The Personal Reason

When it comes to our own kids, there is no room for compromise. We will lay down our lives for them. I have two children, a son and a daughter who is younger by three years.

My son has always done well in a traditional education environment. He understands what it takes for others to see his success and works hard toward that goal. And his self-discipline has been rewarded many times over.

He was, like his dad, what is called a "compliant learner".

A compliant learner learns where the lines are and colors inside those lines. My son thrived throughout his academic journey. But not my daughter.

She had trouble not only understanding the lines but why she should even color within them. It started early. Why learn the alphabet? Why learn to read an analog clock?

By 4th grade my son could name every state capital in the country, asking us over and over again to have us challenge him on a map. At that same age, my daughter, when I asked what time it was on an analog clock, would look at me blankly and say a random number like 3320, hoping that this number might satisfy me. I would then ask again and receive another random number. She had no interest in the question, much less the answer.

I was worried. This worry continued through middle school and into high school. She was a puzzle to me.

But something interesting happened the summer before she entered high school. That summer, my wife Mary Beth wanted to sign her up for a camp. Perhaps she could raft down the Deschutes like her brother had done or go sailing up in the San Juans? What great adventure would she like to have?

The answer baffled her mother. After looking at the catalogs of different camp programs, she told Mary Beth that she wanted to learn how to program ATMs in C. Mary Beth didn’t understand. So my daughter patiently explained that C was a language that could be used to program ATMs, which are, in essence, just personal computers. Despite multiple attempts to dissuade her, her mother finally relented and signed her up.

She loved it. Though she was the only girl in the class, something about the challenge of learning a computer language, and making something work with it, empowered her and gave her a sense of belonging. She felt a nascent superpower.

My daughter was a sophomore in high school at the time that I found myself in that site council meeting. A few weeks before, I had asked her if she was still interested in coding. She wasn't.

My heart sank. I asked why. She explained that none of her friends were interested in it, so she no longer was.

Social bonding is so important in high school. Clearly, she didn’t want to be alone.

Wearing my industry hat, her words worried me. We desperately needed not only coders but female coders in particular. And here was my own daughter who was no longer interested in entering my world.

Wearing my dad hat, her comments were even more worrying. I had seen a spark of her curiosity and glimpses of her confidence that summer that I had never seen before. And now that delicate flame was being extinguished.

Extinguished because she was in a traditional academic environment that had not changed in well over 100 years. An environment where no one was excited by the opportunity of being a maker in the new creative economy.

A learning environment designed for compliant learners was not for students like her – someone who, I began to understand, learns only when they need to know something to solve a problem that they care about.

But I soon realized that my daughter was not alone. Many of her fellow students were just showing up and going through the motions, not sure why they were there.

Might this lack of purpose and lack of engagement be related to the low graduation rates? Could there be another way of learning that mirrored how our best technology companies were innovating?

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