Full transcript of my TEDx talk on education

Jerry —  July 8, 2013 — Leave a comment

If you didn’t post a video to YouTube, you can’t alter it. The machine translation of the TEDx talk I gave last October about education is awful, so I listened to my talk and transcribed it. Aside from saying “so” and “let me” too many times, it ages well. Here’s the full text:

What If We Trusted You – transcript

Go back in your minds to fourth grade. Put yourselves in fourth grade and I am your teacher, if that doesn’t frighten you too much. You are in my writing class and I’ve given you a poetry assignment.

So, you’re actually writing. You’re in the flow, the words are pouring out of your fingertips, you’re really happy. You’re in that place where you’re making something beautiful…

And then all of a sudden, the bell goes off.

Like, what’s up with that? What do we all know is going to happen right now? What’s the next thing that’s going to happen? You’re going to put down your pens, and you’re going to go to math class, right?

Now, that happens all the time, but what’s the lesson we just taught you? We just taught you, without saying a word, that that giant metronome that runs this place is much more valuable than your passion, your flow, your concentration – whatever it was you thought you were doing.

That’s a quiet lesson. We don’t really talk about it very much.

So there’s a whole bunch of different lessons that actually come out of this. I think of it as “the new OCD:” we’re teaching you Obedience, Compliance and Dependence in a whole series of different, quiet, hidden ways while you’re in school, because the mechanisms of school are kind of built this way.

So let me rephrase that a little bit: We don’t really trust you to learn on your own, without having to. This is a gentle way of saying, without forcing you to: It’s called the compulsory education system.

I’m going to talk about trust in education and I’m going to talk a while about scarcity and abundance in trust, because I think there’s an interesting algebra there, and I’ve invented a little equation we’re going to work with a little bit: Scarcity equals Abundance minus Trust.

What I mean here is if you have a really abundant system and you remove the trust from the system, what you get is a lot of scarcity.

Let me talk about why. We create a lot of artificial scarcity all over the place, and I’m going to be really specific here about education.

Why do we keep creating artificial scarcity? Let me just describe the school system. This is a normal public school system.

We divide kids arbitrarily into one-year grades, which happen to be when they were born. Ok, that’s kind of odd already. The fourth graders would love to be sixth graders, but the sixth graders… you know, fourth graders… “they’re just fourth graders.”

There’s really very little interaction between the grades. They don’t learn from each other. They’re not in contact very much.

The teacher has to have, often, a PhD in teaching, they have to have credentials and qualifications, but it’s kind of expensive to get that degree; they don’t pay you that much as a teacher, so this is not a really good career path for a lot of people.

It’s hard to get very good teachers. Mostly, you get very dedicated people who have a partner who makes a better living than they do, and that’s how they can pay the rent.

Now, time in this environment is actually really scarce because you’re bouncing kids around. That bell is going off every day, multiple times a day, five days a week, all year round, for twelve years, maybe more than twelve.

So you get into class, there’s ten minutes to transit between classes, maybe ten minutes to take roll and settle down, another bit for business and here’s your homework back, and now, if we’re lucky, we get twenty five minutes to talk about something or for you to write a poem.

Then we’re on, bouncing to the next class. This happens your whole career.

This teacher in class, is kind of a God. in fact, what this teacher says, goes. This teacher is the only one in class who gives you feedback, who has opinions, who delivers knowledge and knows where we’re going tomorrow.

But actually, the teacher is more of a Demigod. You wouldn’t believe how restricted the authorized texts are in class. You wouldn’t believe how little budget these teachers have. In many schools teachers are actually paying out of their own meager salaries to buy enough books so that the kids have books to take home and read.

This is not a very nice world. The system is very very broken.

I won’t show you all the stats, but what do we do when the system’s really broken? We think we can fix it, so we try to do more of bad things, so we over-regulate. There’s this thing called the Zero-Tolerance Policy, where if I go “bang-bang!” on the playground with my finger, I can get suspended for a year. That’s happening all over the place. We over-surveil. After the Columbine shootings, all of a sudden we have cameras all over schools.

We over-medicate. We think the kids who are problem kids need Ritalin, Prozac, whatnot – it’s unbelievable the number of kids who are actually on something. Wealthy kids, poor kids: all the way around.

