On Stealing Dreams

At present I am just under 2 weeks away from jetting off to Portland to attend OSCON, where I will proclaim with an acknowledged hubris that our American education system is fundamentally broken and that I have a fix for it.

Aside from madly trying to stuff facts and figures that the Open Education Track attendees might actually care about as to why the free-education (as in freedom, not as in beer) model that has naturally evolved around hackerspaces will be the model that carries our next few generations into success (if we choose to succeed at all), I’ve been poring over Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams. It’s incendiary, and a great way to get myself excited about convincing other educators to help legitimize the kind of free-form education that is actually preparing today’s students for the current networked economy.

Granted, this is probably a bit of confirmation bias, but Godin firms up a lot of what I’ve suspected all along about why schools (even good ones) aren’t working. I’ve selected and summarized a few points from the first few chapters:

  • We expect low-income schools to be bad, but they’re probably not bad for the reasons we think they are.
  • We started compulsory education to build better factory workers, and industrializing the education system in a way that benefitted factories resulted in a system that doesn’t create motivated scholars. As a result we created 50 years of uncreative, obedient workers and a dearth of “tradable” jobs. If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, he will find someone cheaper than you to do it.
  • The school system we’ve built is bad at teaching cultural coordination, interest in pursuing knowledge and giving students good decision-making skills. We’re cranking out lazy thinkers.
  • Horace Mann thought he was building a better society of educated workers with character, but the qualities of character he originally attempted to instill (obedience, punctuality, etc) are no longer the needs of a worker in a network economy.
  • We still base our students’ “achievements” with multiple-choice tests, originally designed as a test of “lower order thinking”, and perhaps the least effective way to assess how thoroughly a student has absorbed a subject.
  • Instead of squashing dreams, we’ll need to encourage creativity and leadership if we want our students to succeed. They need to be dreaming bigger than “Personal assistant to a famous singer”.

Frankly, the kind of education we encourage in hackerspaces (perhaps the only kind we’ll tolerate) is Passion-based learning. Hackerspaces attract the passionate, those with a drive to fix the problems they find in the world.

I know anecdotally that the hackerspace model works, and can get someone who didn’t think they were interested in math or science doing precisely those two things at the lure of a blinking LED or bleeping piezo disc. I know empirically that the K-12 and college systems that I grew up in don’t prepare the students who are graduating today with the skills I need from them right now. I can’t wait (and none of us should) for the landslide change that brings forth a newer more successful kind of innovator from the American education system, and I think that the passion-based open education is exactly the rock that’s going to start that landslide.