Lessons from Seth Godin on Education [Pt. 3]

[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 and the second one 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 two subsequent episodes to answering listeners’ questions.

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

The SAT is deeply flawed. The SAT is a test that can be gamed. It’s an exam that you can work hard to get better at, but it’s also an exam that more likely measures your preparation, your vocabulary and your home culture — not the emotional and attitudinal approaches that will help you succeed in life. Yet, it’s still one of the most critical pieces of a college application.

Understand that colleges compete against each other. When first published, the U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of colleges was highly criticized. But, bit by bit, institutions started to game the system to move up the rankings. For instance: clever schools find ways to get more people to apply so that they can reject them and inflate their exclusivity numbers. This fueled the egos of parents, who pushed their children to apply to the high-ranking schools, and so it became a virtuous cycle. The more a school moved up the rankings, the money they brought in from applications and the applause they received from alumni increased significantly. The SAT score is at the heart of how schools compete. This is a big issue.

When you’re surrounded by a family that expects you to do well on the SAT, you are more likely to have a high score. When you are pushed academically from an early age and enrolled in “SAT prep” courses and learn the 5,000 vocabulary words, studies show that your SAT scores will increase. But we know that certain ethnic groups and certain geographical locations do better on the SAT than others. This is because of their homes and the expectations around them. This turns college admissions into an unfair game, where wealthier families can help to invest in their children so that they can “enter the door” with a higher score than other applicants.

You don’t have to “play the game” to differentiate yourself. Seth’s preferred way for students to stand out (generally in life but more specifically as a college applicant) is to realize that people who are interesting or who have a special skill are able to leverage their uniqueness to succeed. He talks about how he used to have breakfast with the Head of Admissions for his engineering program (shoutout Tufts!) during college, and through conversations with this individual he learned about how admissions departments have huge pressure to accept candidates who have the potential to become extraordinary alumni. People who will make the classroom more interesting. You can become one of those people.

We need to teach our students about “non-team activities.” Seth explains “NTAs” as entrepreneurial pursuits that goal-directed teenagers can pursue, such as starting a non-profit or piloting research in an area of interest. These NTAs demonstrate how you are a self-directed person who cares about a specific issue or cause. Someone who is passionate about making change can start that process at a young age. If you can find someone at a university that has an overlap with what you’re interested in, even better — you can reach out to them and try to understand their work. It is worth it to become the kind of student who organizes something in high school; who builds projects and does them without the normal club or sanctioned-organization helping them become a cog in the system.

School is to help students become self-directed, generous individuals who are able to navigate the adult world without being filled with fear. As parents, our task is to create an environment so that our children eagerly become this type of person. The same is true for college admissions professionals or recruiters.

Pick your college (or job) based on where you will have the freedom to become who you want to become and the support to get there. You might find that the school that sees you for who you want to become is the best fit. It’s very unlikely that anyone with a great college experience will talk about what they did in the classroom; rather, they will probably talk about their freedom to connect, lead, and explore.

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