Dr. Rose defines a Dark Horse as someone who uses a variety of unusual strategies like understanding their ‘micromotives’ and not worrying about their overall destination and to focus instead on more immediate goals to create a fulfilled life.
In his book he focuses on the paths adults have followed to become Dark Horses, which is almost invariably one of either:
Child is successful in school, attends an elite university, achieves financial stability, realizes they feel unfilled, and switches direction mid-life
Child flounders in school and barely graduates or doesn’t graduate; gets married and has children or works a series of low-level jobs before discovering their path
But I wondered: rather than following either of these (highly frustrating!) paths, could we instead support our children much earlier in life to discover how their passions can lead them toward a fulfilling life, rather than forcing them through a standardized system and then making them figure it out on their own later?
Dr. Rose agreed that this would indeed be the preferable path, and we also talked about how to do this.
Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment can be purchased in your local bookstore or on Amazon.
Click here to learn more about the Your Child’s Learning Mojo membership, which will help you to support your child’s intrinsic love of learning – a critical step for raising a Dark Horse.
Here is Dr. Rose’s interview on The Art of Manliness, where you can learn more about how his approach could help you as an adult to become more of a Dark Horse
Click here to read the full transcript
Jen: 00:01:25 Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today’s episode comes to us via a bit of a different route than they often do. A friend of mine actually heard our guests, Dr. Todd Rose on The Art of Manliness podcast and said, “Hey, you might want to listen to this because it sounds a lot like what you’re trying to do with the way your daughter Carys learns”. And I listened to the episode and then I did something I’ve never done before. The message that I heard from Dr. Rose on the podcast made him feel like such a kindred spirit in terms of how we think about learning and work, that I reached out to him and asked him to talk with us even before I read his book. And rather than go over ground that’s already been covered elsewhere, I’d really encourage you to go to this episode’s page at YourParentingMojo.com/DarkHorse to find a link to that episode on The Art of Manliness because there’s so much there to help adults discover and follow their passions if you’re feeling unfulfilled in the work that you do and that you might need some help charting a different course.
Jen: 00:02:20 So, today we’re going to look at the outcomes for what Dr. Rose calls dark horses, but we’ll specifically focus on how we can support children in navigating their path to becoming a dark horse, which involves identifying your skills and true motivations and harnessing those to do work that you’re truly passionate about. And on the related note, I wanted to let you know about a pilot program that I’m running that’s open for signups right now. It’s called Your Child’s Learning Mojo and it will help parents to support their children’s intrinsic motivation to learn. If your child is in the early preschool years right now, then you’re probably inundated with their questions about the world, but research shows that by the early school years, children learn that their own questions aren’t really valued anymore and what counts is whether they know the answers to questions that other people have asked and yet the ability to formulate questions and ask them and know how to find some initial answers and then circle back to a deeper level of questions and explore ideas with both depth and breadth and demonstrate that learning to communities that care about the topic is going to be a foundational set of skills for life 20 years from now and in the age of search engines, the ability to recall an answer is already pretty well obsolete.
Jen: 00:03:25 If we’re worried about our children’s success when they graduate from school and maybe college, then we might be tempted to teach them a skill like coding and while there are plenty of apps and afterschool clubs and summer camps that have popped up, which imply that if you aren’t teaching your child to code, then you’re making an error that says fundamental is not teaching them how to read. Developers tell us that coding isn’t about getting the syntax of code right. It’s about having an idea, proposing a solution, seeing if it works, delving deeply into an issue, developing creative solutions to problems and sticking with it when it repeatedly fails while you try different approaches and improve on them each time you take another run at it. Teaching the syntax of coding doesn’t teach any of those skills, but harnessing your child’s natural intrinsic motivation to learn does support the kinds of skills that will be needed to learn coding and complex problem solving and critical thinking and creativity and all of the other skills the experts know are really going to be important in the future.
Jen: 00:04:20 In their book Becoming Brilliant that we looked at way back in episode 10 psychologists, Dr. Roberta Golinkoff and Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek argued that schools are doing really well at preparing our children for the kinds of jobs that existed in 1953 and there are some places where schools are beginning to shift their approach. But in general, being in school means mostly being tested on your ability to remember facts rather than developing the critical skills. So, if we want our children to have these critical skills, it’s really on us as parents to make it happen. And the good news is that children come out already prime to develop these skills. We know they have boundless curiosity and they want to delve deeply into topics that interest them, whether it’s dinosaurs or beading or construction. And if we can just learn how to become their guide on the side, who connects them to resources and helps them to deepen the work they’re already doing, rather than the sage on the stage who provides all the answers, then we’ll be able to help our children become the profoundly fulfilled dark horses that Dr. Rose will describe.
Jen: 00:05:20 I took a career coaching course a while back and I’m still in its Facebook group and almost without fail, the people who sign up for the course and introduce themselves, give some variation of the story, “I did well in school and I got a good job and I made quite a bit of money and now I’m approaching midlife I realized I’m really unsatisfied and I’m here to discover my true passion so I can live a life that feels meaningful to me.” So, as good as that career coaching course was and it was really good, my goal with this episode and with Your Child’s Learning Mojo membership is to make that course obsolete for that purpose because instead of getting to midlife and realizing they’re incredibly unfulfilled, our children will engage in activities and learning that fulfill them from the very beginning and as they live their lives, they’ll continually reassess their passions and whether their work is in service of their passions and have the knowledge and ability and desire to make micro adjustments as they go along.
Jen: 00:06:09 So, they never reach that breaking point and instead they’ll become dark horses who were truly connected to work that they find meaningful throughout their lives. So, if you’d like to learn more about how to do this, please do go to YourParentingMojo.com/LearningMojo to see how I will support you in this work. I’ll teach you what’s going on in children’s minds when they learn and why the kinds of strewing activities that you see all over Pinterest are really just the very beginning of that process and don’t help your children to learn much that’s meaningful or connected to their own interests. We’ll begin a learning journal that you can use to identify your child’s interests and passions and then engage with these in a way that supports your child in developing the critical skills of the future. And we’ll understand how to use nature as inspiration for developing questions and ideas and a sense of wonder.
Jen: 00:06:52 You’ll become a member of a learning community of parents who will support each other in developing our own skills so we can help our children. And of course you’ll get my guidance as well. So if you’re interested in participating, please head on over to YourParentingMojo.com/LearningMojo for all the details and just sign up. The group is currently accepting new members through January 31st and we’ll get started on February 1st. So to make a formal introduction to our guests today, Dr. Rose is a lecturer on education and leads the Laboratory for the Science of the Individual at Harvard University. His work is focused on the intersection of individuality and personalization applied to help people learn, work and live. He’s the author of the books, The End of Average and most recently Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment. Welcome Dr. Rose.
Dr. Rose: 00:07:36 Thanks for having me.
Jen: 00:07:37 And so before we kind of dig into the real meat here, I wonder if you can set the stage by telling us what is a dark horse?
Dr. Rose: 00:07:45 Yeah. So from our work, we’ve found that sort of the traditional definition is really there are people who end up being successful that nobody saw coming, right? And that can be because they were viewed as failures early and then succeeded or because they end up being successful in one domain, but then make these pivots and ended up doing stuff that’s completely different. And again, nobody sees them coming.
