I was hanging out with a friend, a scientist who thinks a lot about teaching and learning. He has taught in the Honors college at a nearby university, and has also served on the university’s admissions committee. I asked him, “What do you think is a reasonable goal for students graduating from high school?”

We talked about a lot of things, but there was one point that he really wanted to drive home. It’s something that he sees often in his students in the Honors program, although not all.

He says, “They should be able to kickstart something on their own.”

Not just critique someone else’s work. They should be able to produce something new: a new idea, a new combination made from existing things, or a new direction off the beaten path. Students who have been trained only to critique, and not create, get less out of the college experience.

Our K-12 schools are not designed to nurture this. That’s a problem not only in maximizing one’s college experience, but also for thriving in a creative economy.

* * *

I read a great story in one of Seth Godin’s books that goes something like this: he calls his two best employees into his office and says, You two are best employees I’ve got. You haven’t been wrong on anything in over six months. Now, if you’re not wrong about something in the next month, you’re fired.

The point is that by avoiding mistakes, we also avoid opportunities. It’s easy to play it safe and choose the safe, predictable path. But in doing so, we miss out. Maxwell House, Godin suggests, could have done what Starbucks did. Blockbuster could have started sending DVDs to customers in the mail, but Netflix beat them to it. Why didn’t American Express invent PayPal? These companies were pretending like we still live in a factory economy where showing up is all that matters. Everyone was just doing their job, following directions, continuing along the beaten path.

* * *

Students should be learning to kickstart something on their own. Using the old way of thinking about school, I can imagine folks saying, “Yes! Let’s make it a graduation requirement that students must kickstart something!”

This, of course, doesn’t work. By forcing students to engage in specific activities that teachers and administrators find important, students immediately begin looking for ways to make the requirement go away. So they’ll brainstorm ways to cheat, lie, or recycle something they’ve already done.

Instead, we’re much more likely to have success in helping students learn this skill by surrounding them with role models who have done it, then giving them lots of opportunities to do it.

Here’s an example. I recently met a guy who was a music teacher at a Jewish pre-school and noticed a rich supply of found objects in the arts & crafts room. To make things more fun and interesting for the kids, he decided to mix in a puppet show with his music instruction. He got some felt, papier mache, glue, pipe cleaners, old socks, and a million other things. Then he made puppets. He was such a huge hit, he started performing at bar mitzvahs around the city. He even booked a tour of Jewish parties, school, and synagogues all the way down to California.

Imagine hiring teachers who model this kind of disposition. It’s the kind of thing that would make kids think, “Now, what could I kickstart that would be as cool as that?”

(Get updates at www.twitter.com/stevemiranda.)

I had a conversation today with a friend who recently took a job working for a terrific non-profit organization doing education reform. She’s proud of her work, but acknowledges some inherent limitations. Everyone wants data to prove their program works, but when you’re dealing with human beings, how are you supposed to quantify personal growth?

She said, “It’s close to impossible to provide the opportunities that some of these programs do without receiving support from the government and other similar bureaucracies, and their support is reliant on this sort of cold hard data.”

* * *

This exchange reminded me of an article I read back in the fall. Here’s an excerpt, from the Associated Press:

“For many years, diversity in higher education has been measured by how many low-income students and students of color enroll in college. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wants to make a dramatic change in that definition, by focusing instead on college graduation rates.

“We know that in today’s economic climate and labor market, a high school diploma is no longer enough,” said Allan Golston, president of the U.S. Program at the Gates Foundation. “We must not only ensure that young people have access to college; we must ensure that they go on to complete college and earn a degree or certificate with value in the workplace.”

* * *

Everyone wants to prove their program works, and the way we do that is through cold hard data. Figuring out what to measure, however, is not simple. The Gates Foundation used to measure how many kids were getting into college, until it realized that it was measuring the wrong thing. Now, getting kids through college with a degree is the primary focus.

I suspect that, over time, the Gates Foundation will realize that it’s still measuring the wrong thing.

* * *

The cold hard data on the matter of education and income is clear: the more you learn, the more you earn. At least, that’s what we’ve convinced ourselves. I suspect that the relationship between the two is one in which correlation does not prove causation. In other words, it’s not clear that college graduates earn more because of what they learned in college.

