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You Gotta Show Up

Live Stream

I’ve mentioned Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast in several posts around here. For more than a year, at the end of almost every weekly episode they play an ad for something called the Alt MBA. It’s an online program that probably doesn’t lead to an actual degree, but instead seems to be more of a leadership seminar.

Anyway, the ad is wasted on me since I have no need for an MBA of any kind. But, for some reason, the language of the promotion attracted my attention.

An Easy Way To Find Interesting Problems

Ready to Raft

At the risk of once again incurring the wrath of Jenn Binis,1return to the topic of education commentary from writer and marketing guru Seth Godin.

In a recent episode of his Akimbo podcast, Godin discusses the idea of teaching kids to solve problems, as opposed to them simply memorizing and recycling facts.

When I wrote Stop Stealing Dreams several years ago, in it I put that there are two things we ought to teach kids to do in school. One is to lead and the second is to solve interesting problems.

And I’ve been surprised through the years at how many people have asked “how do we find interesting problems for our kids to solve?”.

I realized that “solve interesting problems” has three challenges. Solve. Interesting. And problems. So I wanted to talk for a few minutes about what it means to work on interesting problems.

In the monologue that follows, Godin acknowledges that “solve” is probably poor phrasing since most truly interesting problems rarely have one solution. Or they are part of a larger interconnected network of issues. He also spends some time on what makes a problem “interesting”.

However, what Godin doesn’t address is the idea of why we should be “giving” students the problems in the first place.

For decades, even centuries, teachers have assigned work for students to complete. For their students, the biggest “problem” is often determining the key steps they must take to satisfy the teacher’s requirements. And too often these “problems” are not especially interesting.

So, coming back to the question of how do we find interesting problems for our kids to solve, the simple answer is: ask them.

Ask students what puzzles them about the world around them. What issues do you think are important? What are some problems your community is facing that you feel passionate about solving?

Kids, especially by the time they reach middle school, are often very aware of what’s happening in the world around them, and have a good idea of what they find interesting. Many are already thinking about the contributions they can make to their family and communities. Maybe even about their place in the wider world. School should primarily be about developing their skills to do that kind of interesting problem solving.

Which is not to say that teachers should just turn students loose to do whatever they want. An understanding of the process needed to solve complex problems is not something people are born with. Kids still need adults to help them get organized, find a focus, and learn to narrow their thinking. And to connect them with people, organizations, and sources outside the school who can help.

So, I agree with Godin that kids need to work on interesting problems during their time in school. Just not the packaged, interesting-to-adults, kind of problems he is probably thinking of.

Plus, when students are encouraged to work on the topics they find interesting and challenging, they will also be learning something about leadership. A two-fer.


One way to learn problem solving is to jump in the boat and shove off into the rapids. Ok, maybe having a qualified instructor might be a good idea as well.

1. Not so much “wrath” as a stern Twitter challenge and good discussion. :-)

Teaching And Learning Are Not The Same Thing

Seth Godin is a popular writer and speaker, well known for his work around marketing and organization. He also occasionally offers ideas around education.1 Probably his best known work in that area is the extended essay Stop Stealing Dreams and the TEDx talk on which it is based.2

In addition to writing a daily blog, Godin also does a weekly podcast called Akimbo, and in a recent episode he offered some thoughts about the educational establishment related to the recent college entrance cheating scandal that featured a few members of the rich and semi-famous.3

At the opening of the podcast, he makes this observation: 

Management and leadership are not the same thing.

Management is done with power and authority, compelling others to do what we need them to do, when we need them to do it. Leadership, on the other hand, always involves voluntary compliance. It always involves people eagerly following the leader.

And the same dichotomy is true about learning and education.

Education is often done to us, it is mandatory, people show up and say “you will learn this and there will be a test”.

That’s different from learning. Learning is a process we choose to go through.

That idea of learning not being the same as education is one that has been stuck in my head for many years. And it’s not much of a stretch to modify Godin’s statement into this corollary: learning is not the same as teaching.

Teaching, at least in it’s popular interpretation, is also something done to students. Ask someone who’s not part of the profession what a “teacher” does and you’ll probably get a lot of verbs related to the transfer of information from an adult to kids. Someone who lectures, gives tests, and in general runs a space called “classroom”.

