4 Years of College, $0 in Debt: How Some Countries Make Higher Education Affordable

Morehouse College’s 2019 graduates don’t have to worry about crushing student debt, since the billionaire investor Robert F. Smith pledged last week to pay it all off. Neither do graduates of colleges in countries that offer affordable tuition and generous stipends.

As young adults wrestle with student debt in the United States, where it has reached $1.5 trillion, many recent graduates in some countries are debt free.

When we asked people around the world what they paid for their higher education and how they financed it, we received nearly 800 responses from more than 40 countries.

Below is a selection of the responses, which show how government policies can shape the personal and professional choices that young adults make as they begin their careers. The responses have been edited and condensed

Denmark is among the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that spend the most on postsecondary education, at 1.6 percent of its gross domestic product. (The United States allocates 0.9 percent of its G.D.P.)You hS

I attended the Technical University of Denmark from 2008 to 2013. All university is paid for by taxes. Books are maybe $500 per semester — lower than when I studied in the United States, but still a big expense.

Students who don’t live with their parents get a monthly stipend from the government of about $900 for living costs. Some people get more (if you have a child, for example). If you become pregnant during university, you get a year of parental leave, and you continue receiving the stipend. The stipend goes for up to six years (one year more than a typical bachelor’s and master’s degree). You can work part time up to a certain limit and still keep the stipend, but if you work too much and earn too much money, you have to pay back the stipend.

When we study abroad, we get to bring the tuition with us, and we apply for scholarships to pay other expenses like visas and plane tickets. I studied in Oregon for six months in 2011 and didn’t spend any of my own money.

Starting out with no debt is a huge relief. We can start saving right away for other life choices.

— Sofie Geertsen. Tuition: $0. Loans: $0.


An increased emphasis on higher education attainment has led to 45 percent of Taiwan’s population aged 15 and older earning a technical college or university degree, a 10 percent increase over the last decade, according to the Taiwanese government.

I graduated from National Taiwan University in 2012 with two majors. My tuition was about $375 per semester. The amount was just a fraction of my parents’ monthly salary, so they helped pay.

Because I didn’t go into debt for college (who should, anyway?), I didn’t feel pressure to get a job immediately or feel the need for a high-paying one. Salary wasn’t my concern; I could do whatever I wanted for my career.

— Hung-Yu Juan. Undergraduate tuition: $3,000. Loans: $0.


Government grants help undergraduate students pay for living costs and education fees in Ireland. Some students have protested the contribution fees of 3,000 euros ($3,360) a year, calling for a publicly funded education system like those elsewhere in Europe.

The government subsidizes undergraduate college education for European Union citizens, so technically my college degree was free. However, you’re required to pay a student contribution to your university, which works out to €3,000 annually, so I paid €12,000 for my degree.

I was extremely fortunate that my parents had put aside college money since I was born, so they covered my tuition, from 2015 to 2019. They also paid for my rent and groceries. I worked throughout my degree to supplement additional costs.

Because the cost of living in Dublin is super high, I was lucky to live in an accommodation that was pretty cheap, albeit gross. Because my parents paid for my degree, its cost did not affect my day-to-day life, but I definitely lived frugally.

— Grace Browne. Undergraduate tuition: €12,000. Loans: $0.


The Labour Party, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, initiated a policy in 2018 that eliminates fees for postsecondary students’ first year. The policy is scheduled to extend to three years by 2024.

I’m in my third year of a six-year undergraduate medical degree at the University of Otago in Dunedin. My first year cost 7,000 New Zealand dollars ($4,600) and subsequent years cost 15,000 N.Z.D. Our government offers loans to all citizens, and residents who have been here more than three years. These loans cover full tuition (and they subsidize the rest of our fees, which, for medicine, are upward of 75,000 N.Z.D. a year). Students are also eligible for an additional loan or an allowance for living costs.

After graduation you pay 12 percent on what you earn above 19,760 N.Z.D. (for me, on a base junior doctor’s salary of 56,000 N.Z.D. a year, I would repay about 4,500 N.Z.D. a year).

As a student doing one of the longest, most expensive degrees and living away from home, my loan will be about 140,000 N.Z.D. when I graduate. However, our government administers our loans, and we don’t get charged interest (unless you leave the country for more than a year), so I have never felt like I’m being crushed by it.

— Hannah Lochore. Undergraduate tuition: 82,000 N.Z.D. Loans: 140,000 N.Z.D.


In Brazil, postsecondary education attainment increased to 17 percent of young adults in 2015 from 10 percent in 2010, according to the O.E.C.D. This is still one of the lowest rates among O.E.C.D. countries. Access to free public universities is extremely competitive, and the demand far exceeds the number of available spots.

I graduated in 2013, and my college education cost about 100,000 Brazilian real ($25,000) for a full-time degree in economics.

I studied at a private college through a scholarship program funded by the federal government called Prouni (basically meaning “university for all” in Portuguese). This program was developed to help students from poor families have access to university; once selected, you have to prove that your family’s income fits the criteria. The students are selected through a national exam that we take after high school.

Even though there was no tuition, I had to move from the countryside to a city and support myself there. I attended a very expensive college, so I also had to deal with social differences because most of the students were from upper-middle-class households.

— Bruno Henrique Ferreira Paulino. Undergraduate tuition: 100,000 Brazilian real. Loans: $0.


In 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, which provides free tuition to state and local universities and colleges, as well as state-run vocational schools.

I studied at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, a top institution in my country. For my first years, 2014 to 2016, the fees were based on my family’s socioeconomic status. The base fees were about $600 per semester. We were middle class and got a discount of 60 percent, so we paid about $240.

After 2017, because my university is a public one, I enjoyed the benefits of tuition exemption.

The costs affected my career a little. My practicum, the last requirement for my degree in nutrition, was the most expensive, about $1,400. My parents had a hard time attaining this. I will take the exam to be a nutritionist and dietitian in August.

— Kiolo L. Belsonda. Undergraduate tuition: $1,440. Loans: $0.


The Student Awards Agency Scotland, a government entity, covers the full fees of eligibleScottish and E.U. nationals who apply; the payments are sent directly to the college or university. To qualify, students must have chosen a course that is funded by the agency and meet certain residency criteria. The Scottish government also sets the tuition rate for these students. For the 2019-20 academic year, tuition is as high as 1,820 British pounds ($2,300), depending on the program.

I’m a European citizen, so my undergraduate tuition at the University of St. Andrews, from 2012 to 2016, was paid by the Scottish government. My parents paid for my accommodation during those years, and I worked part time to fund all other expenses.

Now, my integrated master’s and doctoral degree is funded through the United Kingdom-based Economic and Social Research Council, Scottish Graduate School of Social Science. This covers tuition and a stipend of about £1,200 a month, which I supplement with part-time teaching and research assistant work at the university, as well as a part-time job in a cafe.

Because university was essentially free for me, I had a lot more freedom to pursue my interests, including further education and academic work.

— Olga Loza. Undergraduate tuition: £7,280. Loans: $0.


The share of Turkey’s population aged 25 and older that had earned a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent increased to 14.8 percent in 2016 from 7.3 percent in 2004, according to the Unesco Institute for Statistics. (In the United States, one-third of adults in 2015 had a bachelor’s degree or more education, according to the United States Census Bureau.)

