Capturing human potential (part 5 – release)

Doug did okay in high school, but like a lot of kids he wasn’t particularly turned on by the experience, and was irritated by the strict rules about incidental issues like chewing gum. He was a smart kid, made respectable grades, was friends with other good students who were on the conventional path through high school and on to college. But after turning 16, he transferred to the Open Campus high school to finish his diploma requirements in a place that had few rules about behavior, but serious consequences if students failed to take care of their own responsibilities. For perhaps the first time, Doug truly enjoyed the school environment in which he found himself. He never had any problem accepting the natural consequences for his choices in life, and he never chose to go on to college.

But Doug loved rock climbing. As a teenager, he had been introduced to the sport by some friends, and it quickly became a driving passion in his life. He practiced climbing the outcroppings that are found scattered around the Georgia piedmont region where he grew up, read about climbers and climbs in exotic locations, made himself an expert in ropes and the equipment climbers use, moved to the mountains of North Carolina for a few years to be closer to more challenging climbs. Over the years, Doug made excursions around the country to climb in the Appalachians, in the Rockies, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Doug never earned a college degree, but he never stopped learning, and never lost his intellectual curiosity. He married a woman with a Ph.D. and continued friendships with the “good students” who had become doctors, lawyers, and professors, as well as other good people who might not have as many years of formal education, but who were energetic and ambitious.

To finance his own passion, Doug worked in restaurants, as a surveyor, in construction. He devised a business plan for leading expeditions to climb the Andes in Peru, and in order to make this feasible, Doug learned Spanish and earned certification as a paramedic. He worked for many years in a mountaineering shop owned by a local climbing enthusiast and businessman. Eventually, Doug purchased the business and provided high quality equipment as well as expert advice. Doug became well-known among the tight-knit community of serious rock climbers in the metro Atlanta area.

In 1996, the year the Olympics were held in Atlanta, organizers for the games contacted Doug, who had been recommended as an expert in the use of ropes and climbing gear. He was hired to hang cameras and other equipment from the ceiling of the basketball coliseum that served as the venue for many of the Olympic events. In taking this job, Doug entered an elite fraternity of some two dozen men in the world who do this kind of work. Every Olympics since 1996 and for several other large international sporting events, Doug has jetted to different parts of the world, often taking his wife and two kids.

Doug has built an interesting and rewarding career by following his passion, rather than following the conventional course set out for him in school.

Schools need to encourage students to pursue their passions. A curriculum should not be a narrow path to a predetermined end. It should expose doors that students can open. It should help to release human potential.

I began this short series of posts by asking, “How many people hate their jobs?” and by questioning the way schools encourage conformity over individuality. Doug’s story stands as an illustration of how one person who never accepted the narrow role marked out for him by others found success on his own terms. In fact, it was only because he insisted on pursuing his passion, and was willing to do whatever it took to make sure his life provided the rewards he wanted, that he was in a position to encounter the opportunities, and have the success he has enjoyed.

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Capturing human potential (part 4 – envisioning a new paradigm)

Education must prepare young people for the future. Now, more than at any time in human history, changes in technology, trade, and social institutions are occurring with disorienting rapidity. Looking ahead, it seems that the only prediction we could make with much certainty is that the future promises to bear little resemblance to the past. But how can we get our children ready for a world we can’t foresee? How can we construct an educational system that will produce a population that is ready for the challenges of a world yet to be created?

In this still-new century, two important truths have emerged.

Young people will need to learn new skills and acquire new bodies of information for their entire lives. Those who lack the ability or the willingness to improve their market value in the work force will be left behind, or pushed into menial labor or even unemployment.

The economy will continue to change. We have seen in the late 20th century a shift from a manufacturing base to a service economy. We have seen a slow-down of growth in mass-production and an increase in the production of specialized goods and services. We are experiencing an economy that has essentially peaked in its ability to produce the necessities of life for a large, geographically diverse population. The expanding opportunities are in products that have not yet been invented – that consumers don’t yet realize that they must have to secure their desired quality of life.

Public education will have to prepare students to be life-long learners and to be producers not only of goods and services, but also of ideas.

In order to accomplish this, schools will have to let go of some of the sacred tenets that have guided their mission for many generations.

Education will always be about the transmission of knowledge, but it can no longer afford to be about a set body of knowledge. It is no longer as important what students learn as it is that they become proficient, autonomous learners.

Education will always be about preparing young people for life as adults, but we should recognize that we can no longer predict with any precision what that life will be like. Instead of shaping children into the kinds of workers we need them to be in order to conform to our idea of a model citizen, we need to empower them to find their own ways to accomplish tasks and to solve problems.