Jen: 00:08:09 And in some ways this resonated with me so much when I read it because in a way I think of myself as a dark horse. You know, I got degrees from Berkeley and Yale and a job at a prestigious consulting company and I really did enjoy what I was doing for a while in sustainability consulting. But the work that I find really so fulfilling came after I got a Master’s in Psychology, which was focused on Child Development and then another in Education and sharing this through the podcast with other people that, I mean it just keeps me going, keeps me getting up in the morning and I would never have seen that coming.
Dr. Rose: 00:08:43 You’re hitting on something really important, which is like, you know, ever since the term dark horse was created quite a while ago to talk about things that are successful that no one sees coming, in our research in the dark horse project, this is exactly what we found, right? ‘Cause we were interested in why do these folks get off the beaten path and yet still end up surprising us and to a person, the thing that kept emerging was the way they thought about success in life. And rather than playing by sort of society’s definition of success or somebody else’s view, they were deeply focused on pursuing personal fulfillment. And given that it’s so personal, it’s so individual, the things that light you up, it’s not surprising in a standardized society that it often requires getting off the beaten path to make it happen.
Jen: 00:09:29 Yeah. And okay, so let’s talk about that standardization because I mean this is a question that seems like it should be really simple, but of course it isn’t and it has so much to do with learning and how we think about school. And so how do children, and we’re thinking about children, but of course it’s applicable to all people as well, how do they learn best?
Dr. Rose: 00:09:48 Yeah. It’s funny, right? Because that seems like something that is so obvious, but in many ways it runs so counter to the way we actually educate. So if you think about some of the basics like it won’t sound like rocket science, right? Not surprisingly, kids that are learning in ways that are engaging to them are going to learn better. That sounds almost silly, silly obvious, but it is surprising how much we neglect that. So if you’re engaged, if you’re motivated, which I think are related at the same thing, if the learning is contextualized in a relevant way, right? So it’s not just abstracted away from your real life but deeply embedded into it when people are more active rather than passively learning. And one of the things that’s really important is the extent to which students are, have more autonomy and agency in the learning. And it’s funny, my grandma would have said, you didn’t need science to tell us that. But I feel like given how far down the rabbit hole of standardization we’ve gotten in our education system, it’s good to remind people about just how much we know about what makes for good learning.
Jen: 00:10:58 Okay. So you said a lot of things there and you sort of skimmed over a number of things and I want to pick those apart a little bit. You talked about how learners need to be engaged, the learning needs to be relevant, the learner needs to be autonomous. And when I think about school, I think about the way that some bureaucrats and hopefully some teachers, but probably administrators sit off in a room somewhere and determine what is the curriculum and this is the list of things that a child must know. And of course there’s no way that it can be relevant to any individual child’s interests. It seems like it’s difficult to engage them. You really can’t give them any autonomy when you are determining in advance what they’re going to learn. They might get to pick, and I know this is a theme in your work as well, the idea of picking versus choosing. They may get to pick one exercise versus another, but they don’t actually get to make real decisions about their learning. Right?
Dr. Rose: 00:11:53 No, I mean like it’s exactly right. So it’s interesting when you think about who decides the curriculum. And from my perspective, I am not opposed to standards, but it matters a great deal who gets to determine them, right? So, let me give you an example, so if you think about the last major, major sort of transformation in public education, it was probably the high school movement where we went from having common schools that only went to like sixth, seventh, eighth grade to suddenly saying, wait a minute, we need to mass educate the American public all the way through high school in a way that would no one had ever done in human history. Well, when you think about how you could have accomplished that, and we did, we built a high school a day for 22 straight years in the US you would imagine, wait a minute for us to be able to have done that, it must’ve required some central planning and some bureaucrats who decided the curriculum.
Dr. Rose: 00:12:47 And then we kind of like impose that on everyone and we got some uniformity, but it’s not true. So actually there was no federal involvement for most of the high school movement. And what happened was community by community, there was a lot of conversation about the changing economy, about what people needed to know. And they tax themselves to build the schools. And what you found was that it turned out across the entire country, some things they did have in common. For example, everybody thought it was important for kids to learn to read. You didn’t need them to tell you that, right? Parents knew. Communities knew that if the kids were not literate at a pretty high level, they couldn’t be good citizens. They couldn’t access the newer higher tech jobs that were available. But at the same time there was incredible amounts of variation in terms of particulars.
Dr. Rose: 00:13:35 So for example, in Kansas, most of the high schools taught animal husbandry, which cause of course, right? In the Bronx, not so much. So what was so fascinating to me is one of the biggest mass movements in education ever in human history was done by paying deep attention and respect to the community and allowing them to have a deep say in what was worth teaching and how. And so I feel like we’ve gotten so far away from that that we’re almost afraid. We don’t remember that you can actually get scale this way. And so we think, unless somebody decides what’s worth learning and it has to be an expert in their office somewhere in a conference room, then it probably won’t go well. Right? Well I would also say, how’s it going right now? Like even by that standard, how are we doing? And I think from a philosophical standpoint, I think if you’re going to commit to a system that understands and develops individual kids in a way that’s good for them and good for the community, you have to put the power at the level of the community to make these decisions, not some bureaucrat that’s abstracted away from the kid.
Jen: 00:14:43 Yeah, and you used a phrase in the book that really stuck with me. It was pervasive variability in human development and the idea that we sort of have this idea that there will be a standard way of learning and everybody will learn that way and anyone who deviates from that way is abnormal in some way. And they get a diagnosis and they get some kind of individualized education plan instead of acknowledging that there is inherent variability in the way that everybody learns. And if we can accommodate that and adjust to it, then we’re going to serve our students and our children so much better.
Dr. Rose: 00:15:18 Right. And so my background is actually in this new science of individuality, which has come out of medicine and genetics and neuroscience where once we have the tools and the capability of seeing individuals rather than studying groups of people, what we found was just what you said, I mean, just the unbelievable pervasive individuality of human beings. Now in the past, we’ve just decided it was either noise to ignore or what we could do is some variability is better than other variability, right? And what we’ve seen is actually like, in fact the variability matters, individuality really matters. It doesn’t mean selfishness, but it means you can build more effective and even more efficient systems that take that into account. I’ll give you a concrete example outside of education. So one of my favorite things, one of the bigger breakthroughs besides things like cancer research comes in in the form of personalized nutrition and my colleagues in Israel.
Dr. Rose: 00:16:17 So, you know, the glycemic index, which is supposed to tell us, you know, this kind of food elevates your blood sugar this way, right? Well that entire index is based on group averages and my colleagues using this new science studied like how many people like actually respond the way the glycemic index does. Literally nobody, nobody. And what they were able to do now that sounds like chaos. It’s like well wait a minute, if we’re so individual, like what do you do? Well, what they were able to show was that if you actually like modeled the individuality took it seriously. They were able to create the ability to make incredibly precise personalized predictions of exactly how I will respond to any type of food. And they’ve had so much success that they even created an app called DayTwo and I use it and it is shockingly good. So for example, for me the glycemic index is only true about 40% of the time. And when it’s wrong, it’s catastrophically wrong. So for example, like type 2 diabetes runs in my family a little bit. So I’ve always thought about being careful, you know, and my nutritionist help me up 20 years ago said, “Hey look, pink grapefruit is so good for keeping blood sugar down. It’s got almost like magical properties.” And so I followed that advice. I had grapefruit almost four or five times a week for breakfast.
Jen: 00:17:36 You kept them in business.
Dr. Rose: 00:17:38 Yeah, right? And I’m thinking like I’m being healthy, right? And so then I do this personalized nutrition. They do everything from deep blood work to gut biome and really cool stuff. It turns out, no kidding, pink grapefruit is literally the worst thing I can eat. It spikes my blood sugar worse than chocolate cake.
