What is school for?

In time for back to school, Seth Godin wrote a wonderful blog post the other day asking an important question: What is school for? Money quote:

If you get ahead for years and years because you got dealt good cards, it’s not particularly likely that you will learn that in the real world, achievement is based as much on attitude and effort as it is on natural advantages. In the real world, Nobel prizes and Broadway roles and the senior VP job go to people who have figured out how to care, how to show up, how to be open to new experiences. Our culture is built around connection and charisma and learning and the ability to not quit in precisely the right moments.

But that’s not easy to sort for in school, so we take a shortcut and resort to trivial measures instead.

The statement: “The ability to not quit in precisely the right moments” is worth the price of a book, and yet you can read it for free on Godin’s blog.

What’s also free is Godin’s book Stop Stealing Dreams. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly suggest you do.

Some more thoughts on education

1. All students should learn HTML and CSS sometime between 5th-8th grade.

Since ebooks are taking the place of traditional books, and computing tablets are just around the corner for all American students, young people should know what the devices are comprised of upon which they are reading and writing. (This could branch out to hardware as well.)

Traditional books are made of paper. There’s not much to them. Ebooks come on complex devices that run software that can be easily learned and programmed. HTML and CSS are the structural and presentational ways of displaying data on ebook devices and online. This knowledge will help students make better sense of technology and how it affects their education and leisure. HTML and CSS also set up the foundation for something very important…

2. All high school students should be taught JavaScript.

This is possibly the most accessible of all programming languages, and it’s a skill many employers want in job candidates. A year or two is plenty to help students think critically and expand their skill sets so they are more marketable–possibly right out of 12th grade.

If HTML and CSS are the presentational and structural components of websites and ebooks, then JavaScript is the behavioral part. Technology is becoming more interactive, and as I’ve read recently: “you either program, or become programmed.” (That’s probably hyperbole, but it doesn’t discount what I’m proposing.)

3. Encourage all students to go to college, but give them the full disclosure.

It’s wonderful if an 18-year-old wants to go to college for the sole purpose of becoming more knowledgeable–and acquiring marketable skills for a job is not in his or her equation. As long as the student knows this going in, I’m cool with that. To tell the student, however, to just “get a degree and everything will work out” is misguided.

We live in a time when going to college makes no sense economically unless a person is pursuing an education that garners skills that can be used in the workforce right now. There’s a lot of jobs just waiting to be filled, but not enough people are applying who fit the minimum description. Our young people deserve to be told that certain degrees are a waste of time (unless the student is independently wealthy), and universities must take into account which degrees are more beneficial to stakeholders than others.

If students and parents are going to go into tens (in not hundreds) of thousands of dollars in debt to attend (not even ivy league) colleges, then the education should at least supply jobs that can pay the monthly student loan debt. Saddling young people with debt before they even have jobs must end. Soon.

Stop Stealing Dreams

No, the title of this blog entry has nothing to do with the movie Inception.

I recently finished reading Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin, a book about education. Actually, it’s better to describe Godin’s latest work as a “manifesto”—as he does many times. It’s organized into 133 chapters that read like individual blog posts. I’m not mentioning this to be disparaging—the bite-sized episodic nature serves it well, and it may be the way many books (fiction and nonfiction) are written throughout the coming years. It’s much easier to use this practice and build a tribe that follows your blog everyday than writing for a year or two and only then begin searching for an audience to read the book.

Godin has significantly shaped the way I view books and information. As he intends, I often find myself thinking after reading a work of his: “What is a book? When does a blog post become a book? When does a short story online become a novella—or a novella a novel? And if you write fiction on your blog one chapter at a time, is it still a book even though it doesn’t have a physical spine and can’t be possessed as an ebook?”

Metaphysical for sure, but worth noting. Stop Stealing Dreams is about education—and I’ll get to its content in just a bit—but the way its content has been presented (free) and the avenues by which you can attain it (Kindle file, PDF, on the web, etc.), coupled with the fact that it’s not quite a book, make it extremely interesting and thought-provoking before the first word about school is even read.

So what does it say about education? Well, a lot. Godin’s musings aren’t meant to be set-in-stone rules for how to improve K-college in America. A book of such magnitude would be impossible. What Stop Stealing Dreams does well is point out problems and provide new ways of thinking as we go about the process of doing a better job educating our youth.

It starts by doing what Godin has done well in the past: explain now the industrial age as we have known it is now over, and many of the jobs that have been lost due to our quickly changing economy are never coming back. The age of the factory is done—at least the age of humans working in a factory. Factories being built in America used to employ thousands of workers to help run the machinery. Now they only need fifty highly trained specialists to make sure tens of thousands of square footage hum along smoothly.

The premise of the manifesto is to stop running schools like the now extinct factories. Godin writes:

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. People’s connection with science and the arts is tenuous at best, and the financial acumen of the typical consumer is pitiful. 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.

No Child Left Behind mandated all students will be at “proficiency” by 2014, but standardized testing and drill ‘n kill has made it impossible to reach such a lofty goal. This philosophy is not in congruence with the fact that if you have a job “where someone tells you exactly what to do, he will find someone cheaper than you to do it.” Jobs that pay well do not come with a map, they come with a compass, and instead of teaching our students a litany of facts and data, we need to teach them creativity and problem solving. Memorizing large amounts of information has been made obsolete by the collective brain we now possess, which is the Internet. Students must be taught how to navigate digital information in order to learn and complete tasks. Memorization for memorization’s sake is a waste of precious time when we could be fostering curiosity and a love for learning. Create curiosity and learning will follow; it’s hard to do this the other way around.

Stop Stealing Dreams really eviscerates much of what is prevalent in education: standardized testing, cuts in electives, little attempt at teaching leadership, fear being used to keep the masses in line, and a stand-offish approach to science.

As I’ve been writing this, I’m referring back to the highlights I made on my Kindle, and I now realize I can’t discuss all the interesting points Godin makes (even though the manifesto is only 30,000 words). To do so would basically be paraphrasing the book. What I will end with is that schools need to be in the business of teaching students scarce skills and scarce attitudes. To not do this will only result in millions of college graduates who are not ready to enter the 21st century workforce. I’ve witnessed firsthand what happens when educators teach to the test: students become needy and expect their hand to be held through every problem that needs solving. This hinders the intellectual capacity they must acquire.

Lego used to only have sets where all the blocks were different shapes and colors, which facilitated a playtime where kids had to be creative and make their own shapes, toys, and structures. Over time, this was jettisoned for Lego sets with directions that spelled out exactly what should be made. This assuaged parents into believing their kids were learning how to follow directions, resulting in better performance at school.

Is this really how we want our children to think? Do the “good” jobs out there come with a manual?

Go to this website and download a copy of Stop Stealing Dreams for free. Read about Godin’s thoughts on libraries, colleges, and home schooling. You may not agree with everything he writes, but the manifesto will help you formulate your opinions as we tackle the 21st century problems education faces.

A new Seth Godin book

I just downloaded the book Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin. It’s free, and you can download multiple formats of the manifesto here.

Stop Stealing Dreams deals with a subject we should all care deeply about: education. I’m hoping to read it within the next couple days–it’s only 30,000 words–and post some thoughts soon.

Check it out. All of Godin’s books are thought-provoking and worth a read.


I wish every educator would watch this: