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The popular ebook, now on Medium, complete and unabridged.

if you don’t underestimate me,
I won’t underestimate you

Bob Dylan

Dedicated to every teacher who cares enough to change the system, and to every student brave enough to stand up and speak up.

1. Preface: Education transformed

As I was finishing this manifesto, a friend invited me to visit the Harlem Village Academies, a network of charter schools in Manhattan.

2. A few notes about this manifesto

I’ve numbered the sections because it’s entirely possible you’ll be reading it with a different layout than others will. The numbers make it easy to argue about particular sections.

3. Back to (the wrong) school

A hundred and fifty years ago, adults were incensed about child labor. Low-wage kids were taking jobs away from hard-working adults.

4. What is school for?

It seems a question so obvious that it’s hardly worth asking. And yet there are many possible answers. Here are a few (I’m talking about public or widespread private education here, grade K through college):

5. Column A and Column B

Aware

6. Changing what we get, because we’ve changed what we need

If school’s function is to create the workers we need to fuel our economy, we need to change school, because the workers we need have changed as well.

7. Mass production desires to produce mass

That statement seems obvious, yet it surprises us that schools are oriented around the notion of uniformity. Even though the workplace and civil society demand variety, the industrialized school system works to stamp it out.

8. Is school a civic enterprise?

At the heart of Horace Mann’s push for public schooling for all was a simple notion: we build a better society when our peers are educated. Democracy was pretty new, and the notion of putting that much power into the hands of the uneducated masses was frightening enough to lead to the push for universal schooling.

9. Three legacies of Horace Mann

As superintendent of schools in Massachusetts, Mann basically invented the public school. Except he called it a common school, because a key goal was to involve the common man and raise the standards of the culture. Right from the start:

10. Frederick J. Kelly and your nightmares

In 1914, a professor in Kansas invented the multiple-choice test. Yes, it’s less than a hundred years old.

11. To efficiently run a school, amplify fear (and destroy passion)

School’s industrial, scaled-up, measurable structure means that fear must be used to keep the masses in line. There’s no other way to get hundreds or thousands of kids to comply, to process that many bodies, en masse, without simultaneous coordination.

12. Is it possible to teach attitudes?

The notion that an organization could teach anything at all is a relatively new one.

13. Which came first, the car or the gas station?

The book publisher or the bookstore?

14. The wishing and dreaming problem

If you had a wish, what would it be? If a genie arrived and granted you a wish, would it be a worthwhile one?

15. “When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut assistant”

Jake Halpern did a rigorous study of high school students. The most disturbing result was this:

16. School is expensive

It’s also not very good at doing what we need it to do. We’re not going to be able to make it much cheaper, so let’s figure out how to make it a lot better.

17. Reinventing school

If the new goal of school is to create something different from what we have now, and if new technologies and new connections are changing the way school can deliver its lessons, it’s time for a change.

18. Fast, flexible, and focused

It’s clear that the economy has changed. What we want and expect from our best citizens has changed. Not only in what we do when we go to our jobs, but also in the doors that have been opened for people who want to make an impact on our culture.

19. Dreams are difficult to build and easy to destroy

By their nature, dreams are evanescent. They flicker long before they shine brightly. And when they’re flickering, it’s not particularly difficult for a parent or a teacher or a gang of peers to snuff them out.

20. Life in the post-institutional future

In Civilization, his breakthrough book about the ascent (and fall) of Western civilization, Niall Ferguson makes the case that four hundred years of Western dominance was primarily due to six institutions that were built over time — not great men, or accidents of weather or geography, but long-lasting, highly leveraged institutional advantages that permitted us to grow and prosper.

21. Two bumper stickers

The first one is sad, selfish, and infuriating. I often see it on late-model, expensive cars near my town. It says, “Cut School Taxes.”

22. The connection revolution is upon us

It sells the moment short to call this the Internet revolution. In fact, the era that marks the end of the industrial age and the beginning of something new is ultimately about connection.

23. And yet we isolate students instead of connecting them

Virtually every academic activity in school is done solo. Homework. Exams. Writing. The lectures might take place in a crowded room, but they too are primarily one-way.

24. If education is the question, then teachers are the answer

Walking through the Harlem Village Academy, the first thing most people notice is the noise. There isn’t any.

25. What if we told students the truth?

Transparency in the traditional school might destroy it. If we told the truth about the irrelevance of various courses, about the relative quality of some teachers, about the power of choice and free speech — could the school as we know it survive?

26. School as a contract of adhesion

Friedrich Kessler, writing in 1943 in the Columbia Law Review, articulated a new kind of contract, one for the industrial age. Rather than being individually negotiated with each party, a contract of adhesion is a take-it-or-leave-it mass deal.

