Friday, May 25, 2012

Education Heaven Is A Playground

Education Heaven Is A Playground

                                                               By  Dave Edstrom

Creative teachers in schools, creative instructors in business or creative mentors in any walk of life can make all the difference in the world.  We know this is true, yet we shackle our teachers in the classrooms and complain about how hard it is to find good people in business. I would argue that it is not a lack of good students or a lack of smart workers – it is a lack of creative thinking by school administrators, teachers union leaders, politicians and business leaders that is the real problem.
In the newly released book Imagine – How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer, he recites a survey of teachers who were asked about student creativity. One hundred percent of the teachers stated they wanted creative students. When the same teachers were asked about traits that were important to them, a very high percent stated the exact opposite. These teachers said that conforming and listening were the most important traits they wanted to see in their students. The teachers clearly did not want students speaking up and challenging them. I once worked at a company where a sales VP had physically removed the door from his office to prove he had an open door policy. What was most ironic about this individual is that he had a reputation as being the most closed-minded individual in the entire office. How often do we hear leaders state they are for education and creativity only to refute it with their actions? Is it being purposely disingenuous or is it ignorance?
When my youngest son, Tim, was in elementary school, I asked him at the dinner table how the Standards Of Learning (SOL) tests went that day for him. He responded, “My stomach hurt.” My first reaction was to think that his teacher had said something to the class that put unnecessary pressure on the students and in particular, Tim. When I asked why his stomach hurt, he told me something that exemplifies what is wrong with our education system. Tim said that the principal said that kids do better on tests when they have breakfast, so they all had to eat breakfast – again. Tim went on to say that he told them that he had already eaten a big breakfast, but his teacher said he had to eat again so that the principal would not get mad, and that is why his stomach hurt. 
The United States is ranked 27th in the world in mathematics and 22nd in science according to the 2009 Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development Survey (OECD). Note that OECD does these surveys every 3 years. There are many reasons for the United States' poor ranking. What is clearly not the problem is the amount of money spent per student. We spend twice as much as other countries. The problem is that we are not spending that money on getting the best teachers and teachers unions are very reluctant to get rid of the bad teachers. Finland is ranked No.1 in both math and science. There is a very interesting article written by Stuart Conway for the Sept. 2011 Smithsonian Magazine titled “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” The first step was a conscious decision in 1963 to use education as the means to an economic recovery. Here is a quote from the article. “The second critical decision came in 1979, when reformers required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities—at state expense. From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers.  Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high, but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive.” Think about that for a second – doctors, lawyers and teachers were all on equal status. I also heard on National Public Radio (NPR) that to even apply to be a teacher in Finland, teachers must graduate in the top 10% of their class.
I was initially all for SOLs until my sister, who is a high school guidance counselor, as well as a licensed counselor, told me, “Just watch what happens – teachers will teach to the test.” I was 100% wrong on SOLs and my sister was 100% right. Teachers teach to the test and creativity be damned.  In the same Smithsonian Magazine article, there is a great section on the fallacy of standardized tests. “Finnish educators have a hard time understanding the United States’ fascination with standardized tests. “Americans like all these bars and graphs and colored charts,” Louhivuori teased, as he rummaged through his closet looking for past years’ results. “Looks like we did better than average two years ago,” he said after he found the reports. “It’s nonsense. We know much more about the children than these tests can tell us.”
Heaven Is A Playground is the name of my favorite sports book by the famous author Rick Telander. This is a fantastic and award-winning book about Telander spending the summer in Brooklyn coaching a youth summer basketball team. The title of the book comes from a quote by author G.K. Chesterton, “The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” The problem for the United States is that we have turned schools into task gardens and teachers into robots. As parents and professionals, we know this is not a hard problem to solve. Hire the best and get out of their way. It is the same in any industry. When I hear a teachers union leader state, “It is very hard to rate which teachers are the best,” I have to say that is complete and utter nonsense. I think about when my wife and I were walking one of our three sons to the bus stop on their first day of school. A parent with an older child  asked us who our son's teacher was. We could instantly tell whether our child got the best teacher or an also-ran. With a cross section of parents, you would know which are the great teachers and which are not. Students obviously know as well. I have the utmost respect for teachers and guidance counselors, but not politicians and teachers union leaders who spend more time arguing than getting to work and making improvements.
In the Lehrer Imagine book, he talks about how Google borrowed the idea from 3M regarding the 15% personal time per week to work on their own projects of their own choosing. How many manufacturers are doing that? Right now some of you are likely thinking that that would be crazy to do for manufacturing! Why would that be crazy? Seriously, why? We read and hear constantly that there are over 600,000 unfilled jobs in manufacturing in the United States because of lack of skilled workers. Whose fault is that? Is it the workers? Is it government? Is it industry?  President Obama mentioned manufacturing eight times in his State of the Union message. That is seven more times than President Bush did for all eight of his State of the Union messages, but what has really changed? We keep hearing about the problem, but what are the creative educational solutions? I hear the same old solutions being brought out again and again with different results being hoped for. That is the definition of insanity. No disrespect to my generation, the 50-plus year olds, but we are the wrong ones to be solving the problem of creative manufacturing education. I go to these manufacturing conferences and I can count the number of young people on one hand. True, I am old, so theoretically everyone is young compared to me, but I am talking about folks in their 20s. I would love to see a manufacturing conference where every person over 50 had to bring with them two 20-somethings in manufacturing to the conference. A session on creative education would have a number of the young manufacturing folks on stage with a roundtable on creative education. It’s worth a try in my humble opinion. There are some young folks, like Joel Neidig of ITAMCO, who are doing amazing things in manufacturing. I wish we could clone Joel!
Everyone agrees that Steve Jobs was a genius at creativity, but few know what he did to create the environment. At Pixar, he looked at creativity in the same way Darwin looked at evolution. You need the right environment and the right mix for new life to be created. Jobs changed the environment at Pixar and here is how Jonah Lehrer tells it in his book Imagine. “The Pixar studios were largely designed by Steve Jobs. People at Pixar will often refer to the building as “Steve’s Movie.” And the original plan for the Pixar Studios called for three separate buildings. One building for the animators, one building for the computer scientists, one building for everyone else, the writers, directors, editors and so on. Jobs took one look at this and said that’s a terrible idea. He then insisted everyone be in the exact same space because he realized the success of Pixar would depend on these cultures learning how to collaborate; getting the engineers and the computer scientists and the animators to work together, to learn from each other, to share knowledge.”
The next time you are evaluating or creating an education program or determining how to best have a creative environment for your employees, think about Finland and also ask yourself,“What would 3M, Google or Steve Jobs do?”

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