If you go to enough conferences and hang out with enough academics, you get to meet some fascinating people, some eccentric ones too (I consider myself one of those eccentrics). I also find it fascinating how unfiltered some people continue to be when expressing their thoughts about students, the state of higher education, and the “real problem” of education. Perhaps I should not, as I’ve been known to share my candid thoughts, even in places like this blog…for the world to see. I suppose that sometimes comes with having the title “professor.”
We want to be careful. though. Yes, there are some blunt people in almost every profession, but that doesn’t mean that they make up the majority. As such, following are eight quotes that I’ve actually heard from one or more professors in recent years, but I can say with confidence that each one is increasingly less common. Higher education has much room for improvement, and the future of higher education as a whole is uncertain. What is certain to me is that the perspectives represented in these quotes will become more and more rare as we move forward.
“I give them the content, and it is their job to learn it. If they don’t, that is their problem.”
This is far less common of a statement in higher education than it was even a decade ago. Some still think it but realize that it isn’t well-received. Fortunately, as with the past, there are many professors who recognize that content is not the most important thing that they have to offer. You can get much of that in a good library or even online. What they have to offer is expertise, modeling, mentoring, coaching, feedback, and even a bit of inspiration at the right time.
“Look to your left and your right. By the end of this semester, only one of those people will still be here.”
These cut-throat environments still exists and some argue that they are good and necessary when it comes to preparing people for high-stakes positions. The good news is that more people are setting this approach aside, and instead asking how they can set things up so that more students perform at a higher level.
“I am an academic gatekeeper for my discipline and field. My job is to make sure that the few and worthy make it through, and the others get started flipping burgers.”
As with the last one, some see their job as starting with a large pool and then doing everything they can to winnow it down to a small number of the best and brightest, with little concern or consideration for the rest. Again, there are some career pathways that are incredibly challenging, and not everyone will make it. Yet, there is a growing focus upon finding ways to set people up for success. When people realize that this pathway is not working out, there are efforts to guide them, give them the necessary help to turn things around,or maybe help them explore other viable options.
“I’m so excited about how this semester turned out. Look at this grade distribution. It is almost a perfect bell curve!”
I will be blunt about one. I’m sorry for those who are still stuck in the 1980s, but the bell curve is dead. It was never a useful or even humane way of thinking about student performance, and it has absolutely no connection to whether a professor’s course is the proper level of academic challenge. There are still plenty of situations where people frown on a professor when too many students receive high marks, and sometime that is because the professor is just “giving out high grades. Yet, the alternative is not to celebrate the fact that a significant number of students just earned failing or near failing grades. There is a better way and most faculty today see and embrace that.
“If you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
There is this persistent confusion between having academic challenge or rigor and just being a jerk. You can respect other people, challenge them, and be encouraging. Most professors are not jerks. Some really brilliant people are and candidly, as a result, we put up with them. We even seek them out and embrace their insults as a rite of passage. Honestly, I did that at times. I still do. Yet, there are plenty of brilliant non-jerks and there is no need to set up this “pompous and pontificating professor” as the model. Let’s keep this as the rare exception at best.
“If we want to improve outcomes in college, just stop accepting so many unprepared people who can’t read, write, manage their time, and do basic math.”
This remains a common approach. Just raise the admission standards and the problem is solved. Yet, some schools don’t have an exclusive or elitist mission. They want to see as much relative growth as possible. They accept students whom the school has a good chance of helping grow, persist, and succeed; and then they devise a curriculum and plan to help the students do just that. This means revisiting some of the ways that we do things, and there are many exemplars in the higher education landscape when it comes to this promising approach.
“Some people lack the family education necessary to succeed in college. The best plan is to help these people find good service jobs, and make college a place that invests in those who have a strong family education growing up.”
This statement came from a professor in a country other than the United States. She was basically arguing that the family upbringing of some students was substandard. They didn’t have parents who taught them to read, parents did not have high standards for them in school, and parents didn’t teach them the habits associated with success in college and many workplaces. As such, college was not a good option for these students, according to the professor. Only, this approach ignores some massive social considerations and implications. I will say that while it startled me to hear someone say it so directly, it was actually refreshing to hear someone say out loud what others might be thinking. It opened the door to meaningful conversation and debate.
“The problem with college today is a cultural problem. Students don’t read, don’t know how to have a meaningful conversation without looking down at their phones, are self-absorbed, and lack the focus of past generations.”
