Yep. That title is really descriptive.
Some friends and I were just discussing today (originally written 2 months ago) the fact that English classes in school were really a joke. We discussed one particular high school teacher we all had, and the ‘joys’ of poetry analysis (she was ALWAYS right, by the way… there is NO other interpretation).
Here’s my beef: over the last several decades, we’ve dumbed down our population by teaching students facts and figures, but not how to think. Well, I don’t actually know that it’s been over the last century, because I don’t know if the educational system was ever what I might envision. As a nation, our educational system is an assembly line producing the ‘factory’ workers for the next generation of corporate conglomerates. This is a sad, but very real, reality.
What do kids do in school these days? Math problems. Worksheets. Spelling tests. Geography maps (memorize all the state capitals, because that’s useful!). They learn how to follow directions, answer questions with a, b, c, or d, and the chemical makeup of water. But what do kids learn about creativity? Problem-solving? Communication? Debate? Civics? I could go on. So I will…
Going back to my middle school and high school days, I was in the ‘advanced’ classes, but unfortunately, most kids don’t get that opportunity. They are never challenged with something that interests them. They are told to sit down, shut up, and do their homework. What does that teach kids? It teaches them to be a factory worker (read: 9-5 desk job, warehouse worker, aka most jobs). In short: we are raising kids to be robots at work, taught to do routine tasks repetitively.
Systems: the greatest innovation in business since the wheel. Systems are great for businesses and the bottom-line (duplicitous, scale-able, economical, reliable), but not so much for people. Why? Because I believe, from my own experience as well as the experience of others that all people have an element of creativity, a genius, which gets squeezed out of them through their educational experience. By implementing robotic systems in business (and school), this natural creative genius doesn’t get used, and as a result, I believe people are not as happy and productive as their potential might suggest they could be.
So how did I survive? And how do the many creative minds out there make it through this labyrinth of crudely-architected mental death traps?
I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with my stubborn streak. I’m naturally very creative. I naturally think ‘outside the box.’ I naturally resist systems if I feel they are inferior methods for accomplishing a specific task. I think there are many people with similar personalities, but in comparison to the rest of the population, we are few and far between.
What do we call this group of people who resist inefficient systems and authority? Entrepreneurs of course. Why? Because they dare to break the mold of the corporate assembly line.
I started my marketing company in 2008, in the middle of a recession because I didn’t want a job in corporate America. I could have had one, but I rejected it. The thought of working for an inefficient conglomerate of wasted talent and creativity to create profits for someone else’s pocket doesn’t sit well with me (and worded that way, probably doesn’t with you any more!). I realize not everyone can or should be an entrepreneur, and not everyone’s personality works the way mine does (I know it’s rather rare: I’m an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs scale, by the way, aka ‘the Mastermind’).
But somewhere along the way, businesses need to ask themselves if they are systematically destroying their businesses by mentally abusing their employees by keeping that creative genius smothered under the robotic arms of corporate America. How do you break that mold? I’m not saying systems are bad, because they are in fact brilliant. But I am saying that inflexible systems which do not promote the human being ahead of the product and profit, will eventually be the downfall of both product and profit.
To illustrate this point: look at consumer goods today. ‘Made in China’ connotes something inexpensive and of low-quality. While this is not always the case, it is by-and-large mostly true. The trend among consumers over time is to choose quality over price every time. Any good marketing professional knows this, although the proverbial Walmarts of the world appear to defy this principle (that could be another post entirely- because that is really a fallacy). This pattern of quality over price is measurable and historic. So why does the price question come up? One word: commiditization. As a product becomes more mainstream, copycats arise. A price war ensues, and then a new product comes along that blows them all out of the water. This cycle continues indefinitely as technology progresses. When a company is in a price war, innovation (read: application of creative genius) ceases or severely slows, because the company cannot afford to innovate at low profit margins.
So the inevitability of a company going out of business by going the route of strict systems, lower prices, and no risk is less innovation and a very real likelihood of going out of business or at least fading into complete and utter irrelevance in the market (recent memory: Circuit City, Hollywood Video, Blockbuster, Eastman Kodak, AOL, Kmart). Yes, innovation is a risk, but a necessary risk for the survival of any company.
Yet executives don’t want to pull the trigger. Why? Because all through school we’ve been ingrained with the idea that failure is not an option. Failing a class, or a test, or a project, or just about anything, means you’re ‘not good enough.’ People give up. Those who keep going do so by ‘playing it safe.’ I knew kids in my school who took easy classes so they could get high grades to get the scholarships they needed. I hated that idea, so I took the lower grades, worked harder, and didn’t get some of the scholarships they did. But the path they chose seemed inefficient to me.
Most people look at education and work and see only the money and the things they can do with the money. They rationalize: if I can’t play in the NBA, or be a rock star, or be a fashion designer, then I’ll just give up on those dreams. When giving up those dreams, they give up the will to keep dreaming, and put on a hard shell to ‘go to work.’ Kids lose the fire they had, because it’s extinguished along the way by well-meaning teachers, parents, and friends.
My attitude has always been that I want to enjoy the journey. I want to be challenged along the way. I want to learn. I want to learn everything I possibly can. I don’t particularly care if that’s in a university, a high school, a library, or in nature. It may be on the internet, at a church, with friends at a movie, or hiking in the mountains. People who have a ‘learning attitude’ are constantly observing and noting their surroundings, and learning from the experience.
Sometimes those robotic factory workers I mentioned take off their hard shell after work and become learners, but they can’t reach their full potential with that shell on every day. It stunts their personal growth at least 8-10 hours every day, yet they continue on that path, not realizing the potential they could have attained.
This, to me, is a tragedy. I want everyone to enjoy the freedom of imagination which I enjoy. I want everyone to think they can do things, and try it! If we all expect someone else to innovate, where will that put us next year? In 5 years? Innovation and learning is the responsibility of our entire society, which is why I’d like to come back to my first point: our educational system isn’t doing what it should be doing: creating life-long learners, thinkers, and creators.
How can we alter our educational system? The answer is simple, yet complex: one child, one school, one classroom at a time. Easily said, but specifically, much more difficult to do. This is already happening in many schools around the country– in classrooms,
First: teachers must be taught to learn and work with the strengths and weaknesses of each child. I think they should all have some training in childhood psychology, and psychology in general. Teachers must learn to ‘go with the flow’ a bit and improvise when necessary; to allow children to be expressive, make mistakes, and get messy (as my favorite after-school cartoon teacher did: Ms. Frizzle). Understanding that personality, tendencies of the child, and learning aptitudes gives the teacher an edge on engaging each student in the class. Of course large class sizes make it difficult, but even in states with smaller class sizes, many teachers aren’t doing very well. Why? Because teachers are ingrained in the same old system.
To be clear: everything is NOT lost in our educational system. Many universities are working hard to keep their teacher education programs at a high level, and often some of the best teachers are the newest ones. This topic could be it’s own post too, so I won’t go into this too much, but I do believe there is a disconnect in what teachers learn and experience at the university, and what happens ‘in real life’ when actually teaching classes. If we can close that gap from the lecture hall to the classroom and get real implementation, not just talk, we’ll see the progress we need to start seeing.
Education reform is a process, and we are already in that process. Teachers, parents, and schools and districts across the US are reforming education, a little bit at a time. That is wonderful– but we need more of this. I realize this post has a lot of statements which many consider platitudes, but there is a lot of truth in there. I just hope anyone who reads this might do some small part in education reform: even as small as studying the issues and voting in your local school board election makes a difference!