Seth Godin : Stop Stealing Dreams

Good morning, boys and girls.

[Audience: (Murmur)]

That was terrible. You’ve learned how to do that from a young age. You’re supposed to say, “Good morning, Mr. Godin.” So let’s try again.

Good morning, boys and girls!

[Audience: Good morning, Mr. Godin!]

Have you thought about what that’s for? Have you thought about how, for a hundred or 150 years, that was ingrained into the process of public education? And have you thought at all as people on the cutting edge, as people who are interested in making school work again, about a very simple question: What is school for?

I don’t think we’re answering that question. I don’t even think we’re asking that question. Everyone seems to think they know what school is for, but we’re not going to make anything happen until we can all agree about how we got here and where we are going. So my goal today is to put that question into your head and help you think about it.

First, we have to understand what school used to be for. There was a woman named Mary Everest Boole and she came up with this notion — she was a mathematician in the late 1800s — that you could use string and nails and wood and make decorations, those things with the string goes back and forth, and there is math built into that, and that a teacher on the cutting edge, of fifth graders, might decide to use that idea modulo nine and remainders and string going back and forth to teach an important lesson about math.

So that memo went home to all the parents at my kids public school and said, “We need help with this. We need hammers.” So I am sort of unemployed. I showed up at school that day with a bag of hammers, a big bag of 18 hammers. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard 18 kids hitting nails with 18 hammers in a little room for 20 minutes, but I have. I’m not going to do it for you because it’s really hard to listen to.

And what the teacher explained to the kids is they must arrange the brads in this certain pattern, hammering, hammering, hammering and make sure they’re in there nice and firm. And so these kids are hammering, hammering, hammering, 20 minutes of zero education. Just 20 minutes of hammering.

And then the teacher walks over and she says to a boy, “I told you to make sure the brads were all the way in.” And one by one she pulled them out and threw them on the floor every single one and put the board down and that is what she believed school was for. School was about teaching obedience.

“Good morning, boys and girls” starts the day with respect and obedience.

Now I have to move on to Frederick J. Kelly. Some of you have brought your own number 2 pencil for the quiz that’s going to be part of today. The number 2 pencil is famous because Frederick J. Kelly made it famous.

Back around World War I we had a problem, which was that there was this huge influx of students because we had expanded the school day to include high school, and there was this huge need to sort them all out. So he invented the standardized test and an abomination. And he gave it up ten years later when the emergency was over but because he gave it up, because he called it out, because he said the standardized test is too crude to be used, he was ostracized and lost his job as the president of a university, because he dared to speak up against a system that was working.

So let’s try a little experiment here. I’d like everyone to go ahead and raise your right hand just as high as possibly you can. Now please raise it a little higher.

Hmm. What’s that about?! My instructions were pretty clear and yet you all held back. How come? You held back because you’ve been taught since you were 3 years old to hold a little bit back because if you do everything, if you put all out, then your parents or your teacher or your coach or your boss is going to ask for little bit more, aren’t they? And the reason they will is because we are products of the industrial age.

The industrial age made us all rich. The industrial age brought productivity to the table. Productivity allows human beings working together with a boss and a manager to make more than they could ever make alone. Productivity makes us a car for $700 instead of $700,000 in 1920.

But the thing about productivity and industrialism is this. The people who ran factories had two huge problems.

Problem number one: they looked around and they said, “We don’t have enough workers. We don’t have enough people who are willing to move off the farm and come to this dark building for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week and do what they are told. If we could get more workers, we could pay them less. And if we could pay them less, we’d make more money. We need more workers.”

And so, the KKK went to industrialists and said, “You need to get those kids out of the factories, those people you’re paying $3 a day, because they’re taking our jobs.” And so a deal was made. And the deal was universal public education whose sole intent was not to train the scholars of tomorrow. We had plenty of scholars. It was to train people to be willing to work in the factory. It was to train people to behave, to comply, to fit in. We process you for a whole year. If you are defective, we hold you back and process you again. We sit you in straight rows just like they organize things in the factory. We build a system, all about interchangeable people because factories are based on interchangeable parts. If this piece is no good, put another piece in there. And org charts, those little boxes are all designed to say, “Oh, we can fit Bob in there because Rachel didn’t show to work today.” And so we built school. That’s what school was for.

And the second thing industrialists were really worried about was that we weren’t going to buy all the stuff they could make, that in 1880, 1890, people owned two pairs of shoes, one pair of jeans. That was it. You don’t know anyone who owns one pair of jeans anymore, ever. What they needed to train us to do was buy stuff. They needed to train us to fit in. They needed to train us to become consumers.

And so, Horace Mann, who meant well, built the public school as we know it. And then, he needed more teachers, right? Because you have more schools so he built a school for teachers. Do you know what it’s called? The normal school. He called it the normal school where they trained people to teach in the common school because he wanted you to be normal, and he wanted the class to be normal, and he wanted people to fit in.

And then we came up with this: the textbook. Now if you want to teach somebody, how to become passionate about, I don’t know, American history, why would you give them this? Do people walk into Barnes & Noble and say, “I’m really interested in that latest gripping thing that’s going to get me all engaged about the Civil War. Do you have one of those textbooks in stock?”

If you wanted to teach someone how to be a baseball fan, would you start by having them understand the history of baseball, who Abner Doubleday was, what barnstorming was, the influences of cricket and capitalism and the Negro leagues? Would you do that? Would you say, “OK, there’s a test tomorrow. I want you to memorize the top 50 batters in order by batting average,” and then rank the people based on how they do on the test so the ones that do well get to memorize more baseball players? Is that how we would create baseball fans?