I attended Bilkent University in Ankara from 2006 to 2012 and didn’t pay for my undergraduate legal education. This was possible due to Turkey’s university entrance exam system. By ranking among the top 100 of more than 1.5 million exam takers, I attended a private university for free.

Both state and private institutions are among the best-ranking universities in Turkey. State universities are usually free or have minimal tuition. To compete with state universities, private institutions offer tuition-free quotas.

The government offers stipends to help cover living expenses. Based on the recipient’s income level, these monthly payments are either loans or grants. Exam takers who rank in the top 100 in different score categories receive three times this monthly amount regardless of their income level. This was how I covered my living expenses without burdening my parents.

Going into law without any cost gave me the opportunity to attain higher middle-class income levels despite my parents’ low- to middle-class income level.

— Mustafa Cetin. Undergraduate tuition: 225,000 Turkish lira ($37,000). Loans: $0.


For the 2017-18 academic year, the average cost of undergraduate tuition for Canadian full-time students was about 6,500 Canadian dollars ($4,800), according to Statistics Canada, a government agency. In 2010, the most recent year with available data, half of all students who earned a bachelor’s graduated with debt; the average was 26,300 Canadian dollars. (In 2018, people in the United States with outstanding education debttypically owed between $20,000 and $25,000.)

The cost of my bachelor’s degree from McGill University was about 6,000 Canadian dollars per year for four years, plus books, student fees and living expenses. In total, it was about 50,000 Canadian dollars for all four years.

My parents and I had saved up for the cost of all school expenses. I worked during the summers to be able to pay for living expenses, and my parents helped me where they could so that I could focus on my studies without taking a part-time job during the school year. Because of the reasonable cost of the education, my parents’ forward-thinking approach and my decisions to work during the summer, I did not experience any financial hardships and I graduated without student debt.

Graduating debt free allowed me freedom of opportunity and choice to find my own path and try out different jobs, including working abroad. I was also able to find the right fit and industry, and to walk away from companies and bosses who treat employees unfairly.

— Casey Reynolds. Undergraduate tuition: 24,000 Canadian dollars. Loans: $0.

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Program to Relieve Student Debt Proves Unforgiving

When Bonnie Svitavsky first heard about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, she thought she had finally found a way out of the large debt she had taken on to become a public librarian.

Congress created the program in 2007 with people like her in mind. The goal was to lure people into professions like teaching, nursing or public-interest law, where pricey degrees are the ticket of entry but wages typically aren’t high enough to pay them off.

More than a decade later, now that the first borrowers are eligible, the program is in disarray. More than 73,000 people have applied for debt forgiveness as of March 31 of this year, according to Education Department data, but just 864 have had their loans erased.

Ms. Svitavsky completed two master’s programs, creative writing and library sciences, which along with her bachelor’s degree left her with more than $97,000 in loans by the time she began her job at the Puyallup Public Library just outside Tacoma, Wash., in 2008. She consolidated those loans, per the program’s requirements, and began following the steps toward debt forgiveness.

Or she thought she had.

“It’s deeply frustrating, because you know you’re done, and you’ve jumped through all these hoops,” Ms. Svitavsky said. “It feels like a broken promise.”

A mix of factors combined to derail the program, including poorly written legislation, neglect by multiple administrations, mismanagement by servicer’s contracted to carry it out and antipathy from conservatives—particularly in the Trump administration—who would prefer the program had never been created.G

“The department’s goal of pursuing its conservative agenda is made easier by the fact that the law itself is a mess,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, a Washington trade group representing colleges and universities.

To qualify for forgiveness, borrowers must work for a government entity or nonprofit, hold a certain type of loan, enroll in one of several specific repayment plans and make 120 full and on-time monthly payments, or 10 years’ worth. Falling short on almost any of these requirements can mean disqualification.

Related video: Student Debt in America and the Hope of Affordable Education01:2405:20Student debt in America and the hope of affordable education

Education Department data show the rejections are prompted by a wide range of issues: 16% of denials were because borrowers had the wrong type of loan, making them permanently ineligible. Twenty-five percent were turned away due to missing information in applications, a potentially fixable error. And 53% were denied for not making enough payments, which could have been due to a simple counting error or being enrolled in an ineligible repayment plan for years.

The program’s congressional backers created one obstacle from the get-go. They required that applicants hold loans made directly from the federal government. Most student loans offered at the time were federally guaranteed but privately owned, making them much more expensive to manage.

That requirement predictably tripped up initial borrowers. Law schools around the country advertised the program to their students, but many offered only private loans in their financial-aid packages.

Congress went on to eliminate federally guaranteed private loans entirely in 2010, making all future loans eligible for public-service discharge, but private loans taken out before that time remained ineligible.

At that point, with the first borrowers not eligible for forgiveness for seven years, the Obama administration put off specific steps that would have helped the program run smoothly. Officials didn’t advertise the program or establish a platform to guide borrowers through its requirements. They didn’t draw up clear guidance on which employers should qualify as public-service organizations—now a subject of litigation. A government investigation last year found that officials didn’t even produce a guidebook for the servicing company they hired, Fed Loan, to implement the program.

“We had a lot else going on at the time, and this had not really appeared on our radar as a major problem that needed attention,” said Spiros Protopsaltis, a senior education policy adviser in the Obama administration. “We did some things, but clearly it wasn’t enough.”

Borrowers, meanwhile, also accused several of the companies charged with handling their loans with allowing them to enroll in ineligible repayment plans, though they had mentioned an interest in public-service loan forgiveness. Others made payments that were slightly too small—sometimes off by cents—that disqualified them from the minimum payment count. Still others were initially told their employers qualified, only to be told by the Education Department later that the servicing company had made an error.

Ms. Svitavsky hit her first snag in 2013, when she submitted a form to ensure her employer qualified her for loan forgiveness. It did, but that step revealed another problem: For the prior 23 months, her servicer, like with so many other borrowers, had her on a plan known as extended repayment, which charges standard monthly payments over 25 years. Those payments were now all ineligible toward her payment count.

The improper payment plan issue raised particular concern in Washington, where members of Congress, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), in 2018 created a temporary fund of $700 million to reimburse borrowers who had mistakenly enrolled in ineligible repayment plans but otherwise qualified. The program has so far granted loan relief to 442 additional people.

The Trump administration, for its part, has done little more than the law requires to set up clearer processes for borrowers or the companies serving them. In its last three budget recommendations, the administration has proposed ending the program entirely.

In a hearing last month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos criticized the program for, as she put it, elevating certain professions over others. “We don’t think that one type of a job, one type of role should be incentivized over another,” she said.

Critics on the right and the left bring up a broader contention: As more people work their way through the program’s labyrinthine requirements, some wealthier borrowers could stand to save big sums. That is because the government’s definition of public service extends to higher-paid professors at nonprofit universities and doctors at nonprofit hospitals.

“If Congress was totally honest with taxpayers about what they’re doing, which is creating a loan forgiveness program for people with master’s degrees who are fully employed.…I don’t think Congress could get away with doing that,” said Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

As for Ms. Svitavsky, who now earns $72,000 a year, the establishment of the congressional reimbursement fund last year means her 23 ineligible payments now count. In August 2018, she filed for forgiveness of her remaining roughly $80,000 in loans.

She was rejected.

