The Quality of Things Unseen: A Generational Divide.

Steve Jobs’ adopted father taught him the importance of building the back of wooden cabinets with as much care and attention as the front. This lesson on detail and care for the whole product stuck with Jobs throughout his career.

On the High Tech High (USA) web site, Dr. Kaleb Rashad states, “Young people long to do substantive, intellectual and beautiful work that contributes to making this world more just, verdant, biodiverse, healthier, and harmonious.”

So, how have changes in quality and process in the outside world impacted the learning environments we are creating 19 years into 21st century learning? Uber anyone?

Maker spaces, STEAM and Design, Digital Audio Workstations, Netflix original films, etc. etc. It’s amazing how these innovations have impacted the creation of products. A decade ago Netflix was a DVD rental service. Now it’s producing Academy Award nominated films. Instead of live performers, people will pay to stand for hours to watch a DJ or watch gamers video themselves playing video games as they talk about random parts of their day. Now that anyone can create products, what do we need process for? That’s what old people do.

So, it’s official. Our generation of teachers have officially become old. We ramble on about the lessons of history, doing math without a calculator, writing with a pencil, and mixing potions of chemicals for something that seems to have little meaning other than a 6 on the summative.

A frustrated music teacher lamented to me last week that her students could compose on the computer without any training and create really sophisticated pieces with hardly any training and 1/10th of the equipment she had to labor over in grad school. An electronics teacher complained to me that his students were tired of making ‘junk’ and frustrated over the substandard results that looked like gizmos their grandparents grew up with. A film teacher shrugged his shoulders and said, “These kids have no concept of what it means to create a real film. They think they just slap together some random YouTube clip and it’s quality.

We’ve become so fixated on process and (I could be wrong) our young people on product that I fear we’re at risk of missing an opportunity. For some reason, achievement has become passé, vulgar, one dimensional. We’re de-emphasizing grades and instead focusing on feedback, standards and criteria. Process. Of course, I get the logic, but kids want to hold something up and say, “I did this and it’s beautiful and it didn’t take six months of listening to a teacher to create.”

We could be experiencing a crisis of process. After all, if someone with absolutely no political experience can get elected President of the United States, can’t anyone?

So, the old people have some things right. It is important to build the back of the cabinet as well as the front for many reasons. There’s something necessary to the quality of things unseen that brings thought, deliberation and planning to making a film.

But we can’t just take the trophies and grades away and make everything about the journey.

When our students came back from the Knowledge Bowl and Speech and Debate competitions, there were actual winners and losers. They competed. They were ranked. Some won. Some lost. It’s so 20th century but the clarity of what it took to win and lose brought the students closer together as a team than they’d ever imagined, and it felt good.

A very successful businessman visited our school a few weeks ago and a student asked him a fascinating question. She said, “How do you think process compares to the outcome?” He smiled and thanked her. After a moment of reflection, he looked up and said, “I used to think process was important and of course in many ways I still do. But I was once at a big meeting with a very successful company and the CFO raised the point of process being a serious issue and proposing to change structures to improve it. The CEO asked if the company was doing well to which the CFO responded, “Yes, very,” to which the CEO concluded. “Then don’t change anything.”

It was a good dichotomy for the students to hear someone apply some cold reality to their process oriented days. I don’t think his message was just get good grades and the rest doesn’t matter. But rather he was bringing clarity to the importance of outcome and performance. You can have all the process around film-making you want, but if someone puts together a fantastic video in 30 minutes that goes viral, which is better?

So, as the pendulum continues to swing between process and product, design and outcomes, grades and feedback, performance and practice, I have to remind myself that in order for people to do ‘substantive, important and beautiful work’ they have to see what that product looks like from time to time, regardless of what path it took to get there.

About Stephen Dexter, Jr.

Stephen is an international educator and administrator. A native of the United States, he lives with his wife Stephanie (a specialist in families in global transition) in Croatia along with his daughter and son. With a career that spans over twenty years in public, private and international schools, he writes when he can and is on a quest to discover if "text walking" is changing the human brain.
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