Impatience is a Virtue: Millennial Excellence in the face of Boomer and GenX Arrogance

Simon Sinek is a self-described optimist and a multiply-published author who speaks quite a bit about leadership. Mr. Sinek went to Brandeis and got a bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology, so it is safe to say that he is not an expert in child development, pedagogy, or alcoholism, but he seems to have no trouble speaking at length about what’s “wrong with” Millennials, as he does in his 3.5M+ view YouTube video, “On Millennials in the Workplace.”

I take exception to quite a few of his characterizations in this video, and am compelled to respond as someone who believes the evidence does not support the accusations hurled at “Generation Y” or the Millennial generation, and that that dearth of evidence mirrors and reinforces my personal experience, having taught many of these students and having watched many of them thrive because of their unique generational characteristics, not in spite of them.

Unlike Mr. Sinek, I am an academic, and I’m not using that term haughtily here; but it does infer that one has to pass a higher bar for me to accept something as “true” than to see it a few times or to hear others say it repeatedly. In the course of researching my first book, Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children, I had to immerse myself in quite a bit of challenging research and a significant review of literature that gave me a far deeper appreciation for the variables that influence the development of a child and the growth of that child into an adults. From this position – one of research married with experience within the field of education, and therefore the growth of children into adults – I can speak to some of the fallacies and misperceptions Sinek levies in his video. But first, let’s talk about who we’re talking about.

Millennials, born after 1982 and up through roughly 2000, give or take, are among the most egalitarian, social justice-minded people ever born in the history of our species, surpassed perhaps only by the incoming Generation Z. They believe in animal rights, support equal rights for queer people and ethnic minorities, eliminating hate speech, drawing attention to rape culture, fighting patriarchy and sociopolitical oppression… 80 million Americans fall into this generational definition, the largest generation in America. Thanks to the Great Recession and the policies of Boomers and Xers, Millennials carry a trillion dollars in student loan debt, despite being told that education is critical and their schools being flagrantly irrelevant and antiquated in so many jurisdictions. 63% of working-age Millennials have a Bachelor’s degree but 48% of those graduates don’t need their degrees for the jobs they’re able to get. 64% of Millennials would rather be happy and have a job they love than make more money and be bored, a shocking turnaround from two generations prior. Half of them believe Social Security will fail, and over 90% of them believe that profit alone cannot define a business’s success.

80% of Millennials prefer immediate feedback over incremental review, 56% won’t work at a company that has punitive anti-technology policies, 71% ignore policies that do exist because they’re punitive, 69% believe on-site presence is not necessarily critical to job performance, but Millennials are staying longer at their jobs and are measurably more loyal to employers than Generation X people did despite the common perception they’re staying at a job for less time.

35% of Millennials start their own small businesses in addition to working a more traditional job. 54% want to do so.

84% of Millennials want to make a substantive difference in the world more than they want professional recognition. Working in international diplomacy is the fourth most ideal job for the Millennial generation that is so often excoriated for being disconnected and disinterested in public service. Millennials value “community,” “family,” and “creativity” to degrees never before seen in prior surveys of generations. Their task-switching abilities – which previous generations erroneously called “multitasking” – are extraordinary in no small part due to their use of task-switching resources and technologies, giving them a neurobiological plasticity and flexibility that other generations simply lack.

This is reflected in their academic performance. As Howe and Strauss wrote in Millennials Rising, citing student performance data as well as professional educator evaluation data, “Millennials are … a generation of positive trends in educational achievement.”

Millennials are the most diverse generation in history (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000) and exponentially more ethnically and racially tolerant than any generation before them. They’re also more responsible with physical relationships, are more interested in avoiding or delaying sex, and are vastly less violent than preceding generations (Howe & Strauss, 1999).

While it’s true that empirical evidence does show that Millennials tend to score higher on traditional mechanisms measuring narcissism and lower on empathy, it’s also true that some of those traditional mechanisms stem from a time prior to the advent of digital technologies, and may not account for an increase in individual agency. We know that priorities within the hierarchies of needs change based on age; it may be that new control mechanisms and better studies are required, because despite seeming to show more narcissism in Millennials, we do not see the usual correlations in decreased giving, charity, volunteerism, optimism, altruism, or willingness to assist others in need that one would have previously expected.

Despite being “just as good” as prior generations and being optimistic and hopeful, when controlled for the impacts of the Great Recession, Millennials as a generation are making 20% less, have been left a disastrously eradicated housing market and economy, a planet teetering on the edge of ecological collapse, global sociopolitical tensions created by values and circumstances they find repugnant, and have dimmer prospects for advancement and success than generations prior through no fault of their own. In short, Millennials have been pretty screwed, pretty badly, and still manage to want to stamp out bigotry, uplift people, and make the world a better place.

Let’s start there, instead of the usual exhausted narrative about them being lazy (they’re not), privileged (they’re not), and unwilling (they’re not).

Time to tackle Sinek’s video. While he lands on an acceptable overarching point – “balance is important” – he spends fifteen minutes demonizing technology and Millennials far more than he endeavors to point out the absurdity of outmoded corporate environments.

It is absolutely true that Millennials are altruistic, and care about making the world a better place. While they may not always have, in their younger years or in their initial indoctrinations into a particular field or topic, the language or concept to articulate precisely what a “positive impact” may be, they’re also deeply involved in levels of academics at which previous generations stagger, and show a particular robustness in understanding patterns, trends, and complex problems. It’s not a bad thing to want to “make a different” or “have an impact,” as Sinek seems to scoff at as being nebulous or unimportant in his opening. (Fortunately he’ll back off this a bit later, but we’re taking him as he goes.) The dismissive attitude that is frequently levied against Millennials that is rooted in seeking specific quantification in an historic way is an example of the amplification of generational misapprehension and misunderstanding of subsequent generations. Older generations have the advantage of more robust networks of experience upon which to draw, and too often use this as punishing invective instead of entertaining innovation when it crosses the desk. The same phenomenon exists between Adults and Children, which I’ve written about extensively, but I find the Boomer-Millennial divide to mirror this: “Well, what does impact look like? How will you positively change X variable, which we’ve identified as the true measure of success?” I’m not saying that experts can’t be experts – to the contrary, I rail against that kind of anti-expert rhetoric – but a Millennial who comes to the table wanting to make things better by speaking about the outcome is engaging in backward design, and allowing an organic, messy, convoluted design process to evolve in nontraditional ways is innovation in and of itself, and I consider it the responsibility of anyone in a position of “management” or “authority” to take the time to allow fruitful failure or unexpected success by allowing Millennials to use their substantial gifts to try things. This generation will repeatedly try and fail in remarkable ways with remarkable diligence and endurance, provided they have the intrinsic motivation any Ed Psych 101 student knows is more powerful than whatever extrinsic motivator you put on the table. Creating conditions of relevance is the responsibility of the teacher, not the student; so, too, is it the project leader’s or institution’s responsibility to create those same conditions for their employees.

I digress here to call out silly distractions like “they want free food and beanbags.” Come on, Simon.

If you’re being serious, then Millennials acclimating to nontraditional ergonomics and seeking to create comfortable and familiar environments that disengage from traditional oppressive structures of form and instead individualize workspaces and environments is not only a good thing, but has been shown by countless designers and researchers to be beneficial to creativity, productivity, and outcomes… so yeah, beanbags might be just what the office needs. If you’re being snarky, then you’re only underscoring the dismissive, haughty attitude that Millennials rightly perceive in those who speak about the instead of to them.

I am indignant on the behalf of Millennials in the same way I’m indignant on behalf of children when older laypeople snark at them. If you’re going to be academic, be academic, and if you’re not, then don’t expect to be taken any more seriously than a beanbag punchline. (Also, ensuring your workers have food when the economy that your generation left them is a flaming dumpster fire might not be such a bad idea, yanno? But let’s get back to it.)

Sinek identifies here his four domains of complaint about Millenials: Parenting, technology, patience, and environment.

Sinek has a cultural anthropology background, and so I’ll grant him expertise in speaking, to an extent, about parenting in this context. That said, he fundamentally misunderstands the concept of “special,” when he calls out as part of the (unarticulated in this video) “special snowflake” meme. Originating around the film Fight Club for all intents and purposes, “special snowflake” is a derogatory term used by previous generations to suggest that individuals are not unique and special, and deserve no recognition as such, instead choosing to suggest, implicitly or overtly, that people must earn any acknowledgement of their individuality through toil.

This is, in a word, nonsense.

The sovereignty of individual identity and agency is critical not only to progressive pedagogy but to understanding children, let alone developing interpersonal prosocial relationships. Understanding that each individual has their own perspective, cognition, identity, and sovereignty of person is a critical concept in interpersonal relationships. Homogenizing individuals into groups, classes, or blocs is a form of erasure, blotting out individual humans on the altar of a broader humanity, and while it is not invalid to be concerned with or about broader humanity, one cannot exclusively relate to groups. Interpersonal relationship is critical – as Sinek will go on to say himself – and yet he indicts individuality here as somehow bogus, suggesting that there is nothing intrinsically special about any one person. Yes, there is, Simon: Every individual is unique and must be approached and conceived as such, lest overgeneralization, stereotype, and assumption usurp the individual person’s sovereignty and, therefore, ability, leading to – in Sinek’s context – a less fulfilled, less understood, and potentially less “productive” partner or associate. Again, this broad-sweeping überlanguage that speaks over Millennials instead of to them, and speaks about Millennials instead of with them, is a disturbing artifact of generational paternalism, though certainly not unique to Millennials as any person will tell you about the generation of their parents.