Jen: 00:17:57 Oh my goodness.
Dr. Rose: 00:17:58 And so what’s really important here is that with the clever use of technology and this knowhow, my colleagues had been able to create completely scalable, yet highly personal and more effective nutritional advice, right? And it’s not more expensive. It doesn’t come at my insights or come at your expense. And I think that most people in the public don’t realize that the era we live in now, that kind of thing is capable not just in nutrition and possible, not just nutrition, not just in medicine, but even the way we think about how we develop our children.
Jen: 00:18:31 Yeah. And I want to come back to the technology issue in just a minute, but before we get there, I’m just thinking about how your example applies to children in school and something like learning to read. There’s been these wars and they are called the Reading Wars where we keep shifting the way that we try to teach reading. So there’s this way where we teach children the sounds of words and so the phonetic approach or there’s the whole language approach where we teach them what is contextual about reading and how do you learn it through reading books and things that are really interesting to you. Instead of acknowledging that different children learn in different ways and that rather than having these massive swings from one system to the other and back again, which we’re trying to determine which of these systems is going to work for all children-
Dr. Rose: 00:19:16 On average, yeah.
Jen: 00:19:17 -on average. Instead of saying, how does this child need to learn and does this child need to learn about the structure of words or does this child need to learn about how reading is really relevant in their lives, possibly supplemented with some information on the structure of language and we just don’t do that.
Dr. Rose: 00:19:34 Yeah. Well to that specific point, my mentor Kurt Fischer, who’s also one of the pioneers of this science of individuality, one of the early pieces of research that he did was on how young children learn to read. And what’s interesting is to your point, like so in every major basically curriculum approach to this and every major remedial approach to it, there always presumed one way, one sequence, right? Sight, sound, integration, you learn to rhyme, whatever. And like you said, it’s like when we argue over it, we’ll argue over which one right way we follow. Well, what Kurt and his colleagues found was that when you studied how individual kids learn to read successfully, they found three different unique pathways. Two of which always led to proficient reading. One actually didn’t write it was a dead end. And so what they found though is that they could literally account for every single child in one of these three pathways.
Dr. Rose: 00:20:30 And so then the task becomes, as you’re saying like it’s not about finding the one right way ‘cause that doesn’t exist, but it is about understanding this particular individual child and understanding what they have to do next, right? And making very precise predictions about what will be most helpful for them. Now again, that used to seem like an impossible task, but we can do it right now. And I will say like what’s funny about this whole thing is that in other fields besides education, people have adopted this as a sensible approach. Like let’s take for example cancer treatment. So, this same idea of multiple pathways exist in say, colon cancer, which is the second most diagnosed and lethal cancer in the world, right? For 35 years, we thought there was one right sequence, right? One precursor lesion, a series of genetic mutations, and then the cancer manifests, right?
Dr. Rose: 00:21:21 And we literally use that to diagnose and treat everybody. Well, when we’ve applied this new science, we found it is pretty shocking. We found that only 7% of people with colon cancer actually followed that average pathway that we thought represented everybody. And instead there were three pathways. And now what we’re able to do is this is improved early diagnostics. It’s improved survival rates like you wouldn’t believe. So when we start to think about it that way and realize, well yeah, of course, if it’s cancer, it’s life and death, right? There’s like a moral imperative. And I would say, look, the moral imperative is still there when it comes to our young children and our ability to develop their full potential.
Jen: 00:22:02 Yeah. And coming back to the point that you made about technology, I’m wondering, I see a lot of sort of alternative schools coming up and I know alt school that was here in San Francisco actually closed recently and took all of everything they’d learned about children’s learning and are now selling it and are no longer serving students. But the broader point is whether we use technology to really truly personalized learning, or is it just allowing a child to make a choice to pick between do I do exercise A first or exercise B first? And it may be they’re demonstrating mastery and then can move on to the next thing. But is it something that they truly care about? Is it contextualized? And what I see in so many applications of technology in classrooms is that that doesn’t happen. And it really is essentially just putting regular school on an iPad.
Dr. Rose: 00:22:53 Right. It’s exactly right. So here’s the problem with the technology. So first and foremost, if you made me choose between a great educator who deeply understood what it means to understand a kid as an individual and put us in a mud hut versus the best technology in the world without that, I will take the mud hut and the great teacher every time. And now that said, I do believe there is a role for the technology if you understand what it’s meant for, right? It’s undoubtedly true that the digital technologies we have are capable of a level of flexibility and adaptability at a price point that you just can’t do otherwise. So even the nutrition example I gave you, for that to truly reach everyone for basically $100 a person and that price will come down, it required these technologies that we have now, requires digital integrated technologies like the Internet.
Dr. Rose: 00:23:47 So the problem comes from my perspective is when we see technology as a solution rather than a tool, right? And so if you realize that when it comes to individuality, there is no such thing as an algorithm that’s going to solve for this, right? Your example of alt school probably makes sense, right? But here’s what terrifies me about this and I am someone who actually really likes technology, but what worries me the most is from the science that I’m coming from, the people who have gravitated toward this the quickest are largely the people who build these technology platforms. So Amazon, Facebook, Google, right? Where they realized that they could have a much better understanding of individual consumers. Okay, fine. Right? But now imagine as you bring that into education and if I have a startup or I’m a publishing house, it is in my best interest to pretend that the technology is the solution and that I have these magic algorithms because I can protect that, right?
Dr. Rose: 00:24:46 I can sell that. If I told you the truth, which is that the real power of this comes in human interaction, student to student, teacher to student. And that the technology at its best is doing its best when it’s facilitating those kind of both human interactions and then the individual’s ability to know themselves. Well, how do I get intellectual property on that? How do I make any money? So, for me the only solution there is to have a more informed citizenry, have more informed parents who understand what we’re trying to accomplish here and what the right role of technology is. And if I could just put one finer point on it, when people are looking for tech for this, so if you have a basic HTML5-enabled browser, which is every browser that’s free on the planet, you can literally do everything you need for deep personalization. So at a minimum you do not need to buy into somebody’s walled garden who like, “Hey, here’s all this money to a school, pay us, and then we’re going to do magical things.” You don’t need it.
Jen: 00:25:51 And I think you really brought out the way that the human connection is the critical piece here. And I wonder if you could make that concrete for us and tell us about how your father was able to help you pass the GRE.
Dr. Rose: 00:26:02 Yeah, yeah. I owe my dad a lot.
Jen: 00:26:04 You do.
Dr. Rose: 00:26:05 Yeah. So it was a funny thing because as somebody that studies individuality, I sure had a hard time learning those lessons for myself early on. But I didn’t fit in well in school growing up. I mean it was pretty bad to the point of like actually failing out of high school and after getting married and having two kids and being on welfare, I decided that something had to change and I was going to go to college and I went to night school at an open enrollment state university and clawed my way back. Figured out I was better than I thought at learning under the right conditions and my advisors had said, “Hey, wait a minute, you should consider graduate school.” Well, I didn’t know anybody that ever gone to graduate school. And I did know that I had to take the GRE, which was just, I am still to this day, terrible at these standardized tests.