27. The decision

We don’t ask students to decide to participate. We assume the contract of adhesion, and relentlessly put information in front of them, with homework to do and tests to take.

28. Exploiting the instinct to hide

Human beings have, like all animals, a great ability to hide from the things they fear.

29. The other side of fear is passion

There really are only two tools available to the educator. The easy one is fear. Fear is easy to awake, easy to maintain, but ultimately toxic.

30. The industrial age pervaded all of our culture

There has been no bigger change in ten thousand years of recorded human history than the overwhelming transformation of society and commerce and health and civilization that was enabled (or caused) by industrialization.

31. Doubt and certainty

The industrial structure of school demands that we teach things for certain. Testable things. Things beyond question. After all, if topics are open to challenge, who will challenge them? Our students. But students aren’t there to challenge — they are there to be indoctrinated, to accept and obey.

32. Does push-pin equal poetry?

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that if two kids playing hopscotch or push-pin* are gaining as much joy and pleasure as someone reading poetry, they have enjoyed as much utility.

33. Who will teach bravery?

The essence of the connection revolution is that it rewards those who connect, stand out, and take what feels like a chance.

34. Responsibility

The Sudbury Valley School was founded during the hippie generation, and has survived and thrived as an independent school for forty years. From their introductory handbook:

35. Off the hook: Denying opportunities for greatness

Greatness is frightening. With it comes responsibility.

36. Instead of amplifying dreams, school destroys them

Every day, beginning the first day and continuing until the last day, our teachers and our administrators and yes, most parents, seeking to do the right thing, end up doing the wrong one.

37. The curse of the hourly wage

Fredrick Taylor is responsible for much of what you see when you look around. As the father of Scientific Management, he put the fine points on Henry Ford’s model of mass production and was the articulate voice behind the staffing of the assembly line and the growth of the industrial age.

38. Scientific management → Scientific schooling

There didn’t used to be one right way, one perfected method, one step-by-step approach to production.

39. Where did the good jobs go?

Hint: The old ones, the ones we imagine when we think about the placement office and the pension — the ones that school prepared us for — they’re gone.

40. What they teach at FIRST

The largest robotics competition in the world organizes hundreds of thousands of kids into a nationwide competition to build fighting robots and other technical fun.

41. Judgment, skill, and attitude

Those are the new replacements for obedience.

42. Can you teach Indian food?

It’s not easy to find young Anglo kids in Cleveland or Topeka who crave Tandoori chicken or Shrimp Vindaloo. And yet kids with almost the same DNA in Mumbai eat the stuff every day. It’s clearly not about genetics.

43. How not to teach someone to be a baseball fan

Teach the history of baseball, beginning with Abner Doubleday and the impact of cricket and imperialism. Have a test.

44. Defining the role of a teacher

It used to be simple: the teacher was the cop, the lecturer, the source of answers, and the gatekeeper to resources. All rolled into one.

45. Shouldn’t parents do the motivating?

Of course they should. They should have the freedom to not have to work two jobs, they should be aware enough of the changes in society to be focused on a new form of education, and they should have the skills and the confidence and the time to teach each child what he needs to know to succeed in a new age.

46. At the heart of pedagogy

When we think about the role of school, we have to take a minute to understand that we backed into this corner; we didn’t head here with intent.

47. Academics are a means to an end, not an end

Go back to the original purpose of school: we needed to teach citizens to be obedient (to be good workers), to consume what marketers sold them (to keep industry going), and to be able to sit still (to be good workers).

48. The status quo pause

That feeling you’re feeling (if you haven’t given up because of the frightening implications of this manifesto) is the feeling just about every parent has. It’s easier to play it safe. Why risk blowing up the educational system, why not just add a bit to it? Why risk the education of our kids merely because the economy has changed?

49. Compliant, local, and cheap

Those were the three requirements for most jobs for most of the twentieth century. Only after you fit all three criteria was your competence tested. And competence was far more important than leadership, creativity, or brilliance.

50. The problem with competence

Institutions and committees like to talk about core competencies, the basic things that a professional or a job seeker needs to know.

51. How they saved LEGO

Dr. Derek Cabrera noticed something really disturbing. The secret to LEGO’s success was the switch from all-purpose LEGO sets, with blocks of different sizes and colors, to predefined kits, models that must be assembled precisely one way, or they’re wrong.

52. The race to the top (and the alternative)

The real debate if you’re a worker is: do you want a job where they’ll miss you if you’re gone, a job where only you can do it, a job where you get paid to bring yourself (your true self) to work? Because those jobs are available. In fact, there’s no unemployment in that area.

