Memorization or knowing it by heart

There’s a huge difference between memorizing something and knowing it by heart. As Seth Godin so brilliantly pointed out in his podcast, Akimbo, memorization is useless when you could just look it up online.

The critics are quick to point out that you don’t want a doctor googling where the scapula is, and I wholeheartedly agree. You also don’t want you doctor memorizing all the bones so she could recite them for a test. You want a doctor who knows every bone by heart. There’s no recall where they rack their brain for the memory trick they used to remember a miscellaneous piece of information. Just like you know your favorite song, any good doctor knows the bones in her sleep.

Language learning as designed by a student

We all know how schools teach foreign languages. It’s mostly textbooks, worksheets, quizzes and videos.

In the fall of 2018, A Dual School student saw a new way. She was passionate about learning languages that weren’t offered in her school. Languages like Korean, Mandarin or Thai. So she designed her version of the ideal language learning situation: being paired with a like-minded person who speaks your desired language fluently, and is trying to learn english.

After lots of hard work and some luck, she found a woman in Thailand who wanted to learn English and happened to share an interest in Korean Pop music.

Now, they text and Facetime routinely with the student writing in Thai and the counterpart responding in English. They are constantly sharing feedback and trying to improve their skills to improve the conversations.

You can see she’s on fire about learning this language now because it’s real. It’s tangible and personal.

Why wouldn’t we make that an assignment in a foreign language class? Form a genuine connection with someone in another country.

Sounds difficult. Sounds meaningful. Sounds like the challenges people face in the real world. And most importantly, it sounds like it could lead to a transformative learning experience.

Too Small to Care

When Jake Carpenter started Burton Snowboards, he spent years messing around with designs, manufacturing and optimization.

At any moment while he was toiling away in a garage, a big ski company could have built a much better snowboard and sold it for cheaper. But they didn’t.

Because ski companies weren’t interested in snowboarding. They didn’t care about it. They didn’t see the potential in the sport.

The market was too small for them to care, and by the time it looked big, it was too late.

Time Scarcity

When you have to cover 150 days of content, and you only have 160 days to do, you have to limit distractions.

With assemblies, field trips, snow days and more, it’s inevitable that you will end up behind.

So when a new program comes along, promising an amazing student experience, but it will require missing class, what’s a teacher to say?

Answering that question depends how high of a priority is placed on covering the content vs. delivering magical student experiences. If the emphasis is all about covering content, the only viewpoint will be that of scarcity. But if the focus is on activating students, knowing that when they are engaged, learning is significantly easier, you will see abundance.

When I think about educating young people, I see 180 days times 13 years for us to flip a switch. For us to create a lifelong learner, a changemaker, an entrepreneur, a giver, a friend, a parent, a human being. I certainly don’t see a race to cram in as much content as possible. The content takes care of itself when you have a passion. That’s the real scarcity here, the minuscule number of kids who are passionate enough about something to look it up on their own time.

Time isn’t scarce. Passion is.


Optimal Productivity

It’s common to confuse productivity with optimal productivity.

Organizing the filing cabinet is productive, but it’s far from an optimal level of productivity. When I think about what is optimal, three things come to mind:

  • The value of the work (on a scale from minimum wage to $100+/hour)
  • The urgency of the work
  • The potential ROI

Optimal productivity maximizes these three things. Cleaning the filing cabinet is minimum wage value, with low urgency and pretty low ROI. That’s not to say it never should be done, but it’s far from optimal.

On the other hand, there are tasks that are very urgent, like responding to email, that have a low value (as in, it doesn’t take someone making $100/hour to respond to an email), and variable potential ROI.

Moving up in optimality, there are tasks like strategic planning sessions where you are course correcting a project, program or product. This is work that typically will not be done by a minimum wage worker, is urgent and has an enormous potential ROI.

There comes a time when there is WAY more to be done than is possible to get done. Unfortunately, that’s not how school works. In school, you must complete all your assignments all the time. So when we graduate, we’re not ready for a world of prioritization rather than 100% coverage. Hopefully this light framework for optimality could help you make better decisions about what to prioritize.

Uncomfortable conversations for a better whole

On Thursday I witnessed one of the most profound moments in my work with young people.

