successful way to allow children to learn.
The “new” way of facilitate learning
We don’t so much need to “teach” kids, as facilitate their learning. Your child learns to speak by listening to you. After a little while, she tries to mimic the sounds she hears, and after a bit of practice, you can’t shut her up anymore. It’s a natural process and there’s nothing you have to do to make it happen. It just does.
Children learn to speak because they want to communicate. They have a strong incentive to practice, since doing so allows them to do and/or get something they want. You don’t have to motivate a kid to learn their first language. In the same way, if a child is interested in a subject, you don’t have to “teach” them anything. You just have to expose them to the materials needed (like books on the subject, for example), to facilitate their learning. My nephew loves dinosaurs. He memorized the Latin names of the ancient beasts before he was even able to read. No one had to sit there with flashcards teaching him the names. Flying monkeys couldn’t have stopped him.
The key lies in the child’s (and adults’) level of interest. When we are interested in a subject, we not only learn faster and more comprehensively, but work harder and produce vastly superior results then when we don’t give a flying crap. We can use this concept not only to reform education, but how we work, as well. What would happen if we only ever worked on things we were truly interested in? Many people would say that a lot of the crappy jobs would stop getting done. I disagree. I believe that if everyone were given the tools to do what they really wanted to do, we would thrive like never before. Sure, there might not be that many people who would be passionate about picking up the garbage, but I’m certain there are plenty of people out there who would work diligently and feverishly to eliminate the problem in another way (automated garbage pickup, for example). Jobs would morph, new jobs would be created and many of our more manual functions would just go away.
In order for that to happen, however, we need to always consider the bigger picture. We can’t separate and segregate tasks and work on a need to know basis (with no one but a few needing to know). We have to make knowledge and tools accessible, and learn from the top down. Instead of trying to drill Geometry and Physics into a child’s brain, for example, one could help him build a skateboard ramp, which requires both. A child interested in building that ramp will pick up the necessary math and science in a flash and with enthusiasm, because it’s directly tied to something he wants and is interested in. There are a lot of people out there who think they’re horrible at math or some other subject and consider themselves too stupid to learn it, simply because they had a hard time forcing themselves to focus on mathematics out of context. Learning the alphabet is a lot more fun when you realize that doing so will allow you to read your favorite book.
Different types of thinkers would come up with different answers, no longer hampered by being told to only think one way (which only works well for one segment of the population). What’s more, self esteem would rise drastically – if you’ve been told all your life that you’re stupid because you can’t successfully produce results in the one way you’ve been told is acceptable, you’re not likely to allow yourself to have any major breakthroughs. But, if you now realize that by thinking the way you’ve been naturally trying to along, you have loads of amazing ideas, you may well realize that intelligence is a very subjective term, one that’s been much too narrowly defined up until recently.
We have to stop trying to come up with solutions and then asking our kids to conform to them. Instead, let’s lay out the problems and challenge kids to pick one that they resonate with and solve it. This is already happening, by the way. Kids often challenge themselves to do this, and when they do, miracles happen.
- A 17 year old High School student discovered a very promising cure for cancer.
- 17 year old Tony Hansberry Jr., developed a new suture method for hysterectomy patients, that have led to decreased hospital stays and more efficient surgeries.
- An 18 year old Nepalese teen invented cheap solar panels using human hair
This applies to the work environment, as well. Need to solve a large scale problem in a company? Explain the issues and all related details to the workforce (the ones actually doing the work…), in other words, give them all the information and tools they need, empower them to have ideas (take the risk of failure out of the equation), and watch them come up with incredible solutions.
Why not challenge ourselves to think this way all the time? Haven’t we gathered enough proof? The Internet has given people from all over the globe the opportunity to exchange ideas and knowledge, and new technologies are being born at an unprecedented rate. This is already happening! All we can do now is continue to fight the changes, or jump on board. I’m for doing some jumping. Who’s with me?
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll love this excerpt of a talk given by one of the most brilliant and eloquent people on the planet today: Sir Ken Robinson