Seth Godin on transforming education

Seth Godin has written a lot about education – Stop Stealing Dreams (TED talk and longer e-book) is a good place to start.

Then it’s worth checking out what he’s actually doing:  the altMBA reverses the usual 90+ percent drop-out rates of most online courses, and the Akimbo workshops (including The Marketing Seminar, The Bootstrapper’s Workshop and The Freelancer’s Workshop) get rave reviews.

In this article on Medium Seth lays out some of the core principles of his approach.

Also check out the videos at the Akimbo Workshops link above – especially the one at the very bottom from Creative Mornings, where he sets out his thinking behind the model.

The problem vs your feelings about the problem

Are you dealing with a difficult maths problem or with difficult feelings about a maths problem?

Is the struggle with the work itself, or with your feelings – apathy, disillusionment, fury – about doing it?

It might help to shift your attention to those feelings instead of the problem in front of you. So your focus is no longer “write this article” or “make this thing” but “master my feelings about this work” or “inspire myself to finish this piece of the project.”

It might not help, of course, but working with our feelings often turns out to be the hardest part of doing good work. If you can work with them, there’s a double satisfaction in a job well done.

Education for the future: Key tools

Here are some tools that don’t go out of date:

  • Tools for thinking, learning and understanding (the tools that help you acquire new tools);
  • Tools for communicating and teaching (the tools that help you find and enlist others in your work, and help them to learn new tools);
  • Tools for planning, organising and leading (tools that enable you to work effectively with others);
  • Tools for making new tools (all of these tools fall into this category, but it applies to more technical skills too, from using a hammer to building a website).

Learning through use: Kevin Kelly on technology finding its way

I’m a big believer that the way we steer technology is through engagement, by use. I find that most of the inventors don’t even have any idea what the technology will ultimately be used for.

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, and we have his journals of… what he thought this new ability to record sound was going to be, and his very first idea was that it would be used to record the last words of the dying, and then his second idea was that we could record sermons and distribute them. And he had a whole list of things, and at the very end he was like, well maybe we could do music – and he was the inventor of it.

So I think it’s only through use that we can find out what these things are…

Kevin Kellya16z podcast: Not If, But How – When Technology is Inevitable

Machine. Ecosystem. (8) – classrooms as complex adaptive systems

Planning is essential in education, but it’s easy to fall into the habit of treating your session plan or presentation as a set of inputs for a machine: “If I do these things, and introduce this content, and prescribe this activity, this learning will result.”

But we know that groups of people, and especially groups of children, don’t work so predictably. The ‘perfect’ lesson plan a classroom is a Russian doll of one set of complex adaptive systems inside another inside another:

  • The rapidly developing minds of children or teenagers…
  • Nested in expectations and the social structures and groups-within-groups of kids-at-school culture…
  • In the classroom culture shaped by a particular teacher – who is themselves a complex adaptive system of body, thoughts and emotions…
  • Interacting with the wider culture of the school…
  • All interacting with cultures local, national and international…
  • And influenced by what’s going on at home, the weather, what they had for lunch…

In the face of this complexity, the first thing to do is recognise that what happens in our classroom is beyond our control, at least in the mechanistic sense of the word. Trying to impose precise control – of learning outcomes, of students’ behaviour – is a recipe for frustration and disappointment, if not damage.

The second thing is to start thinking about teaching and classroom management in terms of disposition and influence (and teachers can have a lot of influence):

  • How can I make it more likely that the people I teach arrive on time and ready to learn?
  • How I can I increase their disposition to be kind to each other, or to love this subject and to work hard?
  • How can I make it more likely that they’ll do X, rather than Y?

Go to work. Take responsibility. Do the hard work of building a classroom culture that gets your students where they want to go (hint: you might have to start by showing them where it’s possible to go).

But don’t beat yourself up the next time it snows, and the lesson plan goes out the window as the kids pile up against the window to watch the world turn white.

A butterfly must have flapped its wings in New York.

Doing to see

My sister and I just recorded a special episode for Driverlesscroc Podcast(‘Useful Things’), learnt a lot doing it, including:

  • That recording both ends of a skype call is a viable way to work over distance
  • The importance of triple-checking your mics after I made a schoolboy error and plugged my mic into a headphone jack. I could see that I was recording something, but it turned out to be my laptop’s built-in mic rather than my lapel mic, resulting in a voice-track that sounds like it was recorded in a bucket
  • That Kevin Kelly and Mark Frauenfelder do a really good job of keeping their Cool Tools show tight – we were trying hard to stay focused but easily racked up 40 minutes.
  • That Audacity projects are big (we hit a couple of gigabytes for all the uncompressed audio and project files).
  • That (I think) Audacity doesn’t play well with syncing to the cloud – some of the source-files for my project file somehow got corrupted and I almost lost it all – fortunately I’d made an almost-finished .wav of the whole thing so it was saveable.
  • That ‘ship the work’ sometimes means ‘finish the project’ – get it done, learn from it, move on. This project doesn’t exactly have a ‘client’, and its main audience is us – so we can say ‘not quite good enough – but finished’ with a clear conscience. I’ll post it to the podcast for completeness, and as a reference for anyone interested in the journey.

