Lessons from Seth Godin on Education [Pt. 2]

[This is the second post in a three-part series breaking down Seth Godin’s views on the American education system. You can read the first piece here.]


After publishing the audio from his 2012 TEDxYouth speech about how to improve our education system in a recent episode of Akimbo, Seth Godin devoted the entirety of the subsequent episode to answering listeners’ questions.

Through his responses, Seth outlines a progressive vision for remodeling public education in the United States. After listening to the episode a few times, I summarized his key points and the broader strategies that can be extrapolated from his words.

One of the reasons that we — as parents, teachers, tax payers, and students — are stuck is that we do not know how to talk to each other. Everyone has different “wants” and desires. It is difficult to talk to other people about what we want because it means telling each other the truth, and this truth may not align with someone else’s opinions. However, we need to begin to have conversations. We need to ask the simple question: “what is school for?” Similarly, education professionals need to ask themselves why they are working in the field; hopefully, the answer is that they are trying to redefine what education is. These are uncomfortable thoughts and conversations to have, but they are crucially important ones.

To make change happen, we must shun the non-believers. Instead, we need to talk to people who are listening. We need to find the early adopters first and align with them. People tend to spend too much energy trying to win over the skeptics, when sequentially they should be starting with others already in their court. This does not mean we should not talk or listen to others; it is just a better strategy for starting down a path of creating change.

The information age is changing the way we (should) learn. It used to be the case that you needed to physically go to the library to get information. If the library was closed, you were out of luck. That is no longer the case. Now, the answer to any question is just one click away. This means that we do not need to teach students how to memorize the answer to questions; instead, we need to “enroll” students in wanting to know how to answer these questions, and teaching them how to find the answers they seek. Seth describes this process as “connecting dots.”

“The people who are happy and successful and influential and highly leveraged are not [that way] because they know more stuff; it is because they have access to the information that they need and the desire to go get it. They also have the insight and intuition to connect disparate streams of information and turn it into a whole new way of thinking… Let’s just stop teaching kids to collect dots.”–Seth Godin

What’s missing in public education is cultural change. Changing the culture of school means changing what we measure. It also means equipping the next generation. We need to establish a culture and a standard for children from an early age that they can establish a platform to make change happen. Compliancy and “fitting in” can be helpful when it is in service of the change you seek to make.

Question the reasoning behind national standards. Why are they the national standards? Are we measuring them because they are important? Standards are a crucial aspect of educaton, but when did we decide that these specific standards were good or accurate indicators of learning and growth?

When teachers fixate on citations, they are missing the point. There is a huge difference between plagiarizing and smartly paraphrasing (with proper citations) to “connect the dots.” The role of a teacher should be to help teach students — especially older ones — to “connect the dots”; to put, in their own words, what they think. We don’t teach children how to do this. As a result, they “become cogs in this weird machine that creates un-readable papers that are scored by systems we don’t understand. It’s another form of compliance.” We need children to be able to stand up, tell us what they think, and tell us why.

All kids are homeschooled. Whether it be the three to five years spent at home before enrolling in early childcare to time spent before and after the school day, “sooner or later all kids are homeschooled.” Parents have a huge responsibility, then, to set high standards and foster a positive culture at home. Decades of research has found that parental engagement in education (in a wide variety of diverse forms) leads to a plethora of positive outcomes for children. Even though parents may not be able to change the industrial nature of school, parents do have choices. What types of behaviors are they recognizing and rewarding? What is the conversation at the dinner table like? How do we deal with failure and challenges in front of our children? For parents, helping their children should not mean focusing on how they can do better on the test. It should mean overtly creating a culture at home that is likely different from the one that they themselves grew up in.

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