Thank God I wasn’t college material

Thank God I wasn’t college material, writes Matt Walsh.

He hated high school.

I dreaded every class, every assignment, every test, every worksheet, every mound of busywork, every shallow and forced interaction with peers I couldn’t relate to or connect with or understand; every moment, every second, every part, every inch of every aspect of my public educational experience.”

One day in detention, the teacher asked what he wanted to do with his life. He thought maybe he could be a writer. Writing was the only thing that came naturally.

 That’s when she dropped the bombshell: “Well, that sounds like an amazing goal, Matt. Get those grades up and go to college for a degree in creative writing!”

. . . I have to go to college to do the one thing I’m kind of halfway good at doing? I have to finish high school and then go through FOUR MORE YEARS OF THIS? Impossible. I’m not college material. I’m not even high school material.

And I have to get a DEGREE in CREATIVITY? Wait, WHAT? Your creativity comes from your own mind and your own heart — you can’t learn how to be creative. If I can write things, and people want to read the things that I write, shouldn’t I be able to market that ability, regardless of my college experience?

Walsh never went to college. That means he didn’t “amass a gigantic debt” or “miss out on four or five years” developing his skills.  He supports his family of four as a writer. 

College makes sense for future doctors, lawyers, engineers and the like, Walsh writes. But it’s a scam for most students.

Something has to change. Listen to me on this one. Something HAS to change. This can’t continue. It is not a sustainable model. There are millions of kids with no assets, no plans, and no purpose, taking out enormous loans to purchase a piece of paper they’ll likely never use. It can’t go on this way.

. . . Total student debt has gone up by 275 percent in the last decade. How far will it climb, how many more kids will be thrown to the wolves, before we change direction? Since I was born, college tuition rates have gone up by 500 percent. FIVE HUNDRED PERCENT. Why do we send guys like Bernie Madoff to prison while the academic elite get away with gouging an entire generation to death?

Don’t send your kids to college” unless they’re pursuing a career that requires a degree, he writes. 

Writers can demonstrate their skills by writing. In many other fields, it’s harder to prove competence. But certifications, digital badges and such like could help young adults show what they know.

PISA denial

U.S. educators are downplaying PISA results that show Asian countries excel, while the U.S. rank is slipping, writes Marc Tucker in PISA Denial. After all, few Asians are winning Nobel prizes or “starting game-changing business like Apple, Oracle, Google or Microsoft,” they argue. Maybe PISA measures things that aren’t very important, while U.S. schools are teaching creativity and innovation.

That’s sophistry, responds Tucker.  Those game-changing entrepreneurs are highly educated and innovative and creative. Their companies don’t hire creative people with mediocre reading, writing and math skills.

 They do not have to choose between well-educated and highly competent people, on the one hand, and creative and innovative people on the other. They demand and can get both. In the same person.

PISA measures “the ability to apply what is learned to real world problems” and increasingly is focusing on applying knowledge to “unanticipated, novel problems,” writes Tucker.

Creativity does not take place in a knowledge vacuum. It is typically the product of the rubbing together, so to speak, of two or more bodies of knowledge, of holding up the framework associated with one body of knowledge to another arena that it was not designed to illuminate. When that happens, odds are that the new insights, born of the application of the old framework to the novel problem, will emerge. The literature tells us that this means that you are most likely to get the kind of creativity we are most interested in from highly educated people who are deeply versed in very different arenas.

Asian educators are working hard to learn from U.S. schools, writes Tucker. They want to place more stress on individual initiative without accepting the “violence and chaos” they see as the cultural price. Some Americans want Asian achievement levels with less social conformity, but we’re not really trying to get there. Instead, “we are working hard at denial.”

PISA matters, agrees Eric Hanushek, who disposes of several excuses for U.S. mediocrity.

 While our low ranking has been seen on earlier international assessments, there are many reasons to believe that low cognitive skills (as assessed by PISA) will be increasingly important for our economic future.

We don’t have to be Singapore or Korea. If the U.S. could reach Canadian achievement levels, the average worker would earn 20 percent more, Hanushek writes.

BTW, Silicon Valley, where I live, is filled with entrepreneurs educated in India, China and elsewhere.  Forty-four percent of Silicon Valley start-ups were founded by immigrant entrepreneurs in 2012, down from 52 percent in 2005.

Geniuses teach themselves

“Gifted” education doesn’t do much for geniuses, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. “An occasional pullout class is likely to be less interesting to them than their own research in their parents’ bookcases, kitchens, the local library and the Internet,” he writes.

Our schools have more than they can handle in helping other students become fully functioning adults. There may be something to the view that socially awkward geniuses need a safe place to be weird, but the better approach is to focus on stopping bullying of all kids. Public schools are mostly successful at finding people who know how to teach English, math, history and science, but we don’t know how to encourage creativity very well and might find it better to let the gifted do their own exploring.