The idea that doing helps you see – that experience counts for a lot – is pretty obvious in lots of areas of life. You can’t understand being on stage, or driving a car, or playing in a sporting contest, until you’ve done them.

But we tend to forget how true this is for almost everything, and how context-specific our experience tends to be. By doing, we see.

Cutting edge – learning and change

The edge on a knife is important – it’s the sharp end (okay, side) where the cutting actually takes place. It needs to stay sharp, and keeping it sharp takes care and regular maintenance because it dulls quickly from use and corrosion.

The other parts of the knife – spine and heel, bolster, tang, handle – receive less attention. They change more slowly and require less maintenance but are more important in the long run: a sharp edge on a bad knife doesn’t last for long.

The person using the knife is more important again. They decide the important things: what and where and when to cut, and who or what we cut for. They keep the knife sharp or let it rust.

These things are true of most of the tools we use, and of our skills.

Cutting-edge skills – using the latest technology or media, understanding the thing that’s on everybody’s mind – will help you cut, but they’ll change relatively quickly, meaning that you’ll need to work on them regularly to keep them sharp.

Deeper skills last longer. Critical among these are structural literacy of the world in general and your field in particular, an understanding of systems and people, and communication and leadership skills. These skills – alloyed with curiosity and a commitment to learning – allow you to keep the cutting edge sharp and to help others to do the same. Without them you’ll have – at best – a sharp edge on a cheap knife.

Deeper still, ask questions of the person holding these tools: what will you use them to achieve, where, when, and who or what for? A good knife is worse than a bad one in the wrong hands, or in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It might help to work backwards from the cutting edge:

  1. Which skills do I feel pressured to acquire? Which activities do I feel the world is pushing me to do?
  2. How do these fit into the bigger picture and broader trends? If I don’t have it already, where can I acquire the structural literacy to be able to answer that question?
  3. Is this even a game I want to be in in the first place? How does it square with my values? What’s the hard and important part of the work that I do, and will this technology make a difference to that – is it signal or noise?

Other hard starts

Loads of things are hard to start:

  • Running doesn’t start feeling good until you’ve done it quite a lot
  • Same goes for swimming
  • Learning to play music (only easy if you hold yourself accountable to the standard of ‘A Tune a Day’ and not Mozart, which is exactly the point)
  • Or learning a new language
  • Asking someone out
  • Developing most skills – yesterday my son played badminton for almost the first time. He went from only-hits-the-shuttlecock-if-he’s-really-lucky to can-serve-and-have-a-hit-around in the space of an hour or two. The difference? A few hundred hits-and-misses

Why should building teams and organisations be any different? It helps to have done it before or if there’s infrastructure you can piggyback on, but every organisation, every team is new, and the world moves on. All of which is to say, context matters a lot, and even if you think you’re solving the same problem, sometimes it isn’t the same any more. The key skills to get better at are learning and communicating.

Vision. Positioning. Execution. (2)

Four types of vision:

  1. Vision of what is: the good, the bad… and the missing.
  2. Vision of possibilities: seeing what could be, or what could stop being. Having a sense of contributing factors and probabilities.
  3. Moral or ethical vision: knowing which possibilities should be, and which you will take responsibility for changing.
  4. Judgement: choosing a good way forward in light of 1, 2 and 3.

Each of these are helped by:

  • History
  • Friendships
  • Economics
  • Good stories
  • Science
  • Experience
  • Psychology
  • Visual art
  • Contemplation
  • Geography
  • Asking good questions
  • Sociology
  • Learning new skills
  • Philosophy
  • Studying management
  • Meeting new people
  • Systems thinking

The list doesn’t end. Anything that enriches your hinterland helps to shape your vision and creates new possibilities.

How tools spread

How do tools – ideas and understandings, practices, and real physical tools – get to the people who need them?

Some tools may only need to be seen to by copied and spread. A tool will spread if it is:

  • Visible – people need to see it (or hear, or read about it)
  • Beneficial – people need to see that the tool brings benefits too
  • Acceptable – isn’t in some way taboo*
  • Doable – simple enough to understand and apply
  • Accessible – people can get hold of what they need to start using it
  • Affordable – in terms of the physical, mental and emotional resources** and time needed to learn or use the tool

Further reading:

*Taboos may prevent one or both of the first two from happening
**”Can I afford the social or emotional costs of using this tool? Is it worth it?”
***The copyright section of which reads as follows:

You have permission to post this, email this, print this and pass it along for free to anyone you like, as long as you make no changes or edits to its contents or digital format. In fact, I’d love it if you’d make lots and lots of copies. The right to bind this and sell it as a book, however, is strictly reserved.