Fitting a Square Peg into a Round Hole

Stop believing in “average”

Photo by moren hsu on Unsplash

This post was inspired by John D. Couch’s book, “Rewiring Education.” He offers a compelling approach on how our education system can (and should) change with technology’s help.

I highly recommend you check it out. If you like this post, please reach out to me @ronqnroll on Twitter!

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

I’ve seen my mom learn best by opening up a 500-page technical manual to solve a problem she’s facing at work.

She has always had this tenacity.

While in high school…in spite of having the top grades in her class all four years, my mom was once told by her career counselor to not pursue college, but instead stay in her small town.

Why? As she recalls, “so she could marry someone to take care of her instead.”

She earned her MBA online when she turned 50. At 60, she has just passed 40 years at IBM and was recently recognized by the Society of Hispanic Engineers (SHPE), an organization that has over 10k members, with their highest honor.

She has shown me no one can stop you from learning so long as you have the motivation and grit to do it.

Pop quiz! So what is the purpose of education?

“To prepare us for college.”

“To prepare us for work.”

“To teach critical thinking skills.”

“To develop good citizens.”

These were the responses from Professor Karen Brennan’s students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She asks it on the first day and she has never gotten two responses exactly alike.

The answer to this question has affected the way you and I have approached learning.

We limit ourselves based on what we assume we’re capable of

At the heart of this is:

  • Fallacy of the single cause, which “causes us to look for easy-to-understand answer to a problem that is actually quite complex”
  • Cognitive bias, which is “when we make judgements about people or things based on our own personal experiences or circumstances
  • Confirmation Bias, which “occurs once we’ve made up our minds on what we believe to be the cause, and then subconsciously proceed to do everything in our power to prove ourselves right, rather than to learn the real reasons.”

These don’t exist in isolation.

They work together to tell a story that isn’t true. That story leads us to accepting there’s an average, or a standard…and if we don’t meet it, we’re told there’s something wrong with us.

Not true, there is no such thing as average.

This story begins with someone, or something asking us “are we achieving our potential?”

What’s missing is answering the question before that, the potential to do what?

“Only by understanding people as individuals — by rejecting use of the average as the primary yardstick against which we measure ourselves and others — can we learn to really make a difference in their lives.”

The challenges we respond best to are the ones where the learning is relevant and engaging

Think about any reality-TV show that asks its contestant to “produce something that fit the rules.”

In other words, every cooking reality show in existence. These shows are “built around the power of a challenge.”

Difference here is, you don’t always have to go it alone. What you do need to address is your “zone of personal development.”

  • At very center is the comfort zone = what a person can already do
  • Just outside of that is the growth zone = where most learning takes place
  • And outside that is the panic zone = where a person cannot yet do things without help

“The goal is to get, and keep, learners in their growth zones. The beauty of staying in your growth zone is so you can look back at something you achieved created.”

Our brains physically change over the course of life experiences.

Staying in your growth zone means you can look back at something you created that now exists in the world. Perhaps it helps change something about that world, but it guarantees something will change in you.

What motivates you today may not motivate you tomorrow

We’re like complicated math equations, constantly being revisited to solve for whatever life experience we’re living in.

I think of our motivations like multipliers.

If it’s 1x, well then that doesn’t change the equation at all.

So what are practical ways to amplify our motivations?

Hint: take a look around you.

Couch defined the following environments that suit us best:

  • The Campfire = designed for one-to-many learning
  • The Watering Hole = designed for many-to-many learning
  • The Cave = designed for one-to-one learning
  • The Mountain Top = learn by doing

The Campfire = best used when storytelling is involved to better engage students. Think your favorite TED talk.

The Watering Hole = “a space where people come together to share and collaborate with one another in a peer-to-peer manner.” These can either be formal, or informal.

The best watering holes are when we’re asked to:

  • Share their own independent findings on the current lesson
  • Discover and explore in group-based settings
  • Elicit feedback from others
  • Become learners and teaches at the same time
  • Make good use of technology

The Cave = “where learners have the opportunity to spend time alone.”

This allows us to “reflect and make our own personal connections to make sense and integrate new information that we’ve learned with the things we already know.”

This is best done and used when we direct our minds to this activity, without distractions, or as little distraction as possible. For instance, I’ve been doing 10 minute writing exercises on single idea and seeing where my mind takes me to make connections.

The Mountaintop = “bringing the learning to life.”

This is about learning by doing to test whether we’re able to do it all. However, the “true power of climbing mountain comes from its built-in feedback system.” I’ve learned to view any mistake to be an opportunity for valuable feedback. So when you seek it out, thank the person offering it because they took the time to care about you and the effort you put in.

Be aware of your surroundings because it’s easy to feed off of it.

In negative cases, we complain. In positive cases, we rise up to the challenges.

“In times of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future while the learned find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” — Eric Hoffer

Pay attention to the winds of change in your world. Because one of these days the world that’s coming will be here and being “good enough” will quickly work against you.

Most of all, being a lifelong learner means you can tackle change by addressing this question…what are you going to do about it?

I’m currently a Product Designer at SaverLife, a FinTech nonprofit that helps low-income adults build their saving habits.

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