He offers a counter-example: In her 1977 book, Turning On Bright Minds: A Parent Looks at Gifted Education in Texas, Julie Ray profiled a Houston sixth-grader she called Tim.

He was in an ambitious public school’s gifted-education program that would later be called Vanguard. Tim was reading dozens of books and had several science projects underway. He was surveying classmates in order to rate all the school’s teachers. He loved the school’s small group discussions, where he was free to share his wildest ideas.

“Tim” appears in Brad Stone’s new book, The Everything Store. His real name is  Jeff Bezos. His store is Amazon.

Checker Finn is researching how other countries educate high-ability students. No country does it very well. Singapore is the best — but only for the top 1 percent.

“Nobody is compensating well for the absence of pushy, prosperous, influential parents,” though Hungary is trying hard to reach disadvantaged students.

Underdog power: Dyslexic entrepreneurs

A weakness can be a hidden strength, author Malcolm Gladwell tells Anderson Cooper.

Underdogs’ limitations force them to be creative, says Gladwell, whose new book is called David and Goliath.

One of his examples is Gary Cohn, a dyslexic who “couldn’t do school” and was “kicked out” for acting up. He learned to work around his disability. He’s still a poor reader. He’s also president of Goldman Sachs.

Malcolm Gladwell: An incredibly high percentage of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. That’s one of the little-known facts. So many of them, in fact, it’s like a joke among dyslexic researchers that you go into a room of very successful businesspeople, and you—you have a show of hands on who has a learning disability, it’s like half the hands in the room go up. It’s fascinating…

Gary Cohn: People that can’t read well, we tend to build a great sense of listening. We also tend to build a great sense of being able to deal and cope with failure.

Gladwell grew up in rural Ontario, the son of a Jamaican-born family therapist and a British math professor. He was not a strong student, but since his family had no TV and never went to movies, he read lots of books. If he got bored, his mother would say, “It’s important to be bored. You’re giving your brain a rest.”

Creativity meets technology

 Innovation:Where Creativity and Technology Meet.

First-grade ‘novelists’

First graders can write their own novels, according to Lily Jones on the Teaching Channel.

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Adults are challenged to write a 50,000-word novel. Her first graders aimed at 5,000 words for the whole class.

As we approached November, we talked about what makes a novel a novel (chapters, fiction, characters, etc.) and analyzed the novels we had read as a class. . . . I had students draw several possible ideas for their stories, sketch out characters, and give each other feedback.

Her students had experience with personal narratives, informational writing, persuasive writing and poetry, but rarely wrote fiction, writes Jones. “Students thrived when they used their imaginations to produce amazingly creative writing.”

Throughout the month, I stressed novel writing as a really big deal. I would call my students “novelists” as they came in the classroom and allow my students the chance to share a little bit of their writing every day.

Students were motivated by the chance to read their work at a local book store. “It was adorable and inspiring to see my students, many of who had just started learning how to read, read excerpts of their novels in front of a crowd.”

 Though most of my first graders had a hard time mastering concepts of plot and chapters, they were still able to produce interesting novels.

. . . Malia, who was obsessed with cats, wrote a novel called Kitten and Baby Tiger’s Adventures. The opening lines were priceless: “Wish, baby tiger. Wish upon it, my child. Wish.”

David, who loved playing wild games with Legos, wrote a novel called The New Weirdos. I loved how he included the wacky sounds he made while playing in his writing: “Aah! Waaaah! Uh, oh, Darth Cranky. Puh puh puh puh. The ship blew up!”

Even though they were only six-years-old, my students were developing their own author voices.

(Here are her lesson plans for NaNoWriMo.)

High expectations are fine, responds Robert Pondiscio on Facebook. But he’s skeptical about writing “novels” in first grade.

What rankles is the cargo cult aspects of this, calling 6 year olds novelists, etc. We could do with far less of this, especially in elementary ed.

. . . Whenever I hear a cultish Writer’s Workshop teacher call children “authors,” or here a staff developer talk about having kids “live a writerly life,” I’m reminded of the wonderful line from Joan Cusack in the movie Working Girl: “Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will.”

“Subject verb agreement is adorable,” adds Jennifer Midgley.

It would be more honest to tell first graders they can create their own “books.”

Learning whimsy instead of writing

When Katharine Beals’ son was in high school, his writing textbook was all about creativity, she writes in Out In Left Field. Learning to write apparently didn’t require practice constructing sentences or paragraphs.

These days, many believe “creativity means suppressing the logical, analytical left brain, and, thereby, unleashing those novel, right-brain-driven associations between prompts and ideas,” Beals writes.

