What education in general has been saying to our students is: “You’re here to learn about your culture but not impact it.” But the progressive educator is saying to his students, “Go out and make a statement, make a difference, interpret, inspire and elucidate!” The mentor is all about inspiring his students to make an impact. Albert Einstein once said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
One of the assumptions of the past is that the more knowledge we collect, the more educated we are. This is a form of education but, unless students draw conclusions and really think about and link these bits and bobs of information found on tests, there is no real learning. Despite the fear mongering concerning our students’ test performance, there is, and always has been, a basic human hunger for learning. This is most evident in the meteoric rise in popularity of TEDtalks.
If you haven’t seen a TEDtalk yet, I invite you to take a look at one of the more than 700 15-20 minute talks on every subject imaginable. It is very likely that you will find more than one TEDtalk to feed your brain. I treat these nuggets of delicious learning like mind candy. You shouldn’t view too many in a row, they are so rich with information, your system might get overstimulated. But one a day or a couple a week; this is good for your soul. I recently viewed a TEDtalk by TED Media Director, June Cohen. In her presentation she notes, “In the last 4 years TED has put 700 talks online for free and these talks have been viewed 300 million times.” This really speaks to the hunger we have for good ideas.
If life was only a fact-collecting expedition we would lose interest before we hit puberty. We are hungry, but not for facts. We are hungry for ideas. Because TEDtalks are a forum for the spread of ideas, in 2006 TEDtalks went online free of charge. The single stated goal was “to spread ideas.” On the website there is a list clarifying this goal:
* An idea can be created out of nothing except an inspired imagination.
* An idea weighs nothing.
* It can be transferred across the world at the speed of light for virtually zero cost.
* And yet an idea, when received by a prepared mind, can have extraordinary impact.
* It can reshape that mind’s view of the world.
* It can dramatically alter the behavior of the mind’s owner.
* It can cause the mind to pass on the idea to others.
The goal of the foundation is to foster the spread of great ideas… Core to this goal is a belief that there is no greater force for changing the world than a powerful idea.”
This interest in ideas gets at the core of being human, alive and on the planet. What is the purpose of education? Currently, it is an institution based on a cultural-economic model whose time has come and gone, yet we cling to this format as though we are waiting for Godot. Unlike libraries, schools often point to a small collection of core knowledge and tell the student to “memorize that”. While I believe in mentoring and providing educational focus, I also think schools are not the last word in learning.
Learning happens wherever there is an open mind. Take, for instance, libraries, those repositories of learning where a person can choose independently what to learn. Anyone from anywhere can walk into a public library and take a book off any shelf and read it. Before the Internet, this was our main public access to ideas. Providing public access to ideas sometimes creates anxiety for people in power. Recent troubles for Google in China illustrate this still exists. Fear of public access to ideas did not start with Google, however.
David Greene of National Public Radio tells the story of an age before libraries were common: “There was a time in Britain, say 160 years ago, when some in Parliament didn’t believe in public libraries at all. The worry was, if the working class read books, it would get dangerous ideas and rise up against the government.” This dire prediction, of course, never came to pass. People want access to learning for reasons that supersede politics, domestic life and work. People want access to ideas in order to grow.
Albert Einstein had quite a lot to say about education and learning. His opinions may be based on the fact that his grades in school were so poor that a teacher told him he would never amount to much and he dropped out of school at age 15. He later said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” There are so many examples of great thinkers being told by their teachers they would fail. The very people at the heart of the education institution have misidentified some of the greatest minds in history. Isaac Newton faired poorly in grade school and also failed at running the family farm. Ludwig van Beethoven’s music teacher once said, “As a composer, he is hopeless.” As a child Thomas Edison’s teacher told him he was too stupid to learn anything. Winston Churchill failed the 6th grade. It seems obvious to us in hind site these teachers were mistaken. They noticed a child thinking differently and labeled the child as “wrong thinking”. We are so often quick to judge the flexible mind. It is, somehow, easier to call a child ‘slow’ when they might be thinking so fast we are unable to keep up with them. Let’s encourage these crazy ideas and look for ways to make our teaching relevant. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”