The Talk I Never Gave

Last Tuesday, a friend reached out and asked about giving a TEDx talk at the United Nations International School. It’s been a draining couple of weeks, and I was intrigued but not feeling quite on top of my game. I asked what he wanted me to talk about, ready to say ‘no.’ Agile, he said. The future of education, he said. You’d have to be mad not to, my other friends said. So I got to thinking.

Public speaking has never been a problem for me. I have some trouble with scripts, so never really got into acting, but over the years I’ve read, sung, done Q&A’s, been interviewed, lead trainings and sessions and classes and…it’s really nothing new at this point.

That said, I have my own style of preparing. It always works, but it used to get me into trouble as a kid. My teachers wanted notecards to grade; my parents wanted mirror-rehearsals to time. I wanted to learn the material, think it over, bullet a couple main points, then get up and improvise.

Maybe it was “TED” or “UNIS” or just fatigue, but I got really anxious as soon as I agreed to do this talk. I knew I had all the information and skills I needed, but the old, well-schooled self-doubt took hold anyway. In spite of the best efforts of friends to reassure me, I gave hours to writing an essay, making detailed notes to get all the words exact, and practicing late each of the three nights before the event.

I got to UNIS at 8:30 am on Saturday, chatted with kids and staff, had some coffee. The lights dimmed, and I listened to the well-rehearsed speeches of some 7 to 9 year olds and waited. The girl next to me grinned as a mic was clipped onto my dress. Things went quiet and the background slide changed. I smiled reassuringly at the boy who announced my name. Walked out to the middle of the red square, as directed, and…choked.

My notes looked blurry. The audience waited, their faces kind and blurry, too. I flushed. Stumbled through a sentence or two, trying to coax what I’d prepared back into my mind. And then I took a breath and let go.

Laughed.

Narrated reality to the audience as I tucked my notes into my boot and switched my brain from ‘giving a talk’ to ‘talking to the humans in front of me.’ There weren’t so many of them. They were kids there to present, parents there for their kids, and staff there to run things. I breathed and talked and don’t really remember what I said, but I think it was mostly on-topic. They smiled.

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Maybe the responses I got were sincere; maybe they were just polite. Regardless, I was reminded that–no matter how much progress I make–I’m still de-schooling, and my self-doubt shadow is always most dangerous when I’m fooled into thinking I’ve escaped it.

Next time, I’ll do it my way from the start. This is me writing a note to my future self, for when I need the reminder.

—–

And just for kicks, here’s the speech that only my mirror got to hear in full:

In 2006 Sir Ken Robinson gave a Ted talk that would go on to become one of the most viewed Ted talks of all time. It was called “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” But he doesn’t start by talking about either creativity or schools. Rather he starts with the question that you’re asking today: the question “What next?” And his answer is that we have no idea. He goes on to explain that this is why everyone has a stake in education. It’s education, he says, that’s meant to take us into this future we can’t grasp. From there he goes on to discuss schooling, as if education and schooling were the same thing. But this is the problem. They’re not. And if they were, he wouldn’t have had much to talk about.

Why? Well. When I say ‘education’ I’m referring to all the experiences that shape your brain and your sense of self. These are the experiences through which you learn what you care about, what your strengths are, how to make choices, and what kind of impact you want to have on the world. This is…very different from schooling. Schooling is what most people think of when they hear ‘education’ but it’s a word with a much narrower definition. Schooling refers to a process designed in the 19th century to prepare young people for the factory jobs that it seemed most of them were headed for. And at the time this made sense, but that’s not the world we’re sharing today. They had printing presses and steam engines; we have WhatsApp, Minecraft, and Uber. And even though we don’t know what the world you’ll graduate into will look like–though I’m rooting for the solar roofs and self-driving cars–we’re pretty sure it’ll look different than the world of today.

Which brings us back to Sir Ken Robinson. Ten years ago, when he gave that talk, he asked that we stretch our definitions. That we have the courage to question the very assumptions about ‘what’s next’ that schools were designed around, so we could create schools which nurture creativity and value a variety of intelligences…the ideas danced and drawn as well as those calculated and spellchecked. He challenged us to stretch schooling until it looks more like education, so it helps young people develop the skills we’ll need to face the unknown.

And that’s the work I do. Currently, I serve as co-director at one of these schools for the future, called the Agile Learning Center. Since we know learning is happening all the time, that really all living is potentially education, we focus on the skills of deciding what to learn, figuring out how to learn it, applying what we learn across contexts, and practicing all this self-direction while building community together. It’s work. It’s fun. It replaces grades and tests with conversations and explorations, so each day brings new surprises for us to adapt to.

Now you probably aren’t in a position to radically redesign your school at the moment, and that’s ok. You still have the power to bring more education into your schooling…and to nurture those skills you need for the future in your out-of-classroom life. Find your art. Feed your creativity. You can learn improvisation games to practice meeting the unknown with confidence. Pay attention to communication styles around you–spoken and unspoken–and how they work. Try to understand those who are different from you.

When your schooling is finished, your education continues. I’m excited to co-create the future with you–that’s the mission, should you choose to accept it–but we’ll have to learn to collaborate and you’ll have to stay curious whether the Scantron values your efforts or not. If you’re in, let’s start practicing now. Thank you.

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