Our Educational System is Total Bullshit – Here’s Why…
Here are my notes for my talk to the TEDxNYed gathering this past weekend. I used the opportunity of a TED event to question the TED format, especially in relation to education, where – as in media – we must move past the one-way lecture to collaboration. I feared I’d get tomatoes – organic – thrown at me at the first line, but I got laugh and so everything went OK from there. The video won’t be up for a week or two so I’ll share my notes. It’s not word-for-word what I delivered, but it’s close….
* * *
This is bullshit.
Why should you be sitting there listening to me? To paraphrase Dan Gillmor, you know more than I do. Will Richardson should be up here instead of me. And to paraphrase Jay Rosen, you should be the people formerly known as the audience.
But right now, you’re the audience and I’m lecturing.
What does this remind of us of? The classroom, of course, and the entire structure of an educational system built for the industrial age, turning out students all the same, convincing them that there is one right answer – and that answer springs from the lecturn. If they veer from it they’re wrong; they fail.
What else does this remind us of? Media, old media: one-way, one-size-fits-all. The public doesn’t decide what’s news and what’s right. The journalist-as-speaker does.
But we must question this very form. We must enable students to question the form.
I, too, like lots of TED talks. But having said that….
During the latest meeting of Mothership TED, I tweeted that I didn’t think I had ever seen any TEDster tweet anything negative about a talk given there, so enthralled are they all for being there, I suppose. I asked whether they were given soma in their shwag bags.
But then, blessed irony, a disparaging tweet came from none other than TED’s curator, dean, editor, boss, Chris Anderson. Sarah Silverman had said something that caused such a kerfuffle Anderson apologized and then apologized for the apology, so flummoxed was he by someone coming into the ivory tower of TED to shake things up with words.
When I tweeted about this, trying to find out what Silverman had said, and daring to question the adoration TEDsters have for TED, one of its acolytes complained about my questioning the wonders of TED. She explained that TED gave her “validation.”
Good God, that’s the last thing we should want. We should want questions, challenges, discussion, debate, collaboration, quests for understanding and solutions. Has the internet taught us any less?
But that is what education and media do: they validate.
They also repeat. In news, I have argued that we can no longer afford to repeat the commodified news the public already knows because we want to tell the story under our byline, exuding our ego; we must, instead, add unique value.
The same can be said of the academic lecture. Does it still make sense for countless teachers to rewrite the same essential lecture about, say, capillary action? Used to be, they had to. But not now, not since open curricula and YouTube. Just as journalists must become more curator than creator, so must educators.
A few years ago, I had this conversation with Bob Kerrey at the New School. He asked what he could do to compete with brilliant lectures now online at MIT. I said don’t complete, complement. I imagined a virtual Oxford based on a system of lecturers and tutors. Maybe the New School should curate the best lectures on capillary action from MIT and Stanford or a brilliant teacher who explains it well even if not from a big-school brand; that could be anyone in YouTube U. And then the New School adds value by tutoring: explaining, answering, probing, enabling.
The lecture does have its place to impart knowledge and get us to a shared starting point. But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of education – or journalism. Now the shared lecture is a way to find efficiency in ending repetition, to make the best use of the precious teaching resource we have, to highlight and support the best. I’ll give the same advice to the academy that I give to news media: Do what you do best and link to the rest.
I still haven’t moved past the lecture and teacher as starting point. I also think we must make the students the starting point.
At a Carnegie event at the Paley Center a few weeks ago, I moderated a panel on teaching entrepreneurial journalism and it was only at the end of the session that I realized what I should have done: start with the room, not the stage. I asked the students in the room what they wished their schools were teaching them. It was a great list: practical yet visionary.
I tell media that they must become collaborative, because the public knows much, because people want to create, not just consume, because collaboration is a way to expand news, because it is a way to save expenses. I argue that news is a process, not a product. Indeed, I say that communities can now share information freely – the marginal cost of their news is zero. We in journalism should ask where we can add value. But note that that in this new ecosystem, the news doesn’t start with us. It starts with the community.
I’ve been telling companies that they need to move customers up the design chain. On a plane this week, I sat next to a manufacturer of briefcases last week and asked whether, say, TechCrunch could get road warriors to design the ultimate laptop bag for them, would he build it? Of course, he would.
So we need to move students up the education chain. They don’t always know what they need to know, but why don’t we start by finding out? Instead of giving tests to find out what they’ve learned, we should test to find out what they don’t know. Their wrong answers aren’t failures, they are needs and opportunities.
But the problem is that we start at the end, at what we think students should learn, prescribing and preordaining the outcome: We have the list of right answers. We tell them our answers before they’ve asked the questions. We drill them and test them and tell them they’ve failed if they don’t regurgitate back our lectures as lessons learned. That is a system built for the industrial age, for the assembly line, stamping out everything the same: students as widgets, all the same.
But we are no longer in the industrial age. We are in the Google age. Hear Jonathan Rosenberg, Google’s head of product management, who advised students in a blog post. Google, he said, is looking for “non-routine problem-solving skills.” The routine way to solve the problem of misspelling is, of course, the dictionary. The non-routine way is to listen to all the mistake and corrections we make and feed that back to us in the miraculous, “Did you mean?”
One more from him: “It’s easy to educate for the routine, and hard to educate for the novel.” Google sprung from seeing the novel. Is our educational system preparing students to work for or create Googles? Googles don’t come from lectures.
So if not the lecture hall, what’s the model? I mentioned one: the distributed Oxford: lectures here, teaching there.
Once you’re distributed, then one has to ask, why have a university? Why have a school? Why have a newspaper? Why have a place or a thing? Perhaps, like a new news organization, the tasks shift from creating and controlling content and managing scarcity to curating people and content and enabling an abundance of students and teachers and of knowledge: a world whether anyone can teach and everyone will learn. We must stop selling scarce chairs in lecture halls and thinking that is our value.
We must stop our culture of standardized testing and standardized teaching. Fuck the SATs.* In the Google age, what is the point of teaching memorization?
We must stop looking at education as a product – in which we turn out every student giving the same answer – to a process, in which every student looks for new answers. Life is a beta.
Why shouldn’t every university – every school – copy Google’s 20% rule, encouraging and enabling creation and experimentation, every student expected to make a book or an opera or an algorithm or a company. Rather than showing our diplomas, shouldn’t we show our portfolios of work as a far better expression of our thinking and capability? The school becomes not a factory but an incubator.
There’s another model for an alternative to the lecture and it’s Dave Winer’s view of the unconference. At the first Bloggercon, Dave had me running a panel on politics and when I said something about “my panel,” he jumped down my throat, as only Dave can. “There is no panel,” he decreed. “The room is the panel.” Ding. It was in the moment that I learned to moderate events, including those in my classroom, by drawing out the conversation and knowledge of the wise crowd in the room.
So you might ask why I didn’t do that here today. I could blame the form; didn’t want to break the form. But we all know there’s another reason:
* That was an ad-lib
First posted here on Buzzmachine.com
Photo by Ben Brown
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