Sit in ordered rows. Do what your told. Don’t question the authority. Stick to this plan and schedule. If you’re “good”, you’ll be rewarded. No, you don’t get a say… Sounds like a bad gig, but it reflects two related systems where we spend much of our waking lives: school and work. This is the “factory” model (interpreted in a loose sense). School teaches us to follow directions, be compliant, and be like everyone else. It’s perfect training for a corporate world where it’s the same raw deal.
Is it surprising that students don’t care to “learn” (is this really even learning?) when our education system reflects this dehumanizing factory model? Is it shocking that students are glued to the extrinsic motivation of getting good grades with that promise that it’ll lead to a “good job”? That’s what they’re taught after all. There’s pressure on all sides, from society at large to guidance figures, that this is supposedly the only way. Those that seek to be different or creative are often lashed out upon – I know this all too well.
When I was in school, my vision in education was about actually learning something (and everything). My motivation was intrinsic. I found the whole notion of grades and exams to be a hindrance. Most classmates seemed incapable of understanding this – they were institutionalized: set on the track to be unquestioning direction-followers. The few that understood my perspective considered me to be naive – that that this wasn’t the way the world worked and that I’d end up screwing myself over with such idealism. I was constantly challenged about my approach. Why are you taking this class? It’s not a requirement and it won’t help your career. Why aren’t you memorizing this and that? How about doing something that will look good on your transcript or resume? How can you ask the teacher that question? But I managed to do alright. I survived the system because my intrinsic desire to learn automatically bore good grades. And I sought out those good teachers that appreciated my perspective.
A side note: I feel especially bad for teachers. There’s a lot of good ones out there that really want their students to learn and care. But they have to fight the factory system on two fronts – directly from higher-ups telling them to do things in potentially demoralizing ways and indirectly from apathetic students that have had the curiosity drilled out of them.
There is some very good news though. The world is in the midst of a change – the factory model is on the decline. It’s easier than ever before to learn something on ones own time. Access to knowledge online, video lectures and way beyond, are demolishing the gatekeepers to learning. it’s so obvious now. Conversely, it’s now possible to connect with others in your field that seek to do meaningful work. It’s an exciting time, for those that understand this change. The generation that’s just leaving school now is both very lucky and unlucky – it’s the first to have the opportunity to break out of the factory model, but also the last to be engulfed by it as is crumbles beneath them. I’m fortunate enough to be in the former group, but I had to fight all sorts conventional “advice” to get there. Unfortunately, many of my peers still cling on to the factory model as they stick to formal schooling or soulless work.
There’s a really good new book – more a manifesto built of a hundred and something short blog posts – regarding education and how it will be transformed for the better: Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin. It’s free to read and share. If you agree or are intrigued by the points I made in this post, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy this book. And if you don’t like what I’ve said here, you should still check out this book – at least the first dozen posts.
For a long time, knowledge was locked down and we had to be part of this terrible system. But now the world of amazing knowledge is becoming unleashed. It’s only a matter of time before our education system is totally transformed to reflect this. And with it, students will recapture the joy the learning.
A few examples of education being transformed:
Note: I refer mostly to the reading of non-fiction books in this post
“I love to read!” These are some words that every school teacher and parent would be enthralled to hear from their kids. And our teachers and parents work so hard to get us to read, telling us that it is essential to our success. Yet, through multiple metrics, like the repeated statistics that kids aren’t meeting reading standards or that adults do very little reading in general, there’s a clear disconnect between the the desire and the reality. I’m not sure what the perfect solution is to get people more interested in reading, but as someone who has gone from non-reader to a voracious reader, I share some experiences that provide light on the matter.
For most of my life, I didn’t like reading because iit was something I did only in school or had forced upon me by authority figures. It felt like something that was work and it was neither fun nor something that I chose to do. In most cases, I found the literary works uninteresting. But for school, I was required to read it and then participate in class discussions (and by discussions, I mean the desperate teacher prodding us students to guess the bazillion hidden intents made by the author). I found the whole exercise pointless and didn’t see how it connected to real life matters. I’m sure many of my classmates shared this sentiment. And we marched on through our school lives, reading only when we had to, associating it as some necessary and boring activity that required a lot of effort yet yielded little legitimate value.
It wasn’t until my third year of college – near the end of my formal education – that I saw a tiny light indicating otherwise. At the time, I was looking into ways to improve my eating habits and my exploration fueled my desire to learn about the machinery behind our food system. I picked up The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. Despite the elegance of Pollan’s words, it took me about four months to finish the book. This wasn’t a surprise considering that this was probably the first non-fiction book I had ever read on my own accord. I wasn’t used to reading such a long work so it took an exorbitant amount of time and effort to get through it. However, the experience was very eye-opening – it revealed that reading such a work is enjoyable and a great way to learn.
Flash forward to now – four years later. I’ve probably polished off about seventy-five non-fiction books since. And my rate of reading has increased exponentially. That is, I read a handful of books when still in school, and even more after finishing school. And then it exploded – I feasted on books, reading one after another, or as more often the case, two or three in parallel. Despite that I began working full-time in 2011, I began to read even more, stuffing sessions into my commute and weekends. I’d become addicted.