We are running an internship program for ten students between the age of 14 and 8 to learn to be effective mentors and leaders.

As you can imagine some of the students are more engaged and participatory than others. Since much of their training has been about conflict resolution, team dynamics and empathy, the teens have recognized that two of their peers aren’t bringing their full self to work. And because of their training, they know how to appropriately address the issue.

So on Thursday evening, everyone circled up to debrief on the week. After a few people spoke about good things that have happened, one person, from a place of love, called out the problem as he saw it.

A few other students spoke up, all from places of love, saying things like “We know how much you’re capable of, and we feel like you haven’t been putting in your best effort recently.”

The student in question took the feedback gracefully and responded that he has been dealing with some issues at home. Others responded empathetically saying that they know what that is like and appreciating that he said something.

The conversation was passed around the circle to the point where everyone contributed loving, kind and aspirational words. The teens expressed their desire to do great work and for everyone to contribute to the team, while also maintaining an understanding for the difficult circumstances that come up at home. The conversation closed with a collective ask of what the group could do better to help each achieve to their fullest potential.

As a part of the circle, I watched on the verge of tears for minutes. Fiercely optimistic for the future of the team, and imagining how beautiful the world could be if conversations like this were the norm.

What if classrooms had conversations where students expressed caring for each other and offered to help their peers thrive? What if school was viewed as a project where the students and educators were all working together to maximize the potential of each child? I think that was the intention when it started, but that mindset and culture has been lost.

The conversation was difficult for everyone involved, but as a result the team is stronger, more psychologically safe and higher functioning than before. The team debrief will happen every Thursday to create space for more moments like this. Just imagine all we could do if all teenagers could have these conversations with each other.

Non negotiable skills

It’s not a question of what is and is not important. It’s a question of the entry point.

No one is saying that analyzing complex arguments, understanding logic and being able to write well are not important. We’re just saying those aren’t worth doing for the sake of doing. We need better entry points.

You analyze complexity so you can form and articulate opinions on matters of the day. You understand logic so you can communicate clearly and effectively about topics that matter. You write so you can be understood by others.

Rather than saying “learn how to do this because you’ll get a grade, or get into college, or do better on a test.” The entry point needs to be more human.

By becoming a better human and caring about things, a good facilitator will naturally help you gain the skills you need. Not for the sake of having them, but because it will make your life tangibly better today.

That’s what I’m saying.

We need entry points that build on natural curiosity

Rather than saying “you are required to learn to read like x y z”

I will.. I am

Framing matters a lot.

One frame shift we have often emphasize for students is that they aren’t planning to do a project. They are doing a project. Right now.

Too often, they are in school mode and give a final presentation saying “after ten weeks, I decided that I plan to do x, y and z.” As an unknowing audience member you might wonder, “So in 10 weeks, all you did was make a decision?”

No! Of course not. But students need that reframe. They’ve done so much and earned the ability to say “I’m doing x, y, z.” They’ve interviewed people, mapped the problem, prototyped, told stories and more.

They are not planning on becoming changemakers. They already are.

Skills heavy people

Schools and parents are scared of people who have skills but don’t know content.

In reality, has anyone ever failed in life because they had strong skills, but couldn’t take a test?

Besides, we are so far away from overemphasizing skills than content. To hear warning that going down this path leads to no one reading books anymore is absurd.

If you become a skilled woodworker, you are naturally going to desire to learn content. You might start researching different trees, climates, soil conditions and more. All because you have a skill and care about honing that skill.

Skills lead to content, not the other way around. Information used to be scarce and desire to learn abundant. Now we have the opposite problem.

Contiguous time

It seems the best way to get to know anyone is to spend a lot of time with them.

Intuitive enough.

But the continuity matters.

Meeting someone for an hour, ten times is significantly different from meeting someone for ten hours straight. I might argue, that ten hours straight would lead to a much deeper relationship than ten times for an hour. (Unless that hour was facilitated or scaffolded in some way.)

Contiguous time matters when building friendships, relationships, familial bonds are connections to ideas.

But continuity is hard, time consuming and not in line with cultural norms. We operate in 30-60 minute blocks. It’s hard to give away three straight hours to a new person who you might not connect well with.

It has me thinking, how do we develop more infrastructure to spend more quality contiguous time together?