The problem: Three different servicing companies had handled Ms. Svitavsky’s loan, and each time her account was transferred, her automatic payments hadn’t been made, which she didn’t notice.

She made three additional payments and tried again in November.

Again, her application was rejected.

This time, Ms. Svitavsky couldn’t find the flaw. She counted 121 qualifying payments. A review of her documents by The Wall Street Journal and two independent higher-education analysts confirmed her count.

A customer-service official with Fed Loan agreed with Ms. Svitavsky’s contention and appealed her case.

She is still waiting.

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21ST CENTURY EDUCATION: REIMAGINING LEARNING FOR A NEW ERA

What Makes You Unique?

What makes human beings unique is we are naturally curious, creative and social.

These are the innate human capacities that cannot be automated and this is what we must focus on developing in our own lives as self-directed learners to remain indispensable in a knowledge-based economy.

The unique human qualities that robots and software can’t easily replicate are sensory awareness, creativity, and social intelligence. So, this is what a 21st-century education needs to develop.

I think re-imagining learning and education in this new era should start with asking some big questions about how we can better harness human potential. We desperately need to help more people develop their innate talents and gifts in the service of the greater good.

Asking Yourself The Big Questions:

Let’s start by asking some big questions about the nature of education and how we can unleash creative talent and initiative in a global, knowledge-based civilization connected by the Internet.

Here are a few questions that I feel are important to think deeply about:

1. What does it mean to be well-educated in the 21st century?
2. How does one live a creative, purpose-driven life that matters?
3. How do we nurture curiosity and wonder in ourselves and our children?
4. How do we inspire self-motivated learners able to solve their own problems?
5. How do we empowered citizens who actively serve their communities?

It’s people like you and me — not just institutions — that need to reimagine the role of learning in our lives by spending more time following our curiosity, exploring, creating, sharing and experimenting with our ideas.

We must foster a lifelong learning mindset in ourselves and the people we care about to navigate the challenges of 21st century education that require us to be constantly learning, adapting and developing our skills.

A 21st Century Education:

In the thousands of hours I’ve spent studying the nature of learning and creativity, and how to connect these two capacities in a knowledge-based economy, there have been some thought-provoking authors who have stood out as shining lights.

What I want to do is share with you some of their most profound insights and quotes to illustrate the characteristics of 21st-century education and self-directed learning that I strongly believe we all need to develop:

1. We need to be creative problem solvers.

Play, passion and purpose. That’s what makes someone creative. Tony Wagner of the Harvard Innovation Lab makes a compelling case in his books that our current model of education is obsolete and irrelevant to most people’s lives and work.7 Skills For 21st Century Learners, Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators

Quotes from Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World:

“The world doesn’t care what you know. What the world cares about is what you do with what you know.”

“Students who only know how to perform well in today’s education system—get good grades and test scores, and earn degrees—will no longer be those who are most likely to succeed. Thriving in the twenty-first century will require real competencies, far more than academic credentials.”

“Now, adults need to be able to ask great questions, critically analyze information, form independent opinions, collaborate, and communicate effectively. These are the skills essential for both career and citizenship.”

“Education needs to help our youth discover their passions and purpose in life, develop the critical skills needed to be successful in pursuing their goals, be inspired on a daily basis to do their very best, and be active and informed citizens.”

“Most policy makers—and many school administrators—have absolutely no idea what kind of instruction is required to produce students who can think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, and collaborate versus merely score well on a test.”

“U.S. education is failing, in large part, because of the misguided belief that it’s imperative to test on a massive scale.”

“A recent report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation concluded that “The United States has made the least progress of the 40 nations/regions [studied] in improvement in international competitiveness and innovation capacity over the last decade.”

“Our “leaders”—on both the left and the right side of the aisle—continue to claim that our schools are failing and in need of reform while, in reality, our education system is obsolete and needs reimagining.”

“With well-designed pedagogy, we can empower kids with critical skills and help them turn passions into decisive life advantages. The role of education is no longer to teach content, but to help our children learn—in a world that rewards the innovative and punishes the formulaic.”

“An overarching goal of education should be to immerse students in the beauty and inspiration of their surrounding world.”

 

2. We all need to adopt a growth mindset.

These are the best of times for those with a growth mindset because it gives you the flexibility to adapt and rise to any challenge. But these are the worst of times for those stuck in the rut of a fixed mindset and unable to change.  Reading Carol Dweck‘s book Mindset and adopting a stronger growth mindset transformed my life.

Quotes from Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

“Did I win? Did I lose? Those are the wrong questions. The correct question is: Did I make my best effort?” If so, he says, “You may be outscored but you will never lose.”

“We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.”

“No matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.”

“I believe ability can get you to the top,” says coach John Wooden, “but it takes character to keep you there.… It’s so easy to … begin thinking you can just ‘turn it on’ automatically, without proper preparation. It takes real character to keep working as hard or even harder once you’re there. When you read about an athlete or team that wins over and over and over, remind yourself, ‘More than ability, they have character.’ ”

“After seven experiments with hundreds of children, we had some of the clearest findings I’ve ever seen: Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance. How can that be? Don’t children love to be praised? Yes, children love praise. And they especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow—but only for the moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.”

“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

“Mindset change is not about picking up a few pointers here and there. It’s about seeing things in a new way. When people…change to a growth mindset, they change from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-help-learn framework. Their commitment is to growth, and growth take plenty of time, effort, and mutual support.”

“Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence—like a gift—by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”

“Praise should deal, not with the child’s personality attributes, but with his efforts and achievements.”

“This is something I know for a fact: You have to work hardest for the things you love most.”

“John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, says you aren’t a failure until you start to blame. What he means is that you can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them.”

“As growth-minded leaders, they start with a belief in human potential and development—both their own and other people’s. Instead of using the company as a vehicle for their greatness, they use it as an engine of growth—for themselves, the employees, and the company as a whole.”

“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better?”

“Research shows that normal young children misbehave every three minutes.”

“If you don’t give anything, don’t expect anything. Success is not coming to you, you must come to it.”

“The students with growth mindset completely took charge of their learning and motivation.”

“Many growth-minded people didn’t even plan to go to the top. They got there as a result of doing what they love. It’s ironic: The top is where the fixed-mindset people hunger to be, but it’s where many growth-minded people arrive as a by-product of their enthusiasm for what they do.”

“When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world–the world of fixed traits–success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other–the world of changing qualities–it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.”

 

3. We need to be self-motivated learners.

I strongly believe in the value of following your curiosity and finding what motivates you. In Drive, Daniel Pink brilliantly collects the psychology research into how high performers become self-motivated. It boils down to creating our own self-directed productivity systems that allow us to develop a higher degree of autonomy, mastery and purpose in our lives.

Quotes from Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:

“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”

“While complying can be an effective strategy for physical survival, it’s a lousy one for personal fulfillment. Living a satisfying life requires more than simply meeting the demands of those in control. Yet in our offices and our classrooms we have way too much compliance and way too little engagement. The former might get you
through the day, but only the latter will get you through the night.”

“The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road. Indeed, most of the scandals and misbehavior that have seemed endemic to modern life involve shortcuts.”

“One source of frustration in the workplace is the frequent mismatch between what people must do and what people can do. When what they must do exceeds their capabilities, the result is anxiety. When what they must do falls short of their capabilities, the result is boredom. But when the match is just right, the results can be glorious. This is the essence of flow.”

