From Excellent Sheep to Motivated Elephants:

A New Vision for Mass Education

A transcript of my talk at ReSchool — an education summit hosted by
SFU RADIUS, Groundswell, and Ashoka Canada.

There seems to be widespread agreement that we need massive changes to our education system but what is the “education revolution” about? More importantly, what comes after the revolution?

If you were to ask ten people those questions, you are likely to get ten different responses. There really is no consensus.

That’s why an education revolution, if it happens and when it happens, will be quite messy.

For some, the massive change we need is to raise standards and close the achievement gap.

For others, it’s about getting rid of standards and opting out of standardized testing.

Some educators are organized around 21st century skills and global competitiveness.

Others want to use technology as the main drivers of learning.

And then there are those who argue for a massive shift toward personalized learning and learner-centered education — away from the industrial one size fits all approach.

Do they — or do we — have anything in common?

I think if we spend enough time listening to different perspectives we can begin to see a common thread. Underlying all our concerns, I believe, are some nagging insecurities and fears about the future. Otherwise, education as an issue wouldn’t have the urgency it does.

There’s a sense that we are simply not prepared to face the massive shifts coming our way, most of which we can’t even predict.

Some of those shifts are already here — climate change, youth unemployment, aging populations, income inequality, a dwindling middle-class, environmental degradation — we simply don’t know how to live sustainably.

Once we connect education reform to these underlying fears, we begin to realize that it’s not enough for schools to “prepare students for the real world.”

Education today needs to help young people change the the world for the better — for themselves and for others.

They will need to innovate more than gadgets and apps — they will need to figure out new ways of living, new ways of relating with one another.

Some of the best solutions we have today have been developed by youth. The best idea for cleaning up plastics in our oceans has come from a teenager, Boyan Slat, in the Netherlands.

Others have invented better tests for cancer and better solutions for sustainability.

Education as a form of empowerment is why social innovation organizations like Ashoka, J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and RADIUS have entered the education debate.

Education needs to part of the solution because, frankly, it’s been part of the problem.

Some of you reading this might wonder if any of this is new? After all, don’t schools already claim to develop leaders and changemakers? Doesn’t every school have something like that in its mission statement?

Of course, what they say they do and what they actually do are very different things.

Books and books are being written about how schools operate like factories and treat students as clones of one another, training them to be compliant workers rather than people who think for themselves.

Even the elite schools, the ones that actually produce the future business executives and presidents, do this. They make students jump through arbitrary hoops and use the hoops to rank and sort them.

Former Yale professor, William Deresiewicz, recently wrote a book on the result of all this hoop jumping:

The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.

What they become, in short, is summed up by the title of his book, Excellent Sheep.

They pride themselves in being able to “problem solve” but can’t pinpoint a problem they actually want to solve. That’s why so many go into consulting and finance and put off having to commit to any specific impact they want to have.

My own experience bears this out. Having mentored hundreds of young changemakers over the last ten years, I’ve also come to the conclusion: sheep can’t change the world.

Not because they’re not talented. But you need more than skills. You need a sense of calling or purpose. You need some sense of your unique gifts. You need to risk failure and even make personal sacrifices.

From time to time, you may even need to abandon the herd.

One thing we should make clear about herd mentality is that it’s not the same as popular will, which is important in democratic societies. Studies show that it only takes a 5% minority to direct the herd in a different direction. The other 95% will follow even without knowing why or what the threat is. For some animals, this might be a good survival strategy but in humans, this instinct can easily be abused.

By the way, as a vegan, I have issues with using sheep as a metaphor for compliant human beings. I prefer not to malign another species to make a point about our own failings.

If I could change the title of Deresiewicz’s book, I would drop the sheep metaphor and borrow an even better metaphor from our current pop-culture: Zombies! — the mindless living dead.

For a long time, I’ve wondered why zombies have had such a cultural resurgence in the last 15 years. I’ve even asked some of the students I meet, “What’s the fascination with zombies?”

They can’t explain it either but I think it might reflect a general anxiety that we have of being over-programmed by the systems around us and the technology in our hands. Just a theory.

What I do like about the zombie metaphor is the idea that we become zombies because other zombies turn us into zombies.

Back to our sheep. So if we don’t want to be sheep — or zombies — what do we want to become?

Here, we can turn to another animal metaphor — that of the elephant.

In the book, The Happiness Hypothesis, author Jonathan Haidt uses the image of the rider and the elephant to represent the divided self — the conscious and the unconscious mind. The rider represents the conscious, logical side of the brain. The much bigger and much stronger elephant represents the unconscious, emotional side of the brain.

It’s why you watch cat videos and binge watch Netflix even though you have a speech to write for an education conference. But it’s also why you dream big dreams and fall in love.

You can try to tame the elephant but for the most part, you can’t force the elephant to do things that it doesn’t want to do. The key to self-development is to understand the elephant within you and create a harmonious relationship between the rider and the elephant.

In a separate book called Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, the authors build on the rider and elephant metaphor and offer this 3-part recipe for change: If you want to change someone 1) direct the rider, 2) motivate the elephant, and 3) shape the path.

It’s those three in combination that move people forward. Changemaking requires all three but what it needs first and foremost is a motivated elephant.

The problem with schools today is that they have been designed around the needs of the rider and we’ve ignored the elephant entirely.

