Will Our School System Survive Transition to the Creative Age?

I’m fairly radical when it comes to education reform. I just think formal education as it’s known today is massively screwed up. I’m fortunate I made it out of four years of intensely rigorous and formal high school education without losing my creative / entrepreneurial / free-agent instinct. And I’m hopeful that, as education reform becomes more topical due to the hyperventilation over China, alternative approaches to education will be part of the mainstream picture and not reserved just for kids who "don’t fit in."

Edutopia has a fascinating interview with Alvin Toffler in which he thinks we should "shut down the public school system". Toffler says our current system was built for "industrial discipline" (assembly lines or farming). He paraphrases Bill Gates by saying we need to replace, not reform.

Richard Florida adds interesting thoughts worth reading slowly:

The school system we have now will not survive the transition to the Creative Age…

The Industrial Age because of its underlying logic (Marx) gave rise to large-scale vertical bureaucracy (Weber). It also suppressed human self-expression and initiative in favor of control (Freud). Our school systems, like our factories, large scale organizations, and governments are in effect structures ("prisons?)" for bureaucratic control.

The Creative Age logic requires something very different – self-expression, flexibility, and individual initiative….

Put that all together and you can see the need for a very different system for learning, one that optimizes flexibility over control, intrinsic reward over extrinsic (grading), lets talent thrive instead of squelching it, allows self-expression to flourish, challenges students, and lets them learn asynchronously, on their own time-scale and work flexibly.  The excuse is that schools are a place for "socialization" is just that – an excuse.  Most people can socialize in much more effective ways than pep rallies, ball games, the prom committee, or yearbook planning (but I digress). The community, broadly defined, can do that much better anyway ala Jane Jacobs.  It already does, as parents seek to supplement what their kids aren’t getting from schools with all sorts of extra-curricular interactions from play-dates and tutors to rock school. Most of the good stuff already happens at the margins. Gates and Dell both dropped out of college to build their companies in their dorm rooms.  Wonder why. 

Our schools are the opposite of what is needed: hierarchical, mind-numbing, creativity-squelching machines. So the need for transformation: But, what exactly comes next? Toffler is right. We need to shut the whole thing down. Let’s no longer confuse real estate, our current education factories/warehouses with learning. 

It’s hard to sketch the system out in advance, but the core principles to build around are readily apparent: a shared curriculum on a technology platform that enables flexible and asynchronous learning anywhere, anyplace, anytime;  challenge and intrinsic reward over grades (and ridiculous standardized tests); community based engagement and socialization;  and a wide range of ala carte instructional offerings. This kind of system is one that simultaneously empowers and enriches students, parents and teachers.

10 Responses to Will Our School System Survive Transition to the Creative Age?

  1. Ryan Szabo says:

    Thanks for insightful links. Most thoughtful takes i’ve read seem to agree on the rampant mismanagement and squelching of individual creativeness within our public school system. But how do we overhaul or eliminate it? Surely the gigantic teacher bureaucracy, with their powerful unions will be outspoken against any reforms that would damage their status.

    I just think it will be extremely difficult to pull off when the people that are currently being disadvantaged in the system are the children and adolescents that have relatively no political voice to encourage change. So how do we do it?

  2. Austin says:

    Great blog.. I completely agree that we need more creativity and initiative in our school system.

    I have a feeling that the problem is the parents. I don’t think parents value initiative and creativity as much as they value the odds of their child getting into a top college.

  3. Greg Nelson says:

    I completely agree with you regarding the complete replacement of the education system.

    I think it’s soo caught up in old ideas and old ways of doing things that it’s not really doing what it’s supposed to be doing.

    All the current system does is make people hate learning, and instill in them a disrespect for intellectualism.

  4. I don’t believe that our short term, quick hit, ad based society…with its currently overstimulated and overmarketed kids could deal with this more radical approach. Florida is effectively calling for the wiki approach to learning, but further, would like to see more qualitative assessment of that learning. “Well he tried and I do see the face of Marx in his ink blot”. In most cases of wiki deployment, the users are not so creative, want guidance, and when left alone, don’t “do”. This approach will provide the United States with a generation that cares even less about that which provides perspective…history. After all, why would they care. My solution is vocational emphasis. Do a better job at sorting out folks that have certain passions and create a channel that allows them to follow it.

  5. Vince Williams says:

    Richard Florida really lays it on the line.

    I always felt like a stranger in a strange land in the zoo-like atmosphere of high-school. Pep rallies were bizarre, primitive religious rites to me.

    My best learning experiences happen when I travel. Plus I actually get more reading done with all the transit time to fill.

  6. John Kembel says:

    Great topic! If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend Sir Ken Robinson’s recent TED talk on creativity in education:

    link to tedblog.typepad.com

  7. Wes Mahler says:

    Ben, you are amazing. Great blog post, I completly agree with you. So much that this week I’ve decided to leave school, I’m going to build my buisness and live in San Francisco within a year.

    I really like your lastest posts, after this one, and before this on education. I’m greatly interested in learnign more what you have to say on this, I completly agree with you on education. And just appreciate that you share similiar views. Everyone is telling me to finish school, go back to school so I can get a job incase my buisness fails, they don’t understand I don’t want a job.

    I want to start my own company, I’m going to do it, and i’m going to fail alot but succeed because of it, while everyone is saying oh I should goto school, why so I can hang out with the masses?

    Thxs Ben,

  8. tismoi says:

    Hi Ben, I have been a long time reader of your blog and wanted to say how much I enjoy your posts on education. We are a VC that in addition to focusing on applied tech, invests in for-profit education. I often find your posts and links useful for our business – and I thank you for that! Along these lines I wanted to send a URL for one of our companies that is looking to revolutionize the way students learn. If you have a moment, check out http://www.tabuladigita.com. Young, cool company onto a new way of teaching.

  9. tismoi says:

    Sorry about the last post – neglected to put my name! I am Kylie Sachs writing in from Ascend Ventures.

  10. Mike in GR says:

    This is very interesting. But note that the free market is not the answer to everything. The neoliberal economic policies of the last 30 years are in many ways a throwback to the economic thinking of the Industrial Age. This kind of thinking rationalized the huge economic disparities and injustices of the Gilded Age, which helped bring about the Great Depression. We must recognize that Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth is not appropriate for the Creative Age. Entrepreneurship is important, but some of our vast aggregate wealth must be directed toward collective projects–most importantly, a revamped education system that includes postsecondary education for all, and universal health care. We cannot leave this solely to the free market. Government and citizen participation must play a large role.

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