“The monkeys solved the puzzle simply because they found it gratifying to solve puzzles. They enjoyed it. The joy of the task was its own reward.”

“Why reach for something you can never fully attain? But it’s also a source of allure. Why not reach for it? The joy is in the pursuit more than the realization. In the end, mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes.”

“Goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. But goals imposed by others–sales targets, quarterly returns, standardized test scores, and so on–can sometimes have dangerous side effects.”

“We have three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy.”

“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”

“For artists, scientists, inventors, schoolchildren, and the rest of us, intrinsic motivation—the drive do something because it is interesting, challenging, and absorbing—is essential for high levels of creativity.”

“Being a professional,” Julius Erving once said, “is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.”

“Management isn’t about walking around and seeing if people are in their offices,” he told me. It’s about creating conditions for people to do their best work.”

 

4. We need to create systems to focus our minds and achieve full engagement in our work.

Nothing has made a greater impact in my life then learning to apply flow psychology to my learning and work. I am so grateful to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Godfather of Flow research, who has taught me that I can prime my mind and body through meditation and flow practices to feel my best and perform my best consistently.

"Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel and perform our best." Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Quote

Quotes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:

“A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.”

“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”

“These examples suggest what one needs to learn is to control attention. In principle any skill or discipline one can master on one’s own will serve: meditation and prayer if one is so inclined; exercise, aerobics, martial arts for those who prefer concentrating on physical skills. Any specialization or expertise that one finds enjoyable and where one can improve one’s knowledge over time. The important thing, however, is the attitude toward these disciplines. If one prays in order to be holy, or exercises to develop strong pectoral muscles, or learns to be knowledgeable, then a great deal of the benefit is lost. The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention.”

“But it is impossible to enjoy a tennis game, a book, or a conversation unless attention is fully concentrated on the activity.”

“It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.”

“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”

“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.”

“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we
make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”

“Few things are sadder than encountering a person who knows exactly what he should do, yet cannot muster enough energy to do it. “He who desires but acts not,” wrote Blake with his accustomed vigor, “Breeds pestilence.”

“Of all the virtues we can learn no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.”

 

5. We need to actively learn new things and rely less on formal education.

Few intellectuals offer analysis and insight as profoundly challenging to our worldview as social critic Ivan Illich. He saw how the materialization of human values and the debt-fueled status anxiety at the heart of modern Western consumer culture was a race to nowhere that would eventually lead to the breakdown of society.

School Is The Secular Church

Quotes from Ivan Illich, author of Deschooling Society:

“School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”

“Man must choose whether to be rich in things or in the freedom to use them.”

“Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being “with it,” yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.”

“School has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age.”

“In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.”

“The re-establishment of an ecological balance depends on the ability of society to counteract the progressive materialization of values. The ecological balance cannot be re-established unless we recognize again that only persons have ends and only persons can work towards them.”

“Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.”

“School initiates young people into a world where everything can be measured, including their imaginations, and, indeed, man himself.”

“Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step… If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”

“Effective health care depends on self-care; this fact is currently heralded as if it were a discovery.”

“We can only live changes: we cannot think our way to humanity. Every one of us, every group, must become the model of that which we desire to create.”

“We cannot go beyond the consumer society unless we first understand that obligatory public schools inevitably reproduce such a society, no matter what is taught in them.”

“I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a lifestyle which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a lifestyle which only allows to make and unmake, produce and consume – a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment. The future depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies.”

“In schools, including universities, most resources are spent to purchase the time and motivation of a limited number of people to take up predetermined problems in a ritually defined setting. The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.”

“Observations of the sickening effect of programmed environments show that people in them become indolent, impotent, narcissistic and apolitical. The political process breaks down, because people cease to be able to govern themselves; they demand to be managed.”

“Societies in which most people depend for most of their goods and services on the personal whim, kindness, or skill of another are called underdeveloped, while those in which living has been transformed into a process of ordering from an all-encompassing store catalogue are called advanced.”

“The public is indoctrinated to believe that skills are valuable and reliable only if they are the result of formal schooling.”

“School prepares people for the alienating institutionalization of life, by teaching the necessity of being taught. Once this lesson is learned, people loose their incentive to develop independently; they no longer find it attractive to relate to each other, and the surprises that life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition are closed.”

“A second major illusion on which the school system rests is that most learning is the result of teaching. Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances. But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only insofar as school, in a few rich countries, has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives.”

 

6. We need to spend time each week exploring and exercising in natural environments.

The scientific research is unanimous, people that regularly unplug and spend time in nature are much healthier, happier and more creative. In Last Child In The WoodsRichard Louv explores how the sedentary lifestyles of children (and adults) are ruining their long-term physical and mental health.

"The woods were my Ritalin. Nature calmed me, focused me, and yet excited my senses." - Richard Louv Quote, from Last Child In The Forest

Quotes from Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder:

“An environment-based education movement–at all levels of education–will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.”

“Unlike television, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it. Nature offers healing for a child living in a destructive family or neighborhood. It is often overlooked as a healing balm for the emotional hardships in a child’s life.”

“Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”

“We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love of this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.”

“An indoor (or backseat) childhood does reduce some dangers to children; but other risks are heightened, including risks to physical and psychological health, risk to children’s concept and perception of community, risk to self-confidence and the ability to discern true danger.”

“Studies of children in playgrounds with both green areas and manufactured play areas found that children engaged in more creative forms of play in the green areas.”

“Numerous studies document the benefits to students from school grounds that are ecologically diverse and include free play areas, habitats for wildlife, walking trails, and gardens.”

“Natural play strengthens children’s self-confidence and arouses their senses—their awareness of the world and all that moves in it, seen and unseen.”

“Nature is one of the best antidotes to fear.”

“This tree house became our galleon, our spaceship, our Fort Apache…Ours was a learning tree. Through it we learned to trust ourselves and our abilities.”

“Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and therefore, for learning and creativity.”

“Nature—the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful—offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot. Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity.”

“Nature is a teacher. A teacher that is immensely old and extraordinarily wise. A teacher that can teach subjects that no human can teach. A teacher that will go at any pace.”

“Increasingly the evidence suggests that people benefit so much from contact with nature that land conservation can now be viewed as a public health strategy.”

“Stress reduction, greater physical health, a deeper sense of spirit, more creativity, a sense of play, even a safer life-these are the rewards that await a family when it invites more nature into children’s lives.”

“The physical exercise and emotional stretching that children enjoy in unorganized play is more varied and less time-bound than is found in organized sports. Playtime—especially unstructured, imaginative, exploratory play—is increasingly recognized as an essential component of wholesome child development.”

“If a child never sees the stars, never has meaningful encounters with other species, never experiences the richness of nature, what happens to that child?”

 

7. We need to develop our creative gifts and talents through play.

Work doesn’t have to suck. I’ve found that through playful creating and following my curiosity I’ve been able to develop my creative instincts where I can rely on them to support myself. Peter Gray makes the passionate argument that play should be at the center of 21st century education

.Have Fun And Play More

Dr. Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life:

“Children come into the world exquisitely designed, and strongly motivated, to educate themselves. They don’t need to be forced to learn; in fact, coercion undermines their natural desire to learn.”