We are now teaching to the test, so teachers are busy trying to figure out how to pass these new metrics, so they can get pas the No Child Left Behind – that’s in the U.S – and I don’t know who is nurturing good citizens, because I think we’d like good citizens, don’t we?

And the time that kids used to have to get bored – this is a picture of Huck Finn smoking a corn-cob pipe – and learn what you might be interested in and how to get un-bored and what your life’s passion might be, that time is scarce, too, because we’ve kind of over-programmed everything as well. We figure we’ll just give you more homework, we’ll make the school day longer, we’ll take away some of that summer and maybe that’ll fix the problem and give us some smart people.

Now, in the middle of all this, we’ve also created a scarcity of meaning, because what’s happening is we’re cutting kids out of the world that has meaning, and we’re making them perform for a teacher they sometimes don’t like, in a world that just doesn’t make a lot of sense, so… so why the Hell would we do this?

Why would we perpetuate a system that has all these dysfunctions in it? I’ve got a couple of theories here. One is we fear chaos. We really don’t want to fall into chaos, and we fear if we let go of these systems, if we let people go do their own thing that we will in fact destroy civilization.

I’m only exaggerating a little bit. We really fear civilization’s going to go down if we do this wrong.

The second thing is there are seven billion people on Earth now, God damnit: we need scale, we need to use efficiency, we need to make this thing really grow, we need to replicate. We can’t be customizing education for every small child, besides, customization is going to happen with technology, right? So we won’t scale.

Third thing is we don’t actually trust children, parents, communities to come together and actually learn. We don’t know how to trust them to do that.

And finally – and this is as cynical as I think I’m going to get in this talk – it’s in the interest of a lot of people to have docile consumers, trained through this system. People who can go work in factory jobs that when you were on the farm, you kind of had to know everything. You go to the factory and stamp, stamp, stamp. It’s not that attractive, it’s not that interesting.

And we want you to make enough money that you can go out and buy the stuff you’re making, and create some sort of virtuous cycle, because that’s our civilization.

Why are we doing this sort of thing? This brings me to the question that I will ask you a couple of times, which is: what sort of system would you build if we trusted you?

I’ll come back to this, but to go find some abundance and to find some trust, I need to step outside the school walls.

Outside the school walls there are things like danger, liability. The lawyers really don’t like outside the school walls. This is bad. This is not good.

Controversy! You’re gonna do something wrong, you’re gonna talk about religion, I don’t know what’s gonna happen. It’s just gonna be awful.

Consequences! You might actually do something that could make your neighborhood better. That’d be pretty cool.

Opportunity. There’s all sorts of interesting things lurking outside, and I’m going to get to that in just a second.

But first, if I’m going to mix trust back in, I should give you an example of what institutions or mechanisms are that involve trust. I think I can do one that’s really easy, that you’ve probably all touched somehow.

Who has ever gone to a page in the Wikipedia? If you’ve visited the Wikipedia ever in your life, raise your hand. Awesomeness.

TEDx - audience and meHave you noticed that almost every page in Wikipedia says, “edit this page”? Raise your hand, be truthful, if you’ve noticed this fact.

You all are really good.

So, are these Wikipedia people just stupid? Like, any fool on Earth can come by and go in to make a change to this Encyclopedia thing that we’re all supposed to be using as a reference work, hit “save,” and the change is saved.

Don’t they… what’s going on here? Don’t they know about vandals? Nobody knows about vandals like Wikipedians know about vandals. It turns out that it must be some kind of fun sport for kids to go in and try to mess around with the Wikipedia.

But it turns out that undoing vandalism’s pretty easy and they know that this is an invitation, it’s an invitation of trust to come in and learn to do the dance. This is the magic that makes this thing work.

So: what does it look like to learn in a world of abundance?

First, you can learn at any time. Every moment is a teaching moment. Seriously! Waking, eating, whenever.

Second, you can learn from anybody, and I mean anybody on Earth. Communication worldwide is now pretty much free. Pretty much gratis.

So you can now learn from anybody, and there’s a lot of really smart people with real jobs in the world who would love to talk about what they do and teach it a little bit.

You can learn with anyone. Your cohort, your learning cohort, doesn’t have to be the kids who were born within this month and this month, who happen to be in your grade level.

The kids who got sorted into your class, who were lucky enough to go to your school, or unlucky enough to go to your school. Right? You can assemble a learning cohort from anyplace and you can learn anyplace. If you weren’t locked in school, you could in fact go learn in the world.