The greatest challenge for public schools – those large, impersonal, state-funded factories of conformity – is to develop ways to foster innovation and creativity.

It will require a new paradigm – a whole new vision of the purpose of education. And it has never been more important to create that vision and to construct that new paradigm.

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Capturing human potential (part 3 – standardizing the population)

The United States came into its own in the 20th century, but in recent years, it has become clear that we are experiencing a new set of circumstances with new challenges.

In the 20th century, the United States became the leading manufacturing power in the world. Now our relative position in manufacturing is in decline.

Since World War II, the U.S. became the world’s the leading military power. But for all our might, we have been unable to prevent regional wars from spinning out of control, we are vulnerable to being incapacitated by a hacker with a vendetta, and we are at risk of having our way of life undone by a terrorist with a nuclear device in a suitcase.

Over the last century, our country evolved from one in which less than half of the young people could expect to earn a high school diploma, and a college education was available only to a tiny fraction of the population, to one in which a high school education was mandated by law and the expected result of a diploma was preparedness for college. College admissions skyrocketed, graduate degrees became a normal part of the resume of an upwardly-mobile professional.

In a little over a hundred years, we have gone from an environment in which books were a precious commodity, owned in large numbers only by the wealthy, to one in which knowledge is easily obtained and free. Many of us carry in the palm of our hands a device that can deliver more information than was dreamed possible one hundred years ago, let alone available to the masses.

But our public schools have not adapted to the new realities. We have a massive educational infrastructure in place, but we are focusing its efforts on the wrong outcomes. We think with a mass-production, interchangeable-parts mentality. We have a system in which we aspire to produce high school graduates with the same base of knowledge and the same sets of skills as every other high school graduate.

It is understandable that we would tend towards using public education as a tool to standardize our population. It is a big scary world with increasingly rapid changes happening all the time. Our country is already intrinsically diverse in terms of geography and cultural heritage. It is natural to wish to use public schools – the one institution that affects Americans nearly universally, and at an impressionable age – to bring us all together under a common banner.

The fact that it is understandable doesn’t make it a good idea.

We are distracted by our cultural diversity, which historically we have always sought to suppress. We do not give sufficient credit to the natural diversity of human talent, which has always been our greatest strength.

We are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information that is readily available in our digitally-integrated world. We react by defining more narrowly for our children the information that is acceptable for them to learn.

We should be empowering students to judge the value of information on their own. We should be helping them develop the critical thinking skills they will need to evaluate what they learn, and the ability to use information in productive and innovative ways.

We should abandon our fixation on standardized outcomes and cultivate the diversity of human potential.

This will take more than a shift in emphasis in how we teach our kids. Reforming public education for the 21st century will require a whole new paradigm.

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Capturing human potential (part 2 – that was then)

One hundred years ago, public education was booming. The American population was growing, especially the urban population. There was an increasing concern about the assimilation of the swelling numbers of immigrants arriving on our shores. The days when a person could make a good living as a farmer, without needing to be able to read and write, were fading into the realm of memory – a relic of pioneer days, not a feature of an urban, industrial power.

American schools were built like factories – large structures with separate departments for constructing pieces of the finished product. Over here was the math department, over here was science, and over there history and English. Students moved from one workstation to another on a rigid schedule, assembling pieces of their education. The finished product: a high school diploma. That piece of paper meant something, and its value was accepted as currency because it represented the same set of experiences and the same body of knowledge for every student who earned one. High school graduates could apply for work in a real manufacturing plant, not the metaphorical one they had attended for four years, and could themselves become an interchangeable part in the labor force of modern industry.

That was then.

Through much of the 20th century, the economic opportunities for workers were in manufacturing, in rigidly controlled environments in which tasks were defined by a small number of decision-makers and work was carried out by teams of laborers. The system worked. American manufacturing became the envy of the world, producing increasing volumes of increasingly high-quality products. American workers were provided wages adequate to allow them to become consumers on a massive scale. We had constructed a treadmill – creating a labor force that would produce as well as consume the very products that would define, in material terms, our success.

And eventually we reached a saturation point. The marginal increase in our ability to produce more, better, and cheaper began to decline. Our employment base began to erode as other countries competed for our consumers by paying their workers lower wages and offering choices in goods U.S. manufacturers did not provide. American manufacturing began to diminish in terms of worldwide industrial production and as a sector of our own economy. As we shifted away from making goods, we suffered no shortage of material objects to mark the progress of our individual success.