Dr. Rose: 00:26:50 But I was like, well, if this is going to stand between me and my ability to do something meaningful. So I took the, you know, those on Saturdays, they have like these practice things and they can teach it. And I couldn’t afford the Kaplan one, but I could afford the one at the local university. And that the tutor there got the job because he aced the GRE. And so he’s teach us a bunch of tricks and back then the GRE included verbal, quantitative. And then they had this thing called analytical reasoning, which was like those problems where it’s like, okay, farmer John has four rows and has to plant corn and peas and beans and beans can’t be next to corn and corn in row three, you know, and then they give you all these like conditions and then they’re like, okay, if peas are in row three, where’s the corn?
Dr. Rose: 00:27:36 And I’m like, ah. So the tutor had like phenomenal, it turns out phenomenal working memory ability and he could do it in his head. So he taught us these tragedies for doing it. And I just like, after 10 weeks of like practicing, I improved my scores in verbal, I improved my scores in the quantitative and my analytical reasoning score, I’m not kidding you, I had never gotten above the 13th percentile. I’m starting to panic because it is like a couple of weeks before I actually have to take the thing and I’m like, I’m not getting anywhere and I don’t understand. So, I was studying at my parents’ house because we lived in like a 400 square foot apartment and I was so frustrated that I actually like flipped my pencil across the room as my dad happened to walk in and he was like, what’s wrong with you?
Dr. Rose: 00:28:25 Like there’s no reason to act like that. And I’m like, I just don’t get it. And I was showing him and he’s an engineer by trade and he said, “Oh, you know, that’s a degrees of freedom problem.” And he’s like, “Tell me how are you doing it?” And I explained it to him. He said, “You know, you don’t really have great working memory like, why are you trying to do this in your head?” And I was like, well, that’s the way my tutor told me to do it. And he said, “Actually there’s an easier way. And he showed me this way to like draw a grid and he’s like, if you get it out of your head onto the piece of paper, use this strategy. I think it’ll work a lot better for you.” Well, I was like a little incredulous. Like I tried it.
Dr. Rose: 00:29:01 It worked on one set of problems, try it again, it kept working. I still didn’t trust him. I went back to my tutor that Saturday. I said, “Hey look, my dad thinks this is a better strategy”. Now, full disclosure, when I was younger, he also gave me a way to make my Pinewood Derby car and it didn’t even cross the finish line. So I was like a little skeptical.
Jen: 00:29:20 A little skeptical understandably.
Dr. Rose: 00:29:22 I’m like, you know, sometimes the advice is a hit or miss. So I showed the tutor and he says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you could do that”. And I’m like what do you mean, yeah, yeah, yeah, you can do that. Why didn’t you show me this? He’s like, “Well, I never thought of it”. So no kidding, so I’m like, okay, well this seems like just ridiculously easy. I go to the actual GRE thing. I only missed one question on the entire GRE analytical reasoning and got by far my best score.
Dr. Rose: 00:29:49 And it was so funny, like the interpretation that people have when they see that right of like, wow, Todd, you must be so analytical. And I’m like, yeah, no, it was that I actually got a good strategy that fit my individuality, that allowed me to demonstrate what I was capable of. And so I never forgot that because it was like almost just dumb luck, right? That somebody knew enough to help me understand that that made the difference. Like, honestly, there’s zero chance that I get into Harvard with a 13th percentile analytical reasoning score. Now we can debate whether that’s even the right way to measure a talent. So the difference between me sitting here talking to you, living the life that I want to live or not came down to that piece of advice.
Jen: 00:30:32 Isn’t that incredible? And the thing that makes it stick out to me, and the reason I sort of held this example in my mind is that your dad is not a tutor. He doesn’t know how to get people to pass the GRE. He doesn’t do that for a living. But he knew you. He knew how your mind worked. And that I think is the critical sort of skill for teachers and for parents as well who were interested in supporting their children’s learning. You don’t need to be an expert in the thing they’re learning. You just need to know how your child thinks.
Dr. Rose: 00:31:04 That’s right. And I believe basically it combines these two things exactly what you said, which is like my dad knew me, right? He knew my individuality, he knew my strengths, my limitations. And then the second thing, which is subtle, but like obviously he believed I was capable, right? He believed that I was capable of excellence. And one of the most, I think damaging and wrong assumptions that our education system has been built upon is this idea that human potential is a bell curve. And that like not everyone’s capable. Right? Like that’s still is so deeply ingrained in our system that things like the SAT are built on a bell curve. They are guaranteed to make half of our kids fail no matter how well they actually do. And so I believe like as parents realizing that as we move this into educators who should know the kid next to the parent, nobody else should know the kid. The kid knows themselves and parents know their kids. But making sure we’re bringing with it the starting assumption that the truth is is like everybody has something to offer. Everybody’s capable and it’s about finding the highly favorable conditions that allow kids to thrive.
Jen: 00:32:13 Yeah, and I think it has really profound implications for children of nondominant cultures because our system is really well designed. If it’s well designed for anyone, it’s designed to recognize the abilities of middle class white children. And if you come with a different skillset to school that doesn’t involve kind of early reading, early math and really prioritizes spoken language and incredible use of language and manipulation of language to tell stories, do things that middle class white children don’t do very well, then your skill set is probably not going to be recognized and built on and valued in the same way that middle-class white children’s skills are.
Dr. Rose: 00:32:49 And that’s exactly right. And one of the things that I think is important there is that some of that standardizing to middle class white kids was intentional, right? Some of it was like, just like, especially in science education, we’ve always privileged boys historically, right? But a lot of it, it was not intentional. It is when you use averages, it is not surprising that the patterns that come out of that will reflect a majority, right? They’ll reflect the dominant strand. Sometimes they don’t even really exist. It’s just an artifact. But it is almost impossible that it will actually faithfully represent anyone that’s not part of that dominant majority. Right? And so as one of the things, if we do it right, and I think there’s a lot of risks, we need to be careful about that. At best, this shift towards something more personal has the chance to create a deeply equitable learning environment. Again, if we do it right, it can also go horribly wrong.
Jen: 00:33:45 Yeah. Okay. So we’ve talked a lot about sort of the way that people learn, the way that children learn. And so I’m wondering if we can kind of think to classrooms and think about how this is different from the way that learning happens in most classrooms and also maybe what promising exceptions that you see and in your book you sort of set up a whole lot of sort of contradictions. Here’s how it works in schools versus here’s how dark horses really find themselves. Can you set up some of those contradictions for us?
Dr. Rose: 00:34:09 Yeah, so if you think about the system we have and I’m not, look, I think it’s served a role and I’m not saying, I think there has been well meaning people who have helped us mass educate a public. So I think part of the gains that we’ve made off of that standardization is what now allows us to question whether that’s necessary anymore and what we can do better for more kids. The fundamental problems as I see it, that holds our system back from doing what we needed to do. There was a handful of them, right? So like when you think about the very definition of success embedded in a standardized system, it is absolutely not about being the best version of yourself. That actually doesn’t get you very far in this system of false scarcity and standardization, right? The objective, whether we like it or not, is to learn to be the same as everyone else, only better.
Dr. Rose: 00:34:56 So, I’ll give you a really concrete example that with my own children. So when we moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, there’s a lot of great things about the place, but I have never seen anything like the pressure on kids to do so well in a standardized way in high school to get into not just go to college and find out what you care about, but like what college did you get into? And so I watched my own son, my oldest son, like it started to warp who he was. He used to be someone that he’d be like, you know what, I’m going to choose to do things that I care about and I’m going to learn it. If I fail, I fail, you know. And I’m like, good ahead, that’s what I want. And then suddenly I started seeing him take less and less risk and it was all under the thing of like, well wait a minute.
