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Class is in Session


A question Tim Ferriss often asks podcast guests is, "if you had to teach a class of [insert grade level here] students, what subjects, skills or lessons would you teach?" I've heard many answers to this question but hadn't thought about it much myself. A couple weeks back a colleague said to me, "I could see you as a university professor someday."

Since my own college graduation in 2005, I have at times questioned the value of a university degree especially considering the cost. As a committed learner, my concern is less about the value of education in general rather than what we are teaching students. My initial encounter with the the real world was a trial by fire. I'm not saying I want things to be easy but I believe my college and I could've each taken more steps to better prepare me. One thing I cannot contest are the statistics which show income potential of college educated vs. not. But my question is, and one that I've heard discussed from time-to-time, is this because I'm better prepared for the work world or because employers use education as a screening tool for jobs? But I digress.

After my colleagues's comment, I found myself reflecting on Tim's question. "What might I teach if I had to?" While the righteous zealot in me wants to challenge the system, sometimes its best to change things from the inside out rather than other way around.

Before I get to what I would teach, the first thing I would do is change how grades are awarded. People's behaviors tend to reflect the system they are placed in and if the system is about grades, I'd first change the behaviors I reward. My class would focus much less on answers and instead reward questions, experiments and dialogue. I would structure it around projects, asking student to provide examples of the point they are making or outright defend a position they are handed.

If they were assigned the task of running a lemonade stand, I'd have them setup two scenarios. One where the goal is to sell as much as possible. The second one would challenge them to sell the most expensive lemonade possible? What does the experience of buying that lemonade look like when it is $0.10 vs. $10.? At ten dollars how much is even about the lemonade vs the environment and the way in which you serve it? What did you learn based on the two experiments? What would you do different?

I would have them read articles challenging general trends we see. One I love from a couple years ago is, "Why We Should Design Some Things to be Difficult to Use". "Ease of use" is a pervasive term in our global society. But mastery of a particular thing is born out of it not being easy. What should be convenient and easy vs. difficult? A book that helped me reflect years ago was Art of Manliness: Manvotionals (Side bar: the author tees up these apply to everyone). Virtues like courage, self-reliance, industry and honor are discussed. It discusses basic tenants of being a good person and citizen.

Another thing I would want the class to ask often is, "what would have to be true in order for me to change my mind?" We might look to foreign countries with culture and religion different from our own. I'd want them to learn about ingrained American cultural ideas like the right to vote or freedom of religion up against countries where these are not a given. Why might America's rules not be the answer? The inability to change one's mind on an issue is a dangerous thing and I'd want my students to always be questioning. In a perfect world with abundant resources, my class would have a prerequisite, which would be a study abroad program. I'd want my students to have experienced a different culture and have run into things they found strange or intriguing.

The final thing I would work on is the value or relationships. Our increasingly digital world can leave us convinced all the answers lie on the other side of a screen when often there is little replacement for the value of face-to-face conversation. While it plays more to political and social discourse of the moment, author Brené Brown says, "People are hard to hate close-up. Move in." The ability to find our way through struggle with colleagues, friends or family member is important and at times not as easy when the medium is electronic rather than face-to-face. Get on the phone or go see the person. I have no idea where this quote came from but it has stuck with me, "Never underestimate how much people will do for someone they like or how little they'll do for someone they don't." Add value to the relationships, personal and professional, you're in.

I have no idea how I'd pull the above class off but these are some things I think would be valuable for them to know.

Go Forth Boldly


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