Learning, on the other hand, may or may not occur as the result of teaching. In a formal school setting, students are usually offered some incentive to retain certain information and skills for a relatively short period of time, although much of that is likely to disappear over the longer term. Maybe even between the spring tests and the beginning of the new school year.

Over a long career in and around public schools, I’ve heard more than a few colleagues say something to the effect of “I taught them, they just didn’t learn it” about their students.

This also ties back to some previous rants about personalized learning. Those systems seem to be more about teaching – the transmission of information to the subject for them to retain at least long enough to pass an assessment – than about learning. The goal of the artificially intelligent algorithms embedded in the software is to adapt the flow of data to the student’s ability to respond to it.

Is that “learning”? Maybe it’s one definition. Certainly it’s a process that produces a statistical score for classifying the learner.

In the end, however, genuine learning really only involves interests and topics that have some personal meaning or consequence for the learner. And that’s equally true for a high school freshman as it is for an adult of any age.

So, why do we persist in “teaching” instead of enabling “learning”?


The image at the top is, of course, a classic cartoon from Gary Larson’s Far Side. I’m very likely violating copyright by using it, which is why I’m embedding it from someone else’s copyright violation. :-)

1. Don’t hold me to this, but I think I read somewhere that one or both of his parents were teachers. Which doesn’t make anyone an education “expert” but can add to their understanding of the profession from that particular time.

2. The talk is worth your time to watch. In the essay, I think he misses the mark as often as he hits it but his ideas about the American educational structure are still interesting.

3. And lost me in the process, as he sometimes does with other Akimbo episodes. Overall, however, I look forward to his weekly audio essays.

Math Is Not The Same As Math Class

On a recent edition of his Akimbo podcast, Seth Godin1 discusses why math in the real world doesn’t line up with the subject taught in school.

In his monolog, Godin argues that everyone is good at math since most of us use the concepts everyday without necessarily thinking about the “math” involved. He illustrates his point using the Monty Hall Problem, a probability puzzle related to simple choices, based on the game show Let’s Make a Deal and named for its long-time host.

The whole episode is worth a listen2, but, as a former math teacher, I found his introductory remarks about those math classes particularly interesting. 

Math class might be hard but math… math isn’t what we think it is. One reason that math class feels hard is because math isn’t what they teach in math class.

It may be that you think you are no good at math, but you are probably mistaken. You might mean that you are no good at arithmetic, because arithmetic is boring and you know how to arithmetic with a computer.

It might be that you’re no good at memorizing formulas that make no sense to you. And that’s probably a good idea, because of all the things to be good at, memorizing formulas that make no sense to you is not one of them.

School was built to create people who could do well on tests, and so quote math unquote educators (also in quotes) decided that the easiest way to have people do well on the tests was to teach them arithmetic and have them memorize equations that they didn’t understand.

I’m not sure I agree that the concept of school was built around testing, even though that’s what it’s become.

However, his assessment of the content of math class is far too accurate. The math curriculum used in most schools really is based on arithmetic. It’s repetitious, most of the problems done on their smartphone, and it is pretty boring.

When students get to high school and the titles get narrowly specific (like Algebra), the formulas become more complex but the process is still mostly a matter of arithmetic (we just stick letters in place of the numbers) and memorizing. And also still largely boring for most kids.

Let’s face it, there is much about K12 education that is out of date and in need of a complete re-think. The concept of “math class” would be a great place to start.


The picture shows Monty Hall with his famous three doors (occasionally curtains) that were incorporated into the problem. Although he was going strong as host of Let’s Make a Deal when I started teaching math, I didn’t learn of the problem named for him until much later.

1. Godin is a popular business writer whose daily blog, books, and other work often include some insightful observations that apply out here in the real world. I find his writing on education is sometimes too simplistic but it still provides some good thought material.

2. The math discussion is in the first fifteen minutes. You can probably skip the question and answer section (plus a promotion for his online course) in the second half.

Urgent Doesn’t Mean Important

In a recent post on his daily blog, Seth Godin deconstructs urgent vs. important, and makes a great point about our current news media.

In fact, breaking news of any kind is rarely important.

Important means: long-term, foundational, coherent, in the interest of many, strategic, efficient, positive…

If you take care of important things, the urgent things don’t show up as often. The opposite is never true.

Let’s start with this: The purpose of CNN’s BREAKING NEWS posture (caps intentional) isn’t to create a better-informed citizenry. It’s to make money.

If understanding current events is important, skip the manufactured urgency of cable TV.

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