What Baby George Taught Me About Learning | Dr. Michael Wesch | TEDxMHK

Translator: Phương Lê
Reviewer: Theresa Ranft So, I’m an anthropologist, and I study all humans
in all times and all places. And I’ve been to a lot
of pretty strange places, a lot of places all over the world. But the strangest place I’ve ever studied is actually right here. This is my classroom, one of the first classrooms
I’ve ever taught here in K-State. A lot of you have been
in these classrooms. I want to just have you
go inside there mentally and think about how strange this place is. First of all, outside of those walls
is what’s called the “real world.” This place is so strange
that people recognize that outside is what’s called “real” and this is some sort of fantasy land. Secondly, there is the issue that the room itself
is presumably designed for learning, but learning is defined
in a very specific way. If you look at the layout of the place, it’s got large speakers
and a large screen directed at fixed seats, and clearly learning is all about dumping
information into people’s heads, which is actually a very narrow view
of what learning really is. The third thing is a lot
of students on the first day are thinking, “How am I going
to get by in this class?” And this notion of “getting by” is actually very prolific
throughout college, and it’s almost like students are trying
to sneak right past their education. And the fourth thing I’ll mention is what’s sometimes called
the “Vaccination Theory of Education” which is to say
that once you’ve had a subject, you’ve already had it,
and you don’t need to take it again, and hopefully you won’t have to suffer
through it anytime in the future. This is a notion that we’re just trying to sneak right past
our education in all kinds of ways. So, a couple of years ago,
a few years ago, I asked my students to comment on this, and I created this video
in which I just had a Google Doc and asked all of my students – there were 200 at the time – to just comment on
what they thought about their education. I started with a simple question: “What’s it like being a student today?” And then 200 students
made all these edits to the document. You can see several blank spaces. That’s where we needed to survey ourselves
to get some statistics. And then we just started up the camera and started reporting what we had found. And what we had found is that there is a sense of disconnection. Students don’t feel
like they know their own teachers. They read less than half
of what they’re assigned and find 26% relevant to their life, which is a 74% failure rate on our part. They buy $100 textbooks they never open, and they pay for class
but they don’t show up. But even worse than this
is when you’re walking in the hallways, and you start listening to faculty
complaining about these things. And you’ll hear faculty say things like, “Well, some people
just aren’t cut out for school.” And this statement just passes by
without any second guessing. It’s just like in the air. Nobody questions it. But if you replace
that last word “school” with what school is supposed
to be about, learning: “Some people
are not cut out for learning.” That is absurd. Learning is a fundamental human trait, and it’s just that learning has been somehow misdefined for us
by school itself, and we’re completely missing out. So, I started to rethink what learning is all about
by watching my son, George. So, here’s George, he’s one at this time, and he’s learning to go downstairs. And, as you can see,
failure is not a problem for him, like failure is actually
kind of apparently fun. Every time he falls,
he looks up with a big smile, and then he gets back up
and he goes again. And this goes on and on,
I have 59 of these and I’m going to show them all. (Laughter) There’s a lot of other things
you can see here. He feels connected, he feels courageous. He feels like he’s going to do it. Someday he’s going to do it. That’s why he keeps
getting back up on that step. And this just goes on and on,
for months he does this. But back in the classroom,
learning looks very different. And so I decided to try to bring
this sort of excitement for learning and what I think of
as real learning to my students. And I made a pitch to them, I said, “Look, real learning is not about
memorizing the answers to this class. Real learning is about the questions
that you take out of this class, questions that inspire you, that take you all over
the world and drive you. Questions can open up
new connections for you, they force you to take chances and do things you never
thought you might do.” And I actually played some music
and made this really fantastic speech which ended with the line – some of my students are here
so they know the line. The line is something like: “Asking questions, taking chances …” “Asking questions, making connections
and taking chances took us down from the trees
and took us to the moon.” And as I left with this big huge speech, I said, “What questions do you have?” And somebody raises
their hand and they say, “How many points
is this worth?” (Laughter) And the next question is,
“How long does this paper need to be?” “What do we need to know for this test?” They’re all administrative questions. And it was all about getting by, it was all about this completely different
definition of learning, and what real learning is all about. I’m an anthropologist, a researcher, so I decided I needed
to dig a little deeper. I decided to actually start
interviewing my students. I started going to lunch with my students. For a couple of years, I took almost
every lunch with a student. And I’d sit with the student
for an hour or two hours every day, and the rule was no small talk, just get right in the deep discussions,
deep questions, and so on. It became apparent that there were
