Thursday, April 19, 2012

From Assembly Line to Artisan

I am a huge fan of RSA, and more specifically the RSAnimate video series. Recently, I ran across a great video from 2010 discussing the huge challenges facing education in the twenty-first century. Check it out here:

I think the author, Sir Ken Robinson, makes some excellent points. I began formal schooling nearly 40 years ago. When I began, we did do a lot of playing, interacting with the world, and (yes) learning in the process. Fairly quickly, however, we ended up in a classroom with rows of desks, teachers in front of blackboards, heavy textbooks which we were not permitted to write in, and, increasingly, being taught subjects we had no interest in and many of which seem to have no practical application. So, now my children are in school and what fantastic progress has been made in almost 40 years? Well, there is more "group work" and children sitting in "pods" of four to six children (which has its own problems for those of us who are introverts, as this video points out). There certainly are more computers, smart boards, and other technology. White boards with pens have replaced blackboards with chalk. There is a lot more standardized testing.

Aside from all of that, kids are still being stuffed into classrooms with teachers in front of white boards, taught subjects of questionable utility from heavy textbooks (which they're still prohibited from writing in) and penalized if they don't find this as scintillating as conversations with one another or staring out the window, of which there are increasingly few. The comparison to a factory churning out groups of standardized students made in the video is painfully apt. We appear to be doing almost exactly the same teaching, with some technical modifications and "improvements" as we did four decades ago.

That lack of progress would be enough of a tragedy, but it is compounded by the fact that the world in which we are training our children to take their place as contributing citizens not only will not exist when they graduate, it does not exist now.  We live in a hyper-networked world where I can more easily contact someone halfway around the world than I can run down the hallway and see them face-to-face. We have access to more information in less time than anyone in human history. The speed of innovation is increasing exponentially--and our institutions and infrastructure are imploding.

From politics, to nonprofits, to corporations, and even to the church, institutions that launched the Baby Boomers into the world as arguably the most successful generation in history are crumbling in the face of a lack of common purpose, a lack of money, and a lack of a compelling rationale for their continued existence. Rather than seizing this opportunity to re-make the world with the revolutionary fervor of the 1960s, most of those Boomers and Xers in power are fighting a doomed fight to preserve what can be preserved of what was. And, sadly, they are being rewarded for doing so by constituents and consumers in a sort of "race to the bottom."

The solution is easy to say and difficult to implement--primary because it requires qualities that our parents and grandparents had but which seem increasingly in short supply: sacrifice and courage. We need to acknowledge the reality that some long-cherished things are dead or in their final stages of life. We need to think creatively about how to re-make the United States as a successful twenty-first century country in a twenty-first century world, and we need to reward politicians and corporate leaders for truth-telling and courageous leadership rather than for telling us what we want to hear. And we need to do this now, before a generation or two of people emerges that are ill-equipped to deal with twenty-first century realities and can only watch helplessly as things (sometimes literally) sink beneath the waves. It is also going to require that we recognize that the world has moved from the assembly-line back to the artisan, the craftsman, this time in the craftsmanship of the mind. We need to reward and enhance creative thinking rather than penalizing it--because we can't keep doing what we've been doing for the last half-century.

I think we can do all of this, but it is going to require us to resist easy answers, to know that the economic party of the 1990s and 2000s is over, and begin the make the adaptive changes needed rather than simply doing some technical tweaking.

Here ends the sermon.