Dedicated to every teacher who cares enough to change the system, and to every student brave enough to stand up and speak up.
Specifically, for Ross Abrams, Jon Guillaume, Beth Rudd, Steve Greenberg, Benji Kanters, Patti Jo Wilson, Florian Kønig, and that one teacher who changed everything for you.
1. Preface: Education transformed
As I was finishing this manifesto, a friend invited me to visit the Harlem Village Academies, a network of charter schools in Manhattan.
Harlem is a big place, bigger than most towns in the United States. It’s difficult to generalize about a population this big, but household incomes are less than half of what they are just a mile away, unemployment is significantly higher and many (in and out of the community) have given up hope.
A million movies have trained us about what to expect from a school in East Harlem. The school is supposed to be an underfunded processing facility, barely functioning, with bad behavior, questionable security and most of all, very little learning.
Hardly the place you’d go to discover a future of our education system.
For generations, our society has said to communities like this one, “here are some teachers (but not enough) and here is some money (but not enough) and here are our expectations (very low) … go do your best.” Few people are surprised when this plan doesn’t work.
Over the last ten years, I’ve written more than a dozen books about how our society is being fundamentally changed by the impact of the internet and the connection economy. Mostly I’ve tried to point out to people that the very things we assumed to be baseline truths were in fact fairly recent inventions and unlikely to last much longer. I’ve argued that mass marketing, mass brands, mass communication, top-down media and the TV-industrial complex weren’t the pillars of our future that many were trained to expect. It’s often difficult to see that when you’re in the middle of it.
In this manifesto, I’m going to argue that top-down industrialized schooling is just as threatened, and for very good reasons. Scarcity of access is destroyed by the connection economy, at the very same time the skills and attitudes we need from our graduates are changing.
While the internet has allowed many of these changes to happen, you won’t see much of the web at the Harlem Village Academy school I visited, and not so much of it in this manifesto, either. The HVA is simply about people and the way they should be treated. It’s about abandoning a top-down industrial approach to processing students and embracing a very human, very personal and very powerful series of tools to produce a new generation of leaders.
There are literally thousands of ways to accomplish the result that Deborah Kenny and her team at HVA have accomplished. The method doesn’t matter to me, the outcome does. What I saw that day were students leaning forward in their seats, choosing to pay attention. I saw teachers engaged because they chose to as well, because they were thrilled at the privilege of teaching kids who wanted to be taught.
The two advantages most successful schools have are plenty of money and a pre-selected, motivated student body. It’s worth highlighting that the HVA doesn’t get to choose its students, they are randomly assigned by lottery. And the HVA receives less funding per student than the typical public school in New York. HVA works because they have figured out how to create a workplace culture that attracts the most talented teachers, fosters a culture of ownership, freedom and accountability, and then relentlessly transfers this passion to their students.
Maestro Ben Zander talks about the transformation that happens when a kid actually learns to love music. For one year, two years, even three years, the kid trudges along. He hits every pulse, pounds every note and sweats the whole thing out.
Then he quits.
Except a few. The few with passion. The few who care.
Those kids lean forward and begin to play. They play as if they care, because they do. And as they lean forward, as they connect, they lift themselves off the piano seat, suddenly becoming, as Ben calls them, one-buttock players.
Playing as if it matters.
Colleges are fighting to recruit the kids who graduate from Deborah’s school and I have no doubt that we’ll soon be hearing of the leadership and contribution of the HVA alumni — one-buttock players who care about learning and giving. Because it matters.