Individuality and individualism are fundamental values that people in America will often hold up as rightly American. To denigrate individualism and individuality with snark belies a particularly craven perspective not only of Millennials, but of one’s fellow human. Demanding that one be addressed as one’s sovereign self instead of being oversimplified into or coopted by a demographic or statistic is an act of dignity and self-worth, nothing less, and to dismiss it is to undermine human dignity and sovereignty. I resent the language Sinek uses in this passage, as it objectifies the Millennial into a “nail that sticks out of a board” or an “undeserving stander in a crowd of sitters.” Compliance is not a desirable characteristic in children or in adults. But don’t take my word for it.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers in 2016 described autonomous and independent soft-skills as critical to success in the contemporary workplace: Leadership, in which an individual progressively thinks and self-organizes. The ability to recover from failure, the mechanisms for which will vary wildly from person to person based on a variety of neurocognitive and psychosocial factors. Clear communication. Affability. Adaptability. Passion. Many of the top qualities NACE identified require a deep sense of individuality and self-awareness that cannot be achieved through imposed homogeneity.

It is not improper for Millennials – as many of us of older generations who are members of historically suspect classifications, such as females, people of color, or queer people – to demand individual sovereignty and agency in the face of institutions or movements that have denied them. To the contrary, each generation in its turn has celebrated civil rights victories. The generation that grew up in the late 19th century won suffrage for women in the early 20th and every subsequent generation has continued to demand equality for women, slowly eroding sexism. (And let us not kid ourselves: women today continue to be globally oppressed, objectified, and materially harmed, including being denied individual sovereignty and agency.) The Silent Generation won voting rights for people of color in America and every subsequent generation has been building up to address ever-more-apparent, ever-more-repulsive racism, culminating in but presumably not ending with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and Millennials are at the forefront of recognizing that there is a great deal of work still to be done. More and more, individuals fight more strongly against being denied their uniqueness on the altar of statistical simplicity or expedient demography, and as social scientists and pedagogues of any generation, we pro-child, pro-individual radicals join the Millennials, or more accurately laud them joining us in that effort. From personalized learning to the rights of the individual – the good of the one outweighing the good of the many as Kirk may have told Spock – social progress eschews forcibly grouping people into what Vidal rightly called ghettos of social order.

Another snark of Sinek’s that frosted my proverbial cupcakes was the suggestion that Millennials were told “you can have anything that you want just because you want it.” Point me to one legitimate parenting book, one organized class or school of parenting thought of my generation, show me one identifiable source of authority or note that ever said that that was a legitimate parenting skill. There’s a fundamental and not-at-all semantic difference between telling children that their aspirations matter and their potential is significant, and telling children there’s no investment to be made to achieve. The latter it not at all what is said, and I challenge Sinek to find any source that says otherwise. Name one person you know who was ever told that wanting was all that was needed. Name one person of our generation who said that to their kids. Name one. No way. It’s one thing to indict a generation of parents for going a little too far in promoting an idea of boundlessness without addressing the real structural violence and imposed social mores of generational and institutional stricture, and quite another to say that parents raised kids telling them they never had to do anything to have everything. That’s beyond hyperbole; it’s just not accurate, and I’ve found zero sources to suggest that there is any truth to Sinek’s assertion in this instance.

I was honestly surprised to hear someone who studied anthropology at Brandeis speak in such nonacademic terms on a subject already too overpopulated with lay opinion and inaccuracy. I don’t have time for non-empiricists when it comes to children and our future generation. Anecdote and opinion does not authority make, and while I’m guilty of editorializing and opining frequently and sometimes forgetting my platform, this isn’t one of those instances. I’m an academic putting my work in writing here, not having a Diet Dr. Pepper at the Four P’s around the corner. This is a serious subject and a video that has 3.5M views on YouTube alone and who knows how many Facebook posts, reposts, and likes, I’m going to hold Sinek to at least a modicum of academic standard and demand production of a source, or discard this assertion as groundless.

I consider that kind of inaccurate over-broad picture-painting to be haughty and bullying.

On the subject of schooling, if you’re read even a fraction of my work, you know that Sinek hits on something important in discussing the problems Millennials faced in schools. They perceive school as boring, antiquated, uninteresting, out of touch, irrelevant, impersonal… and they’re right. They’re absolutely right, and serious educators know that and are working tirelessly to change it. The institution of the school in America is dangerously out of date, and the fact that schools in America are affording opportunities and situations better than, say, an isolationist religion-only extremist enclave of indoctrination in a third-world country, that doesn’t let them off the hook in my book, and certainly doesn’t give the traditional Reform voice credence when it says “our schools are doing just great and everybody should leave them alone.” However, this post is about Millennials, and I won’t digress – this time – into things you can read about throughout this blog and my published works and offered oratory. Suffice it to say, Millennials were victims of poor schooling models, but so have the members of every generation that came before them, in the view of many of we radicals and revolutionaries. Sinek’s lament about grade inflation and unearned accolades underscores the massive flaws that exist throughout traditional assessment systems, which have recently been a particularly passionate topic for me, and upon which I’ll be speaking at length at the 2017 International Society for Technology in Education conference in San Antonio, Texas this summer.

Sinek also references (presumably) the research of Alfie Kohn, specifically Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. He’s absolutely correct that there are serious problems with artificial incentives, though one must take care not to conflate erroneous reward-based structures and the invalidity of eliminating unhealthy competition. As a career music educator, I’ve always been ambivalent on the subject, and take great care not to make the research say something it does not, and while the state of the literature certainly does indict the artificial and inflationary homogenization of aptitude and achievement to which Sinek alludes, it also seriously questions the validity of engendering competition among children, as underscored by some of the remarkable successes of Responsive Classroom and similar frameworks that eschew competition in favor of appropriate mechanisms of recognition, and the promotion of individuality within a free collaborative environment. Millennials respond well in these circumstances, and while I have no evidence, I sometimes wonder if that isn’t partially because they’re annoyed by nonsense trappings of recognition precisely because they experienced them. (That’d make for interesting graduate work for a Master’s student; I wish I were still teaching at The George Washington University or else I’d pitch it as an idea to a grad assistant…)

I will say that there’s nothing wrong with telling people that “just” showing up matters, and there’s a hypocrisy evident in the false narrative raised by critics of Millennials in saying they “just want credit for showing up” but then call them “apathetic.” There’s something important about showing up to a rally, to a protest, to stand the line against a greater power. In such a case, showing up may be the only thing that truly does matter, and yet another bloviating oversimplification does nothing for anyone.

I see no substantive evidence that Millennials are prone to the fragile disintegration Sinek highlights. This strikes me as a distillation of the generational lament, rather than an empirical observation of Millennial behavior writ large. How many Millennials do you know who are so isolated, fragile, and devoid of identity and network that they shatter at the mere suggestion of imperfection? I know a total of zero such people, and while here I descend in the anecdotal just as Sinek does, my suspicion of his position drives me to the research: As of 2014, Millennials were 27% more likely to keep their commitments in the new year. They are more honest about their skills than the prior two generations. They were 16% more interested in personal improvement than the generation prior. Not only can Millennials “tolerate” critique, they’re more likely to be honest with themselves about their need for it.

The profound arrogance of my generation and the Boomer generation in lambasting Millennials as “fragile” is not just maddening; it’s just wrong.

In the latter part of the video, Sinek seems to suggest that modern parents are imbeciles compared to their older counterparts, and that softness, kindness, empathy, and security in knowing one’s uniqueness and value are negative characteristics to be “toughened up.” The concept of “grit” is troubling to me at times, because too often we see “boot-strapping” types trying to artificially “toughen up” their kids instead of nurturing their sensitivity, leaving adult-ness for adult-hood. Empathy is vastly undervalued by these individuals, and belies a particularly sinister perspective on humanity. I read recently that J.C. Watts, a Republican congressman and a Rand Paul proxy, said, “people are fundamentally bad.” This is unsurprising given the monotheistic position that morality must extend from an external authority rather than from an intrinsic human condition. I, of course, reject this paternalistic depressive view of humanity that the far right historically espouses, as any honest right politician will tell you: The right believes humans must be saved from themselves, that they are inherently wrong, intrinsically erroneous, devoid of merit and altruism, and that only external forces – God, patriotism, parental authority – will right the ship. I regard this as a particularly craven, myopic, and uninformed position on the state of humanity, relying upon isolated anecdote instead of the state of the literature and the totality of our experiences once controlled for the variables of totalitarianism and local social ill. Parents who seek to engender “hardness” in children fail to understand childhood writ large, and place children in peril through acts of neglect, mistreatment, and harm if not abuse. It is one thing for a child to fall down, experience hurt, and learn that hurts are a part of the human condition, and varying responses to varying types of hurt are important. It is one thing for a child to experience sadness or pain or anger, and be shown the antecedent-consequent relationships when it comes to the way the child reacts to those experiences. It is an entirely different thing to actively seek to create harm, in order to accelerate these natural processes on the altar of getting children to “grow up.” One of the worst hallmarks of chattel mentality directed toward children is attempting to harden them artificially instead of nurturing their child-ness, which is a direct benefit of no longer having to fight bears, club attackers, and live in a state of primordial hypervigilance.

