It was in a jungle just south of the Golden Triangle, when I first saw an elephant paint. I was expecting a tacky show, featuring a few lucky swipes of a brush that connected with canvas. Instead, the elephant turned out to be an artist.
Despite some formal training, a hand with fingers and an opposable thumb, and I daresay a deeper understanding of art theory—my painting skills pale in comparison. How could this be? Sure he had a mahout to pick out colors, hand him a brush and guide his work, but that wasn’t what tipped the scales in his direction. The elephant was simply more talented.
The biggest surprise was not that he could paint, or even that he was better than me. It was the realization that the elephant had a teacher who helped him learn, persevere, and become proficient. My school art experience was just the opposite—uninspiring and discouraging. A lot of mandatory copying. With grades based on compliance, not creativity. It made me quit and walk away.
You could argue that I had a choice while the elephant was forced to paint, which was why he became proficient. But that would be wrong. Only certain elephants have the interest, aptitude and temperament to become painters. Promising candidates first must be identified and then taught to become commercial artists. So was I merely lacking the right stuff? Maybe. But I think it has more to do with how elephants and people gain proficiency. Things like motivation, teaching strategies, and most importantly—your teacher.
Elephant artists are trained to paint. It’s a very disciplined, rote process that strikes many as cruel and abusive. Much like I remember the process of learning to write cursive in Mrs. Hollahan’s third grade class. She labeled my efforts “chicken scratching” and smacked my hand with a ruler for emphasis and encouragement. Naturally, I stopped trying to learn cursive and just continued to print—to this day. An elephant in my position would likely have carried on and become proficient.
Elephants and people do share certain learning tendencies, including how intrinsic interest and predisposition drive early achievement. But why is it then, that while almost every young child likes art and music, very few enjoy art or music lessons? Or that while every child naturally loves learning, many dislike school? Perhaps it’s because the (de)motivational power of the process eventually supersedes the motivation of intrinsic interest. Here people and elephants diverge. Because people prefer learning to training. And unlike elephants, we do have a choice.
Designing education for people not pachyderms
Moving from training to learning requires rethinking how we motivate students and create a productive learning experience. It also means pursuing a new balance between core knowledge acquisition, skills development, and nurturing a life-long desire to learn.
Creating personal learning experiences that engage and encourage students as individuals, while providing them with constructive feedback and honest assessment, is critical to moving beyond the assembly-line training roots of the US K-12 education system. Smart application of existing technology can facilitate personalized learning at a responsible cost. Most importantly, we must give teachers the support, flexibility, and responsibility to address the needs of their individual students.
These education strategies have been debated, piloted, and evaluated extensively during the past decade. They work. So why haven’t we seen more progress? Because it remains much easier to teach and test factual knowledge than it is to teach and assess skills. And much easier than it is to engage and inspire kids, measure their increased desire to learn, and correlate this factor to improved standardized test results.
Unfortunately, rapid change makes much of the factual knowledge taught in school obsolete in just a few years. Underscoring the need to refocus on 21st century skills development, and learning how to learn.
Change comes slowly for the traditional education market institutions. And today’s students suffer the consequences. Which creates opportunities for innovative companies that focus on skills development and measurement. This path is not easy. But if the right support can make elephants artists, imagine what the right support can enable kids to become.
Explain, persuade and inspire with stories
Stories are how we understand, organize and remember information. They are the most natural form of communication we have, with roots extending back to the dawn of civilization. Stories convey factual information in an easy-to-digest format. But their real power lies in their ability to persuade and inspire.
In fact, audiences expect to learn the storyteller’s view on the topic being presented. Stories that end without enlightenment can be entertaining, but leave people feeling unresolved and questioning—“what was the point of that story?”
Job-focused stories, like those used in interviews, need to have a clear message. Results and outcomes are important. But the learning or subsequent application of the knowledge and skills gained is also essential. So tap into the true power of story-based communication. Make your point persuasively. And end with enlightenment.