Lessons from Seth Godin on Education [Pt. 1]


Launched in 2017, Akimbo is a podcast from best-selling author (and marketing/start-up/education/creativity thought leader) Seth Godin. In the podcast, Seth covers a wide variety of topics, ranging from bootstrapping and entrepreneurship to the economy to marketing. The show is currently in its second season and continues to maintain its reputation of “100% organic and handmade.”

Back in 2012, Seth gave a speech about the state of education in Brooklyn, New York, at a TEDxYouth event. (You can watch a recording below.) A few weeks ago, he re-published the audio of this talk as a new episode of Akimbo and followed it up by addressed several listeners’ questions about the future of education (and what we can do to improve it).

I am a huge fan of Seth Godin and a loyal reader of his blog (along with many of his books), but I had never come across his TEDxYouth speech. After listening to the audio via Akimbo, I was absolutely blown away by his thinking and the way in which he seamlessly breaks down some of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of reforming the public education system in America.

After listening to both episodes several times, here is the first portion of my top takeaways. (You can listen to both episodes here. Part two of my learnings will be published next week.)

“What is school for? I don’t think we are answering that question; I don’t even think we are asking that question. Everyone seems to think they know what school is for, but we are not going to be able to make anything happen until we all agree how we got here and where we are going.” The goal of Seth’s speech at TEDxYouth was to put this simple question — “what is school for?” — into the head of every member of the audience and help them think about it. He goes on to describe what school “used to be for”: teaching respect and obedience.

Standardized testing is an abomination. When Frederick J. Kelly invented the multiple-choice test in 1914, he was addressing a national crisis. Around the time of World War I, our country had a huge influx of new students because of the expanded school day to include high school, and thus we had a need “to sort out students.” So, Kelly invented the standardized test. But even when the emergency was over and he “gave it up” ten years later, he was ostracized and lost his job. He was removed as president of a university because he “dared to speak up against a system that was working.”

We have all been taught to hold back. Throughout our entire lives, we have been taught that if we go “all out,” our parent or teacher or coach or boss is going to ask for a little bit more. And the reason they will is because we are products of the Industrial Age; products of a time that was obsessed with productivity. The sole intent of universal public education during the Industrial Age was to train people to be willing to work in the factory; to train people to behave and comply. Yet, many aspects of our public education system are (scarily) still stuck in that period of time. If you are “defective” after being processed for a whole year, you are held back and forced to repeat the same grade. Students are seated in straight rows, just like desks were organized in factories. We built a system all about interchangeable people because factories are based on individual parts. That’s what school (when first conceived) was for, and that’s what the foundation of our education system still is today. As a result, people placed in the system are programmed to do less; to do less work. So much of what children are exposed to in school is “compliance at scale”:

“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?'”–Seth Godin

Textbooks, grades tests do not help create passionate learners. I absolutely love this quote from Seth:

“If you want to teach somebody how to become passionate about 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 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, and who Abner Doubleday was, and what barnstorming was, and 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 fifty batters in order by batting order.’ AND THEN would you decide to rank the people based on how they do on the test, so they get to memorize MORE baseball players? Is that how we would create baseball fans?”–Seth Godin

Our educational system is designed to foster an environment of perfectionism. We train students to memorize information so that they can do well on the test, only to forget it days later. As Adam Grant outlined in a recent New York Times op-ed, evidence points to the notion that academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence. Grades are not designed to assess creativity, leadership, collaboration, or social-emotional intelligence. As a result, we are left with straight-A students who, as Grant puts it, are masters at “cramming information and regurgitating it on exams. But career success is rarely about finding the right solution to a problem — it’s more about finding the right problem to solve.” Succeeding in school requires confirmity, yet it is not a certainty that valedictorians will be the future leaders of America. We should be pushing students to get outside of their comfort zone and modeling how to invest in failure.

How to move forward. Seth ends by sharing a series of tips that he recommends implementing to better answer the question of “what is school for?”:

  1. Homework during the day; lectures at night. Technology allows for anyone with an internet connection to view videos of world-class lecturers teaching about a wide variety of topics, for free. If students consumed this type of content outside of school, and then used the hours during the schoolday to sit with a teacher and ask questions and explore the concepts they are learning face-to-face, imagine how much more engaging school could be.
  2. Open book, open note, all the time. The value in memorizing has significantly declined. Teaching people to memorize content is less important in an age where everything can be looked up. This is obviously hyperbolic; one can make a sound argument that memorization skills are important, especially for careers in specific fields (e.g., medicine, law). But Seth’s main point is that there is a difference between memorizing information for a test versus truly learning something at a deeper level.
  3. Precise, focused education instead of mass-batched stuff. This is a call to more personalized education; to a movement away from standardized testing, compliance as an outcome, and resumes. We should be measuring experience and transforming the role of a teacher into that of a coach.
  4. Teach our kids to go do something interesting. Too often, children are deterred from experimenting or following a passion due to a need to “stick to the curriculum.” As Seth puts it:

    “Every day, we send our 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… 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.'”–Seth Godin

  5. Empower students to “connect dots” versus just “collect dots.” Focusing again on the difference between experiential learning and textbook learning, Seth speaks to how the high emphasis placed on grades and compliance is detrimental to students:

    “Are we asking children 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 manual. You cannot teach connecting dots in a textbook. You can only do it by putting kids into a situation in which 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.”–Seth Godin

  6. Keep asking the question: “what is school for?” This question is a lens through which educators and administrators can make decisions. Whether it be the introduction of a new textbook or the hiring of a new superintendent, the decision can be evaluated and put into context by asking, “is this going to help us do (or improve) what we think school is for?” Furthermore, just asking this question might uncover the fact that there is ambiguity around what school is for, which can lead to productive conversations and — ultimately — progress.

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