You arrive home and realise your kitchen sink is overflowing. The tap is running and there is a mop leaning against the countertop. You pick up the mop and start mopping furiously, but don’t seem to be making any progress. Perhaps the better option is to turn off the tap and then start mopping. In many cases, we are “mopping” up the mess from an insufficient education system. What if we could turn off the tap, by reimagining the plumbing? As our guest on this week’s episode of The Innovation Show, Michael Horn tells us, “Amid the disaster since the pandemic’s assault on society and schools over multiple school years, there is an opportunity to rebuild better by altering the fundamental assumptions undergirding our present-day schooling model.”
Steve Jobs famously said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” I agree wholeheartedly, but that is if one has the privilege to collect the dots that can connect. Indeed, one must have a certain level of education to fathom the notion of connecting the dots.
While it is hard to predict the complexity of our future selves and the interrelated events that lead to wherever we end up, education plays a role. To be clear, I don’t just mean the education system, but a willingness and ability to educate oneself or those we care for.
Many of those in state institutions across the globe come from deprived backgrounds or were underserved by the scattergun approach of our education systems. Research shows that those of us born into stressful environments have smaller brains and thus less capacity to learn. Others suffer the opposite of The Pygmalion Effect, The Golem Effect: a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. Where a negative view of self or one’s heritage influences poor performance. Once one notices signals of poor performance, negative expectations are confirmed, which in turn reinforces negative beliefs even further. That sounds like mopping the overflowing sink.
Imagine we could intervene and turn off that tap?
While it is only part of the solution, education plays an important role.
“Mom… my… why are all these people… on our plane?”
One of my acquaintances has a private jet and generously offers “lifts” to those in need. On several occasions, he offered lifts to a family whose young son needed specialist medical attention in the US. It is important to note, this boy had never travelled by plane before. In a way, he was “born into” this elite mode of transport.
Thankfully, months later, he recovered, but an amusing phenomenon unravelled. When he embarked on his first ever family holiday abroad, he went to the airport as he had before, but to a different gate. He waited this time, longer than usual he thought to himself. And then he boarded the plane. Oh dear, it wasn’t pretty!
Amidst a flood of tears, he sobbed, “Mom… my… why are all these people… on our plane?”
So many of us are “born into” such situations, but the challenge with privilege is that, like many of our biases, it’s invisible. Privilege doesn’t mean people in a dominant group don’t face challenges; but that the nature of their challenges is different from the non-dominant group. When we encounter those from less privileged backgrounds then fall prey to the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is our tendency to attribute the actions of others to (flaws in) their character or personality while attributing our own behaviour or actions to external situational factors outside of their control. “I ran that red light because I need to get home for my kid’s soccer practice.” Meanwhile, directed at someone else, “What a ja@kass for running that red light!” In a similar vein, we don’t see how our privileged positions in society get us to where we are.
In his book, Michael tells us, “In life, success isn’t just about the academic knowledge one masters or one’s “intelligence.” Those are important, but other skills and habits are also critical. After achieving a baseline of academic preparedness, many studies suggest that these other skills and habits, along with access to social networks, rise in importance.” Michael offers the example of a child called Jeremy, whose single mother has to work several minimum wage jobs just to feed her children. With such a packed schedule, she barely has time to eat let alone show any interest in her son’s education. For her, school plays several roles, the most important being child care for her son as she keeps the ship afloat.
As a result, Jeremy struggles in school. He doesn’t see the point, because his mother is not. there to reinforce the point. Any anyway, so many people he knows dropped out of school and has jobs, and some who went to school have no jobs at all, so what is the point? Jeremy not only misses the point of education but also misses building core skills and habits because his school’s curriculum doesn’t adequately address them.
The Gap Widens
Michael tells us, “Today’s school system assumes that children like Jeremy will have tools, resources, and opportunities—when in fact they aren’t readily accessible to them. Families with means can buy enrichment and advancement opportunities like extra lessons, grinds, extracurricular activities or, at the minimum, childcare. But families without such resources just have to make do—whether that means hours in front of the TV and video games, or worse. Jeremy has no access to summer camp or other chances to expand his horizons and imagine life outside of his home and immediate neighbourhood. In normal years, when Jeremy returns to school in the fall, his classmates have done everything from coding to sports to art camps. Or they’ve taken advanced math classes so they can get an edge when they go back to school. Jeremy has none of that.
The system also assumes that Jeremy has access to things like computers and the Internet—or even books at home to build his background knowledge across an array of subjects, which will give him the foundation to learn what his school teaches. But as we’ve learned during the pandemic, many families can’t afford these tools and services. Even after roughly a year of trying to get all children connectivity, somewhere between 9 and 12 million students still didn’t have adequate Internet at home.
It’s not like Jeremy’s mom consciously realized she couldn’t afford all these products and services. No one sent her a list. Families with means talk and network to find these opportunities. Families without struggle.
In many schools, things like working on projects, teaching habits of success, providing actionable feedback, and connecting students to new networks of people aren’t integrated into the curriculum—or are offered only as a dessert to the traditional main meal. By not receiving these opportunities, Jeremy misses out on many experiences that could change his life: habits of success, mindsets and behaviours such as self-direction, agency, growth mindset, and executive functions.
Most schools also don’t make a point of offering students access to new networks that help them discover new opportunities and endeavours beyond those of their immediate family and friends. Connecting students to new individuals can be life-altering. It brings students together with people who can open doors and allows them to build passions in areas about which they would never otherwise know. Introducing students to successful individuals, particularly those with whom they share commonalities, can inspire them. In life, success is often not about “what you know”, but “who you know”. But children like Jeremy struggle because they don’t get these sorts of opportunities in school. And all too often they don’t have the offerings in their own lives to compensate.”
By age 18, before people have lived most of their lives, we have labelled the vast majority of students and signalled to many that they aren’t good enough for certain pathways or that they are “below” others. We inadvertently contribute to “The Golem Effect”.
Although this might be easier administratively than the alternative, it is devastating. This overlooks talent that could be developed. And it ignores that so much of our society—like capitalism, when it works properly—is built on a positive-sum mindset. Schooling and its scarcity mindset are anomalies today.
Well-fed Horses Don’t Rampage
When we are exposed to less uncertainty and stress, we become less religious/superstitious. The phenomenon was first described scientifically by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. When we find ourselves stressed and insecure, we often seek solace in superstition and religions – and in conspiracy theories as we have seen during the pandemic.
High economic growth rates and a high level of prosperity lead to more rationality, peace, and tolerance, which in turn facilitate more economic growth. This process can also work in reverse and lead to a negative spiral, in which a malfunctioning society becomes more irrational and violent, which in turn inhibits the possibility of growth. Economic stability and equality can act as an antidote to societal chaos. When people have no higher purpose, when they feel they nobody cares and they have nothing to lose, they rampage, like wild horses. They need more than sustenance, they need meaning and it is difficult to even think about meaning if you are barely getting by. Meaning is a privilege in itself.
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” – Viktor Frankl
If the pandemic taught us anything, it taught us the need for purpose, the drive of meaning. Think about those things you would do even if you don’t receive any material benefit, for me the work of service, writing, the Innovation Show, all driven by meaning. When we believe in something greater than ourselves, it lifts our spirits and gives us a sense of connectedness and meaning. When enough of us feel this, each of us becomes a link in a global chain that can lift all of us.
This is why I am writing this article, although I do so knowing that the very people who need to read it will not even see it. However, those who can have an impact might do so.
Thanks for Reading