three really important questions that were driving students and completely ignored in the classroom. Those questions were, “Who am I?” “What am I going to do?” “Am I going to make it?” To give you a sense of what
these questions feel like when you’re talking to a student
very deeply about them, I’ll tell you a few stories. One is a girl who in high school
was a soccer star and she was destined
to play soccer in college. She was being recruited
by the best colleges in the nation. She had her heart set on Marquette. Then one day in high school,
during practice, she had a collision. She woke up in the hospital, and didn’t get out
of that hospital bed for three months. Only one friend came
to visit her during that time, and her soccer career was over. She didn’t go to Marquette. She’s sitting there in my classroom and she’s wondering, “Who am I?” Or there’s a student whose father left
when she was very young. And then in high school, her mom was out partying
a lot every night, and sometimes didn’t come home at all. And one day just actually
stopped coming home. And she didn’t see her mom again. She’s sitting in her house alone, she can’t pay the bills,
she’s going to lose the house. And she goes into her English class, and she’s acting out
like she often did in school. The teacher took her to the hallway
and started yelling at her. She says, “What are you doing?” And she just starts to cry and she says,
“I don’t think I want to go on anymore.” That English teacher
actually took her home, and she’s lived
with that teacher ever since. She graduated a valedictorian, and she’s sitting in my class
as an accounting major, but she hates accounting. She’s just doing it because it’s safe, something that she thinks
will pay the bills, she won’t be homeless again. But she’s wondering,
“What am I going to do?” There’s one other student,
she’s like the perfect student. She’s amazing, does all this great work. She’s like two steps above perfect
every time I see her work. One day, at the end of class,
she hands me a note and says, “I know you think I’m doing
this amazing work, but I need you to know that I do it
because I’m running away from a household full of addiction
and anxiety and suicide.” And she said, “Unfortunately, I feel
like the harder I run away from this, the more I create the same dynamics
that will draw me back in.” And she’s wondering,
“Am I going to make it?” So these are the big questions
that are populating these students’ lives, and as hard as those stories sound, I found myself actually feeling
a little envy for them. Because I thought,
“Have I been taking chances?” “Have I actually been
putting myself out on the line and figuring out who I am
and what I’m going to do?” Nobody here knows who you are
and what you’re going to do. Those are really big questions, right? I had denied those things, I’d become comfortable
and I’d actually stopped learning. I decided to try something hard for me – I started drawing. If you look at my report cards
throughout my life, drawing has always been a low point, and that’s evidenced here. I started drawing and animating,
and I reached out to alumni and said, “What actually mattered
in those classes I taught you?” I talked to alumni
who’d been gone for 10 years, and I asked them, “What mattered?” And this is the first animation I created
based on one of those stories. ♪ (music) ♪ This fantastic student,
very dedicated to his studies, he’s just kind of your ideal student. But life seemed to be passing him by. In my classes, we’re talking
about these cultures around the world, and a lot of cultures
have this idea of a hero, a hero figure called out
for an adventure. He goes on the road of trials and then is ultimately transformed. And in this class,
there actually was a hero. This young woman in this class had really been through
the trials of life. And they were a perfect match – him with his bookishness,
her with her worldly experience. They bonded immediately. They fell in love, raised a kid together, and I thought it was happily ever after. Then a few years later, he wrote me this. [She left me … I’m lost …
I’m completely broken.] After that, he just started running. He started, he took his shoes off, he ran barefoot. He ran through day and night, about 10, 20 miles a day, for months, and then over a year. He ran through all seasons, just trying to think
about what went wrong. He told me, “It was something
he couldn’t not do.” He just had to run to figure it out. And then, one day,
he had this kind of epiphany where he felt lifted outside of his body, and he could actually see himself
running down on the ground. He said it was all these years
of education and learning he had put himself through
that helped him realize that he was that hero on the journey, that he was walking
through the trials of life. And he found this compassion for himself that allowed him
to look down upon himself, this little man running through the woods, and say, “My goodness, you’re a hero.” And then he looked
at the people around him, people who he’d often forsaken
or just looked right past, and realized, “So are they.” He saw this heroic nature in all of us that we all run through these hard times. And it gave him the strength
to become more compassionate and ultimately to save his relationship. When I asked him
what education was about, what he could get from classes like mine, he said it wasn’t that he learned
how to make a living, it was that he learned
how to build a life worth living. He gave him the resources to go through
these dark nights of the soul that allowed him to build up a life
that was worth it. And, of course, it also gave him
that ability, like George chose, to love yourself enough
to pick yourself up and get back up on the step again. So then I started thinking
about my classes, and this is my second animation
I made. (Chuckling) I started thinking,
“What can I bring to my classroom to change the dynamic and change
