By Carla Silver, Executive Director, Leadership+Design
"Nobody has ever won a Nobel Prize by doing what they're told, or even by following someone else's blueprints."
- Joi Ito and Jeffrey How in Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future
Over the holidays, my family acquired two new puppies. Having no idea what we were doing as "new parents", we signed up for puppy class - otherwise known as obedience school. Here we are "socializing" our dogs and also learning how to teach them to sit, stay, lie down, and walk well on a leash. Most of this training is accomplished through a system of rewards. When we say "sit" and our puppies follow the command, we exclaim, "Yes!" and deliver a delicious treat. It's going well. Our puppies are excellent students and quick learners. In just one week, we have mastered "sit" and are eager to see what's next for our pups. I'm proud of our dogs, and there is also a part of me that feels pretty confident about my own ability as the trainer. I'm no dog whisperer, but every time my puppies sit, I feel a little bit more adequate in my ability as a teacher.
It is hard for me not to compare puppy school with people school. Both combine teaching social skills with more concrete knowing and doing skills. Both use a system of treats and rewards to encourage and motivate subjects to perform the "right" way. And both seem to perpetuate and reinforce the idea - true or not - that good students are the result of having good teachers. When my oldest daughter describes her AP European History class, it sounds eerily like obedience school. She reads a chapter and takes copious notes. She goes to class where she is rewarded with participation points for every answer she gets correct during the period. She loses points for answers she gets wrong. At the end of the year, she will take the AP exam, preparing by memorizing an epic amount of information, and will receive a score that will tell her how much information she knows. Her teacher (and I know this because he told us at Back to School Night) will also assess his own performance based on how many of his students gets 4s and 5s on the exam. I'd like to report that she has shown a new found interest in European History, but she rarely talks about what she finds intriguing. When asked, she mostly shares how much reading she has to do, or how many points she got in a given class and how much she has to study and how stressful it all is. All signs point to a glorious outcome; she'll get a high score on the exam, we'll feel proud, and her teacher will feel vindicated. But when all is said and done, this feels more like a measurement of compliance than real learning.
This month's Recharge articles speak to the fifth chapter of our year-long reading of Whiplash. In the chapter "Disobedience over Compliance," the authors Joi Ito and Jeffrey Howe make the case that new ideas, innovation, and breakthrough solutions to seemingly intractable problems are usually the result of someone breaking the rules, not following them. Yet school as we experience it is, for the most part, an exercise in obedience and compliance. The more a student follows the rules, the more likely he or she is to receive rewards - in the form of good grades, yes, but also in the form of encouragement and praise. Teacher performance is often measured by student test scores. And how many times have you heard a teacher saying that their greatest satisfaction is when they see a student "get it!" - as if they have somehow been the one to turn on a light in that student. And what is the "it" exactly? The right response? That might have worked in an industrial age or as Ito and Howe describe it, " a mass production society of the nineteenth and twentieth century where only a small number of people were supposed to be creative - the rest were expected to do what they were told." Today is a different story. Creativity is a crucial skill of our time - if you don't want to be outperformed by a machine. Right answers are a dime a dozen. Being able to parlay those right answers into creative and new ideas is the real goal. And for that, you need at least a kernel of disobedience.
Most of us remember the more disobedient members of our school community. They could take up a lot of the teacher's time and could be a real distraction to the lesson, but usually they provided some good entertainment. One such classmate of mine, routinely a cheerful troublemaker in my freshman geometry class, decided one day to hoist his desk above the doorway of the classroom where there was a three-foot overhang. His plan was to attend class perched above the rest of us - at least until the teacher noticed. In the moments before class started, this student and some other classmates managed to lift the desk and the student up onto the overhang. The teacher arrived and proceeded to teach class until the snickers of the students finally caused him to look up and see the student waving down from above. I can't remember what happened to that student that day or whether he faced any infractions for his behavior, but I can tell where he is now. David Eagleman is a renowned professor of neuroscience at Stanford with his own PBS show on the The Brain with several books under his belt - his most recent book The Runaway Species is on creativity.
Clearly, we can't just unleash an entire school of students and teachers and tell them to "misbehave", but we can encourage beneficial, rule-breaking and creative disobedience with students and faculty. In 2016 the MIT media lab announced the creation of a $250K cash prize award for responsible disobedience. The award is meant to highlight "effective, responsible, ethical disobedience across disciplines (scientific research, civil rights, freedom of speech, human rights, and the freedom to innovate, for example)." What a refreshing way to celebrate the rule-breakers who change the world! What if your school offered a "disobedience award" to a member of the community who broke a rule for social good? How might that change habits, mindsets, assessments, and make school a little more sophisticated than dog obedience school?
At L+D we offer programs and services for school that spark the kind of creative disobedience and benevolent rule breaking that allow for breakthrough thinking. Coming up we have some programs that appeal to the trailblazers, mavericks, and pilgrims in our schools - or those who aspire to be just a little more adventurous. If so, check out the list of programs on the side bar - School and Leadership in an Age of Acceleration, Augmentation and The Singularity (at the NAIS Annual Conference March 7, 2018), L+D Design Thinking Bootcamp (Minneapolis (March 2018) and Wonder Women!
(June 2018). And reach out to us if you think your school is ready to break some rules, question big assumptions and enjoy some creative disobedience in 2018!