53. The forever recession

There are two recessions going on.

54. Make something different

I don’t know how to change school, can’t give you a map or a checklist. What I do know is that we’re asking the wrong questions and making the wrong assumptions.

55. Make something differently

The simple way to make something different is to go about it in a whole new way. In other words, doing what we’re doing now and hoping we’ll get something else as an outcome is nuts.

56. 1000 hours

Over the last three years, Jeremy Gleick, a sophomore at UCLA, has devoted precisely an hour a day to learning something new and unassigned.

57. The economic, cultural, and moral reasons for an overhaul

There’s an economic argument to make about schools and the world of dreams. Small dreams are hurting us like never before. Small dreams represent an attitude of fear; they sabotage our judgment and they keep us from acquiring new skills, skills that are there if we’re willing to learn them.

58. The virtuous cycle of good jobs

Industrial jobs no longer create new industrial jobs in our country. A surplus of obedient hourly workers leads to unemployment, not more factories.

59. The evolution of dreams

Fairy tales tell us a lot about what people want. Girls want to be princesses, boys want to be heroes. And both girls and boys want to be chosen. They want to have the glass slipper fit, or the mighty gods from another planet give them a lantern that energizes their power ring.

60. Dreamers are a problem

And then schools refocused on mass and scale, and the dreams faded. While these new heroes created generations of kids who wanted to disrupt the world as they did, they also sowed the seeds for the end of those dreams.

61. Is it possible to teach willpower?

After all, willpower is the foundation of every realized dream.

62. Pull those nails: The early creation of worker compliance

Years ago, I sat in on a fifth-grade class ostensibly working on a math project.

63. Is it too risky to do the right thing?

Do parents mean well?

64. Connecting the dots vs. collecting the dots

The industrial model of school is organized around exposing students to ever increasing amounts of stuff and then testing them on it.

65. The smartest person in the room

David Weinberger writes,

66. Avoiding commitment

A byproduct of industrialization is depersonalization. Because no one is responsible for anything that we can see, because deniability is built into the process, it’s easy and tempting to emotionally check out, to go along to get along.

67. The specter of the cult of ignorance

Here’s a note I got after a recent blog post used the word bespoke, a much better fit than the word custom would have been:

68. The Bing detour

Here’s a simple example of the difference between pushing kids to memorize a technique and selling them on a process and an attitude:

69. But what about the dumb parade?

I know the feeling. You see the young mom feeding her infant a can of Sprite from a baby bottle. The blog reader who thinks “bespoke” is too difficult a word (and not worth looking up). The financially afraid who get tricked into losing their houses because they don’t understand simple arithmetic.…

70. Grammr and the decline of our civilization

I need to come back to this again, because deep down, the educated people reading this aren’t sure yet. The argument for rote, for primers, for drill and practice, and for grammar is made vivid within ten seconds of checking out YouTube. Here’s a sample comment:

70.5 Open book, open note (a formerly missing headline)

Futurist Michio Kaku points out that soon, it will be easy for every student and worker to have contact lenses hooked up to the Internet.

71. Lectures at night, homework during the day

Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, has a very different vision of how school can work. He’s already raised millions of dollars from Bill Gates and others, and his site currently offers more than 2,600 video lectures that (for free) teach everything from Calculus to World History. To date, the lectures have been delivered almost a hundred million times.

72. Beyond the Khan Academy

Check out Udacity.com, co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, who until recently, was a tenured professor at Stanford. His goal is to teach courses that have 200,000 simultaneous students. And why not?

73. Here comes Slader

Slader is a new website that further clarifies the future teaching process. Slader hired dozens of nerds and together they solved every homework problem in hundreds of editions of dozens of math textbooks.

74. The role of the teacher’s union in the post-industrial school

It’s not surprising that early on, many teachers found support in unions. The industrial nature of schooling set up an adversarial system. Management (the board, the administration, and yes, the parents) wanted more productivity, more measurability, and more compliance, not just from students, but from teachers as well. Spend less money, get more results — that’s the mantra of all industries in search of productivity.

75. Hoping for a quality revolution at the teacher’s union

The Harlem Village Academy, like most charter schools, has no teacher’s union. No tenure, no contract-based job security.

76. Emotional labor in the work of teachers

Lewis Hyde’s essential book The Gift makes a distinction between work and labor.

77. Making the cut, the early creation of the bias for selection (early picks turn into market leaders)

The fun things that matter in school have no shortage of applicants. School government, the class play, and most of all, school sports are all about try-outs and elections.

78. First impressions matter (too much)

“Maybe your son should do something else. He’s not really getting this.”