Dr. Rose: 00:35:37 Yeah, maybe I could go take this class on French literature. I’m kind of interested, but what if I don’t do well, he was in mathematics and computer science. He’s like, that might hurt my chances of getting into MIT. And I’m like, yeah, I mean that’s probably true. And it’s really terrible, right? So this idea of learning to like on the one hand, take the same classes with everyone else, but you got to get a better grade, right? Take the same tests like the SAT, but you got to get a better score, right? Like it’s nothing about helping kids understand who they are, what they care about, what they’re good at, and turning that into something productive and contributing to society. So that to me is such a profoundly important distinction that we have to have that kind of conversation about what we really want. The other thing that the current system we have, like back to standardization is like the truth is in the industrial age, you really did have to choose between personalization and scale, really, really hard like hard to know how it is you delivered a quality education at scale to everyone unless you basically depersonalized it, right?
Dr. Rose: 00:36:40 In fact, one of my intellectual heroes, Benjamin Bloom, who invented Mastery Learning, he actually figured out that like through experiments that if you did, if you created a tutoring-based, mastery-based system, basically they could take any kid at random and get them to perform [Inaudible] [36:57] better than typical people. Like it was absurd how well kids could perform. Well, when they figured that out like in the 80s they basically went to University of Chicago, went to a bunch of economists and said, okay, what would it cost to make this available to every school child in the US and it turned out to be something like 21 times what any country had ever spent on education before. It would bankrupt you, right?
Dr. Rose: 00:37:22 And so in that scenario it was like, wow, wait a minute, we know what to do. We just can’t do it. Right? And so we ended up with a system that basically moves kids based on how old you are like you get put in a cohort, you get taught the same stuff at the same pace and then arbitrarily we stop and give you a test and then you get ranked and as long as you don’t fail, you move on. But the problem is, is like the best predictor of how well you’ll do the next time is your background knowledge, right? So we just propagate like error through the system. And then we’ve interpreted that as like speaking to the worth and value of individual kids rather than just an artifact of standardization. So this issue of like getting away from one-size-fits-all, getting away from lockstep schooling doesn’t have to mean every kid’s a snowflake, right? It doesn’t have to mean every kid gets to do whatever they want, but it does mean that we have to take seriously that kids are individuals. And that doesn’t mean separateness. It doesn’t mean that they go off and sit in front of a computer all day, but it does mean that there’s dignity and worth in each kid and that needs to be brought to the conversation.
Jen: 00:38:30 Yeah. And also the idea that you frame it in the book, staying the course versus trial and error. Failure is not really something that we’re allowed to do in school. Right? You know, if you’re a child and the literature class they want to take, and maybe I don’t get into MIT because I’m taking it, that’s kind of a problem.
Dr. Rose: 00:38:49 Yeah. By the way, I couldn’t tell him it wasn’t true. Right?
Jen: 00:38:51 Right.
Dr. Rose: 00:38:52 Like I could tell him, look, you can take the hit, but the reality is, and now if you’re wealthier and maybe you have a little bit of like, okay, well you know what, like as we’ve seen now, you just cheat your way and like bribe people to take the test for you. The truth is, is that someone that’s not coming from means actually has no room, right? Like you really have to play this game and you’ve got to play it well to even have a shot at the kind of opportunities that are afforded. And so to me, like it’s absurd as a scientist, like we learned a long time ago, the trial and error is the only way to improve. It’s the only way to get to truth. It’s the only way to get to like nobody likes failure.
Dr. Rose: 00:39:31 It always hurts. It’s never good. But you learn to embrace it and you learn to stick with it and you learn to improve off of it. And yet what we’ve implicitly and explicitly teaching our children in the way we’ve structured education is that failure is almost a moral thing. It’s like it speaks to your talent, it speaks to your value. And so you teach kids to not take risks, to honestly not even own up to failure. And then we reward that. And so to me it’s just absurd. So thinking about, I don’t know of many parents who actually want their kids to be in these kinds of environments. And I think it’s important that parents understand that something has changed in our society. We are not living in the era of scarcity like we were. We can actually build systems where teachers are empowered, the systems are empowered to know your child as well as you know them and that we can work together to help them live a life of fulfillment and contribution.
Jen: 00:40:28 Yeah. And when you talk about knowing your child and also I think about knowing yourself you talk in the book a lot about micro motives and I’m wondering if you can tell us what these are and how are they different from the kinds of tricks that teachers have to use to motivate students when the students don’t really have any inherent interest in what the curriculum says that they need to learn?
Dr. Rose: 00:40:48 Yeah, yeah. One of the most interesting things from the dark horse project was when people said, you know, just to step back a little bit, so I went into that project thinking that maybe the only thing dark horses would have in common was like a personality characteristic. Like I actually had in my head, Richard Branson as probably someone who likes bucking the system, would probably not mind being a dark horse, might actually enjoy it. But really quickly we found that just wasn’t true. Like the personality was all over the place. Like there were shy people, there were people who really didn’t want to be dark horses. They were sort of reluctant. And what emerged again is that they were like, look, it was the way they thought about the life they want to live and this prioritizing personal fulfillment over standardized views of success.
Dr. Rose: 00:41:32 Well, once we recognize that, and frankly I gotta be honest, I was like, ah, I don’t want that to be the answer. Like I’m a hard quantitative person. This is my first qualitative research project ever. And I was like, well, it turns out you can learn a lot by listening to people. But I was like, what am I supposed to do with like this squishy, soft, like fulfillment, right? But as we started saying, okay, well this is where they’re taking the conversation, let’s look at, well, what do they know? What do they do that makes that real? It makes that actionable and not just follow your bliss off a cliff, right? So one of the four big things and the most important thing as far as I was concerned, is that the way they understood themselves was not in terms of what am I good at, but what motivates me?
Dr. Rose: 00:42:14 And that distinction I think is so important because what I’m good at is so context dependent, you know, it depends on the time you live in. It depends on, you know, but what motivates me is something far more indelible, right? It can change, but it doesn’t change fast. And it is so powerful because it basically is the foundation for passion. It’s the foundation for engagement. And from my perspective is the difference between someone being able to have some control over their life versus just being a lead around by somebody else who knows you better. So what was interesting about this motive aspect is for all of the history of psychology, basically we’ve been trying to figure out the grand motive or a small handful of motives that everybody’s supposed to be motivated by. Right? And then we’d do the thing list, like you were saying before about, you know, the reading stuff where it’s like, which one right way?
Dr. Rose: 00:43:05 You know, should we make all kids learn. Well, we do this all the time. What’s the one right motivation or set of motivations that everybody’s probably going to be motivated by, right? And what we found in the dark horse project is how ridiculously individual this was. And we call them micro motives because they weren’t just these big grand motivations like competition or collaborations. Those are all perfectly good motives. But what we found was each person had this collection of motives. Some things were big, some things were very small in particular, but nevertheless they were incredibly animating and motivating to them. Right? So I’ll give you like some absurd, like I just still can’t believe this is true. But it’s one thing to be like, yeah, okay, someone’s really motivated by competition. Okay, fine. But what about someone who’s literally motivated? Their primary motive is being able to align physical objects like, no kidding.
