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I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

Producing Cogs When We Need Engines: A 3 Act Education Tragedy

 Education Tragedy: Producing Cogs When We Need Engines

4-year-old Adam: "Do you know what a tick is?"

Mom/Dad (pretending not to know): "No. What is it?"

Adam: "A tick is a bird that can suck your butt!"

Dad: "I don't think that's quite right honey."

Adam: "But Ezra (another 4-year-old) said so!"

Mom: "Ezra isn't always right honey."

Dad: "A tick is a BUG that can suck your BLOOD."

[ACT I] From Creativity to Conditioning

I suppose Adam and Ezra weren't wrong about the butt part because I think a tick might actually end up sucking butt blood.

But it turns out dad (me) was wrong too. When geeking out online I discovered ticks are ARACHNIDS, 8-legged INSECTS not BUGS, which have wings.

Anyway, while ticks are Lyme disease-carrying gross looking parasites, what's important and even more impressive is two 4-year-olds showing interest and talking about ticks. Not that 4-year-olds don't talk about unexpected topics, they most definitely do. I just think it's pretty freaking cool that they are so curious and in their inquisitive nature come up with crazy creative definitions for things they are learning about and answers to problems they are working on solving.

And there becomes apparent the tragedy of today's schooling. In today's classrooms, many creative answers and solutions are nonexistent. Middle school and most definitely high school is no place for butt sucking tick birds. Such answers are no longer cute. They are ridiculed by the jury of peers and deemed ridiculous by judge teachers.

And so, most students stay safe. They do not venture guesses to questions in class for fear of being wrong. They don't take risks. Rather, they wait for someone else, most often the teacher, to give them the right answer.

And can you blame them? 

All the tests they take comprise of only one right answer questions. Schools give grades based on these tests. Students use grades and classroom behaviors to sort the super nerds from the nerds from the average Joes from the not so smarts from the dumber-than-dirts. End result? Students are conditioned to get it right the first time or to stay invisible.

And that's just Act I of the play called school.

[Act II] Compliance and Efficiency: What Being a "Good" Student Means

Act II is a tragedy of incongruence between what and how schools of today teach and what is required to be successful now and in the future.

Just consider what it means to be a good student in a typical American high school.

The best students seem to be the ones who efficiently cram a lot of useless facts (and by useless I mean facts that aren't applied in real time), answer multiple choice questions about these facts effectively enough to receive good grades, and undoubtedly forget most of those facts and the details associated with them shortly after the "successful" assessment.

The best students then are ones who learn to play the get the best grades so I can get into a good college game well. This is unfortunate because true learning, learning that sticks and can be applied in multiple ways in future situations, does not happen. 

And thus the Act II tragedy unfolds when such a student is asked to think creatively or innovate on his own. He is often incapable of original thought being programmed to perceive, think, and act with the mindless rigidity necessary for success in the too-slow-evolving rigid system that is today's formal education.

Of course, there are always exceptions, but all one needs to do to prove the above rule is to take a look at the legions of 9-to-5ers continuing to perform work they feel blah about in places they grew tired of long ago and with people they dislike or downright despise.

Like a caged animal, trapped.

[Act III] The American Dream Myth

A mortgage, 2 car payments, and bills to pay. This is what we call success. The American Dream. The Declaration of Independence guides us toward this dependence. 

The American Dream is a myth that has lived in the minds of millions of Americans for generations. It is a well told and sold tale most of us buy into because we are repeatedly taught that if we suck it up and work hard we are in the right place to achieve it. But upon careful examination, we see just how rigid and constraining this belief is.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? As happiness is predefined for us as the American Dream it equates to being content with becoming a necessary and obedient cog that meshes with other such cogs to help the machine run smoothly.

Not convinced? Take work. 

Exchange time for money. Use this money to buy a car. Exchange more time for more money. Buy a house. Exchange even more time for more money. Buy a boat, vacations, golf clubs, season tickets, college education, and other things we think we need.

The more time we trade for money, the more material goods and various services we can acquire, the stronger the economy, the engine that grows and consumes ever more fuel. Our formally educated, conditioned, and compliant sweat is the fuel. But someone else is driving. Never us. And, most of the time we don't even realize it. 

