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Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Truth About 'Crisis' In American Education

From Forbes Magazine's Tech Blog

By Jordan Shapiro
December 31, 2015

My favorite part about parenting is messing with my kids. That’s what makes it worth putting up with all the whining and irritation and thankless responsibility that goes with being a dad: I get these little miniature people that I can just mess with all day long.

I especially enjoy asking them questions that really challenge their sense of intellectual stability. I like to freak them out, to confuse them. Take “Orange,” for example, go ask your kids if the fruit is named after the color, or if the color is named after the fruit?

You’ve got to mess with your kids if you want to raise individuals who are adaptable and flexible. And we absolutely must make sure that the next generation of adults is more adaptable and flexible than this one.


We currently live in a world that is so saturated with predictive algorithms that most adults can spend the majority of their time online reading news stories that just confirm, or validate, or reinforce the things they already believe to be true. Hyper-targeted media basically guarantees that people never have to be messed with anymore. And when you do mess with them, they don’t know how to deal with it; they’re not comfortable with it. It scares them.


I know it is probably not an adequate representative data-set, but I still maintain that you can tell most folks are inflexible just by reading the comments on the internet. People have this kind of tunnel vision that is just so obviously inadequate. Educators need to purge that fatheaded-ness and intolerance right out of the next generation. It’s our duty.

And, it’s also an economic necessity. Today’s kids are growing up in a global economy where adults will have no choice but to constantly confront opinions and perspectives and ideas that are different from their own. They absolutely must be comfortable with uncertainty.

Rather than being supportive all the time, adults need to try and destabilize children constantly so that they learn how to be comfortable with acknowledging their own fallibility. And I’m not just talking about the possibility of fallibility; I’m talking about the likelihood of fallibility. It turns out we’re wrong most of the time.

I obviously can’t be certain, but I suspect that most of what adults, educators, experts, and leaders believe to be true is probably wrong. We just don’t know it yet. But in the future, our own mistakes are going to creep up and slap us in the face. Our kids need to see that sometimes we need to be knocked down by our own mistakes.

Go read Jessica Lahey’s book about how important failure is to learning. Or go read any of the entrepreneurial rhetoric here on Forbes.com. Fail, iterate, innovate, disrupt. You know all the buzzwords. We preach it like dogma.

Yet, we absolutely stink at teaching our children to be comfortable with uncertainty and fallibility. Our entire system is set up to do the exact opposite: to cultivate the skills necessary to avoid failure.

I suspect the problem is that despite our love of failure, we remain irrationally committed to crisis aversion. Consider that even when we do talk about the benefits of failure, we are usually arguing that it empowers people to be more self-sufficient at crisis aversion. That’s our attitude: crisis is bad. Avoid crises at all costs.

But what if I told you that crisis is good and we shouldn’t avoid it? What if I told you, that like most things, we’re totally wrong about this? I suspect you’ll have trouble accepting it because your own schooling did such a good job of drilling an inclination toward crisis aversion deep into your psyche—so deep that you just take it for granted.

From the moment our children begin school—in Kindergarten, in Pre-K, in Head Start—we teach them not to speak out of turn, to wait in line calmly, to keep their hands to themselves, and a whole bunch of other behaviors that all come together to define what it means to be a good student.

But “good student” really just means we teach them what it means to be a “good person” within the world of school. Good student, of course, is not objective. It is code for a specific set of personality traits that we want to see in our children.

Think about this historically. School, in the United States, used to be all about religious and moral values. Those one room community school houses in the early colonies were religious schools. Then, over the course of a century or so, the U.S. implemented free public school and education was associated with skills-training—a national economic imperative. School became about fortifying the labor force; it became related to the GDP.

The industrialists of the 19th Century expected schools to cultivate future workers. And therefore, whether we realize it or not, we all started talking about education this way. We started asking what kids need in order to be successful within particular economic models.

That’s the way we still talk about it today: the whole 21st Century skills thing, coding as the new literacy, etc. That stuff is all grounded in an economic way of thinking.


Travel back in time to the late 1830’s when Horace Mann is running the Massachusetts school board and he’s instituting these industrial-era methods for creating what we now call “teacher accountability.” Pick up a newspaper and you’re going to discover a plethora of stories about the trade unions proposing the very first child labor laws. And these things get tied together: free standardized public education and taking underage kids out of the workforce.

On the one hand, it looks as if we’ve abandoned the religious and moral education that happened in those old one room community school houses—we seem to have replaced it with this pragmatic education that’s focused on creating skilled workers. But on the other hand, we’ve actually taken all the young people out of the workforce and we need to figure out what else to teach them. What do they need to learn between the age of 15 and 18?

They need to learn how to be good people. Especially after the Civil War, during reconstruction: school becomes central to the government’s plan to integrate newly emancipated slaves into free citizenship.