the message of about what learning is.” One of my students was always sleeping
or giving me this scowling look. I was up there trying to dazzle them with my 2 million points of light
and my laser pointer, and I’d always look out
and there he was falling asleep again. Then I got an upgraded room
with four screens, I would dance on tables – my students know this, this happens. And I just get more depressed, as I’d be dancing on a table
and look out to see him sleeping again. So I decided, it’s my class that’s boring, nothing I say matters,
this class is meaningless, I’m wasting your time. And then one day, I just got mad, and I couldn’t really decide what to do. I was going to do something,
bring this to a head. I went to him and said,
“You want to go to lunch?” So we went to lunch, and he started to tell me
about this addiction to games. He plays all night,
that’s why he’s sleeping in my class. But it was more than that,
he actually made his own games as well. He described this game
with hexagon cards with mythological figures. And I started to realize
that this was a pretty interesting guy, that he had this amazing capacity
to throw himself into projects, and this capacity was completely
under-recognized in school. So that he felt defined
by these bad grades that he was getting and ultimately just sort of cast aside. I invited him to be part
of a different kind of class, with no lectures and no textbooks, where he could use that strength
to his own advantage. And I paired him up
with a whole team of people looking to show their strength. And together they built
this amazing project together which redefined himself, so he didn’t have to think himself
as that “D” student. Instead, he just threw himself
into a project day and night, and it helped me see sleepers like him
in a totally different light. ♪ (music) ♪ (Chuckling) I didn’t have to pose that,
that just happens. So here he is now developing games. This is when he developed
as part of this project called “Falling Up”,
an empathy game about Alzheimer’s. So here we are, back to George, and there’s one more lesson
that George can help us with. And that is thinking about
how to set up this class in terms of grading. Why is this that George
is always getting right back up? Nobody’s saying,
when George falls off the step, “No, you’re done.
You got a ‘F’. Game over.” He just keeps getting back up
with a smile and keeps going. So, can we change the grading system
to accommodate this? Certainly, the grading system
can’t just be a sorting process where we just establish
who the “As” are and who the “Fs” are, completely disenfranchising
the “Fs” and the “Ds” while the “As” and “Bs” start to feel
complacent and stop trying. So, my vision for this
was that I decided to imagine my course as a great mountain. At the bottom of the mountain,
we place the students. At the top there’s something
really worth it. Like George has something worth it – taking that first step
is really worth it. And then they start
climbing up this mountain, and I’ve scaffolded it so that they can see
that they can make it. As they start climbing the mountain, of course some people
don’t get up to that first plateau. But there’s a rule here, and the rule is that
there’s never an end to this. You don’t just get an “F” and you’re out. Instead, you get a “Not yet”
and some feedback. And then we encourage
all the class, all the students, to help everybody
get up to the first plateau. And it’s amazing how people
reach out to one another and help each other get to that plateau. After a while, they start to realize that they can find
new ways to work together, and they get really creative
about ways of working together and they just start climbing
that mountain together. About ten weeks in, it always get hard, people start just crawling
and slogging along, it’s very challenging at this time. But we stick together, and we make it. Once you’re at this level,
you can start to see the end. You start to realize
that there’s something there, there’s something worth it,
and I can see it. They start hitting their stride, and they run up
to the top of the mountain. That’s when they realize that what they thought they were doing
was a final project. But, in fact, that final project
was not so final, and the real project was themselves. [Worth it] Because they’re reshaped by the very project
of living inside learning, doing something they love
and challenging themselves. And that’s what’s worth it. Because these are kind of things
that build the resources that will allow us to run through
those dark nights of the soul. And real learning helps us realize
that we are more than our score, and that learning is a lot more
than what can be scored. And when we come back to George, we remember that we just have
to keep on loving ourselves even as we fall, and that one of these days,
we will make it. He finally makes
his first step. (Chuckling) This is where the real lesson comes in, and that is real learning
is not something that you just do it and then it’s over. It’s actually fun, so you keep doing it. Even when you succeed, you keep doing it. And the road keeps going and we see George here
taking one last leap. (Chuckling) Thank you. (Applause)

9 thoughts on “What Baby George Taught Me About Learning | Dr. Michael Wesch | TEDxMHK”

  1. George is a very lucky child, having a father with such a deep going interest in what life is about and how to make the most of it.
    Michael; my dearest respect for you and good luck George!

  2. Why can't more professors be like you? Your compassion for your students shows through in your desire to see them succeed. You are quite amazing!

  3. I am a university student. I found this talk really touching.

    Thankfully my uni teachers are really good and share Michael Wesch's philosophy of learning.

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