What people forget, however, is that this is only one step in the creative process. Nor is it even the first step. That flash of insight, as it turns out, has preconditions. (Researcher John) Kounios’ studies of the split seconds leading up to creative insight show a momentary reduction in the brain’s flow of visual information, which allows the brain to turn inwards and notice those (initially weak) associations, which, in turn, allows certain ones of these associations to pop into consciousness as sudden bursts of insight.

“Chance favors the prepared mind,” Kounios quotes Louis Pasteur as saying.

Centuries before neuroscience, the philosopher John Locke distinguished between wit and judgment, she writes. “Wit allows you to think up wild new ideas, but judgment tells you which ideas are actually worth keeping.”

These days a better word for “wit” might be “whimsy,” Beals writes. Too often our approach to writing and other creative arts “mistakes whimsy for creativity.”

Most creative geniuses “work ferociously hard,” according to Temple Psychology Professor Robert W. Weisberg. “You have to immerse yourself in a discipline before you create in that discipline,” he says.

To learn writing — creative or otherwise — students need less whimsy and more revision, Beals argues. Teachers should focus less on “inspiring prompts,” and “more on the art of sentence and paragraph construction, sentence and paragraph rearrangement, and revision, revision, revision.”

“Schools talk a lot about learning styles but refuse to acknowledge that some kids don’t find artsy projects fun and would rather write a proper report,” notes Mom of 4 in the comments.

Auntie Ann’s son “was graded down because he really, really wanted a project to be in black and white and the teacher insisted he had to color it. Very little of the grade ends up being actually learning or content based.”

Students invent classroom door lock

“Shaken by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and determined to prevent future tragedies, a team of high school students in Washington, D.C., has invented a new locking device for classroom doors,” reports Discovery News. Often classroom doors can’t be locked from the inside due to fire-safety regulations. They hope their low-cost device will help teachers keep intruders out.


Ten Benjamin Banneker Academic High School students, led by math teacher John Mahoney, created the Dead Stop. A PVC pipe that’s hinged on one side can be locked on the other with a steel pin. Fitted over a hydraulic door closer, it will prevent the door hinge from widening.

 When the students did research about patents and commercially available door locks, they said most of the devices they found required physical installation either on the door or the jamb. Other devices were expensive and complicated to install. Theirs should cost less than $5 and be simple enough that a teacher could lock the door in under 30 seconds, they said. Once the danger has passed it should be easy to remove as well.

With a Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam grant, the students plan to build and test several prototypes of their design, publicize the DIY instructions and collaborate with a company to manufacture the device. They’re hoping for pro bono help in applying for a patent.

Toddlers and tablets

Long before they start kindergarten, American children are playing with education tech at home, writes Alex Hernandez in Toddlers and Tablets on Education Next. At the iTunes store, “9 of the top 10 paid education apps are designed for small children, ages four and up.”

Touchscreens are the most intuitive interfaces ever created for small children. I still remember the weekend morning in 2008 when our 18-month-old padded into our bedroom, grabbed his mom’s new iPhone off the nightstand, turned on his favorite song, and began pawing through photos.

. . . Leading app developer Duck Duck Moose believed it was designing for four- and five-year-olds when it noticed two-year-olds using its math apps. Dragonbox, an algebra program for children eight and up was being used by five- and six-year-olds. No one informed these kids that they weren’t ready for higher-level math.

Children do incredible things when they are free to explore and learn.

Parents are dubious about young children using technology, Hernandez concedes. He thinks tablets are seen as too expensive for grubby-fingered preschoolers. There’s also a backlash against excess screen time. Education apps should supplement, not replace, hands-on play, Hernandez writes.

App creators shouldn’t just try to teach pre-academic skills, such as categorizing objects or recognizing letter sounds.

 . . . research suggests that children’s ability to pay attention and control their impulses (i.e., executive functions) are better predictors of future academic success than IQ. Children’s ability to manage their attention, emotions, and behaviors; learn appropriate ways to interact with others; and be creative are equally, if not more, important but often harder to target than pre-academic skills.

But not impossible. App maker Kidaptive recently released a turn-taking game in which children paint pictures alongside two animated characters. Children using the app must literally sit and wait for the animated characters to complete their turns before resuming their own painting (defying many conventions of good game design). The metrics don’t lie. Kids are being patient and taking turns.

The best new apps will develop preschoolers’ executive function, creativity, number sense and phonemic awareness, Hernandez predicts. Schools may be slow to use these games. Parents already are buying them.

The Gummy Worm test

Given a choice between eating a gummy worm now — or waiting and getting two gummy worms — a little girl finds a creative way to control her appetite.