79. Why not hack?

Much of this manifesto echoes the attitude of the hacker. Not the criminals who crack open computer systems, but hackers — passionate experimenters eager to discover something new and willing to roll up their sleeves to figure things out.

80. American anti-intellectualism

Getting called an egghead is no prize. My bully can beat up your nerd. Real men don’t read literature.

81. Leadership and Followership

John Cook coined the phrase “leadership and followership” when he described a high school student practicing his music conducting skills by conducting the orchestra he heard on a CD. When you are practicing your leadership in this way, you’re not leading at all. You’re following the musicians on the CD — they don’t even know you exist.

82. “Someone before me wrecked them”

It doesn’t take very much time in the teacher’s lounge before you hear the whining of the teacher with the imperfect students. They came to him damaged, apparently, lacking in interest, excitement, or smarts.

83. Some tips for the frustrated student:

  1. Grades are an illusion
  2. Your passion and insight are reality
  3. Your work is worth more than mere congruence to an answer key
  4. Persistence in the face of a skeptical authority figure is a powerful ability
  5. Fitting in is a short-term strategy, standing out pays off in the long run
  6. If you care enough about the work to be criticized, you’ve learned enough for today

84. The two pillars of a future-proof education:

85. Which comes first, passion or competence?

One theory is that if you force someone to learn math or writing or soccer, there’s a chance she will become passionate about it and then run with what she knows.

86. “Lacks determination and interest”

Here’s an interesting question: when a good student gets a comment like that on a report card from a teacher in just one of his classes, who is at fault?

87. Hiding?

It’s human nature to avoid responsibility, to avoid putting ourselves in the path of blame so we can be singled out by the head of the village for punishment. And why not? That’s risky behavior, and it’s been bred out of us over millions of generations.

88. Obedience + Competence ≠ Passion

The formula doesn’t work. It never has. And yet we act as if it does.

89. A shortage of engineers

We can agree that our culture and our economy would benefit from more builders, more people passionate about science and technology. So, how do we make more of them?

90. Reading and writing

In the connected age, reading and writing remain the two skills that are most likely to pay off with exponential results.

91. The desire to figure things out

Consider the case of Katherine Bomkamp, a twenty-year-old who will never struggle to find a job, never struggle to make an impact.

92. Because or despite?

That’s the key question in the story of Katherine Bomkamp and so many other kids who end up making a difference.

93. Schools as engines of competence or maintainers of class?

Or possibly both.

94. College as a ranking mechanism, a tool for slotting people into limited pigeonholes

The scarcity model of the industrial age teaches us that there are only a finite number of “good” jobs. Big companies have limited payrolls, of course, so there’s only one plant manager. Big universities have just one head of the English department. Big law firms have just one managing partner, and even the Supreme Court has only nine seats.

95. The coming meltdown in higher education (as seen by a marketer)

For four hundred years, higher education in the U.S. has been on a roll. From Harvard asking Galileo to be a guest professor in the 1600s to millions tuning in to watch a team of unpaid athletes play another team of unpaid athletes in some college sporting event, the amount of time and money and prestige in the college world has been climbing.

96. Big companies no longer create jobs

Apple just built a massive data center in Malden, North Carolina. That sort of plant development would have brought a thousand or five thousand jobs to a town just thirty years ago. The total employment at the data center? Fifty.

97. Understanding the gas station question

“How many gas stations are there in the United States?”

98. The cost of failure has changed

In an industrial setting, failure can be fatal — to the worker or to the bottom line.

99. What does “smart” mean?

Our economy and our culture have redefined “smart,” but parents and schools haven’t gotten around to it.

100. Can anyone make music?

Ge Wang, a professor at Stanford and the creator of Smule, thinks so. The problem is that people have to get drunk in order to get over their fear enough to do karaoke.

101. Two kinds of learning

Quick, what’s 8 squared?

102. History’s greatest hits: Unnerving the traditionalists

In his book Civilization, Niall Ferguson complains,

103. This is difficult to let go of

Those of us who have successfully navigated the industrial education system like it when people are well informed, when sentences are grammatically correct, and when our peers understand things like what electrons do and how the scientific method works.

104. The situation

Real learning happens in bursts, and often those bursts occur in places or situations that are out of the ordinary. Textbooks rarely teach us lessons we long remember. We learn about self-reliance when we get lost in the mall, we learn about public speaking when we have to stand up and give a speech.

105. If you could add just one course

106. The third reason they don’t teach computer science in public school

The first reason is classic: it’s a new topic, and changing the curriculum is political, expensive, and time-consuming. The bias is to leave it alone.