Dr. Rose: 00:43:59 Like we have someone who’s, to me that sounds like nothing. It doesn’t get my heart beating. It doesn’t do anything like who possibly could be motivated by that. But this guy absolutely was. I mean he talked with reverence about this and he had become an engineer who did actually used it in his work a lot. And anyway, so we found this, some people were literally motivated by organizing, not in a general sense, but like literally organizing physical space. And of course this woman channeled that from being a political operative into one of the country’s premier closet organizers. And she’s like so happy ‘cause she’s being able to make other people’s lives better by creating order in their physical space. And now for me, once again, that does not sound even remotely motivated, right? So what we found was, again, as human beings, we have a wide range of things that truly, truly light us up. And there’s no substitute, no projection from, I can’t tell you, I can say, Jen, this is like for sure what’s gonna work for you. It is a process of discovery for you and it works best when the people that care the most about you. And when you’re a kid, it’s like your parents and your teachers are actually helping you discover for yourself the things that matter most. And then to convert that into better learning, better performance.
Jen: 00:45:15 Right. And that’s, I think really at the heart of it, it’s that being supported in that discovery process so that you get to learn and maybe fail and see what doesn’t work for you and then come back and try again and see, oh yeah, this really does work for me. And as you go through that process, you’re building a picture of what does motivate you and how you’re going to use that to engineer your fulfillment in life basically.
Dr. Rose: 00:45:37 And that’s the secret, right? Because things like terms like passion, we throw around a lot, which it’s funny, I’m sort of ambivalent about that word. I love it and I hate it at the same time. Like obviously being passionate is important and powerful. And I think when people are passionate about things, they’re better at it and take greater care doing the work they do. But the way our system has taught us to ignore the things that truly motivate us, what happens is, is we end up stumbling into things that really light us up. And then for example, I love football and you know, it’s like, okay, I’m passionate about football. Well, great, that’s not untrue. But unless I have a deeper understanding of the motives that it’s activating, then I am stuck hoping that football continues to like satisfy me even as I get better at it.
Dr. Rose: 00:46:21 Even as I get older, even though I can’t play it anymore. You know what I mean? And what you realize is if you are asking yourself why, why is this thing, why am I feeling passionate about this particular work? You’re able to start to realize like say football. For me, it’s actually the collaborative team sport nature of it. It’s very strategic. It’s not the violence. Like I don’t like, you know, I don’t really care about hitting people and like, but I love how difficult it is to coordinate across 11 people that have to work in sync against another 11 people who are trying hard to not allow you to be able to do this. Now the good news is, as I understand that, football is not the only thing that involves that kind of coordinated strategy and collaboration. And so as football becomes either because I’m no longer interested or because I can’t do it, rather than have a midlife crisis and have to like figure out, you know, get a sports car and you know, whatever.
Dr. Rose: 00:47:15 But like I can actually, it’s portable. I can say, well wait a minute, here’s the collection of motives that made that passionate to me. Let me go find other things that also activate these. Right? And that was the secret with dark horses where for a big chunk of them, they weren’t people who screwed up. They were people who were shockingly objectively successful by society’s standards. And then they wake up one day and say, I’m not happy. Right? And they decided to make these pivots and they go to places that are like, you’re like, what? Like how did they decide that? How is that not the most risky thing? And they just crush it over there. But when you dig in and you realize what they know about themselves, it actually wasn’t risky. So case in point, the guy that I told you about who was an engineer who loved aligning physical objects, well he made the mistake of, he had made this big breakthrough for a telecommunications company that he only got a small bonus for it and all the middle management got bigger bonuses for his invention.
Dr. Rose: 00:48:12 And he was like, wait a minute, that doesn’t seem fair and it wasn’t fair. And he said, well, maybe the thing that, the only way I can get my fair share was I got to become a manager. Well, if you know him and you know his motives, he should never have been a manager ever. He doesn’t like people. He really genuinely doesn’t like people. And so he quickly moves himself out of a place of fulfillment and excellence into a place of incompetence. Right? And actually is out of the business within five, six years. And so then it’s like the field has moved on, you know, it’s become technical in a different way. He can’t get those kinds of jobs anymore. He’s wandering through life and he realizes he’s got to get back to who he was. Like what really matters to him and he remembers this, like this alignment thing is actually important to him amongst other things.
Dr. Rose: 00:48:55 So no kidding, where he ends up, he is now the top upholstery repair person in New York. And that sounds like what? Like this except for if you think about like what most of that work is, is like family heirlooms and dealing with old leather and you need to align stuff and it’s like really hard and it’s really important when it’s keepsakes and these important things and he gets to basically own his own business. He goes around, he basically makes life better for people by being able to do this thing. And he’s really, really motivated by and he’s unbelievably happy. But if you would step back from our way, we think about telling kids like what they should be when they grow up and try to say, well, what would an electrical engineer and an upholsterer, like there is no model in which those things are actually related, right? So if you start with knowing who you are, which starts with knowing what truly motivates you, you will be shocked at the kind of choices you can make. And like things that will look really risky to the outsider will actually be some of the safest bet you can make because you know who you are.
Jen: 00:49:56 Yeah and just kind of making that even more explicit, in the book, you pull out two common paths among the dark horses that you interviewed. And the first one of those is the one that we might commonly imagine where the person’s really struggling in school. And I see a lot of you in here, right? You struggle and then you realize that it was the way that you were learning in school and probably what you were learning as well that wasn’t working for you. And you find your purpose after that. And so that’s one way. And then the other way is that they actually do really well in school and then they realize later in life that the thing that probably their parents and teachers have been pushing them towards all along, you know, do well in school, do well in college, get a corporate job and climb the corporate ladder.
Jen: 00:50:32 And then they realize that they are not finding that at all fulfilling. And so I’m wondering actually if we can create a third dark horse path that doesn’t involve what is a lot of frustration, either you get frustrated in school or you get frustrated after school. What if we could avoid that? And what if we could allow our children to spend basically their entire lives deciding what they’re going to learn and how they’re gonna learn it and how they want to demonstrate that learning to communities that care about the same topic so they never have to go through this period of frustration and isolation that seems to be common and inherent in the other two paths. What do you think about that?
Dr. Rose: 00:51:09 That’s perfect. So, I actually think that the sole objective of this knowledge is to make it so there’s no such thing as a dark horse. Right? Which is the only reason that they had to get off of like nobody wants to go away from society. No one wants to suffer the sort of consequences of people looking and saying like, you’re not doing what we’re all having to do. Who do you think you are? Right? And it’s because of these standardized systems that has forced this. Right? But to your point, if basically we realized that there’s something really valuable in having a society where people are able to live most of their lives doing things that are deeply purposeful and meaningful to them, that actually it’s better for all of us. Right? And if we have our institutions see that as our objective, then there will not be dark horses.
Dr. Rose: 00:51:54 There will just be fulfilled people. And what’s so interesting to me about that is I’m sort of obsessed now and the work of my think tank is around what are the conditions that would have to be true for people living, fulfilling lives to actually add value to the rest of society so that it’s not like at its worst fulfillment could actually spiral into a society of selfishness, right? That I’m going to do what feels good to me. I don’t really care what it means for anybody else. Now, what’s fascinating to me about it is in the book, I actually didn’t go into too much depth about this because I took it for granted that that’s not how it played out because literally to a person of the hundreds and hundreds of dark horses we interviewed, they all ended up doing things that mattered a lot to them that they were adding value, right?