For me the education revolution we need is really about the elephants — how to bring them into the picture and how to motivate them.

It’s time we talk about the elephants in our classrooms.

We need to invite them in, get to know them, get to know each other’s elephants — only then can we truly learn about ourselves and each other.

Ashoka Fellow Mary Gordon does this with elementary school kids. She uses a newborn infant as the “teacher” to help children learn about their emotions and their unique “temperament.”

Our temperaments are key to understanding why we respond or behave differently than others in similar circumstances. Gordon’s Roots of Empathy gives children the vocabulary to understand this at a young age.

Three years ago, I found a school for elephants.

Ten students at a public high school in Massachusetts went to their principal and complained that they didn’t like school, they were bored. They asked if they could create their own school-within-a-school. Against the advice of many of her teachers, she said yes.

So for one semester, they didn’t go to any classes or take any tests.

Every day, they start with a morning check in where they bring their personal selves into the classroom — they talked about what they did yesterday after school, how they feel, whatever’s on their mind.

Every Monday, each student comes up with a question he or she wants to explore for the week. It has to be a question they really want to know the answer to.

Every Friday they present what they’ve learned to the group.

Aside from these weekly questions, they also worked on a big project for the entire semester — something they’ve picked for themselves.

Finally, they also spent one third of their time on a group project designed to make a positive impact on the world. They had to figure out for themselves what that would be.

I filmed them for an entire week and produced a short documentary called “If students designed their own schools…”

It has been viewed by more than 170,000 people and inspired several schools to copy the model.

What these students demonstrate is how engaging learning can be for both the rider and the elephant when it is 1) inquiry-based, 2) project-based, and 3) cohort-based.

So what I’m trying to do now is adapt this model for high school “dropouts” or “walkouts” — the ones we have failed.

In groups of 10 to 12, they will also learn through self-direction — asking questions they care about — whatever they are.

They will go on Learning QUESTs — a five part cycle that involves:

Questioning — Identifying a good question to explore.
Understanding — Learning what is known from different perspectives.
Exploring — Discovering what remains unknown, uncertain, and open to creative input.
Synthesizing — Summarizing key insights, creating original work to share with others.
Teaching — Presenting learning, original work to group and share online.

Over the course of two years, these Learning QUESTs will help them build a creative portfolio demonstrating their skills.

But each student will also build their own tiny house — a 130 square foot house that sits on a trailer, which they can use or sell.

The house serves as a container and a source of motivation for all types of learning across disciplines.

And because they are building a unique home, it also serves as a vehicle for self-discovery. They will constantly ask, what does MY home look like and WHY?

We’ll call the program Tiny Home School — Build a House. Build a Life.

This was inspired by a student in California who built his own tiny house for $12,000 at the age of 16 and still lives in it to this day. He did it so that he wouldn’t be burdened by debt like so many young people of his generation.

It’s not just craftsmen who believe in working with your hands. Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi saw the power and necessity of making your own things and inspired a whole nation to do so.

In the 19th century, William Ellery Channing, a Unitarian minister, wrote…

Home is the chief school of human virtues.

He meant, of course, family. But in one instance, he also meant “building a home.”

He told a young man he knew…

I see nothing for you on this earth but that field which I once christened ‘Briars;’ go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no alternative, no other hope for you.

That young man turned out to be Henry David Thoreau, the American writer, philosopher and abolitionist.

He built a little house for himself for $28 and moved into it on Independence Day of 1845. Thoreau wrote his famous book, Walden, while living there and talked about how the cabin, for him, became a means for independent living as well as thinking.

A replica of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.

Just to be clear: Tiny Home School is not a homebuilding program. There will be no expert designed curriculum on how to build a tiny house. We will build the homes through self-directed learning — sometimes teaching ourselves, sometimes asking experts to guide us. We’ll figure it out as we go.

My goal in doing this is to develop a model for self-directed learning that I hope the mainstream school system can adopt — not just for homebuilders but for musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, computer programmers, social innovators, etc.

There are some logistical questions we’ll need to figure out but the most important question we need to address (other than does it work?) is how to assess it?

How do we evaluate self-directed learning if everyone’s learning different things?

I don’t think it needs to be chaotic. Self-directed learning makes very specific claims.

Let’s look at a common definition by Malcolm Knowles:

In its broadest meaning, ‘self-directed learning’ describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.

There are specific behaviors involved in self-directed learning. We can start there and develop a new set of metrics for education that are more meaningful than standardized content.

Finally, I want to point out the pillars of self-directed learning actually map quite well to the building blocks of hope.

Positive psychologist C.R. Snyder studied hopeful thinking and came to the conclusion that hope is not just a feeling — it’s a human survival mechanism that consists of 1) Agency — believing you can instigate change, 2) Goals — approaching life in a goal-oriented way, and 3) Pathways — ability to find different ways to achieve your goals.

If we start to focus educational outcomes on these capacities in our youth, then we will prepare them for more than life-long learning, which is needed more than ever. We will also prepare them to face the uncertain future with hope.

The hope they carry won’t be naive optimism but a proven ability that they can shape the world for the better and the motivation to do so. Only then will our education revolution be a success.

If you like this article, please recommend it by clicking on the green heart below and follow me to be notified of future articles on how to transform education. See my previous articles as well.