People rarely believe me, but the “kids these days” mindset goes back centuries. We can find examples of leaders and academics of almost every generation complaining about the decline of student preparation. When I point this out, people respond that this generation is really different. It is much worse. Yet, that is what past generations said as well.
There are certainly some distinct or even unique challenges of current generations, but people can and do learn, grow, and change. If they don’t, then the entire concept of college falls a bit flat, doesn’t it?
As I stated at the beginning of this article, these are real statements from real professors, but they are certainly not the norm. In fact, they are on the decline. What I see is a growing focus upon student learning, student achievement, and student success. There are many uncertainties about higher education but I am confident that this student-centered emphases is the future.
In fact, if you want a glimpse into the mindset and attitude that is far more likely to dominate the future of higher education, check out my podcast interview with Dr. Tim Renick at Georgia State University.
I recently read an article where an author argued that too many school leaders make their decisions based upon trends, fads, and ideology. I’m good with the first two items in that list, but I take issue with the third. About six months ago, I was at a small think tank of higher education leaders where an executive leader of one of the top ranked research Universities in the United States declared that the problem with too many of our institutions is that we make decisions based upon ideology. He went on to use the word ideology as interchangeable with superstition. I’ve come across this countless times in education, with any number of stakeholders declaring that the problem with education is ideology. If only we focused on scientific and evidence-based practice, then education would be in great shape. Only that statement represents an ideology!
An ideology is simply a collection or series of beliefs, goals, claims, and theories that inform one’s thinking. Democracy, for example, is an ideology. Can you imagine people declaring that our education system should be free of the ideology of democracy? Concepts of equality and liberty are also ideological. With this in mind, I find it hard to see the wisdom in making our schools absent of ideology.
Or, perhaps this is not what the critics mean when they say that the problem with our schools is ideology. Maybe what they really mean is that certain ideologies are the problem. If only people embraced my ideology in school, then things would be better. In many cases, that is an ideology rooted in social scientific inquiry and evidence-based practice, a certain bias toward what should be learned, how it should be learned, and how learning is bets or most appropriately measured.
There are several limitations with this, of course. One is that people are forcing their ideology on others, arguing that their worldview should be the formative one for all who go to school, minimizing, muzzling, or disregarding other ideologies embraced by citizens with equal rights in society. A second limitation is that a narrowly scientific and evidence-based ideology can be wonderfully efficacious, but it is arguably limited in its ability to address matters of ethics and morality, even transcendent values in society that extend beyond simple scientific proofs. Advocates of evolutionary ethics, for example, might beg to differ, but the evolutionary ethical framework is not what shapes the founding documents in the United States or most any country today. They draw from any number of ideological foundations when founding documents address matters of human rights, the order of law, the role of government versus citizen, and so much more.
There is undoubtedly need for share beliefs, values, and goals in education. Yet, the idea of declaring a single ideology the sole and valid way of directing our educational endeavors is riddled with problems, enough to make it a largely unhelpful line of thinking. Instead of arguing that we must rid our schools of ideology, perhaps the more fruitful approach would be to have deeper, more ubiquitous, more candid conversations about the ideologies that inform what we do in education, as well as how we can nurture an education ecosystem that leaves room for a reasonable amount of ideological diversity. Ideology is not a bad word. More practically, it is unavoidable in education. After all, declaring that ideology is the problem in education is, in fact, an ideological statement.
There are many competing definitions for educational entrepreneurship, but to keep it simple, a successful educational entrepreneur is someone who demonstrates the mindset, attitude, and skillset of an entrepreneur to pursue and achieve signficant and positive outcomes in the broad field of education, often breaking ground on new products, practices, and perspectives. Note that this need not be limited to schooling. Education involves formal and informal learning, growth and development that happens in school contexts, but also that happens in the broader world.
There are countless models and sources of inspiration when it comes to educational entrepreneurs and pioneers, many of whom are not included in this list. Nonetheless, I offer the following as a good starting point. These are people who left (or are leaving) as lasting mark on education, and in my assessment, for the better. Consider sharing any suggested additions in the comment area at the bottom of this article.
Also note that this is not a top ten list, but the influencers are provided in chronological order.