“Today anyone who can get their hands on a computer with Internet access— even street kids in India— can access the world’s entire body of knowledge and ideas, all beautifully organized and available through easy-to-use search engines. For almost anything you want to do, you can find instructions and video on the Internet. For almost any idea you want to think about, you can find arguments and counterarguments on the Internet, and even join a discussion about it. This is far more conducive to intellectual development than the one-right-answer approach of the standard school system.”

“The idea that you have to go to school to learn anything or to become a critical thinker is patently ridiculous to any kid who knows how to access the Internet, and so it is becoming harder and harder to justify top-down schooling.”

“How did we come to the conclusion that the best way to educate students is to force them into a setting where they are bored, unhappy, and anxious.”

“We have forgotten that children are designed by nature to learn through self-directed play and exploration, and so, more and more, we deprive them of freedom to learn, subjecting them instead to the tedious and painfully slow learning methods devised by those who run the schools.”

“Everyone who has ever been to school knows that school is prison, but almost nobody beyond school age says it is. It’s not polite. We all tiptoe around the truth because admitting it would make us seem cruel and would point a finger at well-intentioned people doing what they believe to be essential. . . . A prison, according to the common, general definition, is any place of involuntary confinement and restriction of liberty. In school, as in adult prisons, the inmates are told exactly what they must do and are punished for failure to comply. Actually, students in school must spend more time doing exactly what they are told than is true of adults in penal institutions. Another difference, of course, is that we put adults in prison because they have committed a crime, while we put children in school because of their age.”

“Sadly, in many cases, the assumption that children are incompetent, irresponsible, and in need of constant direction and supervision becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The children themselves become convinced of their incompetence and irresponsibility, and may act accordingly. The surest way to foster any trait in a person is to treat that person as if he or she already has it.”

“Several experiments have shown that playing fast-paced action video games can quite markedly increase players’ scores on tests of visuospatial ability, including components of standard IQ tests.”

“Self-education through play and exploration requires enormous amounts of unscheduled time—time to do whatever one wants to do, without pressure, judgment, or intrusion from authority figures. That time is needed to make friends, play with ideas and materials, experience and overcome boredom, learn from one’s own mistakes, and develop passions.”

“If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.”

“By “true learning” and “deep knowledge,” I mean children’s incorporation of ideas and information into lasting ways of understanding and responding to the world around them. This is very different from superficial knowledge that is acquired solely for the purpose of passing a test and is forgotten shortly after the test is over.”

“Schooling that children are forced to endure—in which the subject matter is imposed by others and the “learning” is motivated by extrinsic rewards and punishments rather than by the children’s true interests—turns learning from a joyful activity into a chore, to be avoided whenever possible. Coercive schooling, which tragically is the norm in our society, suppresses curiosity and overrides children’s natural ways of learning. It also promotes anxiety, depression and feelings of helplessness that all too often reach pathological levels.”

“Repetition and memorization of imposed lessons are indeed tedious work for children, whose instincts urge them constantly to play and think freely, raise their own questions, and explore the world in their own ways. Children did not adapt well to forced schooling, and in many cases they rebelled. This was no surprise to the adults. By this point in history, the idea that children’s own preferences had any value had been pretty well forgotten. Brute force, long used to keep children on task in fields and factories, was transported into the classroom to make children learn.”

“It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.”

 

8. We need to recognize our inner genius and resist the conformity of mass culture.

When I read John Taylor Gatto‘s Weapons of Mass Instruction it became clear why I felt that school was a prison as a child. The damage that our one-size-fits-all education system does to many highly creative and energetic individuals is a tragedy that is our greatest waste of “natural resources”.

John Taylor Gatto Quote

Quotes from John Taylor Gatto, author of Weapons of Mass Instruction:

“Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your roadmap through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.”

“I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress genius because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.”

“Independent study, community service, adventures and experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships — the one-day variety or longer — these are all powerful, cheap, and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling. But no large-scale reform is ever going to work to repair our damaged children and our damaged society until we force open the idea of “school” to include family as the main engine of education. If we use schooling to break children away from parents — and make no mistake, that has been the central function of schools since John Cotton announced it as the purpose of the Bay Colony schools in 1650 and Horace Mann announced it as the purpose of Massachusetts schools in 1850 — we’re going to continue to have the horror show we have right now.”

“In our secular society, school has become the replacement for church, and like church it requires that its teachings must be taken on faith.”

“This was once a land where every sane person knew how to build a shelter, grow food, and entertain one another. Now we have been rendered permanent children. It’s the architects of forced schooling who are responsible for that.”

“What’s gotten in the way of education in the United States is a theory of social engineering that says there is ONE RIGHT WAY to proceed with growing up.”

“Schools teach exactly what they are intended to teach and they do it well: how to be a good Egyptian and remain in your place in the pyramid.”

“Schools were designed by Horace Mann and Barnard Sears and Harper of the University of Chicago and Thorndyke of Columbia Teachers College and some other men to be instruments of the scientific management of a mass population. Schools are intended to produce through the application of formulae, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.”

“The old system where every child was locked away and set into nonstop, daily cut throat competition with every other child for silly prizes called grades is broken beyond repair. If it could be fixed it could have been fixed by now.”

“The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents but should instead rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.”

“School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they’ll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology – all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.”

“Bit by bit I began to devise guerrilla exercises to allow as many of the kids I taught as possible the raw material people always use to educate themselves: privacy, choice, freedom from surveillance, and as broad a range of situations and human associations as my limited power and resources could manage. In simpler terms, I tried to maneuver them into positions where they would have the chance to be their own teachers and make themselves the major text of their own education.”

“A few years back one of the schools at Harvard, perhaps the School of Government, issued some advice to its students on planning a career in the new international economy it believed was arriving. It warned sharply that academic classes and professional credentials would count for less and less when measured against real world training. Ten qualities were offered as essential to successfully adapting to the rapidly changing world of work. See how many of those you think are regularly taught in the schools of your city or state:

1) The ability to define problems without a guide.
2) The ability to ask hard questions which challenge prevailing assumptions.
3) The ability to work in teams without guidance.
4) The ability to work absolutely alone.
5) The ability to persuade others that your course is the right one.
6) The ability to discuss issues and techniques in public with an eye to reaching decisions about policy.
7) The ability to conceptualize and reorganize information into new patterns.
8) The ability to pull what you need quickly from masses of irrelevant data.
9) The ability to think inductively, deductively, and dialectically.
10) The ability to attack problems heuristically.”

“Close reading of tough-minded writing is still the best, cheapest, and quickest method known for learning to think for yourself… Reading, and rigorous discussion of that reading in a way that obliges you to formulate a position and support it against objections, is an operational definition of education… reading, analysis, and discussion is the way we develop reliable judgment, the principle way we come to penetrate covert movements behind the facade of public appearances.”

9. We need to risk failure and learn quickly from our mistakes.

Few people have done more than Sir Ken Robinson to wake people up about the short-sightedness of the current obsession with standardization and measurement. Our model of schooling is killing the most valuable resources we have: curiosity and creativity. He argues that creativity is just as important as literacy in a knowledge-based economy.

