Last night, I attended my first Biznik event in Seattle. It was focused on The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, a new business book by John Hagel and John Seeley Brown (abbreviated in Tweets as JSB). I haven't read the book yet, but I'm very much looking forward to it.
Hagel and JSB had some solid information to share on the power of pull and what draws people together, whether it be through the medium of social media or in other life channels, including my favorite tidbit of the evening: passion begets passion. Passionate people seek each other out. (To which I added my own geeky insight: visit any Trekkie convention for proof!)
However, one of their insights made me a bit tetchy. The statement was made that the educational system in this country is steadfastly designed to squash creativity. Heads nodded, and the conversation continued, as if the statement were an accepted truth, such as "we all pay taxes" or "no one trusts Congress."
As a student who was always encouraged and challenged by nearly every teacher, professor and trainer that I've ever come in contact with and as a former devoted writer of high school textbooks, I was taken aback at the universal acceptance of this statement. Is this truly an accepted truth? I had always assumed that those who'd muttered this type of educational put-down were those whose thinking was either so far outside the norm as to be disruptive to the learning of others--a select few. Does everyone really believe this, or is it just something that no one bothers to argue with? Was everyone other than me treated with disrespect by every teacher? Was no one else encouraged to think critically, to push themselves, to be creative and rewarded for doing so?
I had fantastic teachers. In elementary school, they gave me extra work because I'd ace the spelling test the first time in. In middle school, they challenged me to think differently about Texas history and what a Pringles can is for. I loved high school so much I didn't want to leave: Mrs. Burrows, 9th grade English, got me so passionate about literature I found out which books the non-AP kids were reading and read all of those, too. Another one dressed up like Charles Dickens and subjected herself to our literary grilling. Mrs. Sinnamon, my beloved French teacher, got us all college-level books so we could start writing thoughtful essays and doing projects instead of just grammatical work (that was during a time when the pedagogical trend in language instruction was grammar-based, not communication-based). I still have my 12th grade British literature book to this day because the textual explorations with Mrs. Dale were what I looked forward to every day. My god, we memorized the intro to The Canterbury Tales and loved it! And Mrs. Bartlett instilled in me a deep love and appreciation of European history and art history that influenced both my French major and art history minor in college and led me to a master's degree in French literature.
I spent the first eight years of my professional career in the educational publishing industry, working as a staff French textbook writer for Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, textbook sales to high school teachers at Heinle & Heinle and then an English and grammar editor at McDougal Littell. Every staff member I worked with was a former teacher, driven by passion to create classroom materials to help busy teachers to inspire students to creativity. At Holt, the French department was a small team of devoted former teachers, all seeking to make the classroom fun for students and instructors. We'd spend staff meetings arguing the grammar/rote versus communication approach for the textbook series we were scoping. At McDougal, I proofed samples of real student sample essays showing innovative approaches to the literature and critical thinking skills, encouraging student to not just grasp the story but offer and support personal insights on its message.
In my experience, dedicated teachers, both in the classroom and writing textbooks, are what has helped form our educational institutions. And there are a lot of dedicated teachers out there. I know; I've worked with dozens of them. I'm not claiming that every school or every teacher is perfect. I've no doubt there are some bad apples out there. So I wonder: is the institution really all that broken, or are there just some bad teachers out there?