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I tend to disagree with Seth Godin

I recently followed a link to this video:

I had never heard of Seth Godin before but a little research reveals that he is an author, entrepreneur and public speaker.  It seems to me that he is an influential figure and worthy of attention. I will therefore respond to certain specific assertions that he makes in this video, explaining why I tend to disagree with them.

“School was about teaching obedience”

It’s not entirely clear whether this is meant to refer to the past or the present. It sounds like a statement about the past but he illustrates it with a bizarre tale of a present-day teacher who devises an activity of no obvious educational merit. Based upon her interactions with one of her students, Godin concludes that the objective is therefore obedience. Godin also has an hypothesis about the emergence of mass education in the early twentieth century; it was all to do with teaching children obedience so that they could work in grim factories. Even the seemingly innocuous call-and-response routine of, “good morning boys and girls,” followed by, “good morning Mr Godin,” or the seating of students in rows, have the purpose of reinforcing this sinister agenda.

I don’t think that schools are trying to teach obedience. If they are, then the ones that I’ve worked in aren’t doing a very good job. It may be that Godin is confusing correlation with causation here. Most teachers know that to manage a room full of thirty children, a certain amount of order, structure and routine is necessary; at least, that is, if you want those children to learn anything. This does not, however, mean that structure and order are what you want them to learn. And – to meet an anecdotal argument with another anecdotal argument – I have never met a teacher who thought that school was primarily about anything other than teaching the students content, skill or a combination of the two. Obedience doesn’t figure highly so, if this is the purpose, no-one has told the teachers.

I do concede that teachers will often express the wish to somehow develop the character of their students. The extent to which morals can be taught is contentious but many teachers would be trying to encourage moral behaviour. Yet, this is very different from blind obedience which can, of course, be amoral, immoral or even downright evil.

I don’t know as much as I would wish about the emergence of mass education but it seems unlikely that it was solely due to a deal cooked-up between factory owners, parties such as the “KKK” and the state. This argument has a touch of the conspiracy theory about it.

“What people do quite naturally is; if it’s work, they try to figure out how to do less, if it’s art, they try to figure out how to do more.”

This is what the philosopher Daniel Dennett might call a ‘deepity’: Read it on one level and it seems profound. Read it on another, and it’s trivially obvious. The key here is the distinction between art and work: What’s art for you might be work for me. As a teenager, I hated painting but I loved writing songs. Is writing an essay work or art? Is solving mathematical puzzles work or art? Neither work nor art can be cleanly defined and so we have a circular argument; if you enjoy it, it must be art and if it’s art, you’ll try to figure out how to do more of it.

Many homespun theories of motivation presuppose that we must somehow ‘engage’ students with an exciting example or context. However well this may or may not work, we are perhaps placing the cart before the horse. Becoming better at something is, in itself, motivating. What we once thought boring or esoteric takes on a more stimulating nature when we gain some facility in the area. This is part of the success of programmes such as Seigfried Engelmann’s Direct Instruction; subjects are taught sequentially with common difficulties anticipated and mitigated. Such an approach not only improves performance in the subject but also affective factors such as subject self-concept. Success breeds a positive disposition which in turn breeds further success.

“For the first time in history, we don’t need a human being to stand next to us to teach us how to do square roots.”

This is factually wrong. People have been able to read about how to do square roots from books for quite some time. The presence of a live, interacting teacher simply improves the efficiency of this process for most students because the teacher can tailor the instruction to the students in the room, answer and direct questions and help out as problems arise.

The concept of the flipped classroom is not so revolutionary. I remember being asked to read a section of a textbook before going to a class as a student. Although Godin seems to have a low opinion of textbooks, it is hard to see a vast qualitative difference between reading a passage and watching a lecture. Passages can be interesting and lectures can be boring.

The flipped classroom meme also exposes an extreme naivety about what teaching is. I rarely see a teacher stand-up and deliver a one-way lecture. Even in a period of explicit instruction, most teachers constantly question the students in front of them. A video of a guy on the other side of the world is fundamentally non-interactive and thus this is the chief weakness in the approach.

