final draft #4b of my TEDxCSULB talk for Sunday 9 April ’17 in the University Student Union (USU) on the campus of Long Beach State University
Burn the University Catalog
lessons from alternative education
[SLIDE] This is my cousin Ellie. She’s 8. One morning late last year, Ellie’s mom, my cousin Cece, walked into her kitchen to find a scene at the stove: in front of the stove was a stool, on top of the stool was Ellie, on top of the stove was a double boiler, in that was melted chocolate, which Ellie was coating almonds with. Cece looked at this scene for a moment, and finally, in confusion asked,
How do you even know what a double boiler is?
To which her 8 year-old daughter replied,
It’s easy! I learned it from Martha Stewart on YouTube.
The day Cousin Ellie started using YouTube to study the culinary arts with the top chefs around the globe, was the day I realized that Cousin Ellie and our University Catalog are not living in the same century.
What is a “University Catalog?” If Windows or iOS is the operating system of your laptop or phone, if the Constitution is the operating system of the United States, then the University Catalog is the operating system of The University.
4 Schools: Montessori, Olin, Medici & Runaway
To see how the university operating system can engage & empower students here in the 21st century, lets look at 4 schools: Montessori Schools, Olin College, Medici University, and Runaway University.
[SLIDE] This is Maria Montessori on the 1000 lire bill. She developed an approach to education that was focused on the individual child and on doing rather than listening.
Of Google founders Larry Page & Sergey Brin, Marissa Mayer said,
You cannot understand Google, unless you understand that Larry & Sergey were both Montessori kids.
[SLIDE] The guy in the middle is Richard Miller, the president of Olin College. Olin College has some unusual ideas:
- No tuition.
- No tenure.
- No departments.
- Everything, including the curriculum, has an expiration date.
One reason Richard Miller is proud of Olin College is that it’s the only engineering school that ranks in the top 20 on both of 2 different questions:
1 – students say they’ve never worked harder in their lives.
2 – students say they’ve never had more fun in their lives.
I’ve been teaching here at Long Beach State for the past 12 years now. And along the way I’ve also created a couple of alternative universities. This is Medici University for avatars.
In the past 8 years about 1,000 avatars from 6 continents have participated in projects. And just a week ago we broke ground on the new MU College of Avatar Architecture & Virtual Urban Planning.
[SLIDE] This is an aerial view of the Medici University campus. The campus sits on 6.5 hectares of virtual land, with most of that space being given over to individual student studios where they pursue projects of their own design.
[SLIDE] These student-avatars are at one of the Medici University coffee shops. They’re discussing the upcoming issue of the university magazine, MU Creativity.
[SLIDE] At the center-top of this image is a small, seahorse avatar, which belongs to RL Los Angeles artist Micol Hebron. Hebron is giving a Medici University Visiting Artist Talk, focusing on the theme of “Gifting” in her art.
2 years, about 200 international students, from 61 countries.
[SLIDE] Here are some “Runaway University, Los Angeles,” or “RULA”, students from France, Germany, China & The United States hanging out in the RULA Map Room.
[SLIDE] This is Jacek from Poland, he’s teaching a RULA “Laughter Workshop” to students from Korea, Colombia, Argentina & South Africa.
[SLIDE] This is Mehdi from Algeria giving a talk on World Geographies & Cultures Day. That Sunday we had talks by students from Algeria, Honduras, Malaysia, Pakistan & Turkmenistan.
Let me tell you about something I’ve never done at Medici University, never done at Runaway University, but do every day at Long Beach State University:
If you have to take attendance, you’ve already failed.
We live in a world of detached motivators. We live in a world where extrinsic motivation, like points and grades, has replaced intrinsic motivation, like building a career and becoming a more complete human being.
We perform by attending class because attendance is taken. We perform to obtain points and grades as if they mean something in themselves when they are in fact meaningless. In the bankrupt pursuit of points and grades we have created a college experience where too many are not working hard, and too many are not having fun.
I dream of an active, project-based college experience where students are working harder than they’ve ever worked in their lives. Where students are having more fun than they’ve ever had in their lives. At that university, no one will ever have to take attendance.
And I should note that at that university, there won’t be a lot of what I’m doing right now. Lecturing. It will be an active, project-based university. Less “sage on the stage” and more “guide on the side.”
Here are a few thoughts about the future of education. First K-12, then college.
Cousin Ellie is currently being homeschooled. Her older brother of 2 years, Cousin Eli, came home from kindergarten one day and announced that the kindergarten curriculum was not satisfying his academic interests, and asked if he could be home schooled. It’s a lot of work, but it’s one way to create more student-centered curriculum. In cousin Ellie’s case, a culinary arts focus; for cousin Eli, science.
[SLIDE] The tall guy in the middle is Ian Rothman. He’s the grandson of one of my mom’s closest, lifelong friends. He’s a recent graduate of UC Riverside. Ian teaches Middle School in Los Angeles. Ian and some other young teachers are focused on Project-based learning and students setting their own goals.
With young teachers like Ian, and the support I hope they get from school districts, by the time his 7th grade students get to Long Beach State in 2022, or by the time Cousin Ellie gets here in 2027, they will not only be prepared to take a big role in defining their own curriculum, they will demand it.
All of which is great if you can wait a generation or two. But what if you’re in school today? About 3/4s of you here at TEDxCSULB are current college students. A better education for your kids would be nice, but what about a better education for you today?
