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Be an educator: How to fix our education system

So I have this interest in education.

I admit, most of my interest is self-focused. I like to learn how the brain works, and how learning can be enhanced, so that I can apply these things to my own personal growth. You know … my personal growth toward becoming a super genius with a tendency toward plans for world domination. Your standard personal growth story.

But I admit, sometimes my self-centered nature gives just a tiny fraction, and I open my mind to the possibility of helping to improve education for everyone. It’s one of the reasons I studied to achieve a Master of Education degree, and why I’ve taken to teaching developmental writing classes as an adjunct professor. It was the reason I got into instructional design as one of the services I offer to clients. Ultimately, human performance, human education, and human thinking are huge areas of interest for me. I read about them, study them, and create new ways to enhance them.

Recently I watched a TED presentation by Sir Ken Robinson (in fact, I watched a couple of Robinson’s talks, and this animated one is a personal favorite). The topic was, “Does education kill creativity?” And I found Robinson’s ideas on the topic to be both inspirational and alarming.

Inspirational because Robinson so thoroughly gets it. His position is that Western education focuses entirely on educating just the left-most portion of a child’s brain. Our education system is heavy on math and science, a little thick on language arts and reading, and pretty thin and watery when it comes to music, visual arts, and dance. He believes that if aliens were to study our education system, the only conclusion they could come to is that the point is to generate university professors.

Alarming because, yeah, education certainly does seem to be killing creativity and innovation in our schools.

President Obama is currently pushing for changes and fixes to No Child Left Behind. That’s a good idea, but judging from what he’s saying on the topic I can only imagine the horrendous mess that’s going to come out of it. The focus is forever on testing, and rewarding or punishing both teachers and students based on assessment scores. After decades of trying to improve our education system in this way, shouldn’t we have concluded by now that this isn’t going to work?

In a letter that I wrote to Obama (answered by a somewhat appropriate form letter), I proposed that he link his “innovation” and “education” platforms (as detailed in his State of the Union). If the idea is to foster greater innovation and creativity in our nation’s industries, then the first step must be to encourage and develop innovation and creativity skills in our students. To that end, why not draw on the experts?

Why not call on guys like Tom Kelley, the author of “Ten Faces of Innovation” and General Manager of IDEO? Or perhaps author Malcom Gladwell? Or Seth Godin? Or Sir Ken Robinson? Why not ask these guys to sit in a room together and brainstorm 100 ways to improve our education system? Hell, make it challenging: “100 Ways to Improve Our Education System for $200 or Less.”

Actually, that begs the question: How much is each American child worth?

Scratch that. The real question is, “How much is it worth to nurture the next Einstein, Edison, or Ford?”

Our current education system stamps out the creativity of our young people by instilling in them a fear of being wrong. Trust me … it’s true. I recently gave a mid-term exam to one of my writing classes, and asked the students to write only a 3-5 paragraph essay on how writing could help them in their career. One student absolutely refused to write the essay. When I cornered him after class and asked why, his response was, “I don’t know how I could use writing in computer science. I didn’t want to write the wrong thing and fail, so I just left it blank.”

He was so afraid of failing, he wouldn’t even try. I had even told him, when he turned in his paper, “Write anything! At the very least, I’ll give you partial credit. You never know!” And still he refused, out of fear of failure.

If we want our nation to be on the leading edge of technology, to be known for its innovation and invention, to be the top producer of great minds in the world, then we have to overcome this fear of failure in our schools. We have to teach these students to try, to be creative, to take a chance, to build on failure rather than fear it, and to think in new and innovative ways. Without that, we have no shot. Instead of inventing the automobile, our next Ford will walk away, afraid that he would build the car all wrong.

So here is what I propose:

Start by educating yourself. Read books about innovation and creativity. Read books by some of the authors I’ve mentioned here. Read about the historic figures I’ve talked about.

Take what you learn from this reading, and find a child. Any child will do. Yours, or the neighbor’s, or just the kid who mows your yard.

Talk to that kid about what you’ve learned. Ask them what they think. Ask if they find it interesting. Ask what they would invent, if they could invent anything. Ask them how they could turn a failure into a success.

Do this, and do it on your own. Don’t wait for the education system to catch up. Because, I’m sorry to say, it isn’t going to. The only chance our kids and our nation have is for individuals to become teachers in everyday situations.

Remember “plant a tree for your tomorrow?” Read a book and educate a child for your tomorrow. “Be the light you want to see in the world?” Be the educator you want to see in your schools.

That’s your call to action. That’s what being an educator in the future is going to mean. Forget “No Child Left Behind.” That’s a broken system with faulty wiring. The key to reinventing and reinvigorating our education system is to do it from the inside out, and that means starting with yourself and spreading it around.

Go to it.

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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at


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