Is the American Education system outdated?
We asked Azul Terronez, a famous Tedx Speaker and former leading Principal, his thoughts on the American education system.
Today you’ll find Azul coaching aspiring authors, working on his podcast and interviewing Gen Z entrepreneurs who, he believes, will be running the show in the not-so-distant-future.
Before shifting his career into the online world, he had a very successful career in the American education system as a teacher, principal and consultant, coaching schools.
His TEDx Talk, What Makes a Good Teacher Great?, has received almost 400,000 views (at the time of this writing).
It was Terronez’s frustration with the American Education System that resulted in his ultimate decision to leave it and further pursue his career as a public speaker.
He wanted to have an impact on a more global level.
“I was an English teacher. I taught writing and literature and US history… and all of them I used to hate. I shouldn’t say this, but I hated teaching those things. Number one, I’m dyslexic and so writing, in general, was always hard. So I never taught the rules of grammar stuff because I never found them as valuable, but I wanted kids to learn to find their voice.”
We recently spoke to Terronez and he shared some of the changes he would like to see in the American education system.
Don’t Teach Kids, Inspire Them
“I was always a misfit in the education world because I always pushed against teaching kids. Inspire them to do something great, and they will. Have them meet the needs of a test, and they’ll probably do that too, but like Campbell’s Law says, the very thing you use to measure kids are the things that actually defeat the purpose of measuring them.
Here’s an example: I taught Integrated Humanities, which meant history and social studies, and I honestly got so tired of teaching early US history. I mean, they understood it in fifth grade. They don’t want to hear about the colonies anymore.
They’re just bored of it, to be honest. Sure, some kids really liked it because that’s their natural interest but most of them were just disinterested.
I really like those worst-case scenario books. Have you seen books, where you flip them open and it says, like, how to hotwire cars? ‘Oh, that’s cool. I’d always wanted to learn that.’ Or to survivor a bear attack or how to jump from a moving car? Things you shouldn’t teach a kid, but I was fascinated by.
So I said, what if we did that?
What if we made it a worst-case scenario book, but for the colonists? So we did. It was called a New World Survival Handbook, and these kids figured all the things that could go wrong. Like, ‘What if they have this shark attack?’ ‘I don’t know.’
So they would write these things and draw and illustrate how to survive a shark attack. And it was fun, but it was just a meant for them to re-engage into learning that they cared about.”
Practice Creative Non-Compliance
“Find the right places to bend or break the rules and do that. Don’t do all the test prep. I mean, what are you hoping to achieve?
You think kids will do better if you give them a week worth of crammed practice? It’s important to some schools because they get their funding. I understand that. Kids are smart enough to get that too. But like don’t tell them it’s important to them because it isn’t. It really isn’t.
Just be honest. Say look, ‘this is how we continue to get our funding. We want you to do the best you can so we can continue to do what we do every day, which is really fun and exciting.’ If going to school isn’t fun and exciting then they know it’s just a hoax. You can’t say it if you’re not doing it.
I think a lot more leaders and teachers need to be non-compliant and say ‘I’m not teaching to the test.’
‘Yes, you are or you’re going to be fired.’
‘Then fire me.’
But you know, nobody wants to be non-compliant. They want to they want to be compliant. This is how schools work.
And I say, ‘but do they have to? What if they didn’t? Let’s pretend for a week that we don’t have to teach our subject. What would happen?’
In a previous school, one of the schools I was working at, the principal said, ‘What would happen if we didn’t even teach our own kids?’ We’re like, ‘What do you mean?’ Well, we have these advisories that are mixed grades, sixth, seventh, and eighth. What if we taught those kids instead of the kids in our class? What would happen?
I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’
They’re like, ‘And what if we didn’t care about what the subject was? We taught whatever we want, what would happen? And what if we did it for half the day for nine weeks, what would happen?’
And we just kept on, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’
Then we did it. You know what happened? Amazing things happened.
When schools become a place where work happens and people do creative, imaginative things, you can do incredible things.
For example, my teaching parter was like, ‘I want to make a movie.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God,’ because I know how much that work that is. Especially if you’re going to get kids to do it.
And I said ‘Well, a lot of the problem with movies is half the time you’re sitting around waiting for the other people do their job. We can’t have kids just sitting around half the day not doing something.’
I said, ‘Here’s my only thing. If we do a movie, they have to have something they’re doing when they’re not doing the movie.’
He’s like, ‘Okay what?’
I said, ‘Well, let’s do something irreverent.’
He’s like, ‘Go on.’
I said ‘Think Avenue Q for kids, like a little more irreverent, like puppets. Make them have to sew and make every puppet, make them have to learn puppetry, learn to sew with a needle, make everything from scratch, so that when they’re not doing their movie role they’re sewing, so their hands are occupied.’
Because sixth-graders without something to do is a nightmare.
So he said ‘Great!’
I said, ‘The only other caveat is we have to make purpose. We can’t just make a movie for fun. What would make this meaningful?’
He’s like ‘What if we found somebody to make the movie for?’
I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know like the SPCA or like some outside agency to promote them.’
‘Like a Public Service Announcement?’
He goes, ‘Yeah, but maybe a little more. Like something that’s more than a couple minutes. We have nine weeks. What could we do?’