“There is zero value in memorising anything, ever again.”

This position is clearly absurd and I have dealt with it a number of times, most recently here. I highlight this point for a different reason. When I write about the value of knowledge, I usually receive a number of comments from people who really don’t seem to understand what all of the fuss is about. They accuse me of effectively manufacturing a false debate. “Nobody,” they claim, “is saying that knowledge is not important.”

Seth Godin is. And people are listening.

And Finally

There are other points that I maybe should deal with. I am profoundly skeptical that computers will soon be able to grade prose essays in any way that cannot be easily gamed. I also find it ironic that, yet again, we have an example of an extremely well-educated man – in conventional terms – telling us that we need a complete education revolution. There are no such thing as good colleges, only famous ones, the successful Tufts University and Stanford Graduate School of Business educated entrepreneur informs us.

Education has a curious history of amateur outsiders chipping-in from the sidelines. Seth Godin is just one more example. Yet, I was alerted to this video by teachers quoting him on Twitter. I wonder whether education is so ripe for this sort of treatment because the insiders, those in educational policy and research, are incapable of mounting a coherent response.

About Harry Webb

Blogging about education and education research

12 responses »

    • “School was about teaching obedience”
      I can see your objection to this (to a point I agree); but think about the resonance behind this statement. You suggest too that you certainly were not obedient: let me ask you, what happened when you were disobedient in school? Punishment, or education about why you were being punished. Not sure about your school, but mine focused on “you did/did not do x, so you will be caned/put in detention”. There was no education involved, we were taught not to do something not because it was wrong, but because punishment would ensue. Why do you think most people get in a flat panic when they get a traffic fine from a cop (who works for a corporation registered on the stock exchange and who’s violation fine quota is linked to his pay+bonus structure)? Because we did wrong, and the punishment for doing wrong is to be expected and accepted.

      So in essence, school prepared you to recognize that disobedience=punishment; and that disobedience was not doing wrong, but doing “that which I told you not to”. In most countries, schools are a place to wear a uniform (not all): or to state more laboriously, you are taught to conform to “our” normality.

      How can you not see schools as reinforcing this behavior?

  1. I was also disappointed on seeing Seth Godin’s views on schools and education. There is value in radical critiques of education (Ivan Illich, A.S. Neill …) that ask fundamental questions about what schools are for and what our hidden assumptions might be – but the reality of schools is much more positive and much more nuanced than his caricature of “indoctrination into compliance”.

    On the other hand, his blog and books on management and motivation (e.g. Icarus Deception) are brilliantly insightful.

  2. An interesting post which I shall read again later and also when I get a chance I will watch the video.

    My initial thought was that I am not sure amateur outsiders talk any more gibberish and do any more damage than professional insiders. I do not say this as a reflection of this post or this poster, more as a general comment.

  3. Harry – I disagree with much of what Godin says, but on the history – he is sort of right. Mass education in the US grew out of two main desires. One, in the late 18th century, to develop an ‘american’ community, and Two, in the early 19th century, to resolve behavioural issues among young people which played a part in the Massachusetts Riots (or at least that’s what Horace Mann thought, the guy who went on to become the first ever leader of a US Board of Education).

    The ‘american’ thing is particularly important. Anti-British sentiment of the late 1700s meant people like Webster created dictionaries separating out American spelling from British spelling. Several other authors created compendia of ‘facts that Americans should know’ & there was a real belief that all immigrants must be taught ‘the American way’ if everyone was to cohabit effectively. [Remember, people were arriving en masse from all over the place]. On the face of it, the argument was about ‘knowledge’ that Americans should hold. Underneath, however, its implementation was largely about behaviour. Nothing demonstrates this more than the fact that Native American students were still being sent to ‘corrective’ boarding schools up until the early 1900s, in order that their behaviour may be ‘civilised’ [Australia is a good example of a country with a more recent history of this kind of thing].