I’d be darned pleased if parents and board presidents alike would stop trying to reintroduce people into the raging wilderness.

Where Sinek hits the nail on the head is in his conclusion, finally eschewing some of the – in my evaluation – falsity he started with, and getting to the real issue: children have changed, and so the adults into which they grew are different than previously. Social structures and corporate structures, however, have not adapted to them. As I write in Insurrection, the preservation of institution at the expense of people is hugely problematic. Sinek is precisely right that the organizational environment is the problem, not the Millennial. When an organization cannot capitalize upon the qualities, talents, and skills of its constituent members, that is a fault of the organization, not said membership.

I am infuriated by Sinek’s proposition that Millennials engaging in social media is analogous to alcoholics drinking, and am flabbergasted by his egregiously inaccurate representation of alcoholism in this context. Clearly, Sinek doesn’t know much about this topic, and not only does a terrible injustice to the benefits many Millennials have gained from integration into wider networks through technology, but goes a terrible injustice to mental illness, addiction, and alcoholism. I cannot abide it without comment: Alcoholism is a disease, and alcoholics do not choose to have that disease. Addictions are not at all the same as habits or trends, and I find the suggestion that giving kids access to social media to be tantamount to giving kids alcohol or cigarettes deeply irresponsible. There are no benefits to abusing alcohol. There are no benefits to cigarette smoking. None. There are no redeeming qualities to cigarette smoking. Cigarettes in particular are the result of corporate collusion to maximize profit while destroying the health of consumers. One can make the argument that there are technologies that seek to maximize profit without regard to health, but one cannot rightly, seriously, or academically indict the whole of social networking as being as intentional or destructive as cigarette smoking.

C’mon, man.

Devices do not create dopamine kicks. Behaviors tied to antecedent-consequent extrinsic motivators do, and that motivation will have varying effects on varying individuals. To say “an iPad is as addictive as alcohol” is to fundamentally misunderstand technology, addition, neurobiology, psychology, and human behavior. It’s not a semantic sleight-of-hand or interesting quirky anecdote to make such a statement; it’s dangerous, inaccurate, ascientific hokum. That kind of gross, unsophisticated, sweeping oversimplification is dangerously simpleminded and is part of the Luddite-like false narrative that the wholesale elimination of technology is good for kids and adults. Sinek himself scuttles his argument by jibing about posting a picture of his food on Instagram: clearly he knows that one can have innocuous if not prosocial interactions in the social media realm, and to suggest to the contrary is not only observably false, but in my experience and professional assessment as an educational technologist, potentially destructive to the countless number of people who have found ways to supplement executive function and organizational deficits through technology.

Moreover, it’s troubling to me that Sinek seems to believe that anybody who drinks a lot is “an alcoholic.” There are a variety of permutations of alcohol abuse, from bingeing to compulsive drinking to social habit to addictive personality behaviors to, yes, alcoholism, but the etiology of the behavior differs in each of those instances. This is one of the things that frosts my cupcakes about those who foray into making declarations about groups of people without a more robust social science, pedagogical, or research background than the average layperson brings to the table: Sinek hasn’t controlled for all variables, but is levying proclamations at and about an entire generation of young people. I find that disappointing and not especially thoughtful.

There is a profound benefit to integrating people of diverse and disparate cultures and experiences through social media, and just because Sinek cannot seem to capitalize upon these advantages and strike better balances does not mean the wholesale elimination of technologies is wise or warranted. Indeed, removing technology from my work in any situation – one on one, small group, large group, or otherwise – will impede my ability to complete tasks and respond effectively as a collaborator and leader. My memory is not what it should be, and my ability to lose track of time at the drop of a hat is legendary. I will go down a rabbit hole for hours if I do not create a structure for myself, in the way that works for me, to ensure that I fulfill my obligations and strike a better work-life balance than I would be capable of otherwise. To deny me my technology is to disable my ability to be my best, and it is no one’s right to deny me that identity or agency. While certainly this is inclusive of balance and some people have more difficulty with balance, again, to make blanket statements about 80 Million people in such generalized, disparaging ways strikes me as deeply irresponsible.

Social media in the hands of Millennials saves young queer lives, reveals truths about law enforcement and our government, empowers people of color who organize and expose historic structural violence in ways never before seen in this country, unites families and friends across distances untraversed in the history of our species with rapidity unknown before our time, and can be a powerful force for good in individual lives and for people collectively. Social media in the hands of Millennials is changing global sociopolitical history by affording outlets and voices to those who would otherwise be ignored, silenced, and erased. Sinek utterly fails to acknowledge the prosocial goods and benefits that can come from the healthful, balanced use of technology to meaningfully enhance lives, and while it is a common overbroad charge levied against technology generally and Millennials specifically, the ubiquity of this argument does not make it compelling. This is a tired narrative, no matter how it is presented by a well-spoken person on a stage.

Sinek’s disparaging of Millennials and their social media in such an overbroad way amounts to an ornery codger shouting “get off my lawn.”

There is an obvious – or what should be obvious – difference between all members of a generation and certain members of a generation. It is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy to say “some Millennials in X situation or with Y technology exhibit addictive behaviors, therefore all Millennials exhibit addictive behaviors.” One doesn’t have to bother researching a counterpoint to his supposition that Millennials are addicted to social media, as it is unsubstantiated, devoid of empirical evidence as well as failing even a basic logical test.

I think Sinek thinks he’s cute in some of these statements, but there are a great many people who are going to use this widely-shared video as justification for disparaging, belittling, and limiting Millennials, and I cannot abide this kind of insult hurled at the feet of so many of the most talented, empathetic, creative, diligent, insightful, intelligent, and impressive young people I’ve ever met. As an educational technologist, I cannot abide the generalized negativity Sinek hurls at technology and collaborative platforms, as we in this field know from decades of experience across generations that there is genuine power and good to be found in the thoughtful, intentional, well-designed and integrated use of these technologies. If he had said that he advocated for more balance and stopped there, this would have been a different matter, but Sinek’s position throughout entire portions the video is that Millennials need to put their technology down.

No, they don’t. Detractors of Millennials need to do a great deal more listening and far less insulting, lest the lawn-protecting fuddy-duddies of my generation – which happens to be Sinek’s generation, too – create further disenfranchisement and disillusion for a generation we’ve already treated poorly.

We’ve managed to foul up their economy, their housing prospects, their educational funding, their credit, their air, their water, their food supply, their news media, their infrastructure, their education system, their government, their representation, their marketplace, and in far, far, far too many instances, their health, their safety, their bodies, their families, and worse. For every whine, lament, and complaint about Millennials, I would like to see people of my generation and the one that came before mine be accountable for the decisions they made that tossed away a safer, better, more prosperous world for Millennials, causing them to be the first generation in the history of our species to inherit a situation worse off than the one that came before.

Another variable for which Sinek fails to control in his extemporaneous diatribe is the artificiality of the nuclear family construct of the mid-Twentieth Century. The extended associations, personal interactions, mentoring, and support that Sinek (rightly) describes as important used to be provided by a wider, less centralized extended family network, a condition in which we lived for thousands upon thousands of years before America, as an example, isolated families into “mom-dad-kids in fenced-in-yard.” This is a complex development with a huge number of factors involved, and it is improper to suggest that it is the fault of Millennials that they are relying upon a new, technology-integrated if not technology-rooted way of relating interpersonally. The world has changed, and lamenting it as “all for the worse” is beyond conservative; it’s a Luddite mentality.

Sinek also seems to suggest that it’s a “bad thing” that Millennials want to see immediate changes at a large scale. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with saying, if we can make this happen fully or more quickly, we can do more and do better for more people?

I share the impatience of Millennials in my work – public school revolution – because the historic incrementalism of many of the great voices of reform, like Diane Ravitch, will have us creep toward betterness while children languish in suffering situations. By contrast, I believe that a wholesale shift – revolution, not reform – is precisely the kind of fruitful disruption we need to make things better for the most kids, most quickly. It is precisely the innovative, creative, impatient mindset of Millennials that refutes Sinek’s “it takes a long time to climb a mountain” analogy. Millennials want to know if we can implement a ski lift, or get a helicopter, or maybe tear the mountain down if it doesn’t need to be there. While I recognize he’s making a point through illustration, so am I: It is not a foregone conclusion that the way mountains have been scaled in the past is the way they will be in the future, or in the immediate situation right in front of any given Millennial. In fact, their abilities to innovate, create, and disrupt are among their best characteristics, and I think we do a grave injustice to them and a grave disservice to ourselves to ask them to slow down when they may well have a proverbial rocket pack at their disposal if we empower them instead of seek to correct them.

The inherent dissatisfaction of Millennials stems from any variety of factors, but it is not a vice. It is, in my estimation, a tremendous virtue that the generation at hand is unwilling to tolerate the extant without justification, that it questions constantly, and that it is, by comparison, impatient with older things and older people. Systems and structures that deny Millennials (or post-Millennials or children) individual agency and identity deserve to be questioned and decimated and reconstructed, and if we heed the virtuous impatience of this generation, they will show us better, positively-disruptive alternatives to extant traditional methods that we may be incapable of seeing or generating ourselves.

