Who is responsible for unleashing our inner genius?

As a kid I wasn’t afraid to share bold ideas. I lived in an imaginary world filled with dreams and endless possibilities, and I enjoyed sharing these on paper. When I turned five I got the opportunity to exhibit my paintings in a theatre. Wearing a national costume, dancing and reciting poems I proudly welcomed my guests. The exhibition was entitled: Les Enfants Terrible.

“ All children are born artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” — Pablo Picasso

Kids are born with a natural gift of curiosity. With the spirit of an artist and a mind of an investigator they audaciously challenge the world around them, questioning everything. EVERYTHING. Because why can’t cars fly? Why is water wet and the sky blue? Research shows that as preschoolers we manage to ask over a 100 questions a day on average. By the time we are in middle school we stop questioning at all. Newsweek calls it the creativity crisis , while Sir Ken Robinson shows us that its schools that kill our creativity. One would think that learning in schools is based on questioning and challenging the status quo. Unfortunately most schools fail at amplifying our curiosity for learning, and instead base our education on stability and predictability. We are taught to find the right answers instead of asking the right questions.

At age 11, after spending approximately 7000 hours in school, I received the verdict for my future. As an immigrant, I would be admitted to a high school which would effectively prepare me for manual labour. There was absolutely no room for negotiation. In the Netherlands, students are categorized as early as age eleven based on standardized tests which determine whether they will spend the next four or five years at a school studying a particular specialization or whether they will continue to study six additional years at a high-school which will eventually allow them to pursue a university degree.

According to the UN, Dutch kids are the happiest in the world. I must admit, I was a happy child with a pretty stressless childhood. We took these final tests in such stress free environments that we spent more time analysing the candy on our table than the questions on our test. We were just as prepared, as that we were made aware this will determine our future.

A future that we knew absolutely nothing about.

Speaking Polish at home, my test scores were heavily affected by my language gaps in Dutch, and I was struggling with my English classes. My parents, realizing the implications of the Dutch system transferred me to an international school. Financially this was not an easy decision. It was also heavily opposed by the headmaster, who claimed that such changes in school environments could lead to psychological implications during my most critical year. I received a goodbye card from my English teacher who ironically misspelled how she will “wright” me in English to challenge me.

No this was not a school in a bad neighborhood.

I was extremely lucky, but what happened to the remaining thirty-nine kids in my class? As far as I know only one girl made it to university. Most of the rest pursue careers at supermarkets, and I occasionally see some of them while waiting in line to scan my groceries. Reality hits hard when I am helped by a cashier I sat with in class fifteen years ago, who could have potentially played a key role in disrupting the current education system, if someone would have only believed in her when she was eleven years old. I am not implying that we should measure success based on whether we did or did not go to university. Personally I have never even picked up my university diploma, but I think it is critical that we are not deprived from access to education and opportunities at such a young age. More importantly what we lack in school are role models who make us aware of the power of our own potential. People who believe in us during our most critical time — when we are young and vulnerable.

“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” — J.W. Goethe

Walking past my primary school yesterday, observing hundreds of innocent kids play, I sadly thought to myself: who will fight for them now that they are too little to understand the implications this 19th century model of education has on their future? Who is taking the responsibility of making them aware of their own potential? Who is unleashing their creativity and their ability to dream? Who are their role models if not their parents? Who is giving them hope? Will they be prepared to thrive in the 21st century?

By the time these kids grow up they will be faced with career options that haven’t even been invented yet today.

We live in a rapidly changing world. Technological advancements and globalization are the driving forces of our future. New competencies will be required to enable these students to fully capitalise on the tremendous amount of opportunities of the digital age. Our realities have altered, yet we are still learning in the same classroom settings as our grandparents — individuals who were educated to be efficient and interchangeable.

We spend close to 1000 hours a year in school, you would think that the role of teachers should be to empower us to reach our full potential, unleashing our inner genius, cultivating our imagination and triggering our natural curiosity for learning. Instead we live in society where we are taught to be obedient and afraid of our own light. How can we change that?

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” Eleanor Roosevelt

The future is ours to create. We live in an extraordinary time, yet we are not made excited about it in school. Not once was I asked to think about what my dreams were for the future. We learn because we are graded, chasing something we don’t fully understand, as illustrated by Alan Watts. Students who are deprived from their own dreams lack engagement and a deeper sense of purpose in learning. According to the Silent Epidemic report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, boredom and the lack of engagement were the two primary factors triggering students to drop out of school.

Today, every nine seconds a student drops out of school.

The Power of Dreams

We don’t make any room for dreaming in schools, yet we expect to raise the next generation of innovators and disruptive thinkers. Everything starts with a dream. I strongly believe that by embedding dreaming as part of the core school curriculum, we could trigger students to think in terms of endless opportunities in an environment where their past doesn’t determine their future. Their own dreams could inspire them, triggering their intrinsic motivation and curiosity that could redefine their purpose of learning and give them a sense of hope.

As a response, early 2015 I got inspired to co-found a #TweetaDream Campaign, where on June 1st (International Children’s Day), we asked children in 30+ countries about their dreams. With the help of 50 ambassadors scattered all over the world, we inspired 26.000 children to visualize their dream for the future ❤

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P.S. I also came across a fascinating initiative called the Future Project whose mission is to create a new role within every school: the Dream Director. The role of the Dream Director would be to empower students to dream up bold ideas for their future teaching them to overcome their limits, giving them a new purpose in life and collaboratively turning these dreams into reality. I wish them all the best of luck with this audacious project. If their project succeeds, then finally, there would be someone who would stand up for the most vulnerable, taking on the responsibility of unleashing the passion, purpose and the inner genius which is hiding in all of us.

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