Dr. Rose: 00:52:44 It wasn’t enough to just go do their own thing, but what it seems pretty clear to me now is that like it’s really important that you marry a fulfillment mindset with a contribution mindset, right? Which is like, yes, we’re going to invest in you as a society. We’re going to help you figure out who you are. We’re going to help you turn that into something productive. But then you do have an obligation to make sure your actions are actually adding value, right? They’re contributing. It doesn’t have to be like you’re solving world hunger, although that’d be great too. But it does mean that somebody besides you has to benefit from your actions. ‘Cause you could imagine for example, if I say, well wait a minute, you know, what’s fulfilling to me is to convince gay people that they shouldn’t be gay, right? Well, Nope. Sorry. Right?
Dr. Rose: 00:53:29 That doesn’t count. Right? ‘Cause that is not adding value to their lives. And the flip side of that is like if you have contribution mindset without fulfillment, it can in worst case lead to a view of self-sacrifice, right? Where it’s just about the greater good. And I don’t believe that either. It’s not okay that we’re going to decide somebody has to sacrifice because it inevitably is, we decide who has to sacrifice, right? But if we can put these things together that it is about pursuing a fulfilling life and making your best contribution to society, that’s how we get to a place where individual prosperity and collective prosperity end up being the same thing.
Jen: 00:54:07 Yeah. And thank you for raising that. That was one of the things that worried me most as I finished reading your book, ‘cause I always come back to it actually Shark Tank, the show Shark Tank, when I’m thinking about this, that show just drives me nuts because people are, if you haven’t seen the show, they’re competing for money to scale their business, which is, I mean half of them are producing widgets in China for 5 cents and then they’re selling them to me for 19.99 or they’re trying to create a new app to get dinner delivered to millennials faster. And so my worry was what if this pursuit of individual fulfillment leads to 8 billion people all doing work that they find meaningful, but we still can’t figure out how to create societies that live peacefully and serve their citizens. And that hasn’t been destroyed by making five sandwiches that we didn’t need in the first place.
Dr. Rose: 00:54:52 You know, in sort of like, to put a fine point on that, like even that sort of, you know, this idea of the sort of capitalistic aspect of Shark Tank, which I do think is an annoying show as well. So we have that in common. But my sort of libertarian friends and those sort of folks that are super capitalists, which by the way I actually am a big fan of free markets. But if you read like say Adam Smith and these people who talked about like how you create these markets and why you do that. Even Adam Smith was all about a moral and virtuous society. It wasn’t about like get off my lawn libertarianism or like we can all just be like have a ton of widgets. In fact he mocks that, right?
Dr. Rose: 00:55:32 The trinkets and stuff like that. But he thinks that like we can create the conditions where if someone’s pursuing self-interest, you want to force them into a market that requires that they actually add value to somebody else in order to satisfy that self-interest. And that’s why you can’t have monopolies and you can’t have like, you know, he’s obsessed about how do you help the poorest people in society. So we’ve forgotten a lot of that. And so for me, the same questions apply, right? Not just can we find out the thing where you have comparative advantage and then you do this monotonous, boring, like meaningless work. But we all get trinkets, right? But can we wear that with like finding the thing you’re good at but also the thing that gives you purpose and allowing people to engage in that kind of work and betting that if we have strong social institutions that ensure that that pursuit of personal fulfillment has to be channeled through institutions that require that we add value to other people’s lives, then we get mutual benefit, right? Then we get something where we actually have, can have both a prosperous and virtuous society. It is not easy, but I definitely think it is doable now.
Jen: 00:56:41 Oh, I’m getting chills. So, another thing that came across really clearly in the book is the idea of agency. And the people that you interviewed are not people who waited for things to come to them. They actively went out and they created opportunities where it seemed like none existed. And you use the analogy of finding off menu options at a certain burger chain here in the US but you’ve said that, and I’m going to quote one of the most common reactions that you hear from people when they first learn about self-determined educational pathways is, “So you were telling me we expect college students to make their own decisions. Have you met today’s college kids?” And so I would argue that the people who are saying this to you have missed the point and that instead they should be saying, have you seen the kinds of decisions that young people make when you’ve spent the first two decades of their lives telling them that not only do they have no ability to make any kind of decision affecting their life, but they also don’t have the right to do it. So do you think that we need to give children more agency at a younger age? And if so, how do we start doing this?
Dr. Rose: 00:57:40 Yeah, no, so you’ve hit it exactly right. Like it’s so funny the interpretation of like, okay, we created a society where we take meaningful choice away from you. You have no real agency. Like even the work you do in school. Think about how like you create products that have no meaning to you and actually aren’t even valuable to society. Right? And you get a grade and then you move on and you do it again and you do it again. And it’s all for the approval of somebody else, but it’s not. And then when we take that away, the agents, whoever, we don’t cultivate it and then when you make poor decisions, we’re like, see, that’s why we can’t give you choices.
Jen: 00:58:14 This is why we can’t have nice things children.
Dr. Rose: 00:58:17 Right. Exactly. So, again that’s exactly. And I’m like to your point which is like if you’ve ever been in learning environments where the opposite has been true from the get go, where we believe that kids are capable of agency and autonomy and not Lord of the Flies anything goes. But like then you are shocked at the level of maturity and sophistication and thoughtfulness that kids demonstrate. I mean it is still to this day, shocking to me when you see it. And so yeah, look, at the end of the day, let’s just say it’s even out of like survival as a country, right? Think about the economic environment that we’re going into in terms of like job turnover and like not even knowing what’s coming and like how do people even like get by, let alone thrive? Man, if you don’t understand yourself and you don’t know like how to make good choices on your own behalf, you are in big trouble, like big trouble. And so just preparing kids for the reality requires that we have to prepare them to have agency and autonomy in the world.
Dr. Rose: 00:59:25 And so if we realize that and we step back and say, okay, like anything, you don’t just say like agency autonomy is more than just choice, right? There is a whole collection of things including self-knowledge. Like if I don’t know myself, how do I make a good choice on my own behalf? And then self-regulation, right? Like there’s a whole bunch of skills that go into that that that need to be scaffolded and supported. And what better place to learn those things than school, right? What better place to be able to try and fail, to make a bad choice and learn about why it was a bad choice and get better at that than school. And again, what we’ve done is instead make it a place where you absolutely cannot fail, which means like when we give you agency and autonomy at best, it’s just like, hey, you can decide what color of sunglasses your avatar has on this new tech platform. So, we have to get into the business of saying we are trying to build autonomous, self-directed adults. We need people to be able to do that. Again, not so they can go off and do their own thing and never care about anyone else, but precisely the opposite. And so thinking about how we intentionally embed meaningful choice and reflection and collaboration into these learning environments that help kids become those autonomous human beings that we so desperately need.
Jen: 01:00:48 Yeah. And it’s kind of strange actually that on the flip side of that, we seem to be obsessed with asking young children, what do you want to be when you grow up? Do you see a problem with that?
Dr. Rose: 01:00:58 Like if I could strike one question from like anybody spoke out of it, it’s that, right? Because it sounds like the right question. You know what I mean? Like somehow if my kid doesn’t know what career they’re going to have when they’re like eight, then you know, and it’s like the problem with it, right, is that if you think about the people who you know, who are both successful and happy, who have added value to society and are genuinely just like they enjoy their lives when you scratch the surface, the vast majority of them, it’s only in retrospect that they can make any sense out of the path that they’ve taken to get there. Because so much of your life comes down to the context of the opportunities that are available to you in your local environment or not. And so in a standardized system where we’ve eliminated choice, then really the thing that does matter is you better hurry and pick a career path because boy, you only get one shot at that.