[SLIDE] Hamilton! What does a smash Broadway musical have to do with the university catalog? A lot it turns out. The first major political dispute in American history was between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson believed in “strict construction,” that the government could only do precisely what was spelled out in the Constitution. Hamilton was a “broad constructionist” who believed that The Constitution was a living, flexible document that could and should respond to the times. It turns out that interpreting our Long Beach State University Catalog is a bit like interpreting the United States Constitution. And, like Alexander Hamilton, your Departmental Adviser might be a broad constructionist.
The most important advice I can offer students is to make your education Project Based.
In the book Moneyball we’re exposed to the idea that The Oakland A’s shouldn’t be buying players, they should be buying wins. By assembling a team of undervalued players the Oakland A’s manage to outperform the New York Yankees with only one-third of The Yankees budget.
Let’s substitute “classes” for “players”, and “projects” for “wins”. Your college education should not be about buying classes, it should be about creating projects. If the poor Oakland A’s can outperform the rich New York Yankees, then I believe that you can outperform the University Catalog.
Psychology Statistics Example
Let’s take statistics class in Psychology as an example.
Students sometimes tell me they hate their statistics class. The faculty sort of say, “trust us, you’ll need this someday.” But the students hear, “this is hard, boring, and you’ll never use it.” What if Psychology was Project Based? What if you surveyed fellow students about a question you care about? Then you’ve got 6 binders full of data. What are you going to do with that? How will you understand what your data has to tell you? You probably need to learn some statistics. But now you’re learning stat not because, trust-us-you’ll-need-it-some-day, but because I-need-it-right-now-to-answer-a-question-I-care-about. At this point you might take a class, read a book, hang out in faculty office hours, or watch a video. How you learn stat is not as important as the fact that you learn the tools you need to answer the questions you’re asking today.
I have 3 tools to help make your college experience more Project-based:
- Modify the class
- Make your own class
- Swap classes you care about for classes you don’t
Within Course Mods
- Modify the Class:
[SLIDE] I couldn’t find a photo of my high school geometry teacher Mr. Potter, so this is a photo of Mr. Torsten, somebody else’s high school geometry teacher. But Mr. Potter was my high school geometry teacher. At our final he gave us a sheet with 27 questions and instructed us to do the 1st 25 only. He explained that Mr. Barron, the other geometry teacher, insisted on including the last 2 just to see if anyone could do them, but that they were really over our heads, and that he’d just grade us on the 1st 25. Being young and cockier than I remember, I asked Mr. Potter if I could just do 26 and 27, and skip the 1st 25. Mr. Potter said OK. I aced that class.
There will be faculty members who won’t let you renegotiate their syllabus. But some will. See if you can substitute projects for exams. See if you can develop your skills in negotiating with “project leaders.” AKA “faculty.”
- Make Your Own Class:
[SLIDE] This is a project one of my students, Heidi Schuster, created, called The MP3 Experiment. For Heidi an independent project was a chance to work with audio media, to do large-scale choreography across the university campus, and to explore the social and interactive spaces that interest her.
You too can create your own projects in “Independent Study” or “Directed Studies” classes. Find a faculty member you connect with and ask to work with them. This is a chance to work with someone in your field, to define your own problems, and to discover your own solutions. You’ll find these special course options typically numbered 490-something. Independent Study is most often 1 student & 1 faculty member. But it doesn’t have to be. Find a partner to work on a project with you. Or a team.
Course Substitutions or Program Restructuring with your Departmental Adviser
- Modify the Curriculum:
[SLIDE] I said that the most important advice I can give you is to make your education project based. That’s true. The 2nd most important piece of advice I can give you is to visit your adviser early and often. Your adviser is not just someone to read the university catalog for you. Your adviser is your ombudsperson between you and the catalog. They can be incredibly helpful. And they are incredibly powerful.
Those cool independent study classes that I hope you’ll be taking a lot of? They’re often limited to just 6 units. Not many units if you want to do multiple projects with multiple faculty members in your department. Or if you’ve developed a relationship with a faculty member in another department that’s relevant to your career.
Summon your inner Alexander Hamilton and negotiate the interpretation of the university catalog with your adviser. Take more independent study. Take classes in your department, or other relevant departments, that focus on projects. Negotiate with your adviser to develop your program, to serve your career, here in your century.
Actions for Students
So here it is, starting tomorrow morning, Cousin Ellie and I are challenging you to make your education yours.
- Work with faculty to optimize your class experience.
- Work with faculty to create your own Independent Study or Directed Study class.
- Work with your adviser to substitute other classes and your Independent Study classes to meet required classes.
I realize that telling faculty and advisers that you think you have a better idea might be a little intimidating for some of you. I can hardly believe I told Mr. Potter that I wanted to skip the 1st 25 questions on his final, and only answer the 2 questions written by the other geometry teacher! While you’re summoning the courage to express yourself, here’s something painless you can get started with: develop your personal brand. Go to any of 20 different platforms and make your own website, start your ePortfolio. Feature your projects on your website. Share with the world the power of your successes and the insights from your failures.
And when you’ve posted your 1st project on your new website, send me your URL. I’d love to see what you’ve achieved!
- 2nd draft: 3258
- final draft: 2434
- final #2: 2513
- final #3: 2495
- final #4: 2151
- final #4b: 2297
Video produced in Susan C. Mills’ Public Knowledge media training workshop 2016: