School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

What If We Told Students the Truth?

In a previous post we kicked off a conversation about entrepreneur and best-selling author Seth Godin’s new education manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams (What Is School For?). Since that time, Stop Stealing Dreams has been shared, re-shared, spread and “sneezed” across the digital universe, with tens of thousands of viewings each day.

In Manifesto 25 Godin asks yet another uncomfortable question: ‘What if We Told Students the Truth?” Although Godin never quite defines what that “truth” is, he does explain the motivation for hiding it. That explanation mostly relies on Godin’s recurrent theme of public education remaining stuck in an Industrial Age framework, unable to serve the needs of today’s students, and (mostly) unwilling to do much about it. Godin argues that the system’s lack of transparency helps preserve the status quo (to the extent it can be preserved) because if students and parents really knew what was going on, they’d walk away from it, or worse. From Godin (emphasis is mine):

Transparency in the traditional school might destroy it. If we told the truth about the irrelevance of various courses, about the relative quality of some teachers, about the power of choice and free speech—could the school as we know it survive?

What happens when the connection revolution collides with the school?

Unlike just about every other institution and product line in our economy, transparency is missing from education. Students are lied to and so are parents. At some point, teenagers realize that most of school is a game, but the system never acknowledges it. In search of power, control and independence, administrators hide information from teachers, and vice versa.

Because school was invented to control students and give power to the state, it’s not surprising that the relationships are fraught with mistrust.

The very texture of the traditional school matches the organization and culture of the industrial economy. The bottom of the pyramid stores the students, with teachers (middle managers) following instructions from their bosses.

As in the traditional industrial organization, the folks at the bottom of the school are ignored, mistreated, and lied to. They are kept in the dark about anything outside of what they need to know to do their job (being a student), and put to work to satisfy the needs of the people in charge. Us and them.

But according to Godin, the Connection Economy is leading an education revolution, giving students the tools they need to find the answers relevant to their world. With or without the traditional public school system, students will make their mark and schools will be forced to adapt. Godin continues in Manifesto 25:

“The connection economy destroys the illusion of control. Students have the ability to find out which colleges are a good value, which courses make no sense, and how people in the real world are actually making a living. They have the ability to easily do outside research, even in fifth grade, and to discover that the teacher (or her textbook) is just plain wrong.

When students can take entire courses outside of the traditional school, how does the school prevent that? When passionate students can start their own political movements, profitable companies, or worthwhile community projects without the aegis of a school, how are obedience and fealty enforced?

It’s impossible to lie and manipulate when you have no power.”

My take: In my nearly ten years of writing, talking, advocating and thinking about what works in education, I’ve stressed time and again that the change we are all talking about in education will happen. It is inevitable. Why? Because with education reform there is a convergence of three major, disruptive influences: 1. Parents and students demanding excellence (without exception); 2. Parents and students seeking out any possible means to achieve this excellence and 3. An interconnected world that has exponentially enhanced both the number and quality of alternatives to the traditional K-12 education system. The result is a system where parents and students design their own plans based on their student’s unique needs. What Godin describes is an education universe (slowly) turning upside down. Instead of adjusting their world to the K-12 system, parents and students are crafting their own destinies from an entirely new menu of choices. The K-12 system must either adjust to the new paradigm of parents and students as co-equal partners or risk becoming irrelevant.

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