    In terms of Horace Mann, he was absolutely about behaviour. His famous decree is that “men are cast iron, children are wax”. England also had a bit of a love affair with discipline when mass schooling first started to take grip, particularly inspired by the Lancasterian system (I wrote more on that here: Lancaster designed order because it helped with the learning (as you say) but his system helped mass schooling become popular because the elites found it exciting to see a bunch of young people all doing the same thing at the same time in mechanical fashion. They liked the control, they liked that it was efficient, and factory-like, and cheap.

    All this being said, I’m not convinced it matters much. As you, me, and Lancaster know, learning needs to be organised to work. You can’t batch-teach children and have them running amok. Even if the reasons for orderly behaviour are historically a little sinister, it doesn’t mean that having civil behaviour in modern schools necessarily is so. In my eyes, Godin is merely following the well-worn path of being provocative about school behaviour because (a) it will make him famous, but (b) he doesn’t have to deal with the actual consequences of what he is saying.

    • Thanks for this, Laura. I don’t yet know enough about the history of public education. (As an aside, can you recommend something accessible? UK and / or US?)

      I don’t think that saying ‘good morning class’ is about obedience. I’m also not convinced that the teacher with the hammer and nails (brads?) was primarily trying to teach obedience, although I’m not sure what she was trying to teach.

      I think my biggest issue is with his implied claims about the primacy of obedience in the contemporary classroom.

  4. he doesn’t have to deal with the actual consequences of what he is saying.


  5. Having watched the video and read the blogpost again I would say the following.

    Mr Godin starts his presntation with the question “What is school for?”. He spends about 15 minutes talking about issues, not all of which seemd to be obviously directly related to the question. He then finishes his presentation with the words “What is school for?”.

    The purpose was to get people to think about what school is for, and he makes the point that unless we agree on and are open about what school is for then it is unlikely that school’s will actually achieve what they are for. Also there are clearly different stakeholders in the process who wish to achieve different, sometimes conflicting things from the process.

    This was a presentation by an entrepreneur, not an attempt to establish a cause effect relationship between one thing and another. He was just asking people to think.

    He wasn’t trying to present a cast iron case that all education was always and in all cases about obedience. For what it is worth I actually agree with him that education has been in large part (and still is) about obedience but that really is beside the point. He just used the issue to engage people.

    ‘“For the first time in history, we don’t need a human being to stand next to us to teach us how to do square roots.”

    This is factually wrong’

    I would argue that writing a textbook is not necessarily teaching. When one reads a textbook it can be learning but need not be so (even if it was the intention when reading). But this does not matter.

    “There is zero value in memorising anything, ever again.”

    You know it’s absurd, he knows it’s absurd, I know it’s absurd and everyone else knows it is absurd. Mr Godin knows that there is some information that would be good to commit to memory and other information that we may as well look up rather than memorising. But it does not matter.

    Mr Godin is making a point using a presentation, he is trying to persuade people to ask the question “What is school for?”, which for me is probably the most important question there is in education. Can we teach skills, should there be more knowledge, should we have students working in groups? These are all interesting question but “what is school for?” should be the first question to answer.

    PS……if forcing kids to go to school between 9 and 3.30 for fear of being fined, sitting in a classroom with other kids and learning about prime numbers, the Battle of Hastings and split infinitives at the age of 11 is not about obedience then I will go to the foot of our stairs. Forcing the vast majority to learn this stuff when it is the last thing they want to do is about obedience in my view. The fact that they don’t all obey shouldn’t really surprise us.

    Interesting presentation, interesting discussion and blogpost. Thank you Harry you have done it again

  6. Good post, your observations more important than Seth’s arguments. He’s a brilliant marketer Purple Cow etc and I follow his blogs which are usually full of common sense. But he’s wrong on this. Maddening when people outside the field talk with such authority. Would he do this to medicine I wonder? Not a problem having views when not an expert, just a little more humility in expressing them. Good for you for tackling.

  7. Oh dear, just viewed the video….blah, blah blah…..

  8. Pingback: This Week In Education – 26.08.2013 | Tall. Black. One Sugar

  9. Pingback: The myth of the myth of the myth that “you can always just look it up” | Webs of Substance

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