The American economy began to revolve more around the provision of services. At the low end of the pay scale we have the food service industry, maintenance and repair of machines and facilities, and various types of personal services. At the upper end, we have financial services, an increasingly technological medical industry, and of course lawyers. This latter cluster requires a more specialized education than a typical factory job, but through a serendipitous set of circumstances, by the time the U.S. economy needed larger numbers of more highly educated workers, we had them. The G.I. Bill, enacted after World War II changed the expectations of Americans regarding higher education. By the 1960s, the presumption in middle class families was that children would go on to college after high school.

This is now.

But progress in the 21st century will be stymied if we continue to educate our citizens on a 20th century model, based on 20th century expectations. Mass production – whether of goods or of services – has reached the point of decreasing marginal returns. We need a more effective system for developing human potential. We need education that will foster innovation.

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Capturing human potential (part 1)

How many people hate their jobs? In this country, which abounds with opportunities and even the worst available choices are better than those that exist for many in other lands, how many Americans live for the weekends, for their two weeks of vacation every year?

What does it say about a society in which so many are unhappy with the way they spend the majority of their productive hours? Most of us accept our situation in life as normal, and many consider ourselves lucky. We don’t think of ourselves as an oppressed people. We don’t question our political system, our economic structure, the shared values that affirm our way of life. It’s almost hard to believe that this country was born in a revolution.

The diverse range of talents and interests that exists among any dozen random people is staggering, and yet it might take a team of experts to uncover their very existence. For a society that extols individuality and self-reliance, we are very good at encouraging conformity, and each of us has learned very well how to hide our individuality.

Who remembers drawing with crayons? All of us did it as children. All of us at one time in our past were delighted to discover that we could create an image on paper. We could create art – all by ourselves. But over time, most of us gave it up when we couldn’t stay within the lines or when the picture we drew of a horse didn’t look very much like a horse. We accepted the judgment that we weren’t very good at art, and acquiesced to the “fact” that we were not artists. But why did we so willingly concede to the aesthetic values of others? Why did we disregard our own pleasure with creation and accept a value system that made our own assessment of our own work irrelevant?

All of the great accomplishments in human history have been made by people who refused to accept the judgment of others – who refused to accept that what everyone else was doing was all that was allowed. Inventive genius is born in the unshakeable belief in one’s own creative powers.

Why do so many people hate their jobs? It is because most of us have given up on the idea that we can do the things that make us happy. We have been funneled through a process of maturity that shears off the qualities that make us unique. We have been marched in formation through an educational system that teaches us to follow rules or else. Schools allow for certain kinds of exceptional performance that meet the narrow criteria of academic or athletic achievement, but even for the valedictorians and sports heroes, the standards of excellence are set by others. We need worker bees to make the offices and factories hum. But human potential offers so much more.

How can schools cultivate talent and individuality? Is it even possible for an institution like public education that is available to all to foster such unlimited potential? What would be the impact on society if we all felt our creative powers and used those powers to build a life that made us truly happy?

Some of these questions are impossible to answer. Any change in the status quo will give rise to new circumstances and new questions. But in coming posts on this site, I will examine how we arrived where we are today and begin to construct a vision of where we need to be in the 21st century.

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Holding the door open

One of the most dedicated teachers I know is my own sister, Rebecca Patton Falco. Rebecca is the mother of five children and is very involved in their lives as well as the life of her community. She hasn’t been formally employed as an educator for decades, but she does the most important work teachers can do every day. She inspires people with her energy, her devotion to causes, and her empathy. She works tirelessly to provide for her family experiences and learning opportunities that enrich their lives and will better enable them to make good choices about how to direct their own lives as adults.

Like a lot of parents (and teachers, and others who work with kids) Rebecca often doesn’t get the credit she deserves from those closest to her. But she does have a lot of fans. Rebecca has written a book about her family’s experiences with adoption, and maintains a blog. Her readers are treated regularly to insights about growing up, parenting, and the nature of family.

Rebecca took me to task last week on one point I made in my last post. I was saying that learning is innate, and that kids need the freedom to pursue their own interests so they can better enjoy the experience of learning.

“In my family,” she wrote to me, “it has often been more about exposure than an innate drive to learn, and sometimes it has been about a particular teacher’s manner of teaching a subject.” Rebecca went on to point out that in addition to the external stimulation children may receive, other factors can affect how they can process this information. “For some kids, undiagnosed or unaddressed learning differences or mental health issues are going to make a difference.”

Of course, this is absolutely true. Intellectual, physical, emotional, and social factors can affect both motivation and the ability to learn. Sometimes these obstacles prompt children to reject learning activities. Sometimes, struggling alone and without outside assistance, children find it easier to regard such obstacles as barriers and refuse to go further.