Just off the top of my head, I can think of three friends who never finished college.

  • “Allan” got through high school without doing much—”I was one of those students who never really gave the teacher much satisfaction,” he says—but managed to get into a high profile private college in Philadelphia. He smoked a lot of pot and eventually dropped out. His passions are building things with his hands, community service, travel, and God. Now, he works as a project manager for Habitat for Humanity, heads off to Mexico as much as possible, and is an active members of his church. He’s happily married, and is a great father to his two kids.
  • “Dan” never went to college. He found his passion working as a sports writer right out of high school. He was really good at it, so his editor kept giving him more responsibility and higher profile assignments. Now, he writes for ESPN.com. He’s married with two kids, totally happy.
  • “Terry” drank too much in college and dropped out during his sophomore year. But he’s a really friendly guy, the kind of person everyone likes (in education parlance, he has “advanced interpersonal intelligence”). Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been a dedicated, loyal friend. Now he’s happily married with a couple kids, and sells mortgages. Of course he sells mortgages—with a personality like his, I’m sure he gets tons of referrals from happy clients.

This is why I suspect the relationship between a college degree and success is merely correlation and not causation. What you learn in college often has very little to do with the work you do at your job. Would Allan be a better project manager or a better father if he’d spent more time analyzing Hemingway’s prose? Would Terry deliver better customer service if he’d passed Oceanography 101?

* * *

I know, I know. To suggest that kids don’t necessarily need to go to college is heresy in our society. But the relationship between academic learning and life satisfaction is not clear.

The thing that kids get out of college—the reason they’re able to earn more money after graduation— is they’ve completed a process in which they had to set a goal that’s achievable over time, in which they had to develop the self-discipline to overcome obstacles and see it through to the end. That’s a valuable process that some people learn in college. Allan, Dan, and Terry learned it some other way.

* * *

In the end, the whole point of this stuff is to figure out how we can maximize our happiness, right? We want to figure out how to be successful, contributing members of society because we want to be happy.

Well, consider this quotation from Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association and the father of the Positive Psychology movement. He’s a scientist, which means he makes his living analyzing cold hard data. “As a professor, I don’t like this, but the cerebral virtues—curiosity, love of learning—are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude and capacity for love.”

So, what exactly should we be measuring?

(Get updates at www.twitter.com/stevemiranda.)

In the old days, young people served apprenticeships with elders as a way of mastering a craft.

Now, young people try to land internships. An internship, you see, could look really good on your resume or your application to graduate school.

* * *

An apprenticeship is about gaining valuable, applicable, real-life skills right now.

An internship is about gaining a leg up on the competition, about maneuvering up the corporate hierarchy, positioning one’s self for the future.

* * *

An apprenticeship is about establishing a deep relationship with a mentor, a master craftsman.

An internship is about networking, about securing a coveted letter of recommendation that might be useful later.

* * *

An apprenticeship is about dedication to a craft and gaining a skill that will allow you to make a contribution.

An internship is about participating in a process that will, hopefully, grant you a type of certification in the eyes of a gatekeeper.

* * *

I’m using these two words—apprenticeship and certification—in a way that’s overly simplistic, but I’m doing it to make a point: when your daughter heads off to school each morning, does she treat it like an apprenticeship or an internship?

Is she more concerned with learning something interesting, or her GPA? Is she developing deep relationships with mentors, or merely securing snazzy letters of recommendation? Is she learning something useful right now, or participating in a ritual as preparation for the future?

* * *

Here’s perhaps the most important question: does your daughter’s school view it’s work as closer to providing apprenticeships, or internships?

(Get updates at www.twitter.com/stevemiranda.)

I’m reading Paul Tough’s book “Whatever It Takes,” which documents Geoffrey Canada’s amazing work building the Harlem Children’s Zone.

When I first heard of this book I avoided it, probably because the title suggested to me that the way to tackle poverty is just work really hard, sacrifice for the cause, and, you know, just do whatever it takes!

It turns out, the book is much more nuanced than that.

