The One Thing We Can’t Afford to Waste in Education

Maybe this is too simple. Perhaps it shouldn’t need to be stated, but as we think about waste in education today, there is a central tenet that could transform the way we think about education reform, education policy, classroom practice, educational technology, educational innovation and entrepreneurship and most any other part of education. Students, their gifts, abilities, passions, and interests are too precious to be wasted.

People are concerned about waste in education. Scan the headlines about University education and people are incredibly concerned about wasted financial resources and the cost of college. Look at debates on the K-12 level and we read about wasted investment in unused technology and concerns about teachers. Some argue that teachers need to be held more accountable, while others argue that they need to be more celebrated, supported and empowered. I don’t deny the importance of these other topics, and I spend  time writing about these other challenges and working on them. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, it comes back to the students.

Buckminster Fuller was an eccentric but unquestionably brilliant 20th century inventor. While he rejected the title of futurist, the vision represented in many of his inventions reached decades into the future. His work continues to inspire new innovations and inventions. Earlier in his life, he experienced a crisis that, according to his own lectures and writings, led him to contemplate taking his own life. As he stood by the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago, he considered swimming out into the ice-cold water to the point of no return.

Before entering the water, he had an experience that changed the course of his life. One thing that he discovered through this experience is the idea that each person in the world is in a position to contribute something that no other person will ever be able to contribute. Each person has a unique combination of experiences, gifts, talents, abilities, proclivities, strengths, limitations, passions and interests. Each person is irreplaceable. No other person has ever or will ever bring that some combination into the world. From this epiphany, Fuller spent the rest of life conducting the “Fuller Experiment.” This is, “an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefitting humanity.”

It is only in the last few years that I learned about Buckminster Fuller. Since then I’ve had a consistent diet of his work, writing, and the many recordings of his lectures. I don’t agree with or understand everything that he said or wrote, but I can’t help but be inspired by the sense of purpose that shaped his life and work. This brings me back to the one thing that we can’t afford to waste in education.

Fuller believed that every person had something valuable to offer the world, and I agree. If that is true, then the greatest mistake of our learning organizations would be to function as if nurturing commonalities is the most important aspect of schooling. Standardization is about commonalities and about highlighting when you don’t fit the mold or make the grade. It is about labeling people and paying special attention to the “A-grade” talent, as if the hidden or muffled talents of the others are somehow less valuable.

Schools are communities of people with potential. The goal is to celebrate, discover, refine, and develop that potential in each person. While the history of American public education is, according to some, about nurturing commonalities, I contend that making that the foundation of education in not only dangerous, it is wasteful. As the world becomes increasingly aware of the environmental dangers of waste and pollution, this is a perfect time for our learning organizations to become just as focused upon eradicating waste…the waste of the unique potential in each person.

I contend that we are best positioned when we build an education system that nurtures important commonalities while also helping people discover and develop their uniqueness. There are times to nurture and develop commonalities. The things that we share can be an important bond in a community and culture. Yet, building an entire educational system on that is an industrial exercise. It is mass production, turning education into one-size-fits-all factories. For education to have the greatest impact, I contend that it must teach and celebrate commonalities while placing just as much (maybe more) attention on the uncommon that is present in each person.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.