I said okay. So I started to pitch different organizations. ‘Hey, 38 kids, half the day for nine weeks dedicated to help your organization make a movie. Are you in?’
And I just started pitching people and calling them, and eventually, an organization called the Trevor Project said, we’re in.
Trevor Project is a suicide hotline for LGBT youth, but they are having trouble because kids don’t call anymore, they text. So they were launching this new thing called Trevor Text where kids could get help through texting. And so they wanted support.
I said, ‘Great, we’ll make the movie. Here are our constraints. Just so you know, we have 38 kids, and they’re making this movie [themselves]. We’re not making it. And they have to use puppets. So you still in?’
They’re like, ‘Sure.’
What happened, that’s a long story, but we ended up working with them and creating a movie for them. [The students] got to work with the Academy Award-winning writer of the movie Trevor, which started that organization, and the Academy Award-Winning producer.
They became screenwriters and producers and directors. They got coached by these high-level people and were really held to a high standard because they were doing it for something bigger than themselves.
The message was about being yourself and not being bullied and so they created this incredible script. It was amazing kids did this, but you know what it wasn’t in the curriculum. It wasn’t something they would have ever done if we were limited to our content. Those kids are like sophomores in college, some of them are Juniors, and they still talk about that, how that changed their lives.”
Stop Teaching Antiquated Skills & Start Focusing On What Matters
“[I told my students], ‘look, let’s solve a really cool problem that we can demonstrate when people come in.’ We have exhibitions and invite people into our classroom or wherever we’re holding the exhibition. If we can get people to say, ‘Holy smokes, kids did that?’ we’re on the right path…
I was talking to the founder of Code.org, about why he started [the business]. He really thinks that every kid should learn coding from the moment they can actually work on a computer.[Schools] should teach coding because [students are] going to need to know this language. If they’re not coding, they need to know the complexities of it, and the thing I realize is that the antiquated skills we’re teaching in schools are so not useful. Beyond the ability to read maybe, which is useful. I’m not sure they teach people how to think, even, right? But besides reading, there’s not a whole lot that they’re getting out of it that they couldn’t google in five seconds without you.
But solving complex problems are important.
I was talking also to the co-founder of the Stanford D School, who teaches design thinking. And the design school started basically for engineers to start thinking about the human quality around design and stop building things in isolation, but to start with empathy in mind. And so, thousands and thousands of people trained through the D school. We were having lunch and I was talking with him about how I teach writing. He’s like, ‘This is fascinating, why doesn’t everybody teach writing this way?’
I said, ‘Because people are always looking for the same results. My result isn’t to see how good of a writer they can be to pass the test. My job is to inspire them to share their message, it’s a different reason to teach writing.
But as we’re talking, he was starting something new called, D Global, which basically [is where] he does these pop-up universities in different places in the world. Maybe he’ll go to Berlin. He’ll get some people from academia, some people who never went to school, some people who were just kind of meandering in life, and bring them all together and pose a really interesting question like, ‘Can you find love here in this space? If we wanted to look for love, how do we know it’s here?’
And then make them go figure it out. Then he poses some interesting questions that there’s no real answer to and pushes them together as a team and goes, ‘Go prove it to me. Document with your video camera and come talk to me. What did you find out?’
And his effort is to reframe what learning is, that learning isn’t in the university. Learning is a part of the activity of doing and solving problems you don’t have answers to.
Encourage Kids to Be Creative
“The smart kids figure out, if I work harder and turn it in on time and it’s better than everybody else, they’re just going to give me more work, so I’m just going to fly under the radar and do what I need to get A’s if that’s my goal or B’s. Whatever keeps me in my zone of comfort because it working hard never equals anything.
We need to encourage kids to be creators, that there is value in creating.
This would level the playing field. If you’re really good at art and you create a project that requires art, but the academic kids can’t do it, guess who’s the value maker now? It’s not the academic kid. It’s the kid who can make beautiful art.
If you make only words and math and skills that are only good in school valuable, then, of course, it’s not a level playing field. Creative kids, thinkers, empathetic kids can’t be valuable in a space where you don’t allow them to practice human skills.
And I think that’s unfortunate because they have a lot to offer. Just because of their age doesn’t mean they’re not valuable, and that’s why I’m so fascinated by these young [Gen Z] founders because they found value regardless of what the schools taught them or what they believe. And a lot of them had support, whether a mentor or a parent that really believed in them. So I think that that’s important for kids, they need that mentorship.
What I’m finding is so many of [these young founders] think that entrepreneurship is the way and education just supplements their way to get there. It’s really fascinating what I’m learning from them. But I want to know more because I want to be able to teach Educators. People who are trying to make decisions, they’re going to soon be working for all these kids I’m interviewing for sure.”
Summary on The American Education System
Regardless of how you feel about the American education system, there’s no doubt that there are real-world skills not being taught today.
From Azul Terronez’s point of view, though there are pockets of change occurring, too few are standing up and demanding change.
He believes that teachers need to:
- Stop teaching kids and start inspiring them
- Practice creative non-compliance, and
- Stop teaching antiquated skills and focus, instead, on what matters
- Encourage kids to be creative
We would love to hear what you think!
Do you agree with Azul? What changes, if any, are you seeing in your area?