Stop Stealing Dreams | Review & Notes

Posted on July 7, 2012


Seth Godin. Stop Stealing Dreams: What is School For? Seth Godin, 2012.

— VIA —

This free book has 132 entries of thoughts, insights, questions, provocations regarding education. Written in blog-entry-sized bites, you can easily read an entry and let it simmer for a while. Hopefully, you’ll read several that will transform what you actually think about education, and even more hopefully than that, you’ll read a few that will transformhow you educate.

I’ve included below some snippets from some of my favorite entries.

1. Education Transformed. HVA (Harlem Village Academies) works because they have figured out how to create a workplace culture that attracts the most talented teachers, fosters a culture of ownership, freedom and accountability, and then relentlessly transfers this passion to their students.

4. What is School For? As soon as we associate reading a book with taking a test, we’ve missed the point. We continually raise the bar on what it means to be a college professor, but churn out Ph.D.s who don’t actually teach and aren’t particularly productive at research, either. We teach facts, but the amount of knowledge truly absorbed is miniscule. … Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers built school to train people to have a lifetime of productive labor as part of the industrialized economy. And it worked.

6. Changing what we get, because we’ve changed what we need. We don’t need more of what schools produce when they’re working as designed. The challenge, then, is to change the very output of the school before we start spending even more time and money improving the performance of the school. | The goal of this manifesto is to create a new set of questions and demands that parents, taxpayers, and kids can bring to the people they’ve chosen, the institution we’ve built and invested our time and money into. The goal is to change what we get when we send citizens to school.

8. Is school a civic enterprise? At the heart of Horace Mann’s push for public schooling for all was a simple notion: we build a better society when our peers are educated. | The question I’d ask every administrator and school board is, “Does the curriculum you teach now make our society stronger?”

…be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity. – Horace Mann

13. Which came first, the car or the gas station? Culture changes to match the economy, not the other way around. | Jobs were invented before workers were invented. In the post-job universe, workers aren’t really what we need more of, but schools remain focused on yesterday’s needs.

15. “When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut assistant” The century of dream-snuffing has to end. We’re facing a significant emergency, one that’s not just economic but cultural as well. The time to act is right now, and the person to do it is you.

16. School is Expensive. Here’s a hint: learning is not done to you. Learning is something you choose to do.

20. Life in the post-institutional future. Amplified by the Web and the connection revolution, human beings are no longer rewarded most for work as compliant cogs. Instead, our chaotic world is open to the work of passionate individuals, intent on carving their own paths. That’s the new job of school. Not to hand a map to those willing to follow it, but to inculcate leadership and restlessness into a new generation.

23. And yet we isolate students instead of connecting them. Virtually every academic activity in school is done solo. Homework. Exams. Writing. The lectures might take place in a crowded room, but they too are primarily one-way. | How is this focus on the isolated individual going to match up with what actually happens in every field of endeavor? No competent doctor says, “I don’t know what to do, I’ll figure it out myself.” No academic researcher or steelworker or pilot works in complete isolation. | Group projects are the exception in school, but they should be the norm. Figuring out how to leverage the power of the group—whether it is students in the same room or a quick connection to a graphic designer across the sea in Wales—is at the heart of how we are productive today. [VIA: I found this quote intriguing, and delightfully paradoxical in light of Susan Cain‘s Quiet, in which she advocates just the opposite. It must be both.]

24.If education is the question, then teachers are the answer. At HVA, teachers who care teach students who care. Simple. Is it any surprise that this is revolutionary?

25. What if we told students the truth? Transparency in the traditional school might destroy it. If we told the truth about the irrelevance of various courses, about the relative quality of some teachers, about the power of choice and free speech—could the school as we know it survive?

27. The decision. The universal truth is beyond question—the only people who excel are those who have decided to do so. Great doctors or speakers or skiers or writers or musicians are great because somewhere along the way, they made the choice. Why have we completely denied the importance of this choice?

28. Exploiting the instinct to hide. The amygdala, sometimes called the lizard brain, is the fear center of the brain. It is on high alert during moments of stress. It is afraid of snakes. It causes our heart to race during a scary movie and our eyes to avoid direct contact with someone in authority. | The shortcut to compliance, then, isn’t to reason with someone, to outline the options, and to sell a solution. No, the shortcut is to induce fear, to activate the amygdala.

29. The other side of fear is passion. [VIA: “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18)] There really are only two tools available to the educator. The easy one is fear. Fear is easy to awake, easy to maintain, but ultimately toxic. | The other tool is passion.

35. Off the hook: Denying opportunities for greatness. Greatness is frightening. With it comes responsibility. | If you stay on the path, do your college applications through the guidance office and your job hunting at the placement office, the future is not your fault. | Education isn’t a problem until it serves as a buffer from the world and a refuge from the risk of failure.

