Our education system – is it about learning?

on Apr 22, 2012

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:
Khan Academy
Skill Share

Obligation That Runs Two Ways

on Jul 12, 2010

At a recent large gathering of his member schools, the head of my martial arts organization discussed the importance of obligation. He gave a very simple example: that if you’re walking down the halls of your organization, what ever it may be, and see a piece of trash on the floor, you’re obligated to pick it up. This served as an analogy to all of us coming to that set of arduous training sessions. On the surface, it seemed like something that was not required – that it was just some extra event. It was in fact the opposite. We were actually obligated to be there. In a way, the head of the organization was preaching to the choir. Many of the martial artists present at this gathering at traveled a long way, some hundreds of miles. Still, it was a message that needed to be passed down to those not present. And the message says much about the very important relationship between an organization and its members.

Obligations run two ways. While a member is must have conscientiousness and take responsibility at any opportunity for their organization, their organizations in turn must provide a nurturing environment. It must treat its members with respect and acknowledge their contributions. The exchange of give and take must run both ways. As the organization takes what its members do for it, it must give back appropriately. Likewise, as members benefit (take) from the organization, they must be ready to give, even when it beyond regular responsibility (think: picking up the trash or traveling a long way for an event).

This applies beyond martial arts organizations, to the organizations where we work as well. Are you willing to put in that “extra” helpfulness when your organization would benefit from the dedication? Conversely, is this obligation really so? Does your organization provide a supporting environment? Does it recognize commitment? Does it reward loyalty in meaningful ways? Or does your organization require you to do more and more work without acknowledging your labors? If your organization is not treating you well, you certainly won’t heed the call to step up. There is no obligation.

So which kind of organization would you rather be a part of? Would you rather not have any obligations and have the organization respond in kind? Or would you prefer to be a part of nurturing environment, and be ready to fulfill the obligations it entails?

Doing What You Believe In

on May 4, 2010

What do you do? What do you believe in? Do you do what you believe in? Are you doing something you care for? Is it something that matters? We spend most of our waking hours working – work is part of who we are. Is this who you wish to be? These questions are neglected by many folks. They feel that a job is just a job. In some cases, their argument is valid, like if they don’t have other options and they need to support their families. But the many other people that do have a choice refuse to acknowledge it. They want to stay “safe” and have a job instead of pursuing a calling. Work is just work, yet work is life.

This shouldn’t just matter to individuals, but also to organizations (especially companies). Is your organization all about what it does or what it believes? Do its employees put in work in exchange for a paycheck? Or do they put in sweat and blood to support a cause you jointly believe it? Is your organization persuading potential consumers with what its product does? Or is it building a following around a genuine philosophy?

In a recent TED talk (embedded above), Simon Sinek discusses what inspires people (to work, to buy, and to support). He proposes a golden circle which consists of three concentric rings with a term within each: what, how, and why, from the outside to the inside respectively. He explains how so many companies, such as Gateway, start from the outside and go in, while others, like Apple, start from the inside instead, with why. So while Gateway, and most other computer companies, talk about what their products to, Apple makes products that exemplify why the company does what it does. (Sinek also tells similarly admirable stories behind The Wright Brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. so check out the whole talk.)

Sinek offers scientific support for the golden circle in the form of biology; he shows how our brains are structured in the same manner. The most recently evolved part, which is more rational, controls the what while a more ancient part, involved with decision making but not tied to communication, is more about the why. As much as you can try to persuade someone on strict rational grounds, the more emotional feeling part of the brain will have a strong say in decisions.

So look at yourself and your organization. Does your work matter? Does your product just do something or does it prove that you and your company believe in something your consumers believe in?

Forget Exams and Grades, Use Projects

on Feb 4, 2010

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.


on Jan 14, 2010

Many people spend their days at jobs they dislike and often cannot enjoy the things they work so hard to pay for. Should Monday be so dreadful? Can we have a society where people don’t complain about or hate their jobs? Surely there’s the argument that we have to work in order to provide for our families and to survive. But is this survival really living? Our work lives very much represent who we are. The livelihood should be something integral to life rather than the thing that sucks out life. Everyone should feel they have a purpose at work, and it should be something they care for. Good for the employees because they’ll be happier. Good for the business because employees will be more productive.

What work environments are inspirational and productive? And what work environments cause grief?