10. Confucius (551-479 BC)
This list is an admittedly Western list and, as such, absent of many incredible educational entrepreneurs and pioneers from many cultures and civilizations. One of the more well know, however, is Confucius, whose philosophies continue to influence Asian education and thought today. Confucius (551-479 BC) represents the oldest and one of the most persistent educational influencers in this list. While I might not agree with all of his ideas or philosophies (as I don’t with any on this list), those who study his work and influence will find a truly holistic approach to education that included far more than curriculum and content. For Confucius, education included a complex and expansive plan for formation that extended across time and contexts. In fact, his vision for education, in some ways, parallels what many contemporary writers envision as they write and think about concepts like connected learning, even if they do not explicitly build their thinking on his work. In this way, his vision for education was far ahead of his time.
9. Socrates (470-399 BC)
This great philosopher in the Western tradition was an early champion for the concept that we sometimes refer to as academic freedom today. Further, his discussion and question-based approach (as described in Plato’s writing) became what we refer to as the Socratic Method, one of the most persistent and pervasive teaching methods across time and context. Today you can find champions of the Socratic Method everywhere from classical schools to the most progressive project-based and self-directed learning schools and communities. Of course, Socrates’ influence goes far beyond these two areas as well.
8. Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Some consider Martin Luther the father of modern education. He is most notable as the great protestant reformer, but he saw education as a key means of this reform. As such, he was an early champion for universal education for boys and girls, literacy for all. He, along with some of his contemporaries, can also be credited as early entrepreneurs with regard to the flipped classroom. Thanks to the parallel expansion of the printing press, Luther and others were early adopters of individual learners having texts (the iPad of the day) where they could study content outside of class and come to class for further exploration of the ideas. Luther was certainly not averse to a good lecture, but his embrace of the cutting edge technology of its day, the mass produced book, was certainly a pioneering effort in modern education.
7. Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670)
This 17th century Moravian Brethren minister and educator was the predecessor to countless well known names in the annals of education history. His early vision for structures of education likely contributed to the modern schooling system as we know it in the United States (which is not necessarily a positive in my opinion). Nonetheless, he was an early champion for education across gender and class, was a serial founder of schools across multiple countries, championed systematic innovations in teaching, and pioneered the first known use of visual illustrations as an approach to language instruction, as demonstrated in Orbis Pictus. He was an philosopher, educator, school founder, learning theorist, and creator of a widely successful educational product that became a model for centuries.
6. Maria Montessori (1870-1952)
One need not look further than the massive number of Montessori schools today for her legacy and impact, but it extends far beyond that. Today the Montessori method and philosophy of education is finding its way into homeschooling, traditional schools, and more. We even find that some of the most well-known entrepreneur’s of our age received a Montessori education in their childhood. Among other things, her methods highlighted progressive learner independence in different areas of life, the importance of observation and following the child, the role of preparing a learning environment, and what she described as the absorbent mind.
5. Margaret Bancroft (1893-1986)
Bancroft was a 19th century pioneer for special education. She was instrumental in shifting public thought about the education of people with disabilities, and championed this work through advocacy, writing, and pulling up her sleeves to launch and lead schools for such children.
4. John Holt (1923-1985)
Holt (1923-1985) was an outspoken critic of modern schooling, arguing that it was corrupt beyond repair, became an outspoken advocate for homeschooling and later a variety of alternative education systems. His 10+ books continue to be influential reading for those who are advocates for learner-centered environments, and you can find his influence on everything from the modern alternative schooling movement to select higher education institutions, homeschooling, unschooling, and beyond.
3. Paulo Friere (1921-1997)
This Brazilian educator framed education as a search for and pathway to justice, equity, ownership, and identity. He made a powerful case and offered a compelling vision in what is arguably one of the most powerful education texts of all time, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In this text, he illustrated and defended the idea that education is never neutral, that it is deeply political and ideological, and never without consequence. His life work served to celebrate and nurture learning and communities of learning the resulted in greater freedom. Friere wrote that, “People are fulfilled to the extent that they create their world (which is a human world), and create it with their transforming labor” (145).
2. Fred Rogers (1928 – 2003)
The person behind the childhood television show, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, was much more than a television personality. He was a deeply principled and mission-driven person on a quest to leverage the cutting edge technologies of his day to share simple but profound messages with children near and far. He used music, skits, guests, modeling, a deep understanding of developmental psychology, and so much more to construct an experience that was formative in the lives of generation of children in the United States and beyond. For one of the most inspiring examples of an education startup “pitch”, his 1969 testimony to a Senate subcommittee.
