August 02, 2013


Seth Godin is a fantastically successful entrepreneur who — in his own words — has been thrown out of offices, looked at like he’s crazy, and generally refused to follow the crowd.

It’s the personal history you might expect from someone whose latest book, “The Icarus Deception,” argues that those who don’t innovate and think creatively will be left behind by the Internet generation.

In 1998, Yahoo paid $30 million for the marketing company Godin started on a shoestring and made him a Vice President. But Godin soon left Yahoo, wrote bestselling books about the new innovation economy and spoke at companies like DisneyAmazon, and Google — and he wants American education to encourage similar risks.  


What is our educational system really preparing students for? Credit: Ben Husmann / Flickr Creative Commons

The Problem with School

“I think that school is fundamentally broken,” Godin explains. “The main reason it’s broken is that parents and teachers and taxpayers have not asked a very simple question. And the question is: what is school for?”

Godin feels that the problem results from an outdated system. Although American public schools are only 150 years old, they were originally intended to prepare students for factory work. If you think that school should prepare students for factory jobs, Godin says, it’s doing OK.

“But if you think school is for teaching kids resilience, and problem solving, and initiative, and leadership, then school is failing on all fronts,” he argues. “And the reason it’s failing is you can’t do a standardized test for any of those things.”

Like Peter Thiel, the millionaire whose foundation offers college students $100,000 to drop out and pursue their ideas, Godin believes that incompetence in American education extends to the very top.

“College for most people is just high school, but with more binge drinking and debt,” he argues. “What you pay for now, at a four-year institution, is not the courses — because you can get the courses for free. What you pay for is proof that you finished.”

panel discussion

Godin believes students should learn from the best - like this panel featuring the founders of YouTube, Digg, Skype, and TechCrunch. Credit: LeWeb12 / Flickr Creative Commons

The Education Revolution

Godin hasn’t lost all hope for American education. In fact, he thinks that individuals across America can combat the identity crisis facing schools and colleges by asking a simple question — and starting a quiet revolution.

“I just want, Alice’s Restaurant-style, people to walk into the school board and say, ‘What is school for,’ and walk out,” he says. “If we ask that question enough times, we’ll get a shot at getting to teach the right thing — which is not obedience, not compliance, not adherence to normalcy, but the right thing is teaching kids to solve interesting problems and to lead.”

If Godin could design a curriculum, he would make replace traditional homework worksheets with lectures from the world’s top thinkers — available on the Internet. Instead of addressing students at a blackboard, teachers in Godin’s school would play the role of coaches, pushing students to solve real-world problems.

Godin's ideal school isn't without models — online learning communities like Coursera andedX offer free college courses from top professors to the public. Online classrooms have even begun to foster understanding at a younger age. Khan Academy, founded by Sal Khan, allows students to learn everything from basic arithmetic to art history online. Each of these sites allows students to move through material at their own speed and presents them with instantaneous feedback — a far cry from spending a whole term on fractions and waiting two weeks for your teacher to hand back a paper.

Godin believes that these models should move from educational outliers to the new standard — and he doesn't think it's unrealistic to expect big things from young students.

“Let’s have an intelligent conversation among 8-year-olds about how health insurance can work — and I have had those conversations. It is totally possible and totally productive,” Godin argues. “It is a mistake to say to the 8-year-old, ‘You are a failure because you cannot make a D in the right shape with your handwriting that sits on this light blue line’ … and we say that to kids every day.”  

Habitat for Humanity build

Godin preaches a "no excuses" philosophy. If you want to organize a Habitat for Humanity build, he says, just do it. Credit: Tulane Public Relations / Flickr Creative Commons

Teaching Action

Godin believes that problem solving will prepare students for a future in which ideas are the only currency. He hopes that resumes listing fancy company names will soon be replaced by project portfolios containing everything from a video game you built after learning code to a collection of short stories. Because you no longer need an office building or angel investments to turn your ideas into reality, he argues, there’s no excuse for inertia.

“If you want to sing, sing. If you want to write, write. If you want to organize something for Habitat for Humanity, go do that,” Godin says. “And yet we’re not pushing kids, or adults, to go make something. Instead we’re encouraging them to watch seven hours of television every night.”

In order to persuade students to take action, we might have to teach them that failure is not a judgment, but an opportunity.

“If failure is not an option, neither is success,” Godin says. “The problem is that we have not taught our kids to fail — we haven’t taught them that failing is ok.” 

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Education, university, Seth Godin, primary school, secondary school, Culture

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