The world belongs to the next generation, and the “real world” changes for the better because of those who make it, not because of those who try to keep it the same. Sinek is right that the traditional corporate environment doesn’t work, just as I’m certain I’m right that the traditional scholastic environment doesn’t work. But the solution is not to demand that the very technologies that liberate and empower and enhance the lives of incoming generations be stifled or eliminated; it is a far better use of our energy to adapt ourselves to the new realities of powerful innovative thinkers like the Millennials.

I. Katherine Benziger outlined Carl Jung’s falsification of type phenomenon, in which the brain experiences stress – and therefore, the body experiences stress – when it is forced to operate in a modality that differs from its developed preferences. For someone like me, being forced to sit in a lecture hall, facing the same way, silently and still, for a protracted period of time while I am talked at is a sure-fire way to raise my anxiety and frustration levels. To demand that I comply with this modality because it’s “the real world” is not only counterproductive – I’m not going to learn this way no matter how much you wish it were so – but it’s also inhumane, especially in the case of doing this to a child, and virtually ensures an ineffective learning situation. It is not the fault of the learner when a false or improper modality is forced upon that learner, and we do that all the time in schools, institutions, and corporations in America. We insist that people “do what they’re told” and “do what they have to do” because “this is the real world.”

If our capacity for design and organization is so limited that we cannot even conceive adjustments to extant structures, let alone wholesale reinvention, we have no one to blame but ourselves for our failures, and certainly ought not blame people who will consistently and clearly tell us that what we’re doing doesn’t work for them. Of course students in schools will be depressed if you force them to do something that doesn’t work for them in the slightest. Of course students will feel isolated and frustrated and hurt if they are clobbered into corners when they use platforms and resources that are met with withering disapproval by authority figures. It seems to logically follow that the more we demonize things that come naturally to Millennials instead of seeking to understand and prosocially integrate them, the worse off we’ll make the problems we see.

When Sinek says that the worst outcome is suicide, he’s right, and failing to conceive an individual, that individual’s needs, and to empower that individual with authenticity, agency, and identity is a sure fire way to make things worse for any individual, especially if predisposed to depression. When Sinek says that the “best” outcome is blasé mediocrity, I say, absolutely not. That’s the best you can hope for in the system as it exists, when that system utterly fails to account for the individual Millennial and that individual’s needs, preferences, and uniqueness. The solution is not to change the Millennial: The genie is out of the bottle. The world has changed. Our kids are growing up digital natives, to use the outmoded term, and there’s no going back, nor should we want to. Let’s go forward with the best aspects of an integrated world and redesign systems to account for those new realities.

It is absurd to say “put your technology away” then ask a student a question that involves precise figures, names, or dates. The sum total of human knowledge is online, and we’re going to pretend it doesn’t exist? The same absurdity exists in any corporate environment: Why would you not want access to a massive repository of data when making decisions? Kenneth Matos of the Families and Work institute suggests that Boomers and Gen X-ers would be far better off looking at their own resistances to change, rather than pointing a finger at Millennials, and I concur with that assessment.

The little anecdote that Sinek gives at the end of his quasi-sermon underscores his bias against those who don’t use technology and who don’t relate the same way he does. He says that “the way” that “we” develop relationships is through personal inquiry and verbal relationships. Again, he makes massive assumptions. Some people are deeply put-off by being inquired about in their personal lives when relating in, say, a corporate environment. Some people are not at all comfortable having a personal conversation verbally in that fashion, and are able to be far more interpersonal using, for example, a technological method. I do not say that everyone can do this or that nobody prefers the former, but that’s my point: saying “this is how a person should be” is almost invariably an overreach. Homogenization grossly oversimplifies complex individuals in complex relationships, and promotes misperception and misconception, yielding no improvement in the situations Sinek laments. Ascribing blame to technology and its use, associated with age or not, is to conflate an object and a behavior. Telling people to liberate themselves from their technologies implies they are enslaving in the first place, which is a values and judgement position, not a position rooted in evidence, and most certainly implies that all people relate to, with, and through technology in the same way, which I believe is patently absurd and observably inaccurate.

If Sinek’s concern is prosocial relationships, he should focus on those, instead of the mechanisms and modalities of those relationships, lest he miss his own point entirely.

It is intellectually lazy to grossly overgeneralize a generation based on a trend, and to make assumptions and logical leaps like those present throughout the video. If there’s anything “lazy” associated with the Millennial generation, it’s previous generations’ unwillingness and incapability around changing ourselves and what we do to adapt for the better, and Millennials can show us how to do that if we listen. That said, we better get at it quickly, because their impatience is a virtue, and Millennials wait for no Boomer.

In the end, Sinek’s overarching point – that balance is important – is well taken, but I challenge you not to take his video as a “hell yeah” reinforcement of your preconceptions about Millennials. They are a remarkable, diverse, powerful generation that is poised to do what our generations could not, and reverse poor trends and improve the world in profound ways, quickly, if they are given the chance. I count myself fortunate to teach the Millennial and Gen-Z generations, and look forward to seeing them do the remarkable things they surely will, and will join them in lamenting those individuals and institutions who stood in their way instead of empowering them.

I admit freely that I am biased, as someone who wants to work with them instead of against them, and wants them to do what they want, not what I want, but I am ultimately unconvinced by the tired “laziness” narrative, when I see empirical and observable evidence everywhere I look that Millennials are remarkable as a generation. I hope you’ll take pause before indicting any person because of their age, and instead take the appropriate opportunity every person deserves: get to know an individual, as an individual, for who they authentically are. We all have strengths and deficits, and just because the Millennials are different than us doesn’t mean we’re better.

It’s high time for Generation X and the Boomers to get off their high horses. The world doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to the future generations.


Beaton, C. (2016). Never Good Enough: Why Millennials Are Obsessed With Self-Improvement.  Forbes.

Bergman, S., Fearrington, M., Davenport, S., and Bergman, J. (2010). Millennials, narcissism, and social networking: What narcissists do on social networking sites and why. Personality and Individual Differences.

Howe, N. and Strauss, R. (1999). Millennials rising: the next great generation. Vintage Books: New York, NY.

De Hauw, S. and DeVos, A. (2010). Millennials’ Career Perspective and Psychological Contract Expectations: Does the Recession Lead to Lowered Expectations? Journal of Business and Psychology.

King, D. (2016). Millennials, Faith and Philanthropy: Who Will be Transformed? Bridge/Work.

Kowske, B., Rasch, R., and Wiley, J. (2010). Millennials’ (Lack of) Attitude Problem: An Empirical Examination of Generational Effects on Work Attitudes. Journal of Business and Psychology.

Tahmincioglu, E. (2015). Millennials Flexible-Work Desires? Ask Boomers.

R.I.P.: Karel Husa

The world of music is lesser today for having lost a legend, a titan of his craft, and a man of such humility and grace and kindness and beauty that all the world should be still a quiet moment, and his music should rise in its place to commemorate him. Karel Husa is nearly synonymous with the wind band tradition of the Ithaca College School of Music, and each of us alumni is touched in our own way by his craft. Your music was not only of Prague, Maestro Husa: It was of us all.

Keynote-Debate with Rob Furman, Steve Staples

I was privileged to be one of the three keynote speakers and debaters at the Southwest Virginia Leadership Conference, hosted by UVA Wise and the Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Virginia on October 21, 2016.

I was joined by my fellow Seditionist, Dr. L. Robert Furman, and by the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the Commonwealth of Virginia, Dr. Steven R. Staples.

Among our topics, we discussed and traded points on individualization, the troublesome nature (to say the least) of standardized multiple-choice testing, and the rising advent of developmentally-appropriate standards-based practices.

I was tremendously heartened by Dr. Staples’s progressive attitude toward performance-based assessment and both his willingness to entertain and indeed personal passion for using the newly-localized aspects of the Every Student Succeeds Act (the replacement for the tragically ill-conceived and colossally damning No Child Left Behind Act) to empower educators to wrest control of learning back from the standardized testing commercial complex. While, as a state official, he is bound by politics, and I am not, I anticipated a much more adversarial set of positions on the nature of assessment and pedagogy. I’ve rarely been so glad to be disappointed on this!

It’s my fervent hope that this debate continues, and that radical pedagogues like Rob and I can continue to push those in positions of leadership and political power to do the right thing for kids, not only in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but nation-wide.

My deep thanks to the teams at UVA Wise and the Higher Education Center and its consortium for making this event possible.

The Wild Child

I speak here about a significant and substantive change in philosophy toward children, a need to shift our perspective. There are innumerable “but what abouts” that can be trotted out at any point in this conversation, but fortunately in blog form, I’m going to finish, and then you can comment and ask questions. I caution you, however, against reading this as something it is not. I am not saying “all school rules are bad.” I will not say “there are no instances in which an adult may need to counsel and guide a child.” I have not said there is no need to understand cause-effect or antecedent-consequent relationships when it comes to words and deeds. But let’s holster all that for a moment, because that isn’t what I’m talking about today. I’m talking about a philosophical distinction between being pro-child and being pro-school. So, we begin as we often do here: With me proclaiming.

I celebrate feral children.

The domestication of kids through institutional machinery is tragic, and those who seek to corral the natural child into cages are my enemies. Wildness is a natural and desirable characteristic of healthfully-developing kids and of the child learner, and we educators have, in my view, a significant responsibility to cultivate and promote that wildness.

Disenthralling children from the formalized, paternalistic, and too-often explicitly patriarchal “niceness” and “cleanliness” of traditional institutionalized schooling is mission-critical the radical pedagogue. It’s one thing to help children grow into kind people, but it’s quite another to force the kind onto our kinder.

