Can We Teach Fascination?
The other day I found a list of the 25 most in-demand skills for today’s workers. Among them, after statistical analysis and data mining: “middlewear” and integration software. Algorithm design. Web architecture and development framework. User interface design. Middlewear? I don’t even know what that is, and I bet nobody else did 20 years ago. But apparently, it’s a thing. A lucrative thing.What the above skills have in common is that they require not only solid math, design and computer skills, but also creativity. Here’s what worries me: As our nation becomes further dependent on technology, that our nation’s schools, bound by arcane, “one size fits none” testing standards, aren’t preparing the students to write, to design, to think on the wild side. Educators must, by law, provide specific “accountability” and meet certain testing standards.

I have great empathy for teachers and principals, who are basically doing their jobs with one hand behind their backs, blindfolded, expecting to spin plates amid pillaged budgets and toxic politics. We know there’s limited time to get the core curricula down: Of course students need to read, write and understand science, or they won’t be able to move about in the world. And of course, all teachers are open to more creativity in their classrooms. Every teacher I’ve ever spoken to says there’s just not enough time in the day to get everything done.

And still, consider these statistics, collected by the Broad Foundation:
• Two out of three eighth-graders aren’t proficient in reading.
• Seventy-five percent of students are not proficient in civics.
• For African-American and Hispanic students across the country, dropout rates are close to 40 percent, compared to the national average of 27 percent.
• After World War II, the United States had the No. 1 high school graduation rate in the world. Today, we have dropped to No. 22 among 27 industrialized nations.
• American students rank 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading compared to students in 27 industrialized countries.

How do go beyond the basics to ignite a passion, curiosity and fascination in order to solve tomorrow’s challenges?

The skills in demand today require a great amount of creative thinking and original problem solving. Tomorrow’s billionaires are going to be the ones who anticipate market needs before anyone else does, and invent a way to create demand. The very future of America depends on innovation. Witness three of the most valuable brands in the world: Apple, Microsoft and Google. What do they all have in common? Nobody told Bill Gates to make a computer that would go in every home. Nobody told Steve Jobs they wanted a small device that could hold thousands of songs, pictures, movies AND make phone calls. Nobody told Sergey Brin and Larry Page that one day people would be starving for information on the Internet. These innovators told the world what it wanted before the world even knew, disrupting markets, industries and practiced processes along the way. In short, they all knew how to think. Good thing the Wright brothers didn’t wait around for someone to issue them a pilot’s license.

How can students become relevant in this crowded, competitive and sometimes heartless world? How can collaborating with others—perhaps around the globe, via social media and cloud technology—become second nature? How do we move them to effectively, efficiently, and elegantly solve problems? How do we instill such a love of learning and discovery that they’ll keep up that passion for the rest of their lives, and apply it to their own careers, art and relationships?

Here’s something to ponder: Why are video games, Snapchat and YouTube so much more compelling to kids than history, science and math by a most alarming margin?

Because those activities are fascinating. We know that there are many teachers, in schools rich and poor, urban and rural, who are bringing the elements of innovation into their classrooms, despite the forces at work against them. But for everyone else, how do we roll out creative classrooms to scale, so it touches every child in every part of our country? How do we create a major educational and cultural shift?

What if we taught in such an entertaining, stimulating and provocative way that our kids didn’t realize they were being educated?

What if we revolutionized learning so much that it was infinitely more entertaining than the myriad distractions? What if we richly rewarded curiosity? What if we affirmed differentiation over standardization? What if we replaced tests with games? What if we blew open everything we thought we knew and started counting backwards—from what a happy, creative, successful person in the world needs from the system to become that way? What if we honored our teachers like we honor those in the military? What if we rewarded teachers for nurturing, loving and growing our kids to discover their own passions instead of just standardized academic proficiency?

And one thing i know for sure is that an affirmed and engaged teacher creates affirmed and engaged students.

You might be thinking, “Hey, who’s this guy, he’s not a teacher or an administrator. He’s an artist. I don’t come to his job and tell him to add more red.”

But here’s why we’re alike. We all die without innovation. We all care deeply about America’s students and what it means for our future. I’m the father of three sons, boys who have been, and are, products of the system. I fear we are losing our best and bright teachers who have become frustrated and disillusioned. And I fear we are losing some of our best, most talented, creative kids to more “fascinating” activities. If we were to start with a blank canvas for the future of education today – how would you build a classroom to create tomorrows educational masterpiece?

I ask you, humbly, what are the things educational professionals can do today, and every day, to affirm teachers so that they can spark curiosity in our kids and ignite life-long learning? What works for you? How will we cultivate the next generation of geniuses? I want to know. Tweet me your ideas @erikwahl. or leave your ideas in the comment section to share with others.