38. Scientific management —> Scientific schooling. So it’s not a surprise that schools were enlisted to train future employees in just that—skill and self-control. Of course, it’s not self-control, really; it’s external control. The willingness (or tolerance) to accept external instruction and become compliant. | From there, from this position of wanting to manufacture compliant workers, it’s only a tiny step to scientific schooling. | Scientific schooling uses precisely the same techniques as scientific management. Measure (test) everyone. Often. Figure out which inputs are likely to create testable outputs. If an output isn’t easily testable, ignore it. | It would be a mistake to say that scientific education doesn’t work. It does work. It creates what we test. Unfortunately, the things we desperately need (and the things that make us happy) aren’t the same things that are easy to test.

39. Where did the good jobs go? The future of our economy lies with the impatient. The linchpins and the artists and the scientists who will refuse to wait to be hired and will take things into their own hands, building their own value, producing outputs others will gladly pay for. Either they’ll do that on their own or someone will hire them and give them a platform to do it. | The only way out is going to be mapped by those able to dream.

40. What they teach at FIRST. When you dream about building the best robot in the competition, you’ll find a way to get a lot done, and you’ll do it in a team. When you dream of making an impact, obstacles are a lot easier to overcome.

41. Judgment, skill, and attitude. Here’s what I want to explore: Can we teach people to care?

42. Can you teach Indian food? If culture is sufficient to establish what we eat and how we speak and ten thousand other societal norms, why isn’t it able to teach us goal setting and passion and curiosity and the ability to persuade? | It can.

45. Shouldn’t parents do the motivating? I can’t think of anything more cynical and selfish, though, than telling kids who didn’t win the parent lottery that they’ve lost the entire game.

47. Academics are a means to an end, not an end. [VIA: While I understand what Godin is getting at, I think I slightly disagree. Broad education is of great benefit not just for utilitarian purposes.] Now that obedience is less important and learning matters more than ever, we have to be brave enough to separate them. We can rebuild the entire system around passion instead of fear.

56. 1000 hours Over the last three years, Jeremy Gleick, a sophomore at UCLA, has devoted precisely an hour a day to learning something new and unassigned. The rules are simple: it can’t be related to schoolwork, and reading a novel doesn’t count. | Since he’s started on this journey, he has read Steven Pinker and Stephen Hawking books, watched documentaries about ants and astrophysics, and taken courses in blacksmithing (in person) and card tricks (online). He has done this with rigor and merely had to sacrifice a little TV time to become smarter than most of his peers.

There are two things I take away from this:

  1. This is a rare choice, which is quite disturbing. Someone actually choosing to become a polymath, signing himself up to get a little smarter on a new topic every single day.
  2. The resources available for this endeavor have increased by several orders of magnitude. Available resources and instruction have gone from scarce to abundant in less than a decade, and the only barrier to learning for most young adults in the developed world is now merely the decision to learn.

My argument is that the entire schooling establishment can be organized around this new widely available resource.

60. Dreamers are a problem. School is a factory, and the output of that factory is compliant workers who buy a lot of stuff. These students are trained to dream small dreams. | Dreamers don’t have special genes. They find circumstances that amplify their dreams.

68. The Bing detour. It turns out that one of the most popular items searched for in Bing throughout 2011 was the word “Google.”

70. Grammr and the decline of our civilization. If I can find the answer in three seconds online, the skill of memorizing a fact for twelve hours (and then forgetting it) is not only useless, it’s insane.

72. Beyond the Khan Academy. What we can’t do, though, is digitize passion.

77. Making the cut, the early creation of the bias for selection (early picks turn into market leaders). What would happen to school sports if the compensation of coaches was 100 percent based on the development of all the players and none of it was related to winning the game at all costs?

78. First impressions matter (too much). …it’s easy for natural gifts to escape the notice of people who aren’t focused on finding them and amplifying them.

80. American anti-intellectualism. Getting called an egghead is no prize. My bully can beat up your nerd. Real men don’t read literature. | We live in a culture where a politician who says “it’s simple” will almost always defeat one who says “it’s complicated,” even if it is. It’s a place where middle school football coaches have their players do push-ups until they faint, but math teachers are scolded for giving too much homework. | Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were legendary intellectuals. Bill Gates and Michael Dell are nerds. But still, the prevailing winds of pop culture reward the follower, the jock, and the get-along guy almost every time. | Which is fine when your nation’s economy depends on obeisance to the foreman, on heavy lifting, and on sucking it up for the long haul. [VIA: So, it’s important to note that society does still depend on these things, however.]

82. “Someone before me wrecked them”. Spotting the elite, the charismatic, and the obviously gifted might be a smart short-term strategy, but it punishes the rest of us, and society as a whole. | School serves a real function when it activates a passion for lifelong learning, not when it establishes permanent boundaries for an elite class.

83. Some tips for the frustrated student:

  1. Grades are an illusion
  2. Your passion and insight are reality
  3. Your work is worth more than mere congruence to an answer key
  4. Persistence in the face of a skeptical authority figure is a powerful ability
  5. Fitting in is a short-term strategy, standing out pays off in the long run
  6. If you care enough about the work to be criticized, you’ve learned enough for today

84. The two pillars of a future-proof education:

  • Teach kids how to lead
  • Help them learn how to solve interesting problems

Leadership is the most important trait for players in the connected revolution. Leadership involves initiative, and in the connected world, nothing happens until you step up and begin, until you start driving without a clear map.