Genuine freedom is addictive, and contagious, and the patriarchal system of coercion and possession – those chattel-minded objectifiers of children – is terrified of an epidemic of this freedom, but schools that practice genuine love of children are all about rolling around in the filthy mud of the natural child-state. There will be none of the broad-sweeping “kids must be” or “kids are” statements imposed on the young ones here, but it is an appropriate generality to say that by and large, kids are born to be wild. They must explore, test boundaries, challenge themselves and others, and engage in meaningful discovery as part of their natural development. These essential neurocognitive truths are second nature to real teachers, but remain occult to those who have lost their own children to their machine-allegiances, obscured by institutionalism and adult-oriented systems of comfort and insulation that allow them to disengage from wildness.

The murder of the creative, free, genuine child is more than a result of but is a direct goal of the systematized patriarchal school. I don’t choose this word callously: such dehumanization should absolutely be regarded with  horror we instinctively reserve for the most brutal and shocking of crimes. But it happens with tremendous frequency, this eradication of the genuine child, ground to grist with which we’ll cook up “productive members of society,” a baneful and loathesome idea of what it means to be a grown-up. We talk about school, not children. We talk about classes, not children. We talk about delivery of instruction as a commodity not experiencing learning as a living, breathing activity. Defense of the institution over the people within the institution indicates (duh) institutionalized thinking, and if one awakens and pops up like a meerkat and looks around, one will see countless examples of this domesticating, this taming of the natural wild child.

Kids are messy. Complicated. Fascinated and fascinating. Bright and feeling and capable, children are naturally radiant in their untraumatized, unharmed, not-institutionalized states. They self-organize, and play with abandon, and demanding their silence, their stillness, is in so many cases an exercise in psychoemotional brutality. This is not to say there are not situations in which we can compassionately, lovingly instruct situations in which they will gain great social and interpersonal advantage in seeking stillness, but that is a very different matter than demanding obedience and compliance in systems that are not child-appropriate.

There is a marvelous book called Yardsticks by educator and human developmentalist Chip Wood that expertly outlines the typical neurological, psychological, physical child at each age level. Take these observable natural child states, and compare them with the things we ask of kids, the systems we impose upon them:

Four year olds visually focus on faraway things and are naturally clumsy, spilling and colliding, and often hold things with whole closed fists. They run, climb, dance spontaneously, and are unable to sit still for long periods of time. They are developing friend bonds, and are generally friendly, though they often prefer proximity to actual closeness. They are often fearful, and by now are having nightmares as part of their brain development, and so cry. They are extraordinarily talkative, experimenting with language and sound. They deeply need free play and exploration, and enjoy drama and stories, both performing and being performed to.

Eight year olds are tremendously energetic and need physical play. They are awkward, and this is developmentally appropriate. They are able to focus on both near and far objects well. Socialization and humor are part of their developing flexibility and adaptability, and form noticeably larger friend groups than even a year prior. They often gender-separate as they begin to develop an understanding of the gender continuum. Their language experimentation has expanded their vocabulary, and as such, they tend to like to explain things and tell stories, though their memories may not be of expansive capacity, so they have many ideas but often forget things. Their attention span is still significantly limited, as their brains leap from one thing to the next due to exponential neuron development rates, so while they are industrious, they are also impatient.

Twelve year olds need a tremendous amount of sleep as their physical frames grow at such a significant rate, as well as exercise and food intake. They tend to be physically active and experience discomfort as they experience a growth spurt, regardless of gender. Children with uteruses are generally showing signs of puberty, and most have begun menstruating. Accompanying these physical developments, adult-like personality traits begin to emerge even though the child is still a child. They are capable of significant self-awareness, insight, and interpersonal empathy. They are significantly more reasoning and reasonable, as well as more tolerant, than even a year prior. Healthy twelve year olds will shed inhibitions and experiment and risk more overtly, as they develop a sense of being and accompanying confidence. They also care more about their peers’ opinions than those of adults, including their parents, and will often self-initiate tasks and projects. Sarcasm and double entendre are understood by and interesting to these children, and their language experimentation yields slang and peer-specific jargon. They can abstract, and understand antagonistic or opposite perspectives.

Think about these typical profiles of feral children. Think about the things we do to, the things we demand of, kids of these ages. We tell four year olds  to sit still and stop crying, despite the fact that they cannot and must not. We tell eight year olds to be quiet and pay attention and stop speaking in nonsense, despite the fact that they should be doing just that. And we tell twelve year olds that they’re just kids and just have to do what they’re told on one hand, despite the fact that they are rapidly developing significant cognitive capacity, and then tell them to grow up and act like adults on the other hand, despite the fact that they’re absolutely still children with complicated neural frameworks and social challenges.

I’m not interested in defense of these positions or rules that enforce them. Blaming or even crediting the institution for teaching failures is a form of erasure: Doing so inappropriately absolves adults – especially educators – of their personal responsibility for doing wrong to children, such as ghettoizing them, testing them homogeneously, misidentifying or misperceiving them, or causing them psychosocial harm by forcing them to comply with developmentally-unreasonable directives. Apologists for “do what I tell you to do” rule-maker mentalities defend themselves and their institutions for complicity in what is tantamount to violence against children.

Is such “adult as master, child as obedient slave” a form of sadism? An artifact of patriarchal, paternalistic chattel mentality? I cannot help but wonder if it is, if there is a predatory aspect to such vicious and insistent ghettoization of children into inappropriate adult-like roles. Ritual orderliness is an obsession of the institutional mind, and belies a deep insecurity toward and terror of lacking control. One must question the psychoemotional fitness to teach of anyone who prefers a system to a child, and I do not believe it is overwrought or foolish to say that demanding children do things they are not intended to do – intended by biology, psychology, neurology, or sociology – and punishing them for not complying with developmentally-inappropriate demands is, indeed, preferring a system to preferring a child.

I don’t much care how uncomfortable indictments like this make people, because radicalism eschews comfortable language when the reality of a situation are best served with naked truth. Educators and parents alike are often lulled into complicity by convenient or traditional language and frameworks that masks the truth. This syntactic exploitation infuriates the child-centered pedagogue, and radicals who uplift and celebrate and demand the liberation of feral children have an obligation – in my view – to call out destructive and developmentally-inappropriate demands placed upon children.

We can teach lovingly. We can play loudly. We can, indeed, be chaotic and embrace that chaos as natural and appropriate, and still kindly, compassionately, and meaningfully help guide our learners of all ages to find their successes, their quiets, their stillnesses, in their own time and in their own way.

I do not here say that all children must be loud and messy and without structure or guidance at all times, but rather say that all children must be more than allowed to be those things, but must be recognized and celebrated as deeply and intrinsically needing those things with a frequency that our institutions do not understand, accept, or permit, and that is a problem we must change with haste.

Yes, we have to keep our kids safe and healthy and ensure they don’t get hurt, but the right way to do that is not to lock them up in small cages.

I celebrate feral children.

I wish to free children.

I wish them to be wild, and for us to love them for it.

Recursive Loop

NPR’s Kyle Gassiott reported on Friday, August 26, that Alabama recently joined several other states in requiring that students learn cursive writing in public schools.

Here we go again: non-educators interjecting their institutionalized pedagogical conservatism to education where it patently does not belong.

My fellow Seditionist, Dr. L. Robert Furman, and I have railed about this at conferences, keynotes, and on our video channel. I’m glad to see Dr. Thornton point out the fact I constantly come back to in these discussions: cursive writing, like so many other aspects of the traditional school experience, is an artifact of social conservatism imposed upon schools.

Cursive writing is, and ought to be, a thing of the past. If I started suggesting we should all learn how to scribe a clay tablet, or make papyrus, or cut quills, or write Cuneiform “so that the next generation won’t lose access to these important forms of communication” or “so that the next generation will be able to understand and experience literature and historic texts” or “so that the next generation will be able to sign their names,” everyone would rightly brand me bonkers.

But you start talking about a person’s childhood school experiences, and you’ve crossed from my craft and my profession of pedagogy, curricular design, child development, and education policy, and now you’re screwing with a person’s memories and feelings. I understand the nostalgia. I still have my first stuffed animal – his name is Cuddles, by the way – and I’d never give him up to anyone, for anything. I understand driving by your childhood home and pining for a memory even if that house doesn’t represent your best years. I remember the halls of my second elementary school with fondness even though I suffered through miserable teacher experiences many of the years I was there. There’s power in recollection and the mentality of the conservative doesn’t escape me.

But none of that has a place in crafting meaningful policy based on emergent research. None of that has a place in understanding what our children need to fulfill their potential in the future we empower them to craft and in which they will choose how to communicate.

Taken to its logical conclusion, attitudes like “cursive is critical” would have us all writing with quills, no matter how inefficient that was as compared to even a now-antiquated ball-point.

The same logic applies to what I consider the absurdist educational technology position that “touch typing” is a skill we need to explicitly teach in schools. These are all obsessions with method instead of outcome. I write about this in my first book on education, Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children, in contrasting intent versus outcome. I may intend to teach a child to type, but if I only obsess over the method of touch typing and only ever correct finger placement and hand position, I miss the possibility that the student can achieve the goal – typing effectively and efficiently with high accuracy, low error incidence, and maximum speed – by using a method that differs from that being instructed.