We have grown accustomed to the accumulation of things and experiences. There's nothing wrong with that until the very purpose of work is to achieve the means to periodically escape the world of work, because it has little or no meaning, to this self-created world of accumulated things, which provides temporary relief but leaves us unfulfilled just the same.

Of course, there are always cogs that don't fit and don't want to fit. They project a different vision of how things could be; how they could be. They do things differently. They do things society has a hard time accepting. Looking for meaning they fail a lot.

We ridicule and call them weirdos at first. This is because they reject the society's myths. They don't buy into them. They keep failing. We keep laughing. But after they fail enough times they find their voice and place. Soon, we call them artists, innovators, and trendsetters. They become the engines of progress and they drive. In the meantime, we consume what they produce and stay the necessary unfulfilled cogs turning only to keep the status quo machine going.

Writing a New Play: How Do We Build More Engines?

Fact: We evolved to be keenly aware of our environment and highly creative in its utilization. 

Fiction: We evolved to create societies that function based on shared values, beliefs, opinions, and ways of doing things.

Irony: As we abandoned the environment and way of life we are best equipped for by evolution for a chance to form societies we adopted shared myths (values, beliefs, opinions etc.) of how things are supposed to be, the blind following of which led to the destruction of most individualism and creativity.

Now, we find ourselves in a constant tug of war between what our instincts drive us to do (experimentation, creativity, individuality etc.) and what our society accepts (duty, sensibility, norm compliance etc.).

From the moment evolution gifted us with the consciousness that separates us from all other animals, our species has had limitless potential to invent and create. This special ability is exhibited by every child not spoiled by the rules, laws, and norms that define precisely what's allowed, what's unacceptable, and what's down right wrong.

From their inception schools have been factories designed to churn out new, rule following, product producing, and service providing members of the communities they serve and societies they're part of. Efficiency has always been the main focus. Saving time and money, predictability, and buy in. The smooth system operation requires indoctrination.

It's never perfect. Sometimes we complain. But it works.

It works because it conditions. Children learn to adopt certain unnatural from evolutionary perspective behaviors. They are standardized to fit the mold of a model citizen. They are taught how to "grow out" of unreasonable and unrealistic dreams. The machine has worked so well that many parents tell the same myths to their kids at dinner having been molded by the educational machine into a perfectly fitting cog of the corporate one.

But here's the thing. I don't know any 4-year-olds who dream about paying a mortgage. I don't know any 10-year-olds obsessed with buying a house either. This is how I know the American Dream is a myth acquired in our adulthood.

I have nothing against owning a house, 2 cars, and a goldfish. Those things are cool and taking care of Nemo makes some people happy. I simply disagree with calling it all the American Dream because every kid growing up has dreams and she should be allowed to keep and pursue them with all her might and help she deserves. Instead, we often discourage, devalue, or discount her imagination's creations and teach that a good paying job is life's ultimate purpose.

Imagine a 4-year-old obsessed with becoming an NBA star. But maybe he grows up to be an unathletic five foot eight. The society and its rules teach him to be sensible and responsible so he abandons the dream entirely and settles for being a lawyer. The problem with that approach is that he will most likely find little meaning in this risk mitigating choice of a profession. But let's be real here: he will probably hate it.

Why wasn’t this kid taught to use his imagination and look for ways to adopt this dream to his limitations and realities? Is it entirely out of the sphere of possibility that he could find a way to pursue something closely related he would be equally as happy doing for the rest of his life and feel fulfilled doing? 

Maybe he could start a podcast interviewing basketball players or a website with unique content related to the NBA and NBA fandom. Those are just two ideas, but I bet with time and help and encouragement he could come up with a hundred.

But no. It's way more sensible to go to law school or pursue a STEM career. Nothing wrong with that, I just wish that more schools started equipping kids with skills to pursue their first passions, more teachers started empowering kids to take risks and fail and try again, and more parents started encouraging kids to escape the social pressures and influences and just go for it.

As things are now, we teach and condition kids to constantly second guess their choices. We only live once but life is not a one and done affair. Not even close! We can always start anew. Always. This is what we need to teach our kids.

You have the power to change lives. Use it often so they can change the world.


I hope this article inspires you to take s few small actions to help change the social and educational status quo for your students, your kids. A small disturbance is often all it takes to start an avalanche of progress.