Rethinking School

Since leaving college, I’ve started to take a more much critical look at our education system (K-12, at least). As I’ve read about successful entrepreneurs, I wonder why I never pursued the things they did when they were young. It always comes back to my insistence on “focusing on my schoolwork”. I didn’t want any distractions to getting good grades. Now that I’m trying to educate myself on business, I’m finding it difficult to justify the massive amount of time that I spent in the classroom, learning things that I can’t recall anymore. I would be so much more ready to kick ass if I had spent more time out of the classroom learning about/experiencing the business world. But, there’s no point in focusing on these regrets. However, it is important to think about how we can make sure the same thing doesn’t happen for other people.

In the states, students are taught at a very early age that they must sit in a chair for hours on end and follow the instructions of an authority figure.  Questions are frowned upon and creativity is unwelcome. But why did we have to endure this type of treatment for 13 years? How is this supposed to craft productive members of society? The answer lies in which society you’re talking about. Do you want to equip people to succeed in the information age where nothing is certain and a disruptive (and life-altering) idea is just around the corner? Our current school system is not the solution. Our school system was created in a time when the United States was desperately in need of factory workers. The incentives were to design a system that produced obedient factory drones. Most schools haven’t moved too far away from that mentality. The system still creates people who are great at taking instructions. The only problem is that our new economy (and world) doesn’t have a manual.

Of course, many of us were lucky to have teachers that figured out how to excel within the constraints. The most notable for me was my high school chemistry teacher, Mrs. Gallagher. She refused to follow standard classroom protocols and devoted a quarter of the year to simulating a soap company. The premise seems insane, but we all learned way more about chemistry and human relationships in that quarter than we did in any other class. I also have a very intense smell association with the green soap that we had to use to clean out our beakers (which took FOREVER because it’s rather hard to clean soap with soap…).

Seth Godin’s book, Stop Stealing Dreams (please read, it’s free! #43 – How Not to Teach Someone to be a Baseball Fan – is especially good), has catalyzed/molded these thoughts for me. In the book, he is constantly asking, “What is school for?” I explained my thoughts above a little on what school used to be for (and how it hasn’t changed much), but here’s what Seth thinks school’s purpose should be now:

“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.”

How are you breaking the habits that the school system forced upon you? What are you doing to learn how to be a leader and build something great?

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