What Seth Doesn’t Know about Schools

Poking through my feed reader last Friday, I stumbled across this great Ted talk by digital pioneer and provocateur Seth Godin. 

In it, Godin argues that our schools need to change drastically if they are going to properly prepare today’s kids for tomorrow’s world.  Traditional practices that we’ve relied on for decades — think spending significant amounts of time memorizing important content or ideas — are worse than outdated.  They are completely irrelevant.

(click to enlarge, download and find original image credit here)

Now don’t get me wrong:  Godin’s argument aligns nicely with everything that I believe about teaching and learning in the 21st Century.

The lessons that matter the most to our students have nothing to do with memorizing isolated bits of knowledge simply because (1). Isolated bits of knowledge can be accessed almost immediately by anyone AND (2). In a rapidly changing world, it is simply impossible to keep up with which isolated bits of knowledge are important in any given discipline.  As college dropout Dan Brown explains in his Open Letter to Educators, information is worth almost nothing in a digitally connected world.

But here’s the hitch:  I’ve spent the past two months encouraging my sixth grade science students to memorize the definitions of essential vocabulary words. 

Not only do I believe that a foundational understanding of key words will help my students to be more fluent scientists — kind of like having a foundational understanding of basic multiplication facts helps kids to master increasingly difficult math concepts — I know that the tests that our state uses to determine whether or not students have “mastered” the content in my classroom are full of knowledge-based multiple choice questions.

No one is measuring the kinds of higher-level collaborative behaviors that Godin — and most teachers I know — believes students must master.  No one ever asks whether my students can develop and then conduct an experiment that answers an interesting question.  No one ever asks whether my students can engage in a cycle of collective inquiry with their peers designed to build new knowledge together.  No one ever asks whether my students can identify – -and then draw conclusions from — patterns or trends in scientific conversations.

The ONLY thing that our current tests — which students take without ANY learning supports or digital connections — measure is the ability to remember basic facts. 

Heck — one prototype question asks students to explain the difference between oceanic and continental crust using the terms mafic and felsic.  Can YOU answer that without Google’s help?


According to test writers — and by default, the policymakers who have decided that multiple choice tests are the best way to hold teachers accountable for student learning — definitions really DO matter.  As a result, my kids have packets of vocabulary practice worksheets that they’re grinding through right now — and while I’m convinced that memorization isn’t a skill we should spend a ton of time celebrating, I’m also convinced that the kids in my room who know every word inside out before our exam will earn better scores than those who don’t.

Do I brag about the memorization work that my kids are doing?

Nope.  But I’m not ready to demonize it yet, either — especially in a high-stakes world where my job status depends on the scores that my kids turn in on knowledge-driven end-of-grade tests.


Related Radical Reads:

Walking Moral Tightropes ISN’T a Reform Strategy

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year

The Monster You’ve Created


Original Image Credit: Seth Godin by Joy Ito


Licensed Creative Commons Attribution on May 26, 2013

  • Ric Murry

    Forgetting What It Is Like To Not Know

    Thanks for your post Bill.  I read and listen to Godin, and many other non-educators interested in education.  The one thing I think most adults fail to remember is what it is like to be a kid and not know something.  Once one knows something, really knows it, one cannot approach the topic objectively.  That is the problem with those outside of teaching giving their opinions on how and what needs to be taught.

    There is benefit to memorizing, if only to help us understand how to Google something effectively.  Memorization saves us time, and allows for the creation of applying knowledge to other situations.  If we have to look up everything, we will not likely go deep into the subject.  There is a cognitive psychological research reason for this that I’ll not take time to explain.

    I think it is a teachers duty to help students know (and memorization assists in the process) some basic ideas (even mafic & felsic can be basic material) so that learning can build through the years of learning.  Without a solid foundation, the house will crumble in the storm.  I read and see too many adults who have forgotten that their ability to look up information has been enabled by someone who taught them how to look up information. They take for granted their skill set which children do not innately possess, and which teachers must teach them.  It is our job.

    There must be a balance, and you have found it in this post.  Thanks.

    • Bill Ferriter

      Balance Matters

      Ric wrote:

      There must be a balance, and you have found it in this post.  Thanks.

      – – – – – – – –

      I’m with you here, Ric — the key to anything in education is definitely finding balance.

      The problem is the ONLY thing that we measure here in NC are things that can — in fact, must — be memorized.  That’s what’s so darn frustrating.  The consequences are brutal:  I’m increasingly tempted to ditch everything OTHER than memorization in class simply because that’s all I’m being held accountable for. 

      Does this make sense?


      • Ric Murry

        It makes total sense.  It is

        It makes total sense.  It is self-preservation. If you are not in the classroom, you will not have the ability to ALSO teach your students that you do not think what you must do is the best thing for them.  If you (and I) can build a trusting relationship with our students, they will understand what we have to do, and likely work harder and quicker at getting the memorization out of the way, so the real education can be approached.

        I hope that makes sense.  

  • Erika Daman

    Key point

    I think the key point is that policy makers have a view of what is important, which they are linking to our employment. They are the ones making bad education policy and really doing a disservice to our students. Memorization has a piece to education, we do need to remember certain things, but we also need to learn to analyze and do deeper thinking. However, that is frequently hard to test on a massive scale, so we are back to just memorizing stuff.


    • Bill Ferriter

      Policymakers are Missing the Mark

      Erika wrote:

      I think the key point is that policy makers have a view of what is important, which they are linking to our employment.

      – – – – – –

      This is definitely what NEEDS to happen, Erika — but all too often (as you point out in your comment), the crap that policymakers identify as important aren’t anywhere near what kids REALLY need to know and be able to do.  Until we convince decision makers — or parents, who elect the decision makers — that our current emphasis is doing little to prepare kids for tomorrow, our system will struggle.

      Does this make sense?


  • David Loitz

    “What test writers don’t know could fill the ocean”

    Interesting thoughts, but I think you titled this wrong. Should it be titled “What test writers don’t know could fill the ocean”…. you set up a false dichotomy in this article, either you memorize content to do good on the test or you do deep learning which no one is “measuring”. The problem then is not to memorize or not, but weather memorization is what should be measured. Statements made by Godin and you would make it clear that it is not the right thing to be measuring. The problem is not with Godin but with the test.

    David Loitz

    Imagining Learning


  • Rich

    I agree with Seth

    Seth doesn’t say teachers need to be different. (Well, he might say that too…) However, he says “schools must change.” Maybe the problem is that the system has a test that expects students to memorize the words mafic and felsic. Words I will admit to either never hearing or forgetting I have heard. If I were to hear those terms I would Google them.  (This took about 30 seconds and is information I will certainly not commit to memory.) 

    On the other hand, I do disagree that memorizing is a waste of time. Basic math and many other skills should be memorized. We should not need to Google 3 x 4. However, I agree with Seth’s larger point. My feeling is that if we ask students question that can be answered with a simple Google search we should expect them to use their resources.