(This article was first published in the October/November 2015 issue of North Simcoe Life.)

If you give people freedom, they will amaze you. – Laszlo Bock, Senior Vice President of People Operations, Google

Jacob Barnett

As an elementary substitute teacher for over 20 years, I have often questioned the efficacy of the school system. School should be a place that kids love, a place that inspires effort and creativity, a place that helps kids identify and realize their potential.

But the sad reality is that for most kids, school is boring, tedious and seemingly pointless. Instead of being motivated to strive for greatness and overcome obstacles, many of these kids learn to give up. Rather than developing a sense of pride and self-worth, these kids develop low self-esteem, and deflect attention from their perceived incompetence through misbehavior.

These kids have not failed – the system has failed them.

Forward-thinking leaders in business and education are beginning to conceive of a new way to empower the young. The end goal is no longer to develop workers subservient to authority who can toil for long hours on mundane tasks (the focus of education for the Second Industrial Revolution). Now, the goal is to develop creative, collaborative, resilient and empathic contributors for a rapidly changing precarious world.

We are going to need all the ingenuity, passion and interconnection that we can muster to meet the challenges of a world in economic, social and ecological turmoil.

Freedom is the key. Kids need to be free to pursue their element, the place where “natural aptitude meets personal passion”, in the words of international educational advisor, Sir Ken Robinson.

Inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk gets it. He hated school, and was dissatisfied with what the public school offered his children. So, for his own five boys, he built an alternative school without grades that takes a radically different “unschooling” approach to learning. (Musk is the CEO and CTO of SpaceX, CEO and product architect of Tesla Motors and chairman of SolarCity. He is also the founder of SpaceX and a co-founder of PayPal.)

Unschooling is an educational approach of primarily self-directed hands-on experience. The core premise: When learning is personal, it’s more meaningful, well-understood and useful to the child. While courses may occasionally be taken, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, conventional grading methods, and other features of traditional schooling.

While this approach is likely too radical for most people, we could easily improve the school experience for disaffected kids by taking a page from the Google playbook. Employees at Google are encouraged to spend 20% of their time on a project of their choosing. Google, incidentally, is celebrating its sixth year at No. 1 of the 100 Best Companies to Work For.

Imagine if, for one period every day, kids had the mentors and resources to pursue their element in a collaborative learning environment. They could learn computer programming, build and repair things, make music, art and dance, delve into the wonders of science and math to explore and explain the world, develop athletic abilities, write, master languages, or who knows what. They would love school. With their passions fed, they would also have mental resilience for less favoured, but still necessary, educational pursuits.

Jacob Barnett is a remarkable boy. His IQ surpasses Einstein’s. At age 12 he became a paid researcher in quantum physics. Currently he is a doctoral student at the prestigious Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, where he earned a master’s degree at the age of 16. But, his extraordinary mind was almost lost to autism.

In her memoir, The Spark, A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius, Kristine Barnett shares her remarkable journey with Jake. As he stopped talking and drew inward, Kristine found the courage to resist pressure from her husband and the “experts”. She took Jake out of special ed, where the focus was on teaching him basic life skills, to focus on what lit him up: outer space. The results were beyond what anyone could have predicted.

Kristine wrote her memoir to inspire us, parents and teachers, to light the spark in each child. If Jake could transform from a withdrawn and helpless child to one of humanities great hopes, imagine what potential lies in all children. If we empower them to pursue their element, they will amaze us.