Dr. Rose: 01:01:53 So if you decide you’re going to be a lawyer because you have an uncle that’s a lawyer, well, get on that path and start doing it. It’s like then what happens is by the time it’s too late, you figure out that like it wasn’t really being a lawyer that mattered to you. Right? And what we found with dark horses, which was the most sort of on the one hand paradoxical, but actually to me once you understand it, it’s pretty intuitive and the thing that they understood was they absolutely ignore the destination. And it doesn’t mean not set goals, they were super goal obsessed. But this idea that like I’m going to project 10 years out. This is what I’m going to be. Well look, getting there requires so many contingencies. It is not as simple as just deciding you’re going to do it.
Dr. Rose: 01:02:36 And meanwhile, like you end up taking your eye off the thing that matters, which is the actual meaningful choices that are available to you day in and day out. And so to me, I would replace, what are you going to be when you grow up with, what matters to you most and why? Help your child cultivate the habit of really deeply understanding who they are and what matters and motivates them. And teach them how to use that to make choices in their life. And I’m telling you, like to me there is no sure path for a life of fulfillment and excellence and contribution than that.
Jen: 01:03:13 Yeah. And when we think about what opportunities are available to individual children, I’m thinking about, we like to say that we live in a meritocracy and the playing fields level and if you have the strongest abilities then opportunities are essentially open to everyone and you will succeed. And so I think this brings up really important issues related to intersectionality of race particularly and other topics as well. What are your thoughts on that as we’re sort of heading towards a conclusion here?
Dr. Rose: 01:03:39 Yeah. Look, I mean if you had asked me 10 years ago I’d said no, this is a meritocracy. But like it’s just not, right? Because here’s the thing, maybe at best it’s some form of meritocracy. If you live in a world of like absolute scarcity where we have to ration opportunity in a way and what we’ve created is a meritocracy that is literally like at best, I mean at best, and we don’t even do this. Everyone has the same right to put step forward and be selected. And I speak of this, it will sound incredibly hypocritical given the university that I’m at right now, but like let’s just be honest, right? Those universities hoard opportunity. They are a luxury brand. That’s their view. So quality equals scarcity, right? It’s like Louis Vuitton basically, right? It’s like, you know, they have no interest in actually expanding the number of people that they educate because the second you do that, you eliminate the scarcity, right?
Dr. Rose: 01:04:36 So if Louis Vuitton literally had more handbags anyone could buy, they’re not worth what they’re charging anymore, right? And so when you look at these elite universities and you realize their job is to keep the number of people you educate as low as they can get away with, right? And then at the same time, they want lots of people to apply. Because, look how many people applied and then look how few people we said yes to. Well, there’s something profoundly wrong and borderline immoral about institutions that function that way, right? It is certainly the case in areas of our society where there is true scarcity, right? You will actually get where people who normally want to sympathize with each other become deeply competitive because you are fighting over survival in some way, right? Like if there really isn’t enough food to go around, then someone’s going hungry, right?
Dr. Rose: 01:05:26 What we’ve done is carry that view of scarcity into our institutions of opportunity where there actually isn’t scarcity. It is just not true that we are incapable of educating everyone to the level they need to be educated toward. It is certainly true that not everyone could go to Harvard, but that is more of a problem of our overemphasis on somehow that that is a better education than Weber State University where I got my undergrad. It’s not, right? And so for me, a real meritocracy is about whether or not we actually provided each person with equal fit, right? That it is not enough to say you had a chance to play the game by someone else’s rules using a standard that doesn’t even fit you and could never fit you. It is are we working hard to provide each and every child with the highly favorable conditions that we know every kid needs to realize their full potential, whatever that is.
Dr. Rose: 01:06:17 And for me, when it comes to these sort of group level inequities, I think when you see these kind of gross inequalities by race, by gender, by socioeconomic status, it is a blinking red light that something profoundly bad has happened in our society. Now, the only difference that I would say here is I also am of the opinion that how you solve for that matters a great deal. And if we solve for it simply by redressing group inequalities by other group inequalities, you will probably just perpetuate the cycle of grievance and sense of victimization that will actually continue to pull us apart. If instead what we look for is universal or targeted universal solutions that actually do give each person the thing they need to be able to strive for common goals, then we can get somewhere, right? But ultimately, look, ultimately we have a system right now that is failing most people and like even the winners don’t like the system anymore.
Dr. Rose: 01:07:18 But that’s the secret, right? If I had a magic wand, the way that I think about this is as we move toward a more personalized system in education, because by the way, there is no going back, right? This is something that’s happening in every system we have in society. We’re rejecting one-size-fits-all. We’re going to something more personal. Education won’t escape that change. What we do get to have a say in is how does it land, right? Who does it benefit? And so from my perspective, if we start with the most marginalized communities and we say, look, our commitment is to ensure that it works for everyone, which means it has to work for these communities. And you use that sort of innovation from the margins because look, if it works for people for whom the system didn’t work before, odds are it’s going to work for more people.
Dr. Rose: 01:08:03 And so if we take the idea of starting with the acenter and working our way out, we will replicate the same inequalities that we have right now only they will be on steroids, right? Because our system will be developing and amplifying human potential rather than just sorting it. So we’ve got to both commit on the one hand to a more greater focus on individuality and to commit to something more personal. But at the same time hold open this idea of diversity and inclusion and a recognition that some groups of people have been profoundly poorly treated by the system we have and commit to starting our work and our innovation in those corners and working our way in rather than inside out.
Jen: 01:08:44 Wow. Well hurry up and work a bit faster will you, please? Thank you so much for sharing your vision with us today. It’s been so inspiring to learn about your work and know that it’s out there and that it’s working on these issues and to see how we parents kind of buy into the system the way it is now and the opportunities that we have to choose a different system. Thank you so much.
Dr. Rose: 01:09:05 Thanks for having me and it’s nice to talk to at other kindred spirits.
Jen: 01:09:10 And so Dr. Rose’s book, Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment can be purchased at local bookstores or on Amazon. And all of the references for today’s show can be found at YourParentingMojo.com/DarkHorse. And don’t forget that if you’re interested in participating in the group pilot to support your child’s learning along the lines of exactly what we heard about from Dr. Rose today, go to either the references page that I just mentioned or YourParentingMojo.com/LearningMojo to learn more about that and sign up, and don’t forget the group’s going to close on January 31st and we will get started on February 1st.
Cantor, P., Osher, D., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2019). Malleability, plasticity, and individuality: How children learn and develop in context. Applied Developmental Science 23(4), 307-337.
Mischel, W. (2004). Toward an integrative science of the person. Annual Review of Psychology 55, 1-22.
Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 1-31.
Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (January 2017). Science of learning and development: A synthesis. American Institutes for Research. Downloaded from: https://www.air.org/sites/default/files/downloads/report/Science-of-Learning-and-Development-Synthesis-Osher-January-2017.pdf
Rose, T., & Ogas, O. (2018). Dark Horse: Achieving success through the pursuit of fulfillment. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Rose, T., McMahon, G.T., Saxberg, B., & Christensen, U.J. (2018). Learning in the 21st Century: Concepts and tools. Clinical Chemistry 64(10), 1423-1429.
Rose, T. (2015). The end of average: How we succeed in a world that values sameness. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Rose, L.T., Rouhani, P., & Fischer, K.W. (2013). The science of the individual. Mind, Brain, and Education 7(3), 152-158.
About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.
Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at www.YourParentingMojo.com/Membership
She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at www.YourHomeschoolingMojo.com
And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at https://jenlumanlan.teachable.com/p/school