Sir Ken Robinson, author of Out Of Our Minds: Learning To Be Creative

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

“We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national educational systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make — and the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

“Ironically, Alfred Binet, one of the creators of the IQ test, intended the test to serve precisely the opposite function. In fact, he originally designed it (on commission from the French government) exclusively to identify children with special needs so they could get appropriate forms of schooling. He never intended it to identify degrees of intelligence or “mental worth.” In fact, Binet noted that the scale he created “does not permit the measure of intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.” Nor did he ever intend it to suggest that a person could not become more intelligent over time. “Some recent thinkers,” he said, “[have affirmed] that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity that cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism; we must try to demonstrate that it is founded on nothing.”

“Creativity is as important now in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.”

“Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement. And it’s the one thing that I believe we are systematically jeopardizing in the way we educate our children and ourselves.”

“We have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education, and it’s impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.”

“One problem with the systems of assessment that use letters and grades is that they are usually light on description and heavy on comparison. Students are sometimes given grades without really knowing what they mean, and teachers sometimes give grades without being completely sure why. A second problem is that a single letter or number cannot convey the complexities of the process that it is meant to summarize. And some outcomes cannot be adequately expressed in this way at all. As the noted educator Elliot Eisner once put it, “Not everything important is measurable and not everything measurable is important.”

“You create your own life by how you see the world and your place in it.”

“Although mindfulness does not remove the ups and downs of life, it changes how experiences like losing a job, getting a divorce, struggling at home or at school, births, marriages, illnesses, death and dying influence you and how you influence the experience. . . . In other words, mindfulness changes your relationship to life.”

“If you are considering earning your living from your Element, it’s important to bear in mind that you not only have to love what you do; you should also enjoy the culture and the tribes that go with it.”

“Very many people go through their whole lives having no real sense of what their talents may be, or if they have any to speak of.”

“Human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them; they’re not just lying around on the surface.”

“Education can be stifling, no question about it. One of the reasons is that education — and American education in particular, because of the standardization — is the opposite of three principles I have outlined: it does not emphasize diversity or individuality; it’s not about awakening the student, it’s about compliance; and it has a very linear view of life, which is simply not the case with life at all.”

“Nobody else can make anybody else learn anything. You cannot make them. Anymore than if you are a gardener you can make flowers grow, you don’t make the flowers grow. You don’t sit there and stick the petals on and put the leaves on and paint it. You don’t so that. The flower grows itself. Your job if you are any good at it is to provide the optimum conditions for it to do that, to allow it to grow itself.”

“You can’t be a creative thinker if you’re not stimulating your mind, just as you can’t be an Olympic athlete if you don’t train regularly.”

“Passion is the driver of achievement in all fields. Some people love doing things they don’t feel they’re good at. That may be because they underestimate their talents or haven’t yet put the work in to develop them.”

“I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value.”

“Many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not — because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.”

“Curiosity is the engine of achievement.”

“To be creative you actually have to do something.”

 

10. We need to make ourselves indispensable by getting creative with our life and work.

Few people in the world understand the paradigm shift happening in today’s economy better than Seth Godin. His books are inspiring manifestos that call you to take control of your life and develop your creative talents and gifts to serve others. I’ve read nearly all his books but Linchpin remains my favorite and I re-read it every year.

Seth Godin, author of Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

The only people who get paid enough, get paid what they're worth are people who don't follow the instruction book, who create art, who are innovative, who work without a map. That option is now available to everyone so take it." - Seth Godin Quote, Linchpin

“The only people who get paid enough, get paid what they’re worth are people who don’t follow the instruction book, who create art, who are innovative, who work without a map. That option is now available to everyone so take it.”

“Perhaps your challenge isn’t finding a better project or a better boss. Perhaps you need to get in touch with what it means to feel passionate. People with passion look for ways to make things happen.”

“Treasure what it means to do a day’s work. It’s our one and only chance to do something productive today, and it’s certainly not available to someone merely because he is the high bidder. A day’s work is your chance to do art, to create a gift, to do something that matters. As your work gets better and your art becomes more important, competition for your gifts will increase and you’ll discover that you can be choosier about whom you give them to.”

“The only way to get what you’re worth is to stand out, to exert emotional labor, to be seen as indispensable, and to produce interactions that organizations and people care deeply about.”

“Art isn’t only a painting. Art is anything that’s creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.

What makes someone an artist? I don’t think is has anything to do with a paintbrush. There are painters who follow the numbers, or paint billboards, or work in a small village in China, painting reproductions. These folks, while swell people, aren’t artists. On the other hand, Charlie Chaplin was an artist, beyond a doubt. So is Jonathan Ive, who designed the iPhone. You can be an artist who works with oil paints or marble, sure. But there are artists who work with numbers, business models, and customer conversations. Art is about intent and communication, not substances.

An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it personally.

That’s why Bob Dylan is an artist, but an anonymous corporate hack who dreams up Pop 40 hits on the other side of the glass is merely a marketer. That’s why Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, is an artist, while a boiler room of telemarketers is simply a scam.

Tom Peters, corporate gadfly and writer, is an artist, even though his readers are businesspeople. He’s an artist because he takes a stand, he takes the work personally, and he doesn’t care if someone disagrees. His art is part of him, and he feels compelled to share it with you because it’s important, not because he expects you to pay him for it.

Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.

Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.”

“The tragedy is that society (your school, your boss, your government, your family) keeps drumming the genius part out. The problem is that our culture has engaged in a Faustian bargain, in which we trade our genius and artistry for apparent stability.”

“The problem with competition is that it takes away the requirement to set your own path, to invent your own method, to find a new way.”

“A brilliant author or businesswoman or senator or software engineer is brilliant only in tiny bursts. The rest of the time, they’re doing work that most any trained person could do.”

“The greatest shortage in our society is an instinct to produce. To create solutions and hustle them out the door. To touch the humanity inside and connect to the humans in the marketplace.”

“The competitive advantages the marketplace demands is someone more human, connected, and mature. Someone with passion and energy, capable of seeing things as they are and negotiating multiple priorities as she makes useful decisions without angst. Flexible in the face of change, resilient in the face of confusion. All of these attributes are choices, not talents, and all of them are available to you.”

RePost “The year of wishful thinking’

Education Technology and the Year of Wishful Thinking

 

This is part one of my annual review of the year in ed-tech

In 2005, Joan Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicles her husband’s death in December 2003, shortly after their daughter had fallen into septic shock and been placed an induced coma.

I read the book that very year – and honestly, I don’t often buy or read books in hardcover – shortly after my own husband died.

I needed help in understanding grief – my own grief, my son’s grief. “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control,” Didion writes. “Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare.” I found her book comforting, while its material horrific, in part because it was a book. Didion had found the words to talk about grief and mourning, and she’d written those words down, and she’d published them in a material object I could hold and weep into.

In Didion’s writing, I recognized my own performance of and reliance upon the rituals of “magical thinking,” the omens and interdictions that I believed somehow could undo or stop or assuage the horror of Anthony’s death.

“I opened the door and I seen the man in the dress greens and I knew. I immediately knew.” This was what the mother of a nineteen-year-old killed by a bomb in Kirkuk said on an HBO documentary quoted by Bob Herbert in The New York Times on the morning of November 12, 2004. “But I thought that if, as long as I didn’t let him in, he couldn’t tell me. And then it – none of that would’ve happened. So he kept saying, ‘Ma’am, I need to come in.’ And I kept telling him, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t come in.’”