107. An aside about law school

The apparent exception to the list above is law school. There are tons of law schools, probably too many, and they apparently churn out hundreds of thousands of lawyers on a regular basis.

108. School as the transference of emotion and culture

One thing a student can’t possibly learn from a video lecture is that the teacher cares. Not just about the topic — that part is easy. No, the student can’t learn that the teacher cares about him. And being cared about, connected with, and pushed is the platform we need to do the emotional heavy lifting of committing to learn.

109. What great teachers have in common is the ability to transfer emotion

Every great teacher I have ever encountered is great because of her desire to communicate emotion, not (just) facts. A teacher wrote to me recently,

110. Talent vs. education

Tricky words indeed.

111. Dumb as a choice

Let’s define dumb as being different from stupid.

112. The schism over blocks

Jean Schreiber wants kids in elementary school to spend more time playing with blocks and less time sitting at a desk and taking notes.

113. Completing the square and a million teenagers

Every year, more than a million kids are at exactly the right age to radically advance their understanding of leadership and human nature. They’re ready to dive deep into service projects, into understanding how others tick, and most of all, into taking responsibility.

114. Let’s do something interesting

Every once in a while, between third grade and the end of high school, a teacher offers the class a chance to do something interesting, new, off topic, exciting, risky, and even thrilling.

115. Getting serious about leadership: Replacing Coach K

Let’s assume for a moment that college sports serve an educational function, not just one of amusing alumni.

116. Higher ed is going to change as much in the next decade as newspapers did in the last one

Ten years ago, I was speaking to newspaper executives about the digital future. They were blithely ignorant of how Craigslist would wipe out the vast majority of their profits. They were disdainful of digital delivery. They were in love with the magic of paper.

117. This Is Your Brain on the Internet: The power of a great professor

Cathy Davidson teaches at Duke and her courses almost always have a waiting list. Interesting to note that in the first week, about 25 percent of the students in the class drop out. Why? Because the course doesn’t match the industrial paradigm, can’t guarantee them an easy path to law school, and represents a threat to established modes of thinking.

118. Polishing symbols

Just about everything that happens in school after second grade involves rearranging symbols. We push students to quickly take the real world, boil it down into symbols, and then, for months and years after that, analyze and manipulate those symbols. We parse sentences, turning words into parts of speech. We refine mathematical equations into symbols, and become familiar with the periodic table.

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119. My ignorance vs. your knowledge

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

120. Seek professional help

There seems to be a cultural bias against getting better at things that matter. School has left such a bad taste that if what we need to do to improve feels like reading a book, attending a lecture, or taking a test, many of us tend to avoid it.

121. Home schooling isn’t the answer for most

Thousands of caring and committed parents are taking their kids out of the industrial system of schooling and daring to educate them themselves. It takes guts and time and talent to take this on and to create an environment that’s consistently challenging and focused enough to deliver on the potential our kids are bringing to the world.

122. Some courses I’d like to see taught in school

How old is the Earth?

123. The future of the library

This is an issue very much aligned with the one we’re dealing with here. The very forces that are upending our need for school are at work at libraries as well. Here’s my most retweeted blog post ever:

124. Thinking hard about college

If there’s a part of the educational system that should be easier to fix, it’s higher education. We’ve seen really significant changes in the physical plant, the marketing, and the structure of many universities, usually in response to student demand.

125. The famous-college trap

Spend time around suburban teenagers and their parents, and pretty soon the discussion will head inexorably to the notion of going to a “good college.”

126. The SAT measures nothing important

127. “I’m not paying for an education, I’m paying for a degree”

In the words of a Columbia University student, that’s the truth. If you choose to get an education at the same time, well, that’s a fine bonus, but with free information available to all, why pay $200,000 for it?

128. Getting what they pay for

Over the last twenty years, large universities discovered a simple equation: Winning football and basketball teams would get them on television, which would make them more famous, which would attract students looking for a good school. Once again, it’s the marketing problem of equating familiar with good.

129. Access to information is not the same as education

Universities no longer spend as much time bragging about the size of their libraries. The reason is obvious: the size of the library is now of interest to just a tiny handful of researchers. Most anything that we want access to is available somewhere online or in paid digital libraries.

130. Whose dream?

There’s a generational problem here, a paralyzing one.

131. How to fix school in twenty-four hours

Don’t wait for it. Pick yourself. Teach yourself. Motivate your kids. Push them to dream, against all odds.

132. What we teach

When we teach a child to make good decisions, we benefit from a lifetime of good decisions.

133. Bibliography and further reading

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

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Founder of altMBA and Akimbo. Daily blogger, teacher, speaker, 20 bestsellers as well...

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