1. Howard Gardner (1943-)
Gardner’s research on human intelligence and class text, Frames of Mind, truly changed the paradigm for many in the modern world as it relates to intelligence. It helped many escape the reductionist concept that a single number (an IQ) could adequately represent human intelligence, instead offering a more holistic view of the brain. Among other things, Gardner studied people with brain injuries to help isolate distinct intelligences ranging from musical to mathematical logical, linguistic to visual spacial, bodily kinesthetic to interpersonal and intrapersonal. While critics (and Gardner himself) have lamented misuses and misinterpretations of his theory of multiple intelligences, it has left a permanent mark on modern education, expanding our sense and awareness of human intelligence.
Beyond this core concept, Gardner went on to research and public on countless other topics, providing a steady stream of insights on everything from creativity to good work.
These ten each continue to leave a mark on education, and will likely do so long in the future, and there are many others that we could add to such a list. Regardless, I offer these ten as a small spark for your own role as an educational entrepreneur and pioneer, pursuing mission-minded innovation.
“Why do we have to learn this?” Out of all the questions that students ask out loud or simply wonder to themselves, this question will always make the top ten list for learners. As learners, no as human beings, we have a craving for meaning. We search for it and cling to it when we find it. Meaning motivates. It animates. It satiates. We don’t always need to know all the details, but to think, know, or at least feel that what we are doing is meaningful is important to us.
In schools, we sometimes try to manufacture meaning within the system. We create rules for the game of school, and the meaning is bound within the game in large part.
- We study to get good grades or to avoid failing.
- We stay in our seats to avoid getting in trouble.
- We arrive to class on time to avoid negative consequences or getting called out in front of peers.
- We sign up for certain classes over others because it best prepares us for the next level of the game.
- Or, we avoid overly challenging courses out of fear that we will fall short and it will hurt our future chances in the game.
- We create a personal identity around how well we follow the rules (or break the rules), and the number of trophies and prizes that we accrue amid our playing of the game.
- Family members take pride in how well we play the game, and proclaim their pride through bumper stickers on the back on their cars or post on their favorite social media outlets.
- We establish proverbs and short bits of wisdom for others that affirm the meaning and importance of the game.
- “Stay in school.”
- “Get good grades.”
- “Stay out of trouble.”
- “Do your homework.”
- “Study hard.”
We “create meaning” within the education system, and there are certainly plenty of people who find this fulfilling. I walk into offices where people post framed diplomas on their walls, and they beam with pride when they declare their education accomplishments or college affiliations. Even in their later years, some people gather and tell stories about their school days, although most of those stories seem to focus upon everything that happened between the rules, the memories along the edges, and all that happened despite the more formal game itself.
Yet, this sort of school-specific meaning can only take us so far. There is so much more to life than school, and as much as we often talk about school as a time that is intended to prepare people for life, it can also drive some to simply further immerse themselves in the school game.
If school is, at least in part, about life preparation, then it should also be a place that draws people into that life. It should be a place that helps us to discover and experience the richness and fullness of life, and that is about so much more than textbooks, tests, transcripts, diplomas, grades, bells, and following instructions.
As we further ponder the future of work amid the growth of artificial intelligence and robotics, this concept of meaning amid school is more important than ever. School as we know it is a relatively new social construct, and it is a construct that has grown to be experienced and valued for so much more than preparation for work or specific life contexts. School has become a part of life. We infuse and supplement it with sport, a variety of rich and sometimes toxic social interactions, the cultivation of what turns into lifetime friends, and more.
As I explore potential futures for schooling, I can see three or more strong possibilities.
One is that the amount of time that people spend in school will continue to increase. More people will persist through high school and college, and go on for one or more graduate degrees. It will largely be an expansion of the current system. Archaic policies and practices will persist, but they will be augmented with new and promising practices. Technologies will continue to expand and shape what we do and how we do it, likely making us a little less like people and a little more like machines. We’ll get use to it, like it, and maybe even prefer it that way.
A second possible future is similar to the first in some ways, but the lines between school and life beyond school will blur and blend. Schools will more social and hubs for humanity. Schools will be home bases of sorts, but the social and cultural role will become dominant (as it already is for some). Students will not need math class to learn math (although some will still go), but they will participate in “school” for the experience, as a way of binding people together and connecting with others in meaningful ways. Or, it will be promoted as an intentional way to create social cohesion and order amid massive changes in the world of work and technology.
A third potential future is an altogether unbundling of school as we know it, with the traditional concept of school ceasing to exist for the majority of people, but learning and the tasks accomplished by school being embedded within the larger culture. Personalized learning and advanced data systems will guide and connect people across contexts.