Anyone who knows kids has seen them bored and frustrated by school and by any number of the challenges that adults place before them. In fact it is a milestone of cognitive development (albeit a bit of a mixed blessing) when children acquire the ability to condemn certain things they are required to do as a waste of their time. That kind of self-awareness is essential for children to understand how they learn and how best to help themselves, but it is often expressed initially as a refusal to do something adults know will be good for them in the long run. It doesn’t take a learning disability or mental health issue to be bored, or to be frustrated by something that doesn’t make sense, or to feel that the effort required to learn something new could be better used for some more enjoyable task.

Parents, teachers, as well as coaches, clergy, sponsors and mentors have an important role in helping children learn, and it is perfectly natural that this role is carried out in a collaborative fashion. Children have more than one teacher, and there are at least three distinct parts to this role.

Teachers (and by this term I include parents and all the adults who contribute to a child’s education) can help kids overcome the obstacles that make learning less enjoyable. Kids need strategies they can use to acquire the knowledge they will need to be successful in life.

Teachers can provide stimulating learning opportunities – a variety of information and experiences that can spark interest and imagination and prompt the desire to engage in independent learning.

And finally, teachers can give children time and approval for them to explore and learn on their own – to become experts in a field that excites and engages them. Teachers can allow them to discover the pleasure in knowing, and in being able to do something only they can do.

No child loves learning so much that they enjoy it no matter what they are asked to learn. But teachers can hold the door open for them by providing opportunities for freedom and choice, and giving permission to make their learning goals their own. The good feeling children get from learning about the things they love is a pleasure that can sustain them through the chore of learning all the things they need.


Rebecca Patton Falco’s website can be found at:

Rebecca’s blog, Adoption Makes Seven is at:

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Joshua taught me …

Joshua turns 13 today. My older son is now a teenager, a rising 8th grader, taller than his mother, and with a world of possibilities at his fingertips. I hope you will forgive me taking a break from the usual for something a little more personal.

I was older than most first-time parents, and had some years earlier given up on the possibility that I would ever be a father, when Joshua came along and changed my life forever. I had loved, been in love, befriended, mentored, taught and learned from, set examples both good and bad, had dreams for the future and shared in the dreams crafted by others. All of these things would be given a deeper context and meaning because of what Joshua taught me about the kind of man I really am.

I had been involved in education professionally for eight years before I became a parent. I had built quite a resume as an eager novice, a caring teacher, and a conscientious scholar seeking to understand the dynamics of learning and improve my own craft. I had no clue how much I didn’t know about teaching and learning and nurturing a growing child, until Joshua showed me what I couldn’t have seen on my own.

Joshua is an avid learner and a dedicated teacher. From a young age, he has been a delight to watch. If I say something that catches his interest, he will question me until he fully understands it. Then he will turn to his younger brother Benjamin and explain it all to him. Benjamin, who turned 11 in March, was always the quiet one, the apt pupil and junior partner in the relationship – until recently. In the past year or so, Benjamin has become much more verbal, and much more interested in interacting with people and entertaining them with his wit.

Both boys are devoted to their own special interests. For several years now, Benjamin has been drawing and writing his own graphic novels with a cast of original characters he created. He has been studying comic books and books about comic books in order to learn how to become better at both the storytelling and artistic parts of the process. Meanwhile, Joshua has become interested in the idea of becoming a film director. He has made a number of stop motion films and has set up a studio with controlled lighting in his bedroom. Both boys have pursued their interests knowing that the level of expertise they aspire to attain will take time and sustained effort. Both are very aware of the fact that people with the kinds of skills they are learning have careers in which they are paid good money to do something that they love.

Kids need the freedom to pursue their own interests. Parents can enroll them in lessons, send them to special camps, put them on a treadmill of structured activities from the time they wake up in the morning until they collapse at the end of the day. But what matters to the child is the thing he or she wants to do. Kids like to learn. It is innate. It is genetically programmed. But if the opportunities to learn are all determined by someone else, if they take so much of the day that there is no time for reflection or the formulation of new questions, it doesn’t matter how useful or interesting the information might be. Kids learn best when they hunger for knowledge, not when they feel full.

I am worried about Joshua’s education, and about Benjamin’s. I have had them in good schools so far, schools where individuality is respected and encouraged. But the landscape of education is pockmarked with conformity and mind-numbing routine. I want my children to be excited about learning, and to feel that they have the power to acquire everything they need to have fulfilling lives.

What Joshua has taught me every day of the last 13 years is that every child is unique, and deserves the opportunity to become the best that he or she can become.

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