* * *

I’ve been asking myself a question lately. Every kid, in every school, is moving along a certain life trajectory. Kids from privileged families across the country are making their ways towards private colleges. Meanwhile students dealing with socioeconomic disadvantage, all too often, are facing an uphill battle.

Are we, as teachers in schools, having an impact on those life trajectories? Or, are we merely bearing witness to what is already going to happen anyway?

* * *

A big part of Geoffrey Canada’s work with Harlem Children’s Zone is something called Baby College. A team of staff members canvasses the neighborhood to recruit new parents into a program that educates them on the latest research on things like positive discipline, nutrition, and brain development. The book describes in great detail the ways in which parents grapple with these ideas and how some struggle to change long held beliefs about how to raise a child.

But the specific facts about specific parenting strategies are not the point, according to the author. He writes,

“In the end, the real goal of Baby College was not to impart information. It was to change the parents’ whole vision of themselves as parents, to encourage them to accept the idea that their child’s education and intellectual development began at birth, if not before, and that they, as parents, had a crucial role to play in that development. If they got that . . . the details would be more likely to work themselves out.”

What he’s talking about is changing the trajectory of their lives as parents.

* * *

In school, we focus on imparting information: reading, writing, arithmetic, and all the rest. It’s very important. But it’s not enough. What we typically fail to do is challenge students to create a vision for themselves. (After all, we measure success by standardized test scores, not the quality of their lives at age 25.) Just like kids from privileged families grow up with the assumption that they will inherit a similar station in life as adults, my experience has been that kids dealing with socioeconomic disadvantage do the same: it’s really hard to imagine a life different from the one in which you were raised. Hard, but not impossible.

Once young people have a vision for a new life trajectory, the details on how to make it happen are more likely to work themselves out.

(Get updates at www.twitter.com/stevemiranda.)

A senior at a nearby high school wrote a terrific opinion column in the Seattle Times recently. The headline for the print edition of the paper is, “Students should craft their own education.”

The author wrote, “Like any student, I’ve had good teachers and bad teachers. Our schools are never going to be filled with only good teachers, but there is one lesson best taught by a bad teacher: The responsibility for one’s education can only be one’s own.”

He continues, “It’s an often-quoted fact that one of the greatest scientific and political minds this continent has produced only had two years of formal education. This trivia about Benjamin Franklin is sometimes used to point out his unique genius. However, Franklin’s genius is not unique. Why did one of 17 children of a candle and soap maker become so successful? As a child, Franklin quickly learned that nobody was going to do anything for him, and this was certainly true of his education. So he read.”

I love this story. But I think the writer makes a crucial error. Learning the importance of taking responsibility for one’s own education is not a lesson best delivered by a bad teacher through his incompetence; that’s a lesson best delivered by a great teacher through a nuanced understanding human development.

This, of course, requires a redefinition of what it means to be a great teacher. In my 12 years as a classroom teacher in traditional schools, I’ve always thought my job was to deliver academic content to students—as much as possible, in as much depth as possible. It’s hard to do that effectively when students are only there because they’re required to, and their primary motivation for completing my assignments is the fear getting a bad grade. To keep them engaged, I’ve had to crank up the charisma and the entertainment value of our 55-minute period. If I could keep them awake and engaged, I’ve always thought, hopefully they would learn some pieces of the lesson I was trying to impart.

Then, I could pat myself on the back for being a great teacher.

It’s a totally backwards way of looking at teaching and learning.

The best teachers don’t focus primarily on delivering academic content to a captive audience. The best teachers focus primarily on helping students understand this: the responsibility for one’s education can only be one’s own. That’s the gift that keeps on giving, even after the student has graduated and moved on to the next stage in life. When students have internalized that message, they can give up playing the game of school where they memorize things in the short term only to forget them three weeks later.

To do this in a traditional learning environment is a near-impossible task. Here’s a short scene that might give you a sense of what I mean:

TEACHER: Good morning class.  I want to have a conversation with you guys about what it means to really own your learning process, to really take responsibility for it yourself.

STUDENT: Will there be a test on this?