Here is the key distinction. What people do quite naturally is, if it’s work, they try to figure out how to do less. And if it’s art, we try to figure out how to do more. And when we put kids in the factory we call school, the thing we built to indoctrinate them into compliance, why are we surprised that the question is “Will this be on the test?” Someone who is making art doesn’t say, “Can I do one less canvas this month?” They don’t say, “Can I write one less song this month?” They don’t say, “Can I touch one fewer person this month?” It’s art. They want to do more of it.

But when it’s work, when it’s your job, when you’re seven, of course you want to do less of it. So one of the things that I’ve done as an avocation is when I meet people, I take this out. There’s a great bargain online. And it’s filled with these blocks, right? You’ve probably seen blocks before. I’m going to dump them out of it. And I say, “Take four blocks and make them into something interesting.”

Now it’s an interesting question. Because you can use the letters and you can use the shapes, you can spell the word, you can put a profanity there. You can spell a word that means nothing. You can make the shape into a bridge. And people hate this. Because there’s no right answer and there’s a million wrong answers. They hate this because there’s no Dummies Guide to how to make something interesting out of blocks when you are 30 years old.

And now, we are at a crossroads. We’re at a crossroads because as a culture we say the only thing we care about, the only place we are willing to cross the street to go, the only thing we are willing to buy, the only person we are willing to vote for, the only stuff we are willing to talk about is interesting, is art, is new, will touch us, is valuable. And then we spend all of our money and all of our time teaching people not to do that.

And so we’re now at this crossroads because technology is here too. And the technology says, you know what, for the first time in history, we do not need a human being to stand next to us to teach us to do square roots. For the first time in history, we do not need a human being to teach us how to sharpen an ax because the Internet connects us all.

And so I want to share with you 8 things that I think are going to change completely if we decide how we want to answer to this question, or maybe even if we don’t.

One, as Sal Khan has pointed out, homework during the day, lectures at night. World-class lecturers lecturing on anything you want to learn to every single person in the world who’s got an Internet connection for free. And then all day go and sit with a human being, a teacher and ask your questions and do your work and explore face-to-face. It’s stupid to have the same lecture being given handmade 10,000 times a day across the country when we can get one person to do it great for the people who want to hear it.

Number two, open book, open note all the time. There is zero value in memorizing anything ever again. Anything that is worth memorizing is worth looking up. So we shouldn’t spend any time teaching people to memorize stuff.

Number three, access to any course anywhere in the world anytime you want to take it. So this notion that we have to do things in a certain order, which is based on physical location and chronology, makes no sense.

Number four, precise focused education instead of mass batch stuff. That’s the way we make almost everything we buy now, right? It used to be you could have any color of car you wanted as long as it’s black. So we could keep the assembly line going. But now they make 10,000 kinds of cars because they can. So we should make 10,000 kinds of education.

No more multiple-choice exams. Those were invented to make them easy to score but computers are smarter than that. Measuring experience instead of test scores, because experience is what we really care about. The end of compliance as an outcome. The resume is proof that you have complied for years and years and years with famous brand names and it gets you your next job. It’s worthless now.

And cooperation instead of isolation. Why do we do anything where we ask people to do it all by themselves and then we put them in the real world and say, “Cooperate.”

Four more. Teacher’s role transforms into coach, lifelong learning with work happening earlier in your life, and really important the death of the famous college. Not good college. We don’t know what a good college is but we know what a famous college is because someone ranked them as famous or because they have a football team that is famous. Why on earth are we paying extra, why on earth are we working harder to comply and be obedient? Just so we can get a famous brand name that has no relevance to success or happiness put after our name.

I want to show you one more device I have over here as I start — This is called an Arduino. It’s a little bit like Raspberry Pi. They’re both electronic devices that cost $20 to $30 each. Raspberry Pi, which you can buy for $25, has on it the complete Linux operating system, a USB port, audio out, and a monitor. So if we take that cable and that keyboard and that monitor we already have in front of almost every kid in this country and hand them one of these. We can then say to them, “Go build something interesting and ask if you need help.”

Why wouldn’t we want to teach our kids to go do something interesting? Why wouldn’t we want to teach our kids to figure it out? And yet, everyday we send kids to school and say, “Do not figure it out,” “Do not ask questions I do not know the answer to,” “Do not look it up,” “Do not vary from the curriculum,” and better better better better better comply, fit in, be like your peers, do what you’re told because I must process you, because everything in my evaluation is based on whether or not I processed you properly.

So, there are two myths I want to close with. The first one and we got to be really honest with ourselves about this.

Myth one: great performance in school leads to happiness and success. If that’s not true, we should stop telling ourselves it is.

And two: great parents have kids who produce great performance in school. If that’s not true, we should stop telling ourselves it is.

Are we asking our kids to collect dots or connect dots? Because we’re really good at measuring how many dots they collect, how many facts they have memorized, how many boxes they have filled in, but we teach nothing about how to connect those dots. You cannot teach connecting dots in a Dummies manual. You cannot teach connecting dots in a textbook. You can only do it by putting kids into a situation where they can fail. Grades are an illusion. Passion and insight are reality.

Your work is more important than your congruence to an answer key. Persistence in the face of a skeptical authority figure is priceless. And yet we undermine it. Fitting in is a short-term strategy that gets you nowhere. Standing out is a long-term strategy that takes guts and produces results. If you care enough about your work to be willing to be criticized for it, then you have done a good day’s work.

So what now? What now? What should we do? Because we’ve been talking about it a whole lot. Only one thing. Ask the question, “What is school for?” When they say this is our new textbook, the question is, “Is that going to help us with getting what school is for?” When they say this is the new superintendent, we need to say, “Yes, but is this superintendent going to help us do what we think school is for?” And if you don’t know what school is for, then have a conversation about it. Because until we can agree what school is for, we’re not going to get what we need.

Thank you for the work you do. I appreciate it.