And if you did things in the world, they would be connected to real life, which I think is joyful. It gives you meaning again. Now, any object you run into can actually be a teaching tool, so this little cup of coffee could teach you, for example, math and science. You could learn geometry, botany, organic chemistry from it.

You could learn history from coffee. The café society, which brings out the Enlightenment, colonialism before that, fair trade now: a whole series of things. You could learn food, nutrition, the stimulating effects of caffeine, how all those things work.

You could learn about economics and business, markets, market-making. How does Starbucks convince us all to pay four dollars for a cup of coffee?

There’s really interesting things to talk about all through here, right? There’s enough exciting stuff out in the world that I wish I was twelve again. The world is completely full of beautiful experiments.

There’s, you know, when they were landing the lunar explorer, the Mars explorer, the Mars Rover a couple of years ago, they needed to find a landing site, and they did calculations and they figured out it was going to be a long time figuring out where, so they crowdsourced it. And anybody could actually contribute to it.

So you could be part of an effort – and there are many of these efforts around the world – to do something very significant.

The problem is, what I’ve just described to you is heresy.

In a lot of States, taking… in a lot of countries, taking your child out of school is illegal. In a lot of States it’s illegal as well, in the United States.

This thing I’ve been talking about is often called “unschooling.” It’s not a graceful word, it’s “un-”, it’s a not-something. The other words aren’t that much better: free-range kids, edupunks.

But let me describe the spectrum of activity we’re talking about, so that we have a common vocabulary, right?

TEDx - me speakingSo if this is school, and you know, we have all been in school, or most of us, then homeschool is right over here. Homeschool is outside the school, but you’re at home. You have a curriculum, you’re trying to pass tests. You may get your tests and curriculum from a school, you may get them from a third party – who knows what’s going on.

Unschooling is waaay over here. Unschooling is really child-led, curiosity-led learning. It’s the kid out there, going, “aaaah, let’s go to the hardware store,” or whatever. Now, it doesn’t mean you leave a kid on a desert island.

It means you help the child learn, but it also means that every day you have some agenda for what your child is going to learn today. Today’s fraction day, so we’re going to go to the library and divide books. No, no, no: this is very child-centered, and it requires really letting go. It’s an amazing act of confidence.

Now there’s this other really interesting word, “deschooling.” Deschooling does sound like “detox,” it’s meant to sound a little like detox. Deschooling is what you do with a child who’s been in a school and learned all, absorbed all the rules and regulations, and would like to unschool.

So that may mean they end up playing Nintendo games for a year, until they get that out of their system. You have to trust that it’s going to get out of their system at some point.

I had a call a while ago about the whole topic of unschooling, and one of the callers said something which was wonderful, and will stick in my memory forever. He said that deschooling is the process of healing their curiosity.

So the notion with unschooling, the notion with this radical, dangerous, heretical idea is that children are actually born good and curious. That they’re learning machines. We are born to learn.

The assumption of school, as I look at its architecture, just to infer from what it does and how it works, is that kids are lazy, incurious, unruly and stupid, and are untrustworthy.

If you want to learn how kids are wired to learn, go look at any average five-year-old before you sent them off to the institution. They’ve learned one or multiple languages, they’ve learned how to crawl, walk, run, play games, learn rules, learn how to game the rules, learn how to make it look like their brother did it, play Mom off against Dad – really sophisticated stuff, before you send them off to this institution.

Then somehow their learning stalls. It’s really kind of weird.

It turns out that it takes only about a hundred hours to learn basic reading and basic maths.

Only one hundred hours of application.

There’s only one variable that matters, just one: The child has to want to.

It turns out that not all children want to learn math in the same month of their lives.

But that’s what we’ve done, right?

And when you compel, when you force everyone to learn the same thing at the same time, when you drive that through the system so it can be routinized and made efficient, it means you break their curiosity, you break this.

And we end up wasting thousands upon thousands of hours of our children’s lives – of your lives, of my life – in fruitless exercises and repetition and God knows what, because we couldn’t sort of, somehow separate ourselves from the metronome, from the state system.

So school – I’m using schools, physical schools here kind of a s decoy, as a proxy for coercion, for having, for the compulsory education system. So I’m being a little unfair. What I’m really interested in is this coercive aspect of it.