So what happened? How did this transformation occur? The first and most significant factor was that reading allowed me to learn about the things I found interesting. And it became self-perpetuating – as I read more about things that interested me, I became interested in other things that the books discussed, and I ended up reading books on those topics. It was also self-fulfilling: because reading allowed me to delve into subjects I was passionate about (or became passionate about – the order is sometimes a blur), I became passionate about reading itself.
The second factor is that it became easier to read as I read more. The ability to read is much akin to training like an athlete or artist – it requires a lot of consistent practice and concentration – especially in the beginning when we’re prone to fumble around. The ease and grace comes after a lot of initial work. I sense that most people that don’t like to read, if not all, never get over this hurdle. They never get to a level where it’s easy to get into a reading groove and breeze through long or complex works with ease.
The third factor is that our school teachers and parents are correct – reading goes a long way to make us more intelligent, wise, and conscientious individuals – essential qualities to do well in our complex world. This is especially the case for non-fiction works. In my own experiences, I’ve found that I better understand the world and how it operates on a deep level because of all the explorations, research, and insights I’ve become exposed to from all the various perspectives of the authors. Likewise, this has bolstered my creative ability by providing more parts for my creative toolbox. Reading allows my experience in education to continue despite that I’m out of school. My formal studies involved the natural sciences and computer science, and I also had some informal study of the social sciences. But through reading, I’ve learned a great deal about psychology, economics, world problems, self improvement, social etiquette, business, history, media, and marketing. Here’s a handful of books that illustrate the breadth of knowledge out there:
Children of Jihad by Jared Cohen – an American student reveals the story of the Middle East youth through a blend of his firsthand experiences from exploring the Middle East and the history that has brought its cultures to the present state
The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo – the creator of the legendary Stanford Prison Experiment dives into details of his study and the analogous Abu Gharib tortures to show how human morality can be altered almost completely given the right environment
Food Politics by Marion Nestle – this nutrition, food studies, and public health professor exposes the relationship between the food industry and our political system and how it produces the our food system – one that is geared for the industry at the expense of our health
Linchpin by Seth Godin – this marketing genius shows how the way we do work has shifted away from an industrial model to one that allows us to become indispensable individuals that do meaningful work
Each of these works explores something that affects us profoundly – it’s difficult to argue that any of them don’t explore areas that are relevant to our daily lives. This is why I so strongly believe that reading books is so important for us as individuals and as a society. Likewise, this is why I find reading to be so interesting. I love to read. Why not say it too?
We’re fortunate to live in the information age. Not only do we access to news and blogs and such, but there’s also formal learning such as online video lectures. Access to learning is especially accessible because many of us carry the internet in our pockets with app phones. But the argument is made that we’re suffering from information overload. There’s the constant stream of news feeds, be it articles or other updates. I propose an idea that brings agreement to these conflicting issues.
Basically, there’s two parts to leaning. The first part we know very well: consuming information. The second part is less obvious: processing and reflecting upon the information. An easier way to understand this idea is to compare it to the two parts of training your body, where the first part is the physical activity itself and the other part is the recovery. Just as the body needs to repair itself and reconfigure muscles to work better for the activity in the future, the mind needs to reflect upon new information and fit it with all existing knowledge to bring an overall deeper understanding of something.
So just consuming information doesn’t result in learning. New information must be mindfully considered. The scientific process occurs and information is tested against all previous knowledge and experience. Bad information is thrown out. Perhaps old knowledge is tweaked or looked upon in a whole new light. We all know this process – it’s that moment of clarity that emerges when we relax into deep thought (why does this always happen in the shower?).
So while we are blessed with the incredible technology of having information at hand at all times, we should be mindful in how we consume it. That is, we’re best off consuming as much as we can so long as we can maintain the opportunity to reflect upon and think about it.
I’ve never been a fan of exams or grades while in school. While I typically did well, I found them annoying and rather pointless. Of course, they had a purpose: to determine whether or not we actually learned something (how well this correlated is another discussion). But this created another problem in that our academic history was represented by a bunch of letters and numbers. And students worked to game the system as it was most certainly in their interest to do so. Someone who crammed for an exam could typically do nearly as well as someone that knew her stuff. In the end, it wasn’t true knowledge that mattered, but rather just the grade. Especially bad are the standardized tests which created a large business in gaming the exam (Kaplan does quite well these days).
I propose a different method for evaluating academic ability: projects. I use this word in a loose sense. A project can be a written work (perhaps a thoughtful paper [that goes beyond summarizing] or a few blog posts), or something more “projecty”. A project exhibits critical thinking and most certainly shows if understanding is present. A project is also something tangible, something alive. It shows thought; it shows creativity; it shows work ethic. With our current technology propelling the information age, showing off projects is feasible and inexpensive. This is so much more meaningful than a letter or a number that represents a grade. Speaking of grades, there should be only two: pass and fail. If a project is sufficiently satisfactory, it passes. All other commendable aspects of a project should stand for themselves.
Of course this is not feasible in some class styles – particularly those that are based on memorization. And this touches a root of the problem. Memorization based classes do not require one to use his brain. They don’t require having insights or critical thought. And in that sense, they are utterly useless. Now I’m not saying memorization is a bad thing. It is actually essential to form new ideas, which in turn can be exhibited in projects. I haven’t thought through very many cases at this point, but this does appear to be a more personal and honest way to display academic ability.
I’ll have more to say in future posts but do share your thoughts on this idea.