86.“Lacks determination and interest” Here’s an interesting question: when a good student gets a comment like that on a report card from a teacher in just one of his classes, who is at fault? Does it matter if the student is six or sixteen? | If the teacher of the future has a job to do, isn’t addressing this problem part of it? Perhaps it’s all of it…

88. Obedience + Competence ≠ Passion. The formula doesn’t work. It never has. And yet we act as if it does.

102. History’s greatest hits: Unnerving the traditionalists. The top-down, command-and-control authoritarian pedagogical approach to cramming facts into our kids is an unqualified failure. | When forced to comply, the smart kid plays along, the stupid one is punished, and neither of them produces much of value as a result.

103. This is difficult to let go of. Practice works because practice gives us a chance to relax enough to make smart choices.

108. School as the transference of emotion and culture. One thing a student can’t possibly learn from a video lecture is that the teacher cares. Not just about the topic—that part is easy. No, the student can’t learn that the teacher cares about him. And being cared about, connected with, and pushed is the platform we need to do the emotional heavy lifting of committing to learn.

109. What great teachers have in common is the ability to transfer emotion. Every great teacher I have ever encountered is great because of her desire to communicate emotion, not (just) facts. | What’s clear to me is that teaching first graders words like “cogent” and “retrograde” isn’t the point. It’s not important that a six-year-old know that. What is important, vitally important, is that her teacher believes she could know it, ought to know it, and is capable of knowing it.

111. Dumb as a choice. Let’s define dumb as being different from stupid. | Dumb means you don’t know what you’re supposed to know. Stupid means you know it but make bad choices.

116. Higher ed is going to change as much in the next decade as newspapers did in the last one. Ten years ago, I was speaking to newspaper executives about the digital future. They were blithely ignorant of how Craigslist would wipe out the vast majority of their profits. They were disdainful of digital delivery. They were in love with the magic of paper. | In just ten years, it all changed. No interested observer is sanguine about the future of the newspaper, and the way news is delivered has fundamentally changed—after a hundred years of stability, the core business model of the newspaper is gone.

College is in that very same spot today. Schools are facing the giant crash of education loans and the inability of the typical student to justify a full-fare education. It will be just a few years after most courses are available digitally—maybe not from the school itself, but calculus is calculus. At that point, either schools will be labels, brand names that connote something to a hiring manager, or they will be tribal organizers, institutions that create teams, connections, and guilds. Just as being part of the Harvard Crimson or Lampoon is a connection you will carry around for life, some schools will deliver this on a larger scale. | I guess it’s fair to say that the business of higher education is going to change as much in the next decade as newspapers did in the prior one.

I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who sought and found out how to serve. – Albert Schweitzer

125. The famous-college trap. If college is supposed to be just like high school but with more parties, a famous college is precisely what parents should seek. If we view the purpose of college as a stepping stone, one that helps you jump the line while looking for a good job, then a famous college is the way to go.

126. The SAT measures nothing important.

127. “I’m not paying for an education, I’m paying for a degree” In the words of a Columbia University student, that’s the truth. If you choose to get an education at the same time, well, that’s a fine bonus, but with free information available to all, why pay $200,000 for it?

129. Access to information is not the same as education. We make all sorts of assumptions about fifty-year-old men (even fictional ones—Frasier Crane went to Harvard) because someone selected them when they were eighteen years old.

130. Whose dream? Our dream for our kids, the dream of 1960 and 1970 and even 1980, is for the successful student, the famous college, and the good job. Our dream for our kids is the nice house and the happy family and the steady career. And the ticket for all that is good grades, excellent comportment, and a famous college.

And now that dream is gone. Our dream. But it’s not clear that our dream really matters. There’s a different dream available, one that’s actually closer to who we are as humans, that’s more exciting and significantly more likely to affect the world in a positive way.

If school is worth the effort (and I think it is), then we must put the effort into developing attributes that matter and stop burning our resources in a futile attempt to create or reinforce mass compliance.

131.How to fix school in twenty-four hours. Don’t wait for it. Pick yourself. Teach yourself. Motivate your kids. Push them to dream, against all odds. Access to information is not the issue. And you don’t need permission from bureaucrats. The common school is going to take a generation to fix, and we mustn’t let up the pressure until it is fixed.

But in the meantime, go. Learn and lead and teach. If enough of us do this, school will have no choice but to listen, emulate, and rush to catch up.

132.What we teach.

  • When we teach a child to make good decisions, we benefit from a lifetime of good decisions.
  • When we teach a child to love to learn, the amount of learning will become limitless.
  • When we teach a child to deal with a changing world, she will never become obsolete.
  • When we are brave enough to teach a child to question authority, even ours, we insulate ourselves from those who would use their authority to work against each of us.
  • And when we give students the desire to make things, even choices, we create a world filled with makers.

The best way to complain is to make things. – James Murphy

Posted in: Culture, Education