This is the rationality of the irrationality of grief. This is the irrationality of the rationality of death.

Mourn and Organize

 

I want to start this year’s review of education technology acknowledging grief. This has been a terrible, terrible year. I want to start this year’s review of education technology sanctioning, if such a thing is necessary, our mourning. It is not self-indulgent to mourn. We need not hide our feelings.

Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention. Until now there had been every urgent reason to obliterate any attention that might otherwise have been paid, banish the thought, bring fresh adrenaline to bear on the crisis of the day.

I want to start this year’s review of education recognizing what’s been lost. Not just the loss of Seymour Papert and Prince and David Bowie and Phife Dawg and Harper Lee and Gwen Ifill and Alan Rickman and Gene Wilder and Ursula Franklin and Scott Erik Kaufman and Jerome Bruner and Elie Wiesel and Alvin Toffler and Leonard Cohen (and many more), but the grief and the pain that stems from these and so many other losses. So many losses. It is impossible for me to write about education technology in 2016 without noting their passing, without talking about Brexit, Trump, Duterte, Aleppo, Orlando… I could go on… and acknowledging that many of us have stumbled through this year – from tragedy to tragedy (personal, local, regional, national, global) – in a state of shock, in a state of grief.

Grief clouds your thinking, magical or otherwise.

In a society that considers itself highly rational, highly technological, highly scientific, to call something “magical” often serves to dismiss or diminish it – or to dismiss or diminish those who do not sufficiently understand science or tech. That famous Arthur C. Clarke saying and whatnot. That’s not what Didion meant to do, of course. Indeed, she’s quite methodical with her study – her inspection, introspection – of grief. When she turns to “the literature,” she reads medical and psychiatric texts alongside poetry.

But there’s something about how grief in particular ruptures the rational. It makes us want to believe in – cling to, really – unbelievability. We want to believe that it can’t be true. And in the midst of death and horror and suffering, we often find some small piece of comfort there.

I mean, the Cubs did win the World Series in 2016. Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize.

Expertise in an Age of Post-Truth

 

Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” the word of the year. “Post-truth,” an adjective: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

It’s been over a decade since comedian Stephen Colbert introduced the word “truthiness” on The Colbert Report – his attempt to describe political arguments, particularly those made by conservatives, that need no facts or evidence because they “just feel right.” In other words, we did not suddenly enter a period of “post-truth” in 2016. But facts, evidence, and expertise have taken blow after blow in recent years (at least since President George W. Bush), and the invocation of facts, evidence, and expertise in political arguments (particularly those arguments on social media) is now interpreted as bias rather than objectivity.

On the night of the US Presidential election, sociologist Nathan Jurgenson wondered if there wasn’t an equivalent to “truthiness” embraced by those of different political persuasions:

let’s call it “factiness.” Factiness is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of “facts,” often at the expense of missing the truth. From silly self-help-y TED talks to bad NPR-style neuroscience science updates to wrapping ourselves in the misleading scientisim [sic] of Fivethirtyeight statistics, factiness is obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.

Jurgenson calls “factiness” a belief of the left-wing – one contrary to the “truthiness” on the right. I’m not sure these fit, quite so neatly, into a political binary. I contend that “factiness” is a core belief of technocracy, which finds a foothold in corporations as often as in academia, in bureaucracy far more often than on the barricades. “Factiness” is, no doubt, a core belief of “elites,” and it’s a core belief of “experts,” and like it or not, these two have become intertwined. Intertwined and despised.

“We now operate in a world in which we can assume neither competence nor good faith from the authorities, and the consequences of this simple, devastating realization is the defining feature of American life at the end of this low, dishonest decade,” Chris Hayes wrote in Twilight of the Elites (2012). “Elite failure and the distrust it has spawned is the most powerful and least understood aspect of current politics and society. It structures and constrains the very process by which we gather facts, form opinions, and execute self-governance.”

And here we are. A loss of faith in governments, governance, globalization, pluralism, polling, pundits, public institutions, private institutions, markets, science, research, journalism, democracy, each other.

“If the experts as a whole are discredited,” Hayes cautions, “we are faced with an inexhaustible supply of quackery.”

Education technology faces an inexhaustible supply of quackery.

Education Technology and (Decades and Decades of) Quackery

 

Education technology has faced an inexhaustible supply of quackery for quite some time – those selling snake oil, magic pills, and enchanted talismans and promising disruption, efficiency, and higher test scores. The quackery in 2016 wasn’t new, in other words, but it was notable. It is certainly connected to the discrediting of “expertise,” whether that’s teachers-as-experts or researchers-as-experts. (Students, of course, have rarely been recognized as experts – unless they fit the model of “roaming autodidacts” that society so readily lauds.)

What do we believe about education? About learning? How do we know, and who knows “knowing” in a world where expertise is debunked?

Psychology, a field of research whose history is tightly bound to education technology, continued to face a “reproducibility crisis” this year, with challenges to research on “ego depletion,” to claims based on fMRI software, and – of course – to the Reproducibility Project itself, that 2015 report that found that the results in less than 40% of a sample of 100 articles in psychology journals held up to retesting.

So who do you believe? The scientists? The engineers? The advertisers? The media?

In January, “brain-training” company Lumosity agreed to pay $2 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it had deceived customers with its claims that its games improved cognitive functions. But despite the settlement and despite what science journalist Ed Yong politely calls “The Weak Evidence Behind Brain Training Games,” “brain training” remains quite a popular product in education technology, with the phrase “brain-based” used to “scientize” all sorts of classroom practices.

Much like “brain training,” “brain scanning” was repeatedly hyped this year as a possible way to improve the efficacy of education software. Hooking up students to headbands to monitor their brain activity has now left the research lab and entered the exhibit hall. Some of the headbands and helmets now on the market deliver electric shocks and promise to boost “performance” or deliver “instant energy or calm.” Some promise to monitor and measure brain activity. “Brain-zapping” is, according to a story in The Observer this spring, a “nascent industry,” even though there’s really no evidence to support it.

No evidence. But a lot of wild claims made in (ed-)tech journalism nonetheless.

“Researchers Create Matrix-Like Instant Learning Through Brain Stimulation,” Techcrunch announced early this year, a re-write of a press release issued by HRL Laboratories, a research center jointly owned by Boeing and General Motors, regarding an article it had published in the February 2016 issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (a pay-to-publish journal). The press release invoked The Matrix. Of course it did. But the press release was misleading; what the researchers had actually discovered about brain simulation: more research is needed. As I wrote then in response,

Whether or not this is science or fiction, let’s consider why “Matrix-style learning” is so compelling. Stories like this seem to emerge with somefrequency. (We might ask too, why do neuroscientific claims frequently go unchallenged by the press – but then again, so much education/technology journalism is wildly uncritical. Parroting PR is pretty routine.)
Science aside, let’s think about culture and society. What’s the lure of “instant learning” and in particular “instant learning” via a technological manipulation of the brain? This is certainly connected to the push for “efficiency” in education and education technology. But again, why would we want learning to be fast and cheap? What does that say about how we imagine and more importantly how we value the process of learning?

There’s little evidence of how these products or practices will improve teaching or learning. But there’s a ton of snake oil. And a lot of wishful thinking.