Moreoever, let’s take a cue from the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Program, and address one of my favorite topics, authenticity: The goal of quick, accurate typing isn’t typing. The goal is to eradicate barriers between emergent thought and internal concept, and the outside world. The faster and more effectively I can get information from my brain into digital language, the more I can do with both.

By the way, asking me to teach a child to use any particular style of handwriting format while I’m trying desperately to teach that child how to write and how to live and think as a writer, is a massive curricular overhead that saddles me instead of empowers me, as a teacher… and let’s not even get into the absurdity of asking a digital native kid to deal with that while learning the vastly more important skill of writing. If you conflate penmanship and writing, you’re proving my point that education is best left to the professionals.

Be nostalgic. Just be nostalgic over there. We’re busy learning over here.

If touch typing or a specific method of data entry or a particular form of writing – in this case, cursive – requires a significant investment of time and energy to learn and does not achieve a goal in an authentic context like “getting information down quickly so you don’t lose great thoughts,” it’s really missing the mark. Consequently, insisting that all students learn cursive presupposes their modality and skill, and if we’ve learned anything as professional educators, it’s that we ought not conflate one child with another or with some generic “thought” of children in general. Every kid deserves individual attention. If we accept that as a maxim, and I can demonstrate – which I’m happy to do, any time – that cursive writing is a barrier to my fluency, expression, communication, and language, then we must logically assume that cursive isn’t the best thing for every kid.

Let’s stop wasting time on nonsense for the sake of adult nostalgia. Go watch a Bogart film in your Ford Fairlane at the drive-in and leave teaching children to the professional educators. In the immortal words of Sweet Brown, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”

Dr. Thornton, in the NPR report, said “Unbelievably, there were arguments that the fact that American kids couldn’t do cursive made us vulnerable to the Russian menace.” That’s not unbelievable to me. I absolutely believe that knuckleheads who think public school policy is a vehicle for their personal ax-grinding and lamentation about the bygone would conflate their fear of a changing world and discomfort with sociopolitical phenomena with what’s best for kids.

It happens all the time, and we radical pedagogues and revolutionaries have no patience whatsoever for interjection of such distraction and lay-opinion into policycraft.

If you want to write cursive, knock yourself out. I can still write my books, write this very blog post, communicate effectively, and make a real difference in my world in preventing the rise of infiltrating, inappropriate nostalgia without an outdated skill.

I’ll sign my name to that, and no, it isn’t a cursive signature.


 

As always, my opinions are my own and are in no way representative of any organization or entity, public or private.

The Seditionists: Binge Watch Edition

My buddy Rob Furman and I are well into Season 2 of The Seditionists, our video blog series tackling emergent and revolutionary issues in public education. It’s been a while since I reposted them here, so for the sake of all of our various audiences, here’s a “catch you up” series of videos to get you current with Season 2 of The Seditionists!

S1E9: Becoming a Future Ready Teacher

S1E10: Video Games

S1E11: Bring Back the Arts

S2E1: Gender-Neutral Bathrooms

S2E2: Your Child Will Not Be a Pro Athlete

S2E3: Teacher Evaluations

S2E4: Student Unions

S2E5: Communication

Policymakers: Play Pokémon Go, or Shut Up About It

If you haven’t played Pokémon Go, shut up about it.

I find direct language to be effective in starting this conversation, but honestly I do actually have something intelligent to say on the subject:

“I had no idea this was here!” “Oh my god, this thing is so cool! C’mere, read this!” “There’s art all over the place in this park!” The comments I’m hearing from kids as I walk around my neighborhood make me beam from ear-to-ear, because they demonstrate in the field what we radical pedagogues and educational technologists have expounded upon for years and years: virtual environments and augmented reality are the future of education, and people who aren’t paying attention to them are going to be way behind.

 

People have said for a few years now, “why are you still in Second Life? I didn’t think that was the cool thing anymore.” I’ve been able to say of late, “because I had established best practices in Minecraft before you knew it existed,” and now I can gladly say that I’ve been staying abreast of VE and AR since long before it was cool.

 
And folks, look around: it’s cool.
 
Pokémon Go is the best of geocaching meets Google Cardboard(-ish) meets virtual field trips, all within an authentic context: kids like the game. I’m forever trying to get people to understand that authentic contexts are not necessarily related to the traditional “gospel of the school-as-church” rhetoric of “productive member of society.

For me, my gateway to better algebra was EverQuest II, calculating hit points and analyzing the best armor and such. I had some lousy math teachers in high school (family members and some classmates concur) and if I’d had better ones who understood authentic context, someone would have seized upon my visual aptitude and taught me everything through geometry or an applied visual organizational framework. Nobody did that. My strengths and deficits as an individual learner were irrelevant to the stock lesson design. If one was good at math, one could do okay in that class, but if one didn’t learn the way the teacher taught, one was S.O.L. and I’m not referring to the “standards of learning.”

This is, I find, a pervasive attitude among traditionalists and conservative pedagogues. I was recently told by a teacher that “some kids just can’t learn math.” I pressed the point, and the teacher asked in reply, “didn’t you ever have any music students who weren’t talented in music?” I replied that certainly I had, yes, had students who were not naturally gifted in music performance. “How do you teach a kid like that?” was the reply.
I was, and am, appalled. You teach them. What else would one do? To do anything else is child abandonment, the ghettoization of an individual human child, rich with unique intellectual and neurobiological potential, to the wilderness of autodidacticism at best and psychoemotional isolation at worst. The way you reach children, talented or not, is through engagement, and engagement requires an authentic context. Engagement requires relevance. You cannot prattle at a child outside of that child’s universe and expect them to learn in a meaningful, retaining way. That’s lecturing, not teaching, and as I outline in my book Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children, there is a profound difference between the two.

If we capitalize upon Pokémon Go as an authentic context, the sky’s the limit, and that has immediate progressive and radical pedagogical applications in every classroom nationwide. Anyplace any kid has this game or is even interested in it, there are lessons to be taught. I have yet to hear a single thoughtful counterargument to this position. All caveats of PG are caveats of any educational technology or outdoor experience, and PG gives us an opportunity to teach our kids the embedded literacies of safety, awareness, and social propriety within the context of the lesson.
Colonial Williamsburg has figured out that there is real engagement power in this platform, and allows connections between the desired instructional content and the child’s overarching authentic aim of game success.
The detracting voices I hear are, in my humblest (heehee) of professional opinions, squarely in the “get off my lawn” camp, the same tired lamentation about zombie children muttering and wandering into telephone poles, the moral decay of our society into a self-absorbed dystopia, and terror at the ogreish radiation bombarding kids’ brains from all that glowing technology horror. To put it more professionally, the protests seem to fall into three camps:

  • socialization,
  • freedom, and
  • screen time.

If you play Pokémon Go, Ingress, or are otherwise engaged in augmented reality, you already know these are absurd or ignorant complaints, but I’ll address them all the same, and do so initially by repeating my original point: If you think these things, you’re not playing the game, and if you’re not playing the game, you’re not going to stop thinking these things. Get out there and do it, for real, or shut up about it.

Firstly, as I outlined initially, the level of prosocial engagement I’m watching between friends and peer groups, strangers and disparate demographics alike is astonishing. I’m hearing teacher after teacher, parent after parent talk about how much more time families are spending together walking outside, how much fun they’re having exploring, how many discoveries they are making in their communities. People are finding, making, and keeping new friends already. There is a profound, immediate, observable benefit at work in augmented reality, as one would expect to find in a meaningful VE / AR experience. It’s also worth noting that I’m hearing the old “video games are bad for kids” bullcrap rearing its ugly head again, so lemme say this for the record: Kutner and Olson in 2008 found that higher rates of playing Mature-rated video games correlated to higher rates of anti-social behavior, but found no evidence of causation, and subsequent studies have repeatedly failed to find any such correlation. Top off the fact that your opponents in PG look like this…

…and I think we can put the whole “video games will rot your brain” nonsense directly to bed where it belongs especially where PG is concerned. Teaching through gaming is rightly on the rise because games have been repeatedly shown to be powerful learning platforms.

Secondly, the idea that kids are “all so entitled” and “just play games all day” and “don’t know the value of work” are profoundly ignorant of the nature of kids and games. Children will invest extraordinary energy and diligence into successful problem solving, critical thinking, pattern recognition, and interaction when playing games like Pokémon Go. The fact that kids have ready access to information is not a form of entitlement; it is the nature of a rapidly-changing world that is producing exponentially more information annually than it did before. (This is a basic feature of ubiquitous if oversimple Moore’s First Law: no one can keep up with the rapid rate of change and expansion facilitated by information technology, as its power essentially doubles ever two years, with intermittent punctuation.) Children are able to gravitate toward the natural human natural state – freedom, which I often term independence, though I fully understand that aloneness and independence are very different creatures – because they are increasingly disenthralled from dogmatic impositions of ideology, limitation of knowledge, and lacking access to methods of expression and exploration, thanks to the increasing availability of technology that allows access to those things. (Thanks in no small part to the effects of Moore’s Second Law: companies are spending more and making more technology cheaper for – and thereby more accessible to – individual users.) It is absolutely true that kids are retreating from forms of autocracy and control, because that’s what humans do. We naturally rebel against what we perceive as unfair or over-strong control, and teenagers are hardwired for this. We must recall that our species, which is some two hundred thousand years old or thereabouts, spent much of its history in a state of early death, meaning high school age kids were not that long ago becoming the founders of their own new family units. Consequently, there is some consensus that teenagers have a biological need to strike out on their own. Facilitating that need through exploration and self-determination is essential to their growth. In fact, Reyna and Farley at Cornell found in 2006 that teenagers have a powerful sense of risk and reward in a way many adults do not, which marries beautifully with the radical pedgaogue’s research-supported passion for trusting children within a scaffolded framework of safety and love.

