School & District Management Opinion

Teaching Students to Be Linchpins

By Justin Baeder — June 28, 2011 2 min read
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Last Friday, I went to see marketing and new-economy guru Seth Godin live in Seattle. He said that one of the problems with public education is that it teaches kids to conform and obey, rather than become what he would call Linchpin-type people, who are willing to take risks and who quickly become indispensable to their organizations and the world.

I thought about this for a while, and told him at the break that I think the appeal of obedience and conformity is that they scale well. It’s much easier to run a school when you teach your 500 or 1,000 students to obey and do their work rather than to be creative thinkers and to question authority. It’s easier to create and implement a standards-based traditional curriculum than a curriculum on how to challenge the status quo.

But that’s not the only reason schools encourage compliance and conformity; to a point, these are basic life skills. Sure, pursue your dreams with passion and creativity, but we still need to be a nation of laws.

Shepard Fairey (who created the famous Obama “HOPE” poster) has been arrested 30 times, according to Godin. We may consider that cute, a sign of true dedication, especially if Fairey gets arrested merely for painting somewhere he technically shouldn’t.

But if Fairey decided gun-running was his true passion, we’d have a problem with that. Painting, yes; weapons trafficking, no. Conformity is good and necessary, to a point. But only to a point. We don’t need a society full of adults who are afraid to chew gum.

Given the need to prepare students to be creative problem-solvers and nonconformists who can conform enough to still be productive members of society, what should schools do? And if schools are failing in this mission, where are we going astray?

Too much of the discussion about how we prepare students for our changing world is polarized, with higher standards and more testing on one end, and radical opening and removal of traditional structures on the other end.

Godin’s book Linchpin gives us a rich description of what kind of people our schools need to be preparing kids to become. But what would that look like in practice? Project-based learning? Internships? Teamwork? Solving real-world problems?

I have no answers, only more questions. When should this kind of learning start—senior year, or kindergarten? What could we cut from the traditional curriculum to make room? How could we restructure schooling to match our current needs, rather than society’s needs from 40 or 50 years ago? How will we measure success when the goal is for people to vary widely?

In my next few posts, I will explore additional dimensions of this challenge of equipping students to live as engaged citizens in our changing world.

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