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Education, Genius, and the Declining Use of Paperclips

In 1968, George Land (with Beth Jarman) conducted a research study to test the creativity of 1,600 children ranging in ages from three-to-five years old who were enrolled in a Head Start program. This was the same creativity test he devised for NASA to help select innovative engineers and scientists. The assessment worked so well he decided to try it on children. He then re-tested the same children at 10 years of age, and again at 15 years of age (a longitudinal study).

The test was designed to indicate how well someone could look at a issue and devise new, different, innovative ways to address it. To do that, they asked children at these various ages to come up with ways to use a paperclip. The results may surprise you.

The results are not as we would expect, are they? The proportion of people who scored at the “Genius Level” decreased with age. We might think that it should increase with our level of education. But clearly not.

Why is this? Well, it seems we have employed a system that educates the genius right out of people. And how have we done this? Let's see.

The industrial revolution began in Great Britain in the mid 1700's and by 1760 in the U.S was gaining steam - literally. Steam power was the catalyst. This first industrial revolution exploded from about 1760 to 1840. It was followed by the age of science and mass production, and then the digital revolution. We are now at the beginning of the next phase of dramatic technological expansion and social change—the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Coinciding with the first industrial revolution was an educational revolution, Public Education. The system was created in the late 1600's and in the 1700's was developed into the system we still use today. It was designed to meet the challenges of the first industrial revolution. But, when that revolution gave way to the second, and third, and fourth, our educational system did not. It was devoted to the original system. Alongside the first industrial revolution, it has continued to insist on manufacturing the same student, over and over, tweaking content for new technologies. So, today's education system produces student conformity just as any good industrial manufacturing process would do with it's product. But not student creativity, diversity or individual expression, which fits the needs of our day. As a result, ideas for paperclips decline and genius dries up.

Remember Sidney Portier in To Sir With Love? 1967, if you like the classics. It dealt with social and racial issues in an inner-city school. Portier played Mark Thackeray, a high school teacher trying to teach a class of students having to deal with stereotypical thinking and racial discrimination. After teaching in this school a while, he made a decision that brought more trouble his way from the powers-that-be than he could ever have imagined. That's because he dumped the system.

He discovered the hard way (is there another way?) that the system had lost its way. It had decided that kids no longer saw a reason to learn, no longer desired to learn, and so they'd do their duty, dispense the information from the textbooks, grade the students, and send them out to face their fate. It was the same mindset as, "We're going to give you a fair trial, and then we're going to hang you".

But that was not "Sir's" (Mark Thackeray's) goal. If the system lost its way, he would forge a new path on which his students could walk. So, while this feels a little strange to write in a post, it conveys well the results of Sir's own revolution in education. Maybe you can hear the melody like I can from Lulu's famous theme song to the movie.

Those schoolgirl days Of telling tales and biting nails are gone But in my mind I know they will still live on and on

But how do you thank someone Who has taken you from crayons to perfume? It isn't easy, but I'll try

If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters That would soar a thousand feet high "To sir, with love"

The time has come For closing books and long last looks must end And as I leave I know that I am leaving my best friend

A friend who taught me right from wrong And weak from strong That's a lot to learn What, what can I give you in return?

If you wanted the moon I would try to make a start But I would rather you let me give my heart "To sir, with love"

Do you hear it? He mentored them. He led them to maturity. He reignited their passion for discovery and learning. The subjects he taught suddenly had relevance in their lives. And guess what? In the end they realized they owed everything to this teacher who gave everything for them. The lesson we learn is that all children are capable in some area. Regardless of age, all are curious. All want to learn. But after years of boring them to tears and ignoring relevance to their lives, too many don't care anymore. They stop asking questions about what can be done with a paperclip. Their genius becomes dormant. Millions of children are left behind and high school dropout rates of up to 60% are being experienced in parts of the nation.

A passion for leaning? Created in high school? Go figure! Teachers and administrators wisely decide that those in boardrooms and committee rooms do not know best how to educate our kids. Those decisions need to start being made at the school and classroom level in partnership with parents and students.

Our current process of education is the same as the assembly-line mentality that was necessary back in 1750. That means the current system of education does what it did when America was first industrialized. We are trying to deal with the challenges of tomorrow with answers to yesterday's problems. That yields conformity and is demonstrated through standardized testing. It is not creativity; certainly not genius. And the end result is crystal clear: we educate the genius right out of our children and our nation by the time our kids are 10, certainly by age 15. Ours is a day when we desperately need to find more ways to use paperclips. That will only happen when learning becomes personalized, individualized, and designed for the amazing differences evident in each of us.

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