Education is for Empowerment

A few months ago, I read an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution by college freshman and passionate education reformer Mpaza Kapembwa, and what he wrote resonated with me so much, I wrote a blog post about it here. In the piece, he called for students to be more involved in their own education, and more responsible for their learning. I contacted him, and we began talking via Skype – conversations about his immigration from Zambia back in 2007, how he and his mother and sister were homeless for a while, and about the scholarships he earned from Coca-Cola, the Bill Gates Foundations, and others. He now attends Williams College, and wants to go into education. One of his high-priority passions is the inequality he saw in his Atlanta high school, with its large poor and immigrant population.

When I asked him to make a video for the What Is Education? Project, he happily said yes and enlisted some of his friends in the Education Department to help him. This video of Mpaza and fellow senior Carrie is over nine minutes, but quite moving (even with a pesky weed eater buzzing in the background!). They both study at Williams, and work in the Experiential Education Project, developing hands-on curriculum for kids. There is a moment about halfway through the video when Carrie speaks about how education is something that cannot be taken away: “In my life, I have experienced many things taken away from me, but no one can take my education away from me; it’s mine,” she says. Mpaza, who immigrated from Zambia, sees education as a key to helping others and making change: “Sometimes, in order to make large-scale change, you have to be part of the 1%.” A very moving and intimate talk from two college students answering – What Is Education For?

Introducing the What Is Education? Project

A couple of weeks ago, I kicked off the school year by asking a question I’ve been thinking a lot about: What is education for? In our quest to make education better and more meaningful for all students, I find myself asking, “why do we do this again? what’s the point?” Formal education takes up a large part of our lives, yet we rarely ask questions about the big picture for education, and whether or not our day-to-day experiences fit inside our ideals. And because the world is changing rapidly, and new kinds of learning will be called upon to catapult us into that exciting but uncertain future, the question What is education for? becomes ever more important as the entire way we educate our children morphs and changes.

What do you think? Can you tell us, in your own words, what education is for? I’d love for you to submit a short video and tell us what you think. I’ll post every single video here, and hopefully we will get a bigger, clearer picture of what education means to all of us.

Looking forward to seeing all the wonderful videos!

Top Five Education Books for Parents

Yesterday, I asked, what is education for? In order to better understand what education is for, and to make room for some expansive thinking – and really, in order to do anything – I turn to books. Before I know what I think, I need to know what others – experts and scientists and journalists and doctors – think. These are my top five education must-reads for fall; each book addresses a particular vision for education that excites or moves me. I hope you’ll join me in reading (or re-reading) this list of highly regarded education think-books. I’ll begin reading the first book, How Children Succeed, on September 15, 2012, if you’d like to join in. After that, we’ll move on down the line until we finish the list!

1. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Power of Character, by Paul Tough. In complete defiance of the popular, near-universal belief that intelligence and cognitive skills determine success in life, Tough’s new book argues that character traits are better predictors of future success. Cognitive science journalist Annie Murphy Paul gives a great review in the New York Times that got me interested in the book. She writes, “Tough sets out to replace this assumption with what might be called the character hypothesis: the notion that noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success.”

2. Teach Your Children Well: Parenting For Authentic Success, Madeline Levine, Ph.D. Simply put, the jacket copy moved me to tears: “…until we are clearer about our core values and the parenting choices that are most likely to lead to authentic success, we will continue to raise exhausted, externally driven, impaired children who believe that they are ‘only as good as their last performance.’ Real success is always an ‘inside job,’ argues Levine, and is measured not by today’s report card but by the people our children become ten or fifteen years down the line.”

3. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, The National Research Council. Recommended by educator and author Sam Chaltain as required reading for every parent in America, this textbook produced by the National Academies and the National Research Council explains the basic cognitive processes of learning and teaching. While the opening chapters read a bit dry and textbookish, How People Learn is packed with so many fascinating facts about human learning, I can manage to plow through it, for learning’s sake.

4. A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. I read this short, passionate plea to retool how we view learning late last year, but it made such an impact on me I wanted to include it in this list of to-reads. Thomas and Seely Brown see opportunity and energy in the lightening-fast way the world is changing, and invite us to hop on and change education. Their website explains, “By exploring play, innovation, and the cultivation of the imagination as cornerstones of learning, the authors create a vision of learning for the future that is achievable, scalable and one that grows along with the technology that fosters it and the people who engage with it.”

5. Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn. Educator, parenting expert, author and, evidently, education-reform psychic Kohn writes to us from the future in this 1986 book, arguing that our unquenchable thirst for competition produces the exact opposite of desired results (see: entire US education reform). Instead of striving for excellence, Kohn notes, school and work are corrupted by the competition for “number one” status. Using hundreds of studies to show how competition “sabotages self-esteem and ruins relationships”, Kohn’s argument that collaboration is king makes me wonder what would happen if we taught children to value collaboration over winning.

What Is Education For?

A man paints with his brains, and not with his hands. – Michelangelo

One morning last August, I met with the segment producers of CBS’ “60 Minutes” at their studio on the West Side of Manhattan to record an interview with Morley Safer on the subject of  kindergarten redshirting. I had written about my experience with the subject and had been doing some reading, and talking – lots of talking – about how I thought that most kids (with some notable exceptions) didn’t need to be held back from kindergarten. So, I told the producers as soon as I met them that morning, I had just read about a new study that proved – proved – that holding your mostly normal child back from kindergarten was useless. One of the producers looked me in the eye, deadpan, and said, “Yes, but you can find a study to prove anything.”

This took the wind right out of me, like she’d thrown a medicine ball into my stomach.

I was embarrassed, mostly because, before I’d become so assured of my own rightness on this particular subject, I kind of thought the same thing. Have you? I began guzzling red wine because I read the study that proved resveratrol was excellent for my health; not two weeks later, I read a study that says one glass of wine a day increases chances of breast cancer. Is there a study to prove everything we desire to believe?

I bring this up because education and learning is only not a numbers game – a group of reliable grades, scores and statistics to prove our kids are getting an education. The American-style “reform” is filled with assessments, accountabilities, scores and evaluations – there seem to be more and more ways to measure every week. While these numbers, along with scholarly studies and scientific research, are more than helpful to get a clearer picture of what’s going on in our schools, and in our children’s brains, to say they are telling the whole story about education is simply missing the entire point of why we show up to school in the first place. If we don’t have eyes to look beyond the numbers, beyond the assessments and accountability, beyond the test scores and the unions and all the other elements of modern education that are being studied, hashed, and re-hashed again, we may forget why school matters, and what our kids’ mission is for being there. A real education, and real learning, is not a numbers game. It is something more.

But, what is it, exactly?

That’s what I intend to find out this fall – with your help, of course. What is education, exactly? What do we use it for? Is it merely a path to a job, a career? Or does it describe something more meaningful, more lasting? When we parents talk about our schools, what are we saying?

Many times, I feel that when parents talk about schools, we don’t keep the big mission (or Big Mission) in mind. We get caught up in things that don’t matter, or things that would be relatively easy to change if we only got together and asked. Yet we have been injected with fear that if we don’t do what we’ve been asked, our child will fall behind. And falling behind is equal to a total and complete failure for our child. Where did we get this idea? Why don’t parents question its intentions more often? If we had a Big Mission in mind for our children, a long-term commitment plan to exactly what education is and what it means, would this affect how we educate? Surely, it would.

How might we apply this single mission idea to schools? What is our understanding of what education is for, and what the results of an education are supposed to be? I spoke to a parent recently who made a highly fearful decision about her child’s schooling because she “desperately wanted him to like school.” In her mind, if he liked school, then he would be a success. While there is probably an element of truth to this, I thought there was an opportunity for some bigger thinking here. I thought of how much I liked playing the flute, but how I quit after a year; I thought of how much I hated diagramming sentences – but how grateful I am that my teachers made me do it (and how they’d wonder if I remembered any of it, considering how I titled this post!). Whether or not our kids like everything they do in school, if we have a mission in mind, an overall goal, we could shape our child’s education, not by fear of what they won’t have, but by the qualities, skills and experiences that fit inside the Big Mission.

Lastly, I wanted to share an essay by developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, from the book Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist, called “A Midcentury Modern Education.” She was considered a genius and a prodigy, but her family’s views on education were entirely different from what infuses our education culture now. Please take a look; I’d love to hear your thoughts on this wonderful, personal piece about education.

Now, finally, what is education for? You can tell us here, below – leave a comment. Let ‘er rip.