There are indeed affordances and limitations to each of these three futures, but meaning will remain important regardless, and this is a chance for us invest in and champion meaning that extends beyond the game of school. In fact given these three strong possible futures, I’m compelled to revisit what we emphasize in school. While this is far from complete and a work in progress, the more that I study the future of work and artificial intelligence, the more that I examine the influence of technology in modern society, and the more that I focus upon my mission of championing a humane, rich, rewarding, and empowering education ecosystem; the more I also reconsider what we should emphasize in the school of the future. With that in mind, here is where I am right now. Following are ten experiences worth emphasizing in school today. These are each experiences that will stand the test of time. They will provide rich and authentic meaning. They will also prepare people to thrive in any number of potential futures.
- Use your gifts and abilities to help other people.
This makes life richer, and creating space for this to happen as a dominant part of school is a gift to the person who helps and the person who is helped. It is an experience that offers a rich sense of meaning and points us toward a future that will continue to have meaning regardless of what the future of technology and work holds for us.
- Experience awe and wonder.
Look for more on this topic from me in the future, but there is a growing body of research about wonder. When people experience awe and wonder, they display humility, gratitude, a sense of meaning and transcendence in the world, a greater tolerance for other people, and even a greater attention to nuance and detail. Wonder (as a noun) can also lead to wonder (as a verb), which is a powerful lever for deep learning about almost anything.
- Set personally meaningful goals, create plans and strategies, get and learn from feedback, monitor progress, and achieve the goals. Then build upon those goals to accomplish new ones.
This is not teachers setting goals for students, but students setting goals for themselves. It build confidence, competence, a growing sense of ownership and agency, helps people experience meaning and purpose, and more. Related to this and as I’ve written about in the past, learning how to get good at something is one of the most valuable life skills a person can develop.
- Build friendships.
I suspect that this may actually be one of the most important roles of school today, despite the fact that it is hardly ever an intentional part of the school “game.” Yet, it is what stays with people more than anything else, and it continues to bring meaning and value to people for years. So, why not recognize it and be even more intentional about school as a place of creating lifelong and positive relationships?
- Learn about and solve real problems in the world.
This will always be meaningful in people’s lives. We remember solving real and important problems. We take pride in this. We find meaning it it. We are inspired and fueled by it.
- Be inspired by others.
Learning to appreciate, celebrate, learn from, and be inspired by others is an incredible life skills. We come to appreciate the rich diversity in the world as well.
- Inspire others.
While this is not necessarily achieved by making it an explicit goal, it is connected to #1. As we help others, this will happen. In those moments when it is brought to our attention, we often experience this strange blend of pride, humility, and a desire to persist with that which inspires others. There is something transformation about seeing how what you do can and does influence other people.
- Accomplish tasks that cannot be accomplished alone.
I first thought of this when I read it in a list provided by John Taylor Gotto. He argued that is was one of the ten or twenty most important skills that young people can learn. I agree.
- Explore and expand your awareness of what exists and what is possible.
Even though it might not be framed in the most inspiring ways, this is a role that school plays for many, and there is so much more that we could do with it. Especially in our formative years, but really throughout life, there is something powerful about discovering that which is new to us. This might come from discovering the wonders of math, through travel, meeting new people, discovering the wonders of the past, exploring art, and much more. Sometimes this takes persistence. Some of the best novels don’t get amazing until you are a hundred pages into them, so having the persistence to keep going until you reach those “vistas” is sometimes to be cultivated. It will yield countless benefits in one’s life.
- Think clearly and cultivate wisdom.
Wisdom will never be outdated. As I’ve written and said often. Knowledge is recognizing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad (or maybe knowing when you can). Either way, learning to think takes work and discipline, but it is one of the most valuable skills we can cultivate. This can range from understanding ways of knowledge, logic, logical fallacies, cognitive biases, and more. We can develop this by participating in a community that values it and celebrates it. We nurture it as we analyze the world in which we live, exploring past, present, and future together.
These experience are authentic. They are rich with meaning. They draw us into the best of what it means to be human. They will stand the test of time. They also extend far beyond meaning bound within the game of school. They prepare us for an uncertain future, or rather for any number of potential futures.
Meaning is essential in school, as it is in life. The question is whether we will content ourselves with school-manufactured meaning that will only indirectly equip us for a rich and rewarding life, or if we will devote our schools to real, rich, rewarding experiences of meaning that are life. I vote for the real thing, and I’d like to offer these ten experiences as a starting point.