But his software told him that formal education was just another way to download information into your brain and “a painfully slow download” at that—so he started reading, meeting people, and asking questions.

Could this be why formal “college seat time” is going away, and has already begun being replaced by things like certificate training, MOOCs, the rise of information available on the Internet, and why a resurgence in apprenticeships is already on the horizon (it just looks different, because entrepreneurs are the new apprentices)!

The title is a quote from a treatise on Tim Urban’s blog  about Elon Musk. Urban is trying to understand Musk’s success by examining how he thinks, and how Musk’s thinking affects his choices. Read the full 4-part series here.

As a teacher, and as someone who reads widely on any subject I feel I need to know more about, the title quote makes powerful sense. Author Urban calls this ‘first principles’:

‘A scientist gathers together only what he or she knows to be true—the first principles—and uses those as the puzzle pieces with which to construct a conclusion.’ *

For me, first principles is something I’ve always practiced. I just didn’t call it that. I love to learn, to read, to gather information, and test it out against what I know. I learned early not to take what others say without checking and confirming- maybe because as a kid I was rather rebellious (my dad says I have to learn everything the hard way!), maybe because my naïveté allowed me to be made to feel stupid, and I do not like to feel stupid! As I read further into the analysis of Musk, I found a companion to my own thought processes, albeit worded differently than I would have ever thought:

‘ Musk sees… his brain software as the most important product he owns—and since there aren’t companies out there designing brain software, he designed his own, beta tests it every day, and makes constant updates. That’s why he’s so outrageously effective, why he can disrupt multiple huge industries at once, why he can learn so quickly, strategize so cleverly, and visualize the future so clearly.’ *

Urban’s statement about this awakens my “spidey sense”** as a teacher. All of us have hardware (our physical sense) and software (our brains). As a teacher, I feel strongly that this is the goal of my interaction with my kids: to teach them how to learn quickly, to strategize cleverly, and to visualize the future clearly. This is where success, innovation, and fulfillment (yes- doing that which we are so passionate about) must spring from. Our world’s future is at stake if we don’t bring out in our children these abilities.

‘When your childhood attempts at understanding are met with “Because I said so,” and you absorb the implicit message “Your own reasoning capability is sh*t, don’t even try, just follow these rules… ,” you grow up with little confidence in your own reasoning process. When you’re never forced to build your own reasoning pathways, you’re able to skip the hard process of digging deep to discover your own values and the sometimes painful experience of testing those values in the real world and learning you want to adjust them—and so you grow up a total reasoning amateur.’*

Teaching our children the value of ‘first principles’is critical in education. It’s what our children lack: the need to know for themselves, and not rely on what they are told by others: what ‘conventional wisdom’ says must be true.

‘A command or a lesson or a word of wisdom that comes without any insight into the steps of logic it was built upon is feeding a kid a fish instead of teaching them to reason. And when that’s the way we’re brought up, we end up with a bucket of fish and no rod—a piece of installed software that we’ve learned how to use, but no ability to code anything ourselves.’*

My need for ‘first principles’ has been leading me to those ideas that will train my students for their future- one that will require them to code for themselves, going beyond ‘established’ wisdom’, carving out innovative solutions, and finding a future that enthralled and fascinates them. Without this, it becomes easier for a population to become manipulated by a leadership that does not have their best interests at heart. For more on this idea, check out How the Oil Industry Conquered Finance, Medicine, and Agriculture, by James Corbett. In it, Corbett references an essay by Frederick T. Gates, the man intimately connected to the origins of public schooling as we know it. The essay, The Country School of Tomorrow, Gates lays out his plan for education,

‘… we have limitless resources, and the people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hand… We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or of science. We are not to raise up from among them authors, orators, poets, or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians. Nor will we cherish even the humbler ambition to raise up from among them lawyers,
doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we now have ample supply.’*

From my view, I think we have chillingly succeeded (thanks to Rockefeller and his billions), in the first quoted section of this essay. I look with hope on what is happening as teachers everywhere have begun to break with tradition and seek to teach for understanding, and to teach students to think independently. Read a little further down Mr. Gates’- Frederick’s, not Bill’s- essay, to find the sweet hope and goal of education that  somehow became lost in the ‘monetization’ of public schooling,

‘…all that we shall try to do is just to create presently about these country homes an atmosphere and conditions such, that, if by chance a child of genius should spring up from the soil, that genius will surely bud and not be blighted.’

All of our children are budding geniuses- in their own time and in their own way. Finding and nurturing that bud is my ‘action plan’. I think I’ll continue upgrading my ‘software’ in pursuit of being the most effective teacher I can be, sharing what I find, in order to improve our education system in whatever way I am able. Excuse me while I go fill my ‘goal pool’ so that I can plan my ‘strategies’ to maximize my ‘experience’ and ‘feedback loop’ so that I can move my ‘goal attainment mechanism’ forward.

Let’s keep the conversation going!

*The Cook and The Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce, T. Urban, Wait, Why Not

**No, I was never bitten by a radioactive spider. I am an intuitive woman (which some of you will no doubt see as a redundant phrase…)

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3 thoughts on “But his software told him that formal education was just another way to download information into your brain and “a painfully slow download” at that—so he started reading, meeting people, and asking questions.

  1. My cynical self asks if most of the “We don’t need no stinkin’ college” folks are people of a demographic that is more likely to be listened to (i.e., usually white male). Is it their “self-education” that engenders their success, or their connections?

    1. Perhaps white privilege engenders an “I can have my own business”, but there are many entrepreneurs that do not fit the “privileged/connected” label who became successful precisely because traditional paths were not available at the time. I speak to those students for whom college would not give them a marketable skill in their field of interest. College is a means to an end. It is not the only path to success, even though it is being pushed as such.

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