I just read a column by Nick Kristof about John Wood, the founder of Room To Read. Back in the late 90s I designed the logo for Room To Read. My dear friends Chris and Martina are friends of John’s and asked me if I would be interested in doing a little pro-bono work for a startup focused on literacy. At first the little startup was called Books for Nepal, and the logo was just a type based thing. When things got going and Books for Nepal expanded, first to Vietnam, John decided to rename the operation Room To Read and asked if I would redo the logo. I did. A few years ago I nearly fainted when Anna was watching Oprah and she was interviewing John. One of the images they flashed on the screen was a book which had been published by the Room To Read publishing group. On the book was my little logo.
I woke up a couple of times last night, and each time I caught myself in the middle of a dream about the words “why” and “what.” I have been wrestling with how to better engage the students in my classes in meaningful endeavor towards life-changing insight. (Not the easiest thing when you are teaching fundamentals of math.) I realized the other day that these students, many of whom struggle with learning disabilities, are preoccupied with “what” (as in “what’s the answer?”) when I want to lead them to engage with “why?” I came to this realization when I was sitting in a restaurant the other day with Anna. We were eating Mexican food and at a table near ours was a little girl having dinner with her dad. She was engaged in a long conversation about what had happened during her day at school, and the conversation was peppered with “why” questions, almost equally distributed between the girl and her father. Children who benefit from school the most are those who come with a healthy and vibrant curiosity about everything. From the conversation I observed (and from my memory of my children’s early lives) I came to the conclusion that curiosity is a cultivated habit. How then, I wonder, can I plant the seeds and cultivate this curiosity in my students, while honoring the Department of Education’s demand that these children are to be driven towards a single goal: the ability to choose the correct answer from an array of four options on a standardized test? This preoccupation with standardized testing seems to be an antidote to curiosity, driving children and teachers everywhere to be myopically focused on finding the right answer to “what” to the exclusion of “why.”
When I was thinking about John Woods (see above) it dawned on me that he is to philanthropy what Steve Jobs was to technology. Woods initially tripped over an issue and its solution while trekking through Nepal. He could have devoted his life to working through existing channels to address the problem of literacy, instead he took off on his own and revolutionized the process of dealing with an obvious problem that much bigger, well funded institutions have failed to effectively address for decades. In just a few years he had transformed the lives of thousands of children. He was driven by imagination. Like Jobs, Woods can see beyond the limitations of current reality. He isn’t preoccupied with what “can’t” be done, he is focused on what he needs to do. That’s the kind of leadership and vision required for our national system of public education. We need to stop trying to solve the wrong problems. We’re fighting the wrong battles and spending our resources on fixing the wrong things.
Implicit in Kristof’s column(s) is the idea that the value of spending more of our resources on education today, is that we won’t be spending so much of our treasure later on things like military, security, and jails. Jobs didn’t spend his time trying to build a computer to incrementally improve on what he and Wozniak had done with the Apple II or what IBM was doing with the PC — he was trying to fundamentally change the our conceptual model of a computer (“a bicycle for our mind”). Woods is trying to change the world by bringing more people into the conversation about all things by building literacy, one child at a time.
We need the same kind of visionary to guide the conversation about education. Right now I see a lot of really smart people trying to solve the problem that isn’t the most pressing issue. Disruptive institutions like Teach For America are trying to address educational inequity by focusing on teachers. Charter schools are trying to address the problem through a variety of strategies, but share a focus on teachers and improving student’s scores on standardized tests. These are well intentioned efforts, but they aren’t likely to be transformative in the long run because they don’t challenge the existing paradigm of K-12 education. There are some prophets in this wilderness but they don’t seem to be gaining much traction, most likely because the entrenched interests in the world of education are so powerful. We need a Woods or a Jobs to emerge and confront this issue with imagination and creativity.