Sunday, November 15, 2009

Education, Attention, and Maker Time

Watching Meet the Press this morning, I was really struck by the honest assessment of the state of the U.S. educational system by Sharpton, Duncan, and Gingrich. President Obama has tasked these three with assessing and identifying the elements of successful K-12 education in the U.S., and empowering it.

{Brief aside - Thank you MSNBC for this fantastic editing tool, where I can highlight the text in a transcript, and embed just the video for the highlighted portion. So easy, so powerful, so useful. I can search and edit in text, and publish and embed in video}

This led me to think of what Matt Dugener said in his TEDxDetroit talk about Michigan, and the culture we have in this state towards entrepreneurs and enterprising individuals. The whole thing is worth your time, but I want to focus on the idea that, in Michigan, we train our children to be excellent employees, but poor entrepreneurs.

Have you ever considered how we teach our children? The modern classroom is largely an artifact of the Industrial Revolution. Only for the past 150 years or so has the education of children been so formalized, largely devoid of "play", and structured. (Stefana Broadbent makes some other interesting observations about the rituals of the modern education system in her TED talk). Certainly, advanced subjects require rigorous study, but are we going about that rigorous study in the best way? Students are given sixty minutes of a subject, and then 10 minutes to switch gears into a different subject and provide their undivided attention once again.

In effect, we're conditioning our children to what Paul Graham calls the Manager's Schedule: days divided into blocks of a single hour. Graham contrasts this to the Maker's Schedule (blocks of at least half a day) where creative types get settled into a problem. If you've ever experienced what it means to be "in the zone" with a project, then you know how important the maker's schedule can be to creativity or complex problem-solving. The manager's schedule works great for mid-level management, who largely serve to role of information funnel to management above them--a function that's critically important to large, vertically-oriented organizations. However, today's fastest growing organizations aren't vertically oriented monoliths like they were in the 20th century. They're nimble, creative, innovative, and decentralized. They depend on products of the maker's schedule, not the manager's schedule.

Conditioning children to live on the manager's schedule not only robs them of the time to settle into and play with important ideas, but it conditions them for employment in vertically-integrated, highly structured organizations--exactly the kinds of organizations that are going to have the hardest time surviving in the 20th century. This kind of education makes sense for industrial society, but it runs counter to the kind of education today's students are going to need in a creative, innovative, post-industrial economy. When children have difficulty conforming to this unnatural form of learning-without-playing, we label them with learning disabilities when what we really have is a teaching disability. Worst of all, we're conditioning our children for a work environment that won't exist in a post-industrial America: an environment where work life and home life bleed into each other, the 8-hour day is a thing of the past, and complex problems aren't easily broken into simple repetitive tasks to be managed towards efficiency like an assembly-line.

We're beginning to shift from a society that values time-management skills to one that values attention-management skills. At the same time, we're training our children to neglect deeply engaging their attention with a single subject, and instead, teaching them simply how to juggle their time.