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Archive for February, 2014

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.)

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