Epilogue to: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I received my copy of The Power of Pull by John Hagel III (Blog, Twitter), John Seely Brown (Web, Twitter), and Lang Davison (Blog, Twitter) yesterday and sat down with a cup of tea this morning and started to read. I made it to page four and had one of those serendipitous moments when I discovered the epilogue to my last post, “What do you want to be when you grow up?

To begin to understand how pull helps and enables individuals, groups, and institutions to thrive, we visited the living room of Wendell and Lisa Payne’s Lahaina home in Maui. Not just any living room turns out to develop world-class athletes, of course. So what made this one different? On the surface, the Payne’s living room looks much like any other: There’s a sofa, an easy char, a scrapbook on the side table (with a one-word title: “Dusty”), a television, and a book shelf. But this living room also became a place where Dusty and his friends, without realizing it, were tapping into deep processes that have lessons for all of us.

More often than not, these processes start with a simple question: What interests us? What are we passionate about? As eight-year-old Dusty squinted into the sun in the backyard of the small family house in Haiku, Hawaii, his father asked him, “What do you want to do?” Dusty, who had already gotten tired of stick and ball games, such as baseball and soccer, thought for a few moments and said, “I want to surf.”

From that moment on. Wendell and Lisa immersed their young son – and themselves – in the world of amateur surfing, becoming heavily involved with the Hawaii Amateur Surfing Association, where they met the Larsens, the Marzos, and the Bargers – the parents of other promising groms [a term for young surfers] who were as hooked on surfing as Dusty was.

In the midst of all this activity the Payne’s living room became a focal point, a clubhouse, a place of retreat and reflection following the day’s experiences out in the surf – the calm center in the middle of a growing intermingling of influences, contests, people, and interactions that together launched five of the most promising young surfers of their generation.

It all began with a question, not just any question, one randomly selected for him – it was a question that asked him where he was in his thoughts, interests, and desires. That is a big question. It is a question that gets left at the school house door in favor of the statement, “Here is what you will need to know.” This Ally Bank commercial brings to life the reality of the school experience for so many kids.

For years, from the time they can start to communicate, we ask children what they want: what they want to do, what they want to be, what they are interested in, and what they think. Then in school they learn that the adults in charge of their world don’t care what they want to do, don’t care what they want to be, ignore their interests, and most egregiously don’t care what they think.

The more I run this through my head, the more I believe the purpose of school has to be: To assist students in achieving their answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A fearful question for those who need to control what happens in school. Their expected reaction would, of course, be:

How dare we consider asking kids what they want to learn, after all, we have already defined everything students need to learn each and every year they are in the system. If they (the students) start deciding what they want to learn, our tests, textbooks, standards, and outcomes will be meaningless and worthless. Those “tools,” which we have invested large sums of money in and staked our professional reputation on, are designed to insure every students knows the same stuff, in the same context and that they can tell us they know on the same day, in the same way, in the same amount of time. How will we know if they are learning the “right stuff,” the stuff we know they need to learn?

Much lip-service gets paid to the idea that students need to be in charge of their own learning. Unfortunately the current pervasive culture in our educational systems is predicated on sameness. Can we really expect ever student to make the same choices at the same time? Can we expect all students to be interested in the same things at the same time? Do they all really need to know the same data set?

Learning is an act of rebellion or revolution, it seeks to discover the unknown, and is driven by the desire to do, create, and invent. Learning wants to know the thing, the past, and then build on it as a means to change the present and future, much like those during the Reformation who dared to print, read, and share the Bible. Learning seeks, not just to dip its toe in the deep end, but to dive in head first. Does that sound like what is currently happen in our schools?

School should look like the Payne’s living room -both actually and metaphorically. It should be a place were students are allowed to let their minds drift out the window and explore the possibilities inherent in being asked what they want to do or be when they grow up. I always feel compelled to add this caveat when getting up on this soap box: Yes, there are things that kids should learn. Basic things that make the exploration of the complex more fulfilling. That list, however, is a very short list and should be embedded in curriculum that is process – not content – driven. We need to let our students imaginations run wild and go along for the ride. Think about the these two cliché statements:

Color inside the lines.

Think outside of the box.

Which one best describes the school where you work or your children attend? Which process will insure that they can invent their future and learn the ways to live in that future they create? It’s time we get back to asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and then designing revolutionary learning environments where we, as parents, teachers, administrators, and communities, can assist students in achieving their answer to the question. That is the purpose of school.

Additional Reading:

Standardized Testing is Dumbing Down Our Schools” by Joe Bower at For the Love of Learning

The Textbook I Would Buy” by Dan Meyer at dy/dan

Why ‘Standards-Based’ and ‘Accountability’ are dirty words” by Ira Socol at SpeEdChange

Photo Credits

Teen surfer by San Diego Shooter at Flickr

Young surfer by mikebaird at Flickr

Math test by Old Shoe Woman at Flickr

Learning Revolution by Wesley Fryer (Blog, Twitter) at Flickr: Note from Wesley: Winning design by Bill Moseley (Blog, Twitter) for the NECC 2008 button contest announced by Scott McLeod (Blog, Twitter) and I. My own ideas about “the learning revolution” are included in my blog posts about school reform.


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