Saturday, February 16, 2019

Children are born powerless

In the journey from infant to adult the brain of a child is transformed by experiences. Some are accidental, some intentional. Parents are the original teachers; siblings and environment too. But schools play a critical role. 

The interplay of formal curriculum and the development of a child’s sense of self is the subject of research at Harvard’s Agency by Design Project. Agency is a measure of how ‘in control’ of their lives youth feel. I believe it is related to hope (what will happen in the future) and power (what can I do about it now.)

I’ve thought a lot about what motivates human behavior and concluded that one of the principal motivators is power. The accumulation and exercise of power, whether by children, adults, leaders or countries, is unarguably a factor in personal and social evolution.

Children are born powerless. From birth they set upon a course to accumulate it. How do they do that? I believe evolution has bestowed on some the advantages of strength, intelligence, beauty and health. Their families confer others like sustenance, safety, love and legacy. And the aim of society is to distribute power through education. The degree to which society succeeds or fails at this aim is the subject of great debate.

One measure of power is agency, otherwise known as self-efficacy. Unfortunately, I see lots of kids that lack this fundamental capacity. It exhibits as low self-esteem, incuriousness, low persistence and hopelessness.

Think about the consequences of powerlessness: kids who don’t think they are good enough, that tomorrow won't be better than today, that the world is a scary place and they are vulnerable. Or worse: acting out, dropping out, drugging out.

I think schools that focus on the attainment of a standard (and more easily measurable) set of skills (too often clinging to those that were relevant a hundred years ago) fail to develop the uniquely human skills of curiosity, creativity and a love of learning. We need our education metrics to prioritize ‘robot proof’ talents like these. 

The ‘Carnegie units’ employed in the dispensation of learning is a perpetuation of an industrial model of school responding to the needs of an industrial revolution. It is no longer effective – or equitable – for a future where 65% of today’s students will be employed in jobs that don’t exist yet.

Today, we sort kids by their capacity to acquire knowledge based more on the rate of absorption than the rate of digestion. We measure their attainment by their memory skills more than what they understand. The system rewards ‘quickness’ and moves classes along like herds of cattle driven on a trail headed to market. Learners who can’t keep up or who would rather indulge their curiosity are branded as slow. (The analogy is apt.)

The pace of coverage and selection of subjects are rarely the choice of students. Current brain science shows that it is literally neurologically impossible to learn deeply about something you don’t care about. Ask kids if they care about what they are learning – not just what they learned about it. (Ask teachers if they are exhibiting enthusiasm for the curriculum in today’s test-focused classroom. Enthusiasm may be more important than competence in a subject to get kids to learn deeply.)

Which leads me to kids and power. Schools insist that learning will be rewarded in life after school. Will it? Calvin Coolidge famously said:
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
Kids know this. They are stuck in school, being taught crap they don’t care about, at great effort and expense, for little or no perceived benefit. They are powerless. They see the smart kids earn extrinsic rewards for memorizing while their curiosity is being ignored. They conclude they are not-smart, disengage from the process and simply wait for it to end.

What if the goal of school was to indulge a student’s curiosity? What if the pace of learning was tuned to their interest? What if the rewards were intrinsic? That is what making things does effectively.

Making = Persistence + Problem Solving + Pride = Power
Making = Power

Power, and its proxy: Agency, are not given like school grades are given. They are the result of investment of effort over time, struggle, coping with frustration and failure, concluded finally with the experience of success. It is an intrinsic reward for proving something to oneself. Failure is simply feedback in this process. The desire for power overcomes the fear of failure and other hurdles which need to be overcome.

I believe that making something is almost always engaging and meaningful. It rarely happens on the timeline or under the conditions set by someone else. Along the way a teacher can facilitate learning, but the learning is a byproduct of making something not the objective. Adults may learn for some abstract benefit, but kids just focus on the thing they are making and learn despite the fun they are having. All learning should be fun.

We need to reintroduce making into the curriculum for all children. (Children were almost always exposed to making outside school when the economy was more closely tied to manufacturing and farming.) Making can mean a physical product or creating a system as it oftentimes does in project based learning. Students should be able to connect what they are learning in the classroom to relevance outside the classroom.

Making something yields authentic/intrinsic/personal rewards that give kids power over their lives. Kids need more of that, and for the sake of our society, we need more powerful kids.