Schools are kind of cool, particularly if you want to go in, if it’s voluntary.

Wouldn’t it be cool if every school on Earth was a voluntary drop-in center that had a terrific biology lab, that had rehearsal spaces, that had a laser cutter and all kinds of resources, and you could go book a room like at your company you can book a conference room really easily online, right? That’d be pretty cool.

Then your learning cohort could go do stuff in these places of fruitful learning.

TEDx - To SummarizeSo, let me recap where we are right now. In the interests of getting a better global society, but with a lot of fear of chaos, we used efficiency and scale to build a system that eventually taught us the Modern OCD: Obedience, Conformity and Dependence.

Instead of harnessing curiosity and meaning, which are rampant in the world, we’ve actually institutionalized violence and boredom and dependence.

It’s not a pretty picture, so this little table here kind of summarizes where we are. I want to draw your attention to the very bottom, so if you look at meaning and responsibility in school and unschool, meaning is like: meaning? What are you talking about, “meaning” in a school?

Very few of your actions actually have meaning. You’re writing this paper again for the teacher, whom you hate, and nobody else is going to read it. What’s up with that?

But meaning, you know, outside school can have real consequences.

Responsibility in school is yours to teach me, outside, it’s mine to learn.

So… do you want to take the red pill or the blue pill? Which of these worlds would you rather live in?

Or if I could phrase it a different way, what if we trusted you? Which system could we build?

So now let me talk about technology, because technology is this big abundance machine.

It turns out that every PC, tablet, laptop and smartphone is a telephone, it’s a gaming arcade, it’s a multi-world simulator, it’s a radio telescope, it is a 3D printing laboratory, it is an art studio. Every blessed one of them, and we are all connecting them and connecting ourselves right now. We can also leave things out there for one another, which is a miracle. This has never been possible, through all of human history – and prehistory. It’s really awesome.

So let’s dive deeper into this “what if we trusted you concept.” Doesn’t it imply mistrust? Doesn’t it say that the institutions that we live in today don’t trust us, and yeah, that’s really true.

But what it’s not saying is that this is the state of nature. That this is just the way things are.

What I’m saying here is that the systems need to be fixed, but they are based on mistrust, and we could trust one another.

What is this “we” –  what if WE trusted YOU. Who’s the “we” and who’s the “you”? You know? What do you mean? It’s us.

I’m playing with words here. Not one of us is individually responsible for getting us here.

We were born into this system, etc., etc., but we are all collectively complicit for keeping it alive and making it, um, thrive – insofar as it stays alive. It’s not really thriving.

Third, isn’t this really naive? What if we trusted you? There’s a lot of bad actors out there.

What I’m saying is like Wikipedians who know about vandalism, let’s get together with a gesture of trust. Let’s begin by doing something that makes us learn to trust each other, and start openly. Then let’s bake in processes that can deal with bad actors, and if we can, let’s convert those bad actors to good actors.

Let’s figure out how to do that over and over again. Let’s share those techniques all over the place. Let’s not design the system so that it starts from the basis of mistrust.

So. Everything I’ve said so far is about education. This general principle applies to every sector of society and the economy.

It applies to finance, it applies to management, to governance and government. It applies to food and agriculture, it applies to science and medicine and technology and health-care companies.

I could do this talk again for every sector you see here and more.

That’s a bit of a problem, isn’t it?

The good news is I see a lot of places where different movements are shifting mistrust to trust.

And if only these movements knew what they have in common, they might be able to pull together on the rope better. I think what they have in common is they’re doing jiu-jitsu on this equation. They don’t build systems based on mistrust. They’re starting with this gesture of vulnerability, of authenticity, of openness, of connectedness. They’re rebuilding community, they’re figuring out how to do this right.

We’re alive at a really extraordinary moment. It’s an incredible moment in history. We’re busy learning how to re-take responsibility for our lives, re-weaving the social fabric, and redefining what the good life is, what wealth might be.

I see my role as accelerating this change.

I see a lot of companies trying to slow this change down, because incumbents don’t want the golden goose, the golden geese to be killed. So I’m trying to accelerate this change, and you know what question I’m going to ask you.

And I’m going to ask it to you personally, directly and professionally. The question is: What if we trusted you?

What will you do differently tomorrow?



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