Last night I dreamt that I was sitting in a large chemistry lecture. It was fascinating, but I struggled to understand some of the concepts. I took careful and copious notes, including questions that I wanted to explore at a later time. When allowed, I also asked a few questions in class. I was intrigued, leaning over my desk, wanting to get a couple of inches closer to the source of these new ideas.
When the class came to an end, I started to stuff my laptop in my bag and head out to study, read more, and figure out the significance of what I just heard. With my head held high, I was energized. I had this sense that what I just listened to could, in time, change the world, and I wanted to be part of it. I was an engaged, motivated, and ready to learn more.
Just as I started to get out of my desk, the professor said, “Oh, before you all go, I have a short pop quiz on the lecture for today.” I looked down at the page and saw a series of fill-in-the-blank and open-ended questions, and I did not know the answer to any of them. There was an unnumbered blank in the top-left of the page with a few words next to it, and I did not even understand what was supposed to go in the blank. Only a few minutes ago, all I could think about was the ideas from the class. Now all I could think about was my poor grade. In an instant, my enthusiasm turned into embarrassment, then shifted to intense anger and feelings of insult. I walked away realizing that this class had nothing to do with helping me learn and apply something to my life. It was not a place of learning. It was about putting people in their proper place in the world. It was about finding the few in the class who could most quickly absorb and comprehend a lecture with no study time or reflection. It was not a place of learning, but a place of weeding out the unworthy and elevating the few elite. I woke up with a passing but intense feeling that I was not good enough, that I lacked the innate intelligence to tackle the really exciting and important intellectual challenges of life.
Have you ever experienced one of those dreams where the feelings stayed with you after you awoke? I’m sure that the psychologists and counselors out there could have fun interpreting that dream for me. After all, I just returned from spending a day at the Google headquarters, and I had a chance to meet many bright young people who probably could have done well on that pop quiz without any need to study. That brief glimpse into Google’s culture was enlightening. It seems like a place where people are trusted to use their time well, where they feel valued and part of something significant, where they get to experience authentic and intellectually stimulating work. It does not seem like a pop quiz culture.
While Google is a place where they pride themselves on hiring and keeping the best and brightest, I also met Googlers who were not graduates of elite schools. The people I met seemed to be intelligent, but I’m not sure that they are all the type of people who can ace a pop a quiz on complex chemistry concepts without having to review or study. I suspect that many would have been as stumped a I was in that brief but vidid pop quiz dream. It seems to me that people at Google are individuals who learn to think well, they passionately and persistently strive to solve problems and discover new possibilities, they embrace a Google way of work and life, and they help perpetuate a rich and stimulating culture.
This pop quiz dream combined with my recent trip leaves me thinking further about the schools in which many of us spend massive parts of our formative years. How many of those years are spent in a pop quiz culture, one to lift up the the naturally gifted and teach others to find a lesser but more proper place in life. What would happen if we figured out how to create more of a Google-like culture in our classes and schools? What would that look like? I’m delighted to see a growing number of learning organizations asking and seeking answers to such questions.
Some might point out that not everyone is qualified to work at Google. Not all of us would make the cut when applying for such jobs. Similarly, they might argue that not everyone would thrive in a Google culture, that others are better suited for a place with stricter boundaries, less freedom, more control, and more firm direction. I’ve never been one to argue a one-size-fits-all school culture, but I can’t help but think that a little more Google and little less pop quiz could be good for most everyone.