Big Issues and Small Actions

This week, the US Supreme Court has been hearing arguments to determine the constitutionality of two big laws on the subject of gay marriage: California’s Proposition 8 and DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act. As a result, the public has rallied. Flamboyant protestors with all kinds of signs surrounded the Supreme Court building on Tuesday and Wednesday. All across the country, people were expressing their opinions on social media, news sites etc. Lots of students in support of equal rights came to school wearing red. Additionally, on social media more and more people changed their profile pictures to red equal signs. Even those on the opposite side of the issue changed their profile pictures- some of them even to unequal signs. It was a great exhibit of free speech and how people speak from the heart when they are allowed to be heard.

All this sounds positive right? Free speech, spreading the word, getting the cause out etc. But a couple classmates of mine commented on the true effectiveness of such gestures. They said, “it’s not like me changing my profile picture, posting lengthy status or waving signs is going to change the Justices’ minds. So why do it? It just causes tension and draws attention with no little impact. We’re just kids, we don’t have a voice.”

I might have screamed “BUT YOU DO HAVE A VOICE. YOUR VOICE MATTERS.” But instead, I just decided to meditate upon the sadness of that statement.

I understand where that perspective comes from. Sure you may not influence this decision- but there’s always an off chance that you just might. Any action, no matter how small, helps raise some sort of awareness, helps perpetuate the spread of truth and ideas. I am of the opinion that everything helps. If I put a drop in the bucket, it’s at least one drop more than before. If everyone puts a drop in the bucket, we have an ocean.

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Tony Wagner on “Creating Innovators”

The other day, I attended a talk at my school by Mr. Tony Wagner, most commonly known for his books the Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators. I found that his thoughts echoed the ideas of others whom I have read about concerning motivation, education and changes for the 21st century.

Wagner says that there are 3 challenges that come to mind when he thinks about young people and their current education. Nowadays, knowledge has become unlimited and commoditized — in a few years, Wagner believes we should be able to get high quality education without even leaving our beloved computer screens. Additionally, jobs that required basic, routine work have “disappeared” and lots of careers are being reimagined. Students need a different set of skills than ever before to simply get a job. This world is changing and is doing so quite rapidly.

Wagner’s essential question is, how do we prepare our young people for this changing world? Absorbing content should no longer be the focus for our schools, since what really counts now is not what students know but what they can do with what they know. To succeed, students must have the will and skill to transform their pre-existing knowledge.

Wagner has compiled, through his research, a set of essential skills for this modern world. He describes them as “core things every young person must be well on the way to mastering by end of high school so that they have skills of work and active citizenship.” Here are his 7 “survival skills”:

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving: Beyond just a buzzword, Wagner identifies critical thinking as the ability to ask the right questions, ask “good” questions, and to identify problems. This reminded me of Grant Lichtman‘s “The Falconer” and his philosophy called the Art of Questioning.
  2. Collaboration across networks: Appreciate the differences between yourself and others. Be able to lead through influence (sustained teamwork).
  3. Agility and adaptability: The ability to keep up with the constantly changing world and adjust to the curveballs life throws your way.
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurialism: Entrepreneurialism and the initiative to innovate form the subject of Wagner’s second book. I am a strong believer in FedEx days (as mentioned by Daniel Pink in his book Drive) and the Google rule as motivators for starting new ideas within a team (at school or in other organizations).
  5. Effective written and oral communication: Wagner said that students have not truly been asked to think enough. The influx of rote assignments, the benefits of writing what others want instead of what they think is most likely why Wagner says students also don’t know how to write with voice.
  6. Accessing and analyzing information: Nowadays, the consensus is why memorize when you have Google? However, it’s important to know what is worth memorizing and how to effectively conduct a Google search.
  7. Curiosity and imagination: Wagner cited Daniel Pink’s first book, “A Whole New Mind” as evidence for the importance of utilizing both halves of the brain often.

According to Wagner, these skills are far more important than content knowledge. Especially because content is constantly changing and updating so we end up having to relearn it anyways. Nowadays, tests (especially Advanced Placements and SATs) rely too much on multiple choice and factual recall, which in fact tell us very little about intelligence, aptitude and college readiness. As a result, colleges (notably Dartmouth) are beginning to drop APs, another sign of the lesser importance of solely content knowledge. Recent research suggests college grads leave no wiser in terms of survival skills and are no better equipped for the real world. Additionally, students graduating now are for the first time in what seems like forever, coming home from college without any job opportunities, which has served as a huge awakening.

People are realizing that we need not only these 7 skills, but something more. We need people who can innovate, think on their feet and make something from nothing. But the million-dollar question is how can we help people to become more innovative??

We were all born curious, creative and imaginative. We have the innate capabilities to innovate until those capabilities are “schooled out of us.” School gets us too worried about getting the right answer and we often lose the desire to ask questions for fear of being wrong or ridiculed for not knowing. That’s sad… In order to have a generation full of young people who can achieve success, we need to revert back to our childish inquisitiveness and abandon. The ability to let go and experiment is key to the modern world. And it’s not like growing a third arm or something — we have these abilities still. We must simply enable them to resurface and grow stronger.

In order to see what we can do to be more innovative, Wagner interviewed leading innovators of all ages and tried to find what influences enabled them. The majority of the people interviewed cited teachers, at least one per person, who had made the greatest impact on their lives. In every single case, these teachers were outliers in their respective institutions in terms of their philosophies and teaching methods. This made me think about how in my life, my teachers Mr. A and Mr. B, have similarly influenced and motivated me to strive for greater excellence and to think outside the box.