You barely even have to read between the lines to see that this notion of the “Good Student” was always secret code for good person. It was always about making sure individuals learn to conform to a collective image of respectable American adulthood.

And in this regard, very little has changed since the one room school house. It may not be about a Protestant, or a Quaker, or a Puritan god anymore, but we do have a new omnipotent unquestionable overlord: his name is “Brain Science.”

Nowadays, we often refer to this god, Brain Science, when we evaluate whether or not to integrate new education technologies. By the way, we are constantly evaluating whether or not to integrate new education technologies. Hand held slates, blackboards, pencils, the mimeograph machine, the overhead projector, dry erase boards, and now iPads and Chromebooks and what not.

When we’re talking about these technologies, when we’re looking at the Brain Science, or when we’re defining 21st Century skills, we are also always implicitly defining what it means to be a “Good Student.” And it turns out that those personality traits which tell us whether or not a child is on the trajectory toward respectable American adulthood haven’t really changed.

They are still really just derivations of the same sort of Puritanical moral traits that the early colonists celebrated. The only difference is that we now call them “character skills.”

The joke, however, is that every African-American male that’s currently riding the school-to-prison pipeline has more “grit” and “perseverance” than someone like me.

I’ve always had the privilege of attending elite institutions. I doubt I’d have the grit or perseverance to make it past one day in their shoes. But still, the popular rhetoric says that as a white, male college professor with a Ph.D., I’m the one with good “character.” And we all know why. Because it’s a nice, seemingly innocuous construction that allows us to maintain the status quo of race, gender, and socio-economic inequality. Schools are very good at that.

In fact, I’d argue that’s what they seem to do best: they help to maintain the status quo of race, gender, and socio-economic inequality. But let’s call out this whole “character” trend for what it is: an innovative new technology of systemic inequality.

We all say we’re against systemic inequality, but at the same time, we don’t do much to stop it because we’re afraid of a serious crisis. Unless it has to do with business and technology, we’re actually terrified of revolution, innovation and disruption. We associate it with violence and crisis. And we’re averse to crisis; we learned that in school. We learned that a student has good “character skills” if he or she is an expert as crisis aversion.

Of course, we don’t usually say it that way—we say they are “responsible students;” we say they have strong “academic skills.”

But have you ever considered that the students who we consider to be the most responsible are the ones who stay up all night studying? The ones most likely to have panic attacks? And at the University where I teach, they are the ones who throw up from anxiety during finals week. They are always nervous and always stressed.

And few educators talk about it, but they’re also almost always on pills. College kids and high school kids take self-prescribed Adderall and Ritalin to help them focus. A 2012 study found that about two-thirds of all college kids are offered prescription stimulants during their 4 years, and half of them say yes (34.5% of college kids and 7.6% of high school kids use amphetamines like Adderall or Ritalin without a prescription).

Then, to make matters worse, they’re on Xanax and Prozac because focusing makes them anxious. It’s absurd.


But what’s even more absurd is that these are the students we reward and celebrate and hold up as shining examples to all the others. They are locked into a cycle of stress and medication that exists simply because they are terrified of not being prepared enough to avert a crisis. They are terrified of confrontation.

“Responsibility” and “character” has come to mean planning for the future in order to avoid actually engaging with the situations that arrive in the present.

Do you see the problem here? We need to stop talking about 21st century skills and future economic trends and start asking whether or not we are truly teaching our children to engage in the present. Are we teaching them to confront the immediate world around them with a flexible, tolerant, and adaptable mindset? Or are we training them just to avoid it? To avert the possibility of any future crises?

The word “Crisis” comes from Greek and it is the same root (κρίσις) from which we get the word “critical.” As in critical thinking. You can’t really separate these two things. You can’t cultivate a culture of crisis aversion and then simultaneously call for critical thinking. It just doesn’t make sense. Either you’re being disingenuous of you’re just confused.

Crisis and critical thinking both, ultimately, have to do with making decisions. And in order to make a decision, you have to be open to the possibility that all of the decisions have not already been made. Or at least that the decisions that have already been made are, in all likelihood, wrong. You have to be comfortable with your own fallibility.

Critical thinking always starts with an intellectual crisis, a moment of not knowing, a moment of discomfort and destabilization. And that’s precisely where humanity is right now. We’re standing on the precipice of a monumental shift in the way humans organize knowledge, and societies, and data, and economies, and energy, and information, and all sorts of other things. Our old ways of being clearly don’t work anymore. And our new ways of being are scary because we don’t really understand all the implications.

It’s a full-on crisis. We need to prepare our children to confront it. We need to redefine what it means to be a “good student” and then redesign our schools and our classrooms accordingly.

We need to identify and call out the ideas and concepts that do more to maintain systemic inequality than they do to fight it, and we need purge them from the education reform conversation.

And we’ve got to mess with our kids.

.......................................................

Jordan Shapiro, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and the author of FREEPLAY: A Video Game Guide To Maximum Euphoric Bliss.

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