It’s worth noting that there are some compelling studies that say that the so-called antisocial teenage rebellion meme results from increasing isolation because of adults imposing autocratic restrictions upon children at older and older ages. This flies directly in the face of everything we know about effective Vygotskyan scaffolding.

Thirdly, for the love of all that is green, I’ve had enough of people using the phrase “screen time” like it’s a bad thing. Again, this is right in the “get off my lawn” camp. I expect a cane to be shaken every time I hear it, rapidly followed by descriptions of walking uphill to school, both ways, with no shoes, in the snow, all the way from town with the horseless carriages clattering by. Beyond the fact that even the American Academy of Pediatrics has now officially said, for all intents and purposes, “our bad; screen time isn’t the thing after all,” there’s the absurd oversimplification of lacking variables in the argument: Some of the most important discoveries and creations of our time stem from the consistent use of screen-based technologies, from the discovery of the Higgs Boson to the composition of the smash hit musical Hamilton. The question is not one of “the amount of time” one spends using technology with a screen, but what one does with that time. I understand the concerns about plopping kids in front of inane flashing images instead of engaging with them; I’ve never advocated for that and I never will. But there are incredibly effective, immersive, critical thinking-inducing, problem-solving, creative, expressive, and yes entertaining ways to use technology with children of all ages. Augmented reality is absolutely one of those ways.

Am I advocating for turning your kids loose with PG and never thinking about it again? Of course not. We’re all aware that there are risks in the world, and of course we can teach our kids about those risks. What I am saying is that there is tremendous potential good in Pokémon Go, and what I’m seeing with very, very few exceptions is expression after expression of that potential actualizing in our communities and with our kids. I find it preposterous to build a castle of “NOPE,” especially based on these outmoded lamentation tropes, when one has not taken the time to engage with the technology one’s self.

I can think of a dozen ways to use PG in a classroom right this moment, and if you think I will not use every possible vehicle at my disposal to help any individual child learn, you are out of your mind. That’s my job. I’m a professional educational technologist, an avowed radical pedagogue who is ferociously dedicated to individualized child learning, and a kid’s individual needs and authentic self comes way way way before unsupported objections rooted in an intransigent lack of experience.

Now, if a person is a private citizen and is in the “get off my lawn” camp about PG, AR, VE, or any other such technology, so be it… But the moment one speaks about education, educational policy, or pedagogy, baby: you’re in my world now, and you had best be prepared with a robust counterpoint. Thus far, in all the debates in which I’ve engaged on this subject, absolutely zero of them have been compelling. They almost always return to, “well we’re going to have to agree to disagree, because I think it’s silly and I’m not letting my kid do it.”

That’s not a rationale; that’s a cowardly dodge from facts and the documentable, replicable experiences of thoughtful educational professionals, and no thinking person should accept any justification of pedagogy or educational policycraft that’s rooted in “because I think so.”

Consequently, I repeat: If you haven’t played Pokémon Go, shut up about it. The rest of us are busy trying to ensure that we’re engaging in best practices with the single most important technological advent of 2016 leading up to another school year.

I will not get off your pedagogical lawn.

It’s not your property.

It belongs to the kids, and there’s a Vaporeon in that yard!

(Also, go Team Mystic.)

Pedagogical Conservatism as an Artifact of Institutionalization

I’m of the fervent conviction that the greatest peril facing American public education today is pedagogical conservatism, and that conservatism is fostered directly by the tradition of the school institution.

My classroom practices as well as my administrative philosophy are rooted deeply in metapedagogy, as it is with any radical pedagogue. We say that wildness is a desirable characteristic of the learner, and that we must disenthrall ourselves from the formalized, paternal (often patriarchal) niceness and cleanliness of traditional institutionalized schooling. The aware (read: “woke”) reader will recognize that there is nothing nice or clean about the intellectual abbatoir of the modern school, and that it is not only ourselves that we must free but our children, both actively for those already caught in the grinder and proactively for those not yet quashed in their humanity by the autocratic nature of the traditional classroom.

The contemporary school is modeled upon three major social institutions: the prison, the factory, and the church. Destroying these edifices that are imposed like coffer dams around learning is essential to liberating the child mind and, therefore, learning writ large. They are mutually-incompatible with genuine learning, with pedagogy, and with children. The murder of the genuine child is more than a result of but a direct goal of the system.

This may seem a damning indictment, but one need only BEGIN to question the most basic structures of the institution to recognize their fallacy.

Why do we start school in September and end in late June? Why do we begin the school day at 7:30 AM? Why do we use ABCDF grading? Why do we name Valedictorians? Why do aspiring politicians often run for School Board first? Why do we block YouTube? Why do Scantrons exist? Who is Pearson?

If you take any meaningful time at all to truly explore these questions, you will immediately place your hand upon one of the aforementioned coffer dams of institutionalized factory-prison-church schooling, like so much reaching the edge of the holodeck on the starship Enterprise and realizing that the fantasy is false and there’s a powerful illusory machine right in front of us for the touching and, if we choose, the deactivating.

I discuss this issue in my first book on education, Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children.

My Smart Home Ecosystem

I’ve found myself talking about home automation quite a lot in the last day and a half, so I promised I’d blog about my ecosystem so others can benefit from the trial-and-error I experienced. I got started with home automation a couple of years ago when I got a Wemo Switch as a gift.

The Wemo itself is reliable enough, but controlled through the native Belkin App, can be a little slow. That said, it’s controllable locally through your WiFi network, or over the network from remote locations even via 3G/4G. I wanted to expand the function of my switches, and have a great deal more control. I also really wanted voice automation, and my friend and fellow Four Horseman member Terry Lowry (@TekkieTeacher)  introduced me to the Amazon Echo, which is now the heart of my smart home   ecosystem.

I say heart,  because it isn’t the brains, and has quite a ways to go before it can be. Alexa is a voice-controlled bluetooth speaker (of very good quality, I might add) with an onboard computer that allows it to do some wonderful things. You can ask Alexa the weather, driving times,  basic questions from Wikipedia, the works. But it is absolutely nowhere near Google Now insofar as its ability to search and answer simple comprehension and slightly-more-than-regurgitation answers.  It’s got a lot of growing up to do. That said, the home automation situation is pretty good, so it commands pretty much everything in my apartment.

First, let’s start with the easy stuff: On and off. For this, I have several WeMo switches as I mentioned above. I have one, for example, connected to my HEPA Air Filter, so “Alexa, air filter on” will start to clean the air immediately. It’s a basic on-off switch. I’ve got two that I’m not using at the moment, but I have that ability. The Echo controls WeMo switches natively, so no other intelligence is required in my ecosystem for this. The Alexa is the “hub” that drives WeMo products.

Let’s move on to more sophisticated: Dimming. I like to adjust light based on the light outside and my mood and the time of day and soforth. For this, we need a more intelligent dimmer, and often times, that means a hub.

The least sophisticated application is my nightstand. I had an Eiko-brand CFL. (I prefer 2700° white light, which is “warm white,” and more closely emulates the golden hue of incandescent lamps, so that’s what I had.)  I had this hooked up to  a Wemo Switch originally, but I wanted to dim it. For that, I obtained a Lutron Caséta Dimmer, which is explicitly and exclusively for lamp dimming:

The dimmer has two plugs (two-prong), one on either side, so you can plug in two devices, which will be simultaneously dimmed. (They’re not independent.) I also have a home-made LED lighting scheme around the underside of my bed, and along the back of my headboard. (It’s very cool, if I do say so myself.) I built it to be dimmable, so it was ready to go.

Note here: Compact Fluorescent Lamps are not, generally, dimmable. It dimmed, but made a terrible buzz because it wasn’t operating at proper voltage. Consequently, I swapped my CFL for a dimmable LED bulb.

Works great!

Lutron has its own app, of course, but as you’ve figured out, I don’t want app control: I want my Amazon Echo to control everything. This is where things can get complicated at home. The Lutron dimmer requires a hub, a piece of intelligent technology that sends and receives the actual commands related to any given smart home device. The Echo does not, in and of itself, have the ability to be the hub itself. However, the Echo does talk to a great many hubs. I shopped around for one I thought would talk to everything, and I landed on the Wink Hub.

This device is the “bridge” between the Echo and much of my ecosystem. I actually have it plugged in to the second plug my microwave uses, so it’s hidden away neatly in a cupboard.

Pairing things with the Wink Hub, using the Wink App, is  RIDICULOUSLY EASY. They have on-screen illustrations and step-by-step tutorials that even I’m impressed by, and you know me and step-by-step! I want to be told exactly what to do and how to do it! This is a great setup and very user-friendly with terrific support documentation.