When Wagner researched schools that were deliberately teaching innovation, he found that they were all startups whose methods were totally different from normal schools, but consistent with those of the outlier teachers.

The culture of school as we currently follow it is radically at odds with the culture to innovate. School nowadays contradicts with the very criteria required for innovation in 5 main ways.

  • The current model of school values the individual and winning as one but innovation demands collaboration and teamwork.
  • The current model of school compartmentalizes and favors specialization. Innovation demands interdisciplinariness. (Yes that’s a word now :P).
  • The current model of school is passive — sit and get. Innovation demands creation not consumption. Real production and answering open-ended questions is critical.
  • The current model of school penalizes failure. Innovation demands making mistakes and learning from them. A good motto to live by is fail early and fail often –– trial and error is key to innovation. Iteration. Learning from one process (what worked and what didn’t) then applying what worked, to the next course or project.
  • The current model of schooling relies on extrinsic incentives but innovation requires self-motivation. Once again, Daniel Pink’s “Drive” contains examples and proof of the power and greater effectiveness of intrinsic motivation.  Pursuing what you’re good at and what you enjoy as opposed to blind compliance and simply going with the pre-existing flow, leads to lasting motivation. Students nowadays connect and communicate and are empowered everywhere but in their classrooms. To do change this, Wagner says we need play, passion, and purpose; have exploratory learning, limit screen time, make it hands on, and involve play (like the long-standing MIT pranks) as an element of learning.

Wagner has a few ideas for making this playful, innovation-inducing learning happen. A good way to see what skills students are learning in each class and a nice form of assessing these skills is having a system like the Scouts Merit Badges. Then, graduation would serve “not as a degree for seat time served but as a reflection of mastery.” Additionally, instituting a DISCIPLINE OF REFLECTION AND SELF-ASSESSMENT would help create a more productive environment. Other such ideas that have proven to lead to more innovation include having an R&D budget in schools for something like a “maker-space” and implementing the Google rule of a day of play (where students could have some uninterrupted time for more focused learning). Students would also acquire valuable skills from this day of play by having to set goals, research questions, think, explore, and learn while documenting work in digital portfolios so as to be held accountable.

Wagner’s talk reaffirmed some ideas I’d previously heard of and appreciated, as well as solidified some concepts that had yet to be nailed down. I think Wagner shows mainly that the necessity for a mindset shift in the way we view schools is great and that people everywhere are realizing it.

UN sparked revelations

Over Spring Break, I had the lovely opportunity to visit the UN headquarters in New York.

On exhibit at this time were a set of photos under the title Journeys to School. This photos showed the hardships many children face just on their way to school. The captions file in the story, detailing how common (or as was often the case, uncommon) it was to go to school, what the classrooms looked like and the safety they represented for these children. It was truly touching.

What I found remarkable, if not a little disconcerting was the large list of places the exhibition covered. It made me think of how lucky I was. And I wondered, could education reform have another focus? Could we reform these schools, these journeys so that the burden was less, the joy greater and the success extrapolative? These children understand how lucky they are and yet they have so little. I have so much, yet often I, and other of my classmates, don’t realize how lucky we are to go to such nice schools, on paved roads, in cars. How can we take our time and make their smiles brighter, showing people that when you value education, it can truly bring happiness. I want that for all children. Happiness, especially through education. Learning should be enjoyable and should make you want to never stop. These children are like beacons of light- they endure injustice for the sake of a brighter future, for the sake of education.

Apart from the photo exhibition, all throughout the building we saw depictions of injustice, what the UN was trying to do to help and various examples of difficult lives from all over the world. For me, I was saddened and grateful for my blessed life. My sister however had some furious yet very wise words that really inspired me. “Instead of hurting people with wars, can’t countries help people and do things for good? If people do it for God, wouldn’t God want you to do good things? If we (as people) just stopped being mean and stopped interfering (as countries), we’d solve a lot of problems. If people just treated others the way they would like to be treated, the world would be nicer. It’s really that easy.”

I don’t know if that’s all it takes, but it’s definitely worth a shot.

Education as the North Star and a source of happiness. Kindness taking over. Sounds good to me!

Jack White and Conan O’Brien on work ethic and shying away from too much comfort

I was led recently from Dan Coyle’s blog “Talent Code,” to this video on a conversation between singer Jack White and Conan O’Brien.

And they had some fantastic ideas. Dan Coyle mentions their attention to how good art is created and their individual rituals that allow for deep work. In addition, I heard some points that I can relate to.

Jack White touts his minimalistic philosophy which he views as the power of threes. He believes that you shouldn’t have more than what you need and that his philosophy is his way of setting a limit because he has found that free reign leads to disinterest. Conan agreed saying, “Comfort can kill an artistic impulse.” In tandem with his desire for a limit, Jack believes in structure. For example, he writes when he needs to not just when “inspiration strikes” supporting an old adage that “necessity is the mother of invention.”

What I took away from this video was that one can’t get too comfortable because that breeds monotony and laziness. I agree with this. When I’m on vacation, I have often still have things to do but if I don’t schedule them in or in some way hold myself to them, I get lazy and lose the desire to work, even on things I enjoy.

This applies to some ideas I’ve had in the past about school and its rigidity. In a way, that amount of structure is nice- it should lend itself to minimal procrastination. However, too much structure allows a comfortable lull all the same. A nice balance between preordained structure and a focused period of time in which to work creatively without a required subject matter is in my mind, the ideal.