Education Technology and (Decades and Decades of) Wishful Thinking

 

The promise of education technology, like it or not, is mostly wishful thinking. Proponents of ed-tech insist that ed-tech is necessary; that without ed-tech, schools are outmoded and irrelevant; that “the future” demands it. But as I argued in a talk I gave at VCU in November, “the best way to predict the future is to issue a press release.” That is, the steady drumbeat of marketing surrounding the necessity of education technology largely serves to further ideologies of neoliberalism, individualism, late-stage capitalism, outsourcing, surveillance, speed, and commodity fetishism.

I know many of us wished otherwise.

Arguably the business of “predicting the future” took a bit of a hit this year, what with the failure, as some describe it, of polling in the Presidential election. But “predicting the future” – with or without the mantle of science – is often about pointing to and sanctioning a particular vision of the future. Wishful thinking.

Folks have long made predictions about the future of education and education technology. Such-and-such practice or product will die out. Such-and-such practice or product will disrupt. Such-and-such practice or product will revolutionize. Such-and-such practice or product will soon be adopted and will change everything.

Soon.

Someday.

Or as the Education Week headline described Bill Gates’ keynote at this year’s annual venture capital gala, the ASU-GSV Summit, “Ed Tech Has Underachieved But Better Days Are Ahead.” They always are.

Hype as Wishful Thinking

 

There’s a long list of technology products that I’m sure will appear on many “2016 Top Ed-Tech Trends” lists:

Chatbots: As eCampus News pronounced in November: “How chatbots will change the face of campus technology.” (I wrote about the history of the future of chatbots in education in September.)

Blockchain: “10 amazing ways Blockchain could be used in education” by Donald Clark. (I’ll write more about the blockchain and certification in a forthcoming article in this series.)

Pokemon Go: “Why Pokemon Go shows the future of learning gamification,” according to Education Dive at least. (Bonus: “5.3 Reasons Pokemon Go will Replace the LMS” by Tom Woodward.)

3D Printing: 3D printing is “Revolutionizing Project-Based Learning,” according to Makerbot. Related: “MakerBot will no longer make its own 3D printers.” And “The MakerBot Obituary.” RIP.

Wearables: “Eye-trackers that detect when your mind is wandering. Clothes that let you ‘feel’ what it’s like to be in someone else’s body. Sensors that connect your heart rate to how engaged you are in class. These are the kinds of wearable technologies that could soon impact how we learn,” says Edsurge. Wishful thinking? Quackery? (I’ll be talking more about wearables and surveillance in a forthcoming article in this series.)

Bullshit or not, the marketing of these products continues – often with a breathless description of “revolution” and “transformation” and “disruption” and ever-growing business opportunities – even if few schools or teachers or students buy the product, can afford to buy the product, or want to buy the product.

Fads fade, of course. Hype wanes. Take iPads, for example. Or the flipped classroom. Or MOOCs even.

Fads fade, and then sometimes they re-emerge, sometimes they re-brand. “Zombies ideas,” as I’ve previously called them.

No doubt, the most wishful of the ed-tech zombies this year was VR.

Virtual Reality as Wishful Thinking

 

In July, I wrote an article called “(Marketing) Virtual Reality in Education: A History.” The opening paragraphs:

Virtual reality is, once again, being heralded as a technology poised to transform education. I say “once again” because virtual reality has long been associated with such promises. VR appeared in some of the earliest Horizon Reports for example, with the 2007 report positing that virtual worlds would be adopted by higher ed institutions within two to three years’ time; funnily enough, the 2016 report offers the same outlook: we’re still two to three years out from widespread adoption of VR.
The history of VR goes back much farther than this – the phrase “virtual reality” was coined in 1987 by Jaron Lanier, but attempts to create the illusion of being somewhere else – through art and/or technology – date back farther still.
But this time it’s different.” That’s the common response from some quarters to my (repeated) assertion that there’s a substantial history to education technologies – to both the technologies themselves and to the educational purposes for which they’re designed or utilized – that is consistently ignored.
This much is true: augmented reality and virtual reality startups have seen record-setting levels of venture capital in recent years predicated on advancements in the tech (although much of that investment has gone to just a handful of companies, such as Magic Leap). In 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus VR, Google released its Cardboard viewer, and Playstation announced it was working on a VR gaming headset – these have all been interpreted in turn as signs that virtual reality will soon be mainstream.
“Soon.” As the New Media Consortium’s annual reports should serve to remind us, VR has always been “on the horizon.”

In that article – which I’ll refrain from just copy-pasting here – I look at the history of educational uses of stereoscopy, which date back to the Victorian era when a combination of lenses and imagery were used to trick the brain into interpreting two- as three-dimensionality. Many of the products touted as VR today are simply that: stereoscopy with a fancier viewer. (Say, the Android device in Google’s Cardboard Viewer and Expeditions program.)

Virtual reality, at least in its “purest” or strictest sense, requires some very expensive and cumbersome hardware in order to create something more than an “immersive” viewing experience of a 360 degree video. Headsets. Gloves. Sensors. Projectors. Processors. To truly provide a virtual reality, the technology must achieve “sensory immersion in a virtual environment, including a sense of presence,” game developer and VR scholar Brenda Laurel argued in June, listing a series of requisite characteristics almost entirely absent from the multimedia products marketed to schools as VR.

And that marketing, it is worth pointing out, is almost the same as marketing in the early twentieth century urging educators to adopt film as an education technology: “Learn about other cultures.” “Visit faraway lands without leaving the classroom.” “Guided tours of places school buses cannot go.” “Modern pedagogical methods require modern media.” “Pictures speak a universal language.” “This is science.”

(Image credits: Educational Screen, 1924)

So the claims that this is new and revolutionary are dubious. The claims that stereoscopy is VR are dubious. The claims that VR will “reinvent education” are dubious. (According to a report on “The Top 10 Companies Working on Education in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality,” one of the “top” applications “simulates a lecture hall in virtual reality.”) The claims that VR will expand access to education for everyone are dubious. (Despite headlines claiming, for example, that “Anybody can now buy Microsoft’s $3,000 HoloLens,” not everyone and not every school can afford to do so.) The claims that the technology is finally ready for consumers are dubious. (VR still makes people nauseous.) The claims that the technology will enhance empathy are really dubious, particularly in the light of Oculus Rift founder Palmer Luckey’s financial support for an unofficial pro-Donald Trump group dedicated to “shitposting” and spreading hateful memes about Hillary Clinton. (I’ll have more to say on Oculus Rift and Facebook in the next post in this series – one that will address the politics of ed-tech – as well as in the final post – one that will talk about discrimination by design.)

But the breathlessness about VR persists, much as it has persisted for decades: it will change education forever. It is the next big thing. It’s the future of school (and it’s the future of Facebook). It is a disruptive innovation.

It is all wishful thinking.

Grief and Loss and Education Technology

 

Perhaps it’s time to ask why – why this is the ritual and the story that education continues to turn to? It has, after all, for at least one hundred years: the promise of teaching machines. What is the loss that we are suffering? What are we grieving? Why are we in this fog of educational make-believe? Why are we so wrapped up in the magical thinking and wishful thinking of education technology? What do we hope the practices of ed-tech will deliver, will relieve? What are we hoping to preserve? What are we hoping to absolve? What might we afraid to admit has died? Why is wishful thinking, in and through and with education technology, a balm for so many of us?

At what point should we just let go…

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