The learning environment in a traditional school is dominated by requirements and extrinsic motivators. It’s not designed to teach students responsibility, maturity, or curiosity. Without responsibility, maturity, or curiosity, school for kids becomes a ritual in following directions and placating adults. In that kind of environment, expecting students to take charge of their education is really, really tall order.

The problem with our education system is not budget cuts, lazy students, or bad teachers. School is a design problem. For it to deliver the outcomes we desire, school needs to be redesigned based on a different set up assumptions.

Near the end of his opinion column, the author writes, “Every student is the craftsman of their own education, whether they realize it or not. We as students must dismiss the idea that we are entitled to a good education. We are not. . . . We must ensure for ourselves that we are well-educated.”

I don’t believe that for a second. Of course students are entitled to a good education. We just need to redefine what the words “good education” mean.

(Get updates at www.twitter.com/stevemiranda.)


After I graduated from college, I needed some space to clear my head. I had reflected on my 17 years of schooling and seen one year blend into another, all part of the conveyor belt that carried me through my undergraduate degree. It was so tempting to just keep riding that conveyor belt into the nine-to-five world of work.

I could have done that. But I knew it would not have been healthy. I needed some space.

So I moved across the country to Tucson, Arizona and took a part-time job as waiter. I didn’t know anyone in Tucson, which was one of the reasons I chose it. I didn’t want to be burdened by someone else’s expectations of who they wanted me to be.

After some time, I began getting some pressure from people back in my hometown to “get a job.” These messages accumulated over time, and they affected me. I was determined to chart my own course, but I began to wonder: Am I still working part-time as a waiter because I want to? Or am I doing it out of stubbornness, a refusal to cave to the pressure I was feeling?

* * *

I think kids deal with this phenomenon at school. Well-meaning teachers, administrators, and counselors give kids very clear messages about how they should live their lives, and where they should aspire to go next.

It forces kids to make important decisions—Where should I go to college? Wait, should I go to college?—partly in response to authority. In traditional schooling, we do kids a disservice by not offering them space to think clearly, free from our judgement, to act on their own intuition.

(Get updates at https://twitter.com/stevemiranda.)

Here’s one of my favorite passages from Parker Palmer’s book A Hidden Wholeness:

The authority such a leader needs is not power. Power comes to anyone who controls the tools of coercion, which range from grades to guns. But authority comes only to those who are granted it by others. And what leads us to grant someone authority? The word itself contains a clue: we grant authority to people who we perceive as “authoring” their own words and actions, people who do not speak from a script or behave in preprogrammed ways.

In other words, we grant authority to people we perceive as living undivided lives.

* * *

I received an email recently from a former student, who wrote:

“I am currently a senior [in college], and have been focusing a lot on political economic theory recently . . . and I keep on thinking about your lit and philosophy class. It was really really smart, and I am really grateful to have taken it. I was wondering if you still had the reading list for the class?”

This is not the first time I had been asked this. (It’s a great honor, and these messages always fill me with gratitude and joy.) It was a popular class, one that I completely made up from scratch. When writing the syllabus, I never once considered the state’s Essential Academic Learning Requirements or what a traditional “philosophy” class might include. Instead, I focused on creating a curriculum that inspired me, selecting ideas that had a profound impact on the way I think.

Because I was inspired every day, I was able to facilitate class discussions with energy and enthusiasm. Every class period really mattered to me because every class period was focused on an idea that had changed my life.

Reading Palmer’s book last night gave me another interpretation of what happened in that class. I relied so little on “the tools of coercion”—students had to write three essays over the course of five months, and anyone who took the assignment seriously earned full credit—that the presence of any “power” in our relationship was almost imperceptible.

I didn’t exercise much power over students in that class, but by presenting a curriculum that I had authored myself, I gained a very real authority among them.

* * *

I know it seems efficient to have curriculum writers just send out unit plans to the mass of teachers in a school district. That way, students in different schools are all on the same page, and if one of them transfers to a different school, he can pick right up where he left off in his old school. It can save time and money, and acts as a buffer to soften the impact that bad teachers can have. It all seems logical.

But I think we lose more than we gain. By telling teachers what and how to teach, we take from them their authority in the classroom. Without authority from the students, they have to rely increasingly on exercising power.

(Get updates at twitter.com/stevemiranda)


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