Rethinking Education in Copan, Honduras

Mayan Ruins, Copan, Honduras

Last week I went to an NGO conference in Copan, Honduras, to speak on “Rethinking Education.”  If you wanted to help a poor nation become prosperous, in addition to providing a world class legal system, what would you do?

You would certainly not continue down the same path.  Magatte and I often describe how the Senegalese education system is a poor replica of 1950s-era French colonial education, one which, when it is effective, trains Senegalese to be French bureaucrats.  The Senegalese, on their own, are highly entrepreneurial – but government schooling there is especially effective at training them to be passive and dependent.

If I were to create a fresh educational system for the developing world, which I hope to have the opportunity to do both in Honduras and in Senegal, I would rethink the whole system from scratch:

1.  Start with the end in mind.

2.  The end is the cultivation of individual genius:  Our obligation as educators is to identify and develop the individual genius of each child, so that they can optimize their own opportunities and contribute as much as they can to the world.

3.  As Dan Pink argues in A Whole New Mind, the growth industries of the 21st century will be those associated with meaning, purpose, empathy, beauty, design, experience, etc.  Because of Asia, Automation, and Abundance, most people will not and should not try to compete simply on the basis of low cost manufacturing.  Instead, (and this is me), they need to learn how to be insanely great at something.  We no longer have time for the tedious, inefficient ritual known as “school.”

4.  In indigenous cultures around the world, young people took on adult responsibilities at the age of 13 or so.  In 18th and 19th century America, people took on adult responsibilities at 13 or so (including Ben Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, John Muir, Thomas Edison, etc.)  Some people believe that in the modern, technologically-sophisticated world this is no longer possible, and young people need many years of education before taking on adult responsibilities.  But in 2001, Marcus Arnold, a 15 year-old kid, became a top-ranked legal advisor on  Richard Branson is a high school drop-out that started his first business at the age of 16.  A significant number of the billionaires on the Forbes list who did not inherit their wealth are high school or college drop-outs.  And of course Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, John Mackey, and many other of our leading entrepreneurs are college drop-outs.  The tedious education ritual as we know it is not necessary for success.

5.  Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers suggests that it takes 10,000 hours to become world-class at something (chess, tennis, ice-skating, programming, violin, etc.)  K-12 schooling takes roughly 14,000 hours.  What percentage of those 14,000 hours are dedicated to developing world class expertise?  In 99.99% of cases the answer is zero.

In the Phi Delta Kappa Fastback, “Extraordinary Educators:  Lessons in Leadership,” Charles Reavis studies the cheerleading squad that usually ranks among the top in the country, the debate team in Texas that almost always wins the state championship, the math club in Florida that continually results in one of the top-ranked math teams in the U.S., etc.  How is it that some “extraordinary educators” continue to produce extraordinary results year after year, with different students each year?  Is it the water?

Reavis describes a consistent series of behaviors that he observed in diverse skill domains.  Extraordinary educators:

A.  Clearly care about the students they work with, yet set very high standards of performance.

B.  Are themselves experts in the domain they are instructing.

C.  Provide continuous, specific corrections to students’ performance in real time so that students do not habituate themselves in anything less than top-notch performance techniques.

I believe this is a simple, universal formula for producing outstanding results.  When I raise student SAT-verbal scores by 100 points or more by means of classroom Socratic dialogue, I do so by means of the very behaviors specified by Reavis.  I care about students and they know that I care, and yet I expect absolute clarity in thought and expression.  I am myself a capable reader, writer, speaker, and thinker.  And when I am leading Socratic discussions I often provide real-time course corrections with respect to reading, speaking, and group dynamics to ensure that the students are developing superb skills.

6.  The question arises:  How do we know what 10,000 hours of excellence a young person should be focused upon?  We don’t want to monomaniacally prepare a child to be a figure skater when they should really be a nurse – right?

A case could be made that developing 10,000 hours of world-class excellence in almost anything would be better than the ubiquitous disaster of mediocrity and boredom we force children to internalize today.  That said, a case can be made that truly world-class ability in “readin, ritin, and rithmatic,” so to speak, would be an improvement on what we have today.  By means of Socratic Practice I can develop world-class reading, writing, and speaking ability while also developing the ability to think independently and originaly.  Regular mathematics practice, typically self-paced, will allow most students to rip through conventional K-8 arithmetic in one tenth the time it currently takes so that they can go on to develop world class skills in programming, spreadsheets, higher mathematics, or quit math altogether to focus on skills in design, sales, entrepreneurship, customer service, healing, etc.

The point is, whatever mix is decided upon, to rethink about the 14,000 hours we currently waste “teaching” curriculum and focus instead on some package of world-class skill development – so that by 13, or 15, or certainly by 17 we actually have young people who are capable of getting something done and doing it well.

7.  In the future I’ll cash all of this out into interesting career paths for developing world young people.  For now I’ll simply mention three categories:

A.  Producing and marketing meaning-based value-added products.

B.  The hospitality, health care, elder care, and community-creation industries.

C.  Remote services.

In each of these categories, developing world entrepreneurs, if they had a pipeline of talent similar to what I’m describing, could create competitive companies that would create prosperity in poor nations (again, given a good legal system).

About Michael Strong

Co-founder, Ko School + Incubator, Conscious Capitalism, Radical Social Entrepreneurs, lead author of Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems, author of The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.
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2 Responses to Rethinking Education in Copan, Honduras

  1. I am really interested in the topic of this post. I live in Copan and work at Mayatan Bilingual School there. I question, however, whether the goal of K-12 education should be to turn out experts in the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour definition of the term. That’s probably impossible in any primary/secondary school, unless the child were trained from an early age at a specific skill or task. Experts are people who had a passion for something that they worked out outside of the classroom or later on in life (20s and 30s), like Bill Gates. Maybe schools should be giving students the tools to follow their passions successfully and capitalize on them later on as they become experts. Of course, not everyone is capable of redefining a field, so they need to be prepared to contribute to whatever path they take. Just a thought.

  2. Meltem Kaso says:

    Great post! Reminds me what Einstein once said: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

    What David says makes me wonder, though. And I believe there is some truth in that, especially when it comes to the part in which he says: “Experts are people who had a passion for something that they worked out outside of the classroom or later on in life (20s and 30s), like Bill Gates. Maybe schools should be giving students the tools to follow their passions successfully and capitalize on them later on as they become experts.” Indeed, there are strong arguments for the value of self-taught. For example, Isaac Asimov, former professor of Biochemistry at Boston University who wrote over 500 books said that “Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” So does this suggest that the capacity for innovation in schools is limited?

    I am about to be a Human Development graduate from UChicago, very interested in understanding what makes us who we are (i.e. in terms of biology, culture, psychology) and how we can play with that to increase happiness, wellbeing and productivity. But I have a very little professional experience. Therefore, I am tempted to ask: Would it be a good idea if schools were places with a priority of cultivating the love of self-taught? Would it serve to individual geniuses in us if schools were sites to plant seeds of passion in different areas of learning so that individuals gradually develop their own path/focus? What could be an example to a tool to follow passions?

    Sorry for asking all these questions. My thoughts are 99% in forms of inquiry.

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