A step up from these options is my kitchen lighting situation. I have halogen lamps in a light strip across the ceiling, and I wanted to dim those, too, but they were controlled by an in-wall switch. Have no fear: Lutron Caséta Dimmers come in in-wall flavor, too:

Now, I’ve owned two houses in my life, so I know a thing or two about basic electrical. If you’ve never done this, call a friend. It’s not hard, but you want the comfort and peace of mind to know you’re not going to electrocute yourself or burn your house down. I rent now, and wanted to be  very careful that I installed everything perfectly, and up to local code, so  do your homework. (And ask me questions if you like!) That said, this was a five-minute piece-of-cake installation, and the pairing was even quicker. BOOM: “Alexa, dim the kitchen to 40%.” “Okay,” she responds, and instantly it’s done.

One more fun thing: I have a “transom wall” between my bedroom and my living room. The top of the wall is open to the ceiling about two feet, and around the corner into the galley kitchen. It’s a really cool architectural feature, and the moment I saw it, I knew: I had to LED light strip the thing.

But I also wanted – wait for it – full color. Oh yes… I have it. I opted for one of the pricier items in my ecosystem, but it’s totes worth it in my book: The Osram Lightify Flex RGBW LED strip.

These are actually four linkable, flexible segments and a long (but not long enough for me) power cord and AC adapter that is controllable by Osram’s pretty decent Lightify App. They adhered perfectly, and I was able to make a 90 degree turn at the corner with only about a half-inch of “slightly sticking-up” strip, as you can’t do hard angles with the strip. But that high up, it’s invisible, so if you’re going around the top of a cabinet or something, rest easy: it’ll work. My issue was hiding the power cord, which I wanted to run down the inside corner of the wall’s corner. I bought an extension cord on Amazon (5-pin for this system, not 4; they’re different) and it all works beautifully.

Because I was so impressed with the Osram Lightify system, I actually got two Lightify LED bulbs as well, and those are in the living room. Now, Osram Lightify has its own hub (which is calls a Bridge) to make all these work, but you don’t need that if you have a Wink Hub, like I do. (I made the mistake of buying the bridge unnecessarily, so that’ll get eBayed at some point.)

Each Osram element is independently-named and individually-controllable. Very impressive. Again, easy as pie to pair with the Wink Hub.

At this point, Alexa is able to respond to commands for each element:

  • Kitchen (dimmable halogen fixtures)
  • Living Room 1 and Living Room 2, grouped together as Living Room (dimmable LED bulbs)
  • Bed and Nightstand, grouped together as Bedroom (dimmable LED bulb and LED strip)
  • Main (dimmable, color-changing LED strip that’s so bright at full power it lights up the whole apartment)
  • Air Filter (on/off switch powering an otherwise-“dumb” device)

Oh, but we’re so not done yet.

I added door sensors from GoControl, one for the front door, and one for the “barn door” into my bedroom. (I also got a motion sensor but thus far it’s sort of redundant with the front door sensor so I have it deactivated for now.)

These puppies are lightweight, battery-controlled sensors with magnetic switches, so when you open the door, the switch closes, activating the battery and sending the open-or-closed code to the Wink Hub. (Again, these were very easy to pair if you follow the directions. I did not the first time, so I had to un-pair them, which was quite a bit more complicated, but if you’re not impetuous like I can be, you’ll be fine.)

Why add these? For example, if I open the front door after 4:30 PM, my kitchen and living room light up to 100%. If the bedroom door opens between 1 AM and  5 AM, the kitchen dims on to 10% brightness, just enough to make sure I don’t stumble around on the way to the bathroom. If the front door opens when I’m not home, my Android phone is notified instantly. Cool stuff, right? All able to be set up in the Wink App using what it calls “Robots,” or recipes – much like those of IFTTT, which you MUST look into if you do any home automation or have a smart phone of any kind – which give conditional control over most   functions.

In addition to IFTTT, which is a must-have for a few things, like I’m about to show you, I also use an app called Yonomi, which creates virtual devices in your home automation ecosystem and allows you to program “routines,” or complex recipes, which can even include other preexisting recipes, to further automate functions.  I’ll explain more about this in a second, because my favorite recipe involves this next bit.

I was able to solve one of my all-time pet peeves by adding one more device. All of the control mechanisms we’ve discussed so far operate on wireless (RF frequency) control. But what about your TV? Your Stereo? The Lasko tower fan I have in the corner? These all operate on IR, or infrared, and there has been a notorious gap between RF and IR transmittability for a long time. Until, enter, stage left: The Harmony Hub.

The Harmony is an “IR blaster,” which sends infrared signals bouncing all over your room, allowing those command signals to catch basically anything within even out-of-line-of-sight range. (It also has two wired repeaters you can add to get around tough corners and work within entertainment center cabinetry.)

If you’re not familiar with the Harmony family of products, Logitech has created a remote control product line that issues both direct commands to devices (like pressing the “on” button on your remote), but also series of commands called “activities” (like pressing the “on” button but it sends two different “on” signals, one to your TV, and one to your PlayStation). This same phenomenon works with the Harmony Hub. The programming is pretty straightforward, but works best when you have exact makes and models of your devices, so consider taking a snapshot of the make and model number label from the back of your devices, like your television and stereo receiver and such, before you begin. It’ll save you some crawling around and craning around to the back of your set. This is accomplished through the Harmony  App, which will program (and update if necessary) your Hub. Yes, this means you have multiple hubs in your ecosystem, now. In mine, Alexa is a (weak) hub, Wink is the main hub, and Harmony is the IR-specific hub. This is why I say Alexa is the heart: Her voice and ears feel what I want from my commands, and then hands off to the Wink in nearly every case. That’s why I think the Wink Hub is really the brains of my ecosystem. The Harmony Hub only does one thing, so it’s like a  specialized region of the brain, and even it needs IFTTT to work properly.

Through IFTTT, I add a recipe that tells Alexa to respond to the trigger word “television” and send the on/off command to my Philips television, through my Harmony Hub. When I say out loud, “Alexa, trigger television,” she will respond, “Sending that to IFTTT,” and my television clicks on. Because I have a Harmony activity programmed in to my Harmony account called “MacBook,” I can also say, “Alexa, trigger MacBook.” She responds, “Sending that to IFTTT,” and my television and stereo receiver all turn on, and set themselves to the proper inputs for my MacBook dock. (I use the Henge dock, which is absolutely genius quality stuff. I recommend and use no other.)

Now for the grand finale. I have a Yonomi routine called “Bedtime.” This routine activates the shutdown procedure for my entire entertainment center through my Harmony Hub, turns off the Living Room and Kitchen and Main lights,   and dims on the Nightstand and Bed lights to 40%. So let’s say I’m in the living room, everything is turned on, and I’m tired and want to go to bed. I say, “Alexa, turn on Bedtime.” (Remember Yonomi creates virtual devices, so “turn on” is the proper command to activate a Yonomi routine.)

Alexa says, “Okay,” and all of that happens  instantly. No going from light to light to shut them off, no pressing all the right remotes to turn things off, no turning on the bedroom to make sure a light is on then go back to turn off the lights I no longer need… it’s all just done! I can crawl into bed, close my bedroom barn door, and be assured that if I need to pee at 2 AM, I’ll have a little light to help guide me along.

The ecosystem is really working for me. I like being able to say “Alexa, Living Room 50%, please,” and be able to continue typing or watching my movie or adventuring in Second Life without having to stop and get up to turn the dimmers down because the sun has set. I enjoy that if I forget to turn off something, I don’t have to uncurl from bed. I love that if I think of something while I’m snuggled up with my pillows that I need to remember tomorrow, I can call out, “Alexa, remind me to do XYZ tomorrow morning,” and she just does it. The Echo’s “far field voice recognition” has worked flawlessly for me. Without shouting, I can issue commands from the next room and be responded to ideally.

There are a few big things missing for me: I want to be able to control my blinds. I tried the  EzWand package, which works great on lightweight blinds, but I have a 96″ x 48″ set of metal blinds in my apartment, and the little motor wasn’t strong enough by far. Consequently, I need to probably replace the entire set of blinds with something else. There are many options, but they’re pricy, so unless somebody wants to let me demo and review them, I’m up a creek for now. That would be huge for me, because I’m forever regretting not closing them after the sun comes up. The other things I’m missing is having Alexa voice-respond as I want her to, confirming various functions or reporting things to me on demand. I’d like upon coming home to add triggering Alexa’s “flash briefing” report, which gives me the news and information of the day. I’d like to have the weather reported to me when I open the barn door in the morning on a weekday. I’d also like (call me silly) a “welcome home” message. I live by myself, and it’d be fun and nice to have a hello from Alexa, or even allow her to have basic conversations.

One thought would be something like:

  • “Welcome home, KDR.”
  • “Thanks, Alexa.” (She remains awake to  accept the voice response to my next exchange.)
  • “How was your day?”
  • “Not good, Alexa. I’m feeling run down.”
  • “I’m sorry. Your Seven-Minute Workout should help. Drink some water and let’s get your endorphins going.”
  • “Good idea. Alexa, start my Seven-Minute Workout.”

I mean, it may sound silly, but some basic call-response feedback would be a nice touch to an already powerful system.

That said, the major home-control stuff is really helpful and I’m enjoying the convenience a great deal. I expect in addition to things like my fan and air filter, I’ll be expanding to include thermostat next. Alexa works with the Nest and Honeywell HVAC controllers, and I foresee that being a money-saver in the long term, to adjust my A/C and heat based on where I am, certain conditions, my voice commands, and more.

If you have any questions, hit me up, and I’ll gladly answer!

The professional website of Keith David Reeves