Finding our genius in 2023

When people are ready for change, they pursue it without anyone making them.

Isn’t that true? I mean, think about it. For most of our lives we are pushed towards change, often not necessarily at our own pace but on the schedule of “what’s expected”. Are you a toddler? Well it’s time to start walking and talking. Have you crossed into “school aged”? Well then it’s time to stop learning on your own, largely motivated by curiosity and exploration. Now it’s time for the adults to tell you what to learn, how to learn it, where and when to learn, for the better part of the next twelve years. Yikes.

Finally you reach that apex of autonomy, you’re 18 years old where they tell your you’re practically an adult, except you’re not really. Most likely you’ve spent your whole life learning how to follow directions, equating compliance with success and you’re probably not ready to actually make real choices for yourself. How could you? You don’t even know who you are, what you care about, or what you do well. That wasn’t the point of your educational experience. Instead your job is to embrace yet another season of change, from college to the now murky years of extended adolescence into young adulthood. It’s no wonder that by the time most millennials reach their late 30s and 40s, they’re disillusioned and actually ready for a real change, one that they initiate by and for themselves.

I’ve spent most of my professional career in and around education. First as an elementary teacher in Atlanta’s public city schools, then coaching educators and working with schools and families to help folks figure out this thing we call education. How do we create an environments and experiences that actually facilitate young people finding their purpose, passion, and path in this world? As a parent, and as a educator that has been my driving ambition for some time now.

Last night I was at a dinner party with some good friends we’ve known for years. We’re all older millennials, now with kids of our own, some as old as teenagers and as young as 18 months. As tends to happen with parents of young kids the topic turned to schooling. I happened to mention our current approach, self directed learning, which is a bit different than traditional schooling. I’ve written about it here if you want to learn more. I usually frame my response by saying, yeah, so we’ve decided not to do school anymore. That usually gets them going. After we go through the initial incredulous responses, (what do you mean there’s no tests, grades, or teachers?). We usually get to the heart of the conversation which is, man… I wish my kids had something like that.

Because while it’s true that every parent wants what’s best for their child, it’s also true that access and the ability to dream are not evenly distributed. It wasn’t until the summer of my junior year in high school that I got my first taste of true self directed learning. I was selected for a prestigious statewide governors school program, and I got to go spend the summer living on a college campus (in historic downtown Charleston, South Carolina). I was there to develop a course of study based on my own interests and produce work that I cared about. It was amazing because of the autonomy I had over my own learning. I carried that same approach into my undergraduate experience, pursing concentrations that sparked my interest, including a minor that previously didn’t exist in community building and social change.

I was fortunate on multiple fronts. Because I learned how to play the game of “school” well, doors opened for me, and I accidentally stumbled upon an actual education when I got into places that gave me the reins to do so. Most students aren’t that lucky, either because the onerous practices of schooling are so soul sucking that they lose interest (see Gallop’s annual polling of declining student engagement through their K-12 years), or because they lack of access to transformative programming that does not conform to traditional educational norms. Our former superintendent used to lament after visiting classrooms, how many Picassos did we stifle today? We’re wasting genius this way.

We’re past due for a change. It’s been well documented who our current education system serves best (both public and private schools): those who have the tools and resources to navigate it. But education ought to be a public good, and therefore should serve us all. It’s time to reimagine schooling through the lens of the users themselves, students. It’s time to cede the power and control that we as adults have taken to create our systems of standards and accountability, which ultimately largely serve our purposes not theirs. What if we saw our jobs as parents and educators, as genius cultivators, responsible for helping our kids find their genius? How different might our approach be then to parenting and education?

Here’s to exploring that possibility further in 2023.

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