The One Big Lesson We (Hopefully) All Learned in 2019


Have you ever been scammed, hoodwinked, or bamboozled? If you have, the good news is that beyond the loss, embarrassment, and pain, there’s a valuable upside to being exploited – especially at an early age.

I’m reminded of a vulnerable student who was victimized at age eight. He was clowning in class, and his antics got him blocked from a field trip with the rest of his classmates. To hide the one-day suspension from his parents, he planned to spend the hours alone in a nearby park. His unsuspecting mom packed a special lunch for the outing and gave him five dollars to spend on the school trip. The boy secretly packed a few toys to pass the time — including a tiny plastic water gun.

As he sat alone in the park, a friendly older boy approached. “I know where to get a much bigger, better water gun,” he said. The younger boy was thrilled to hear that the five dollars he had was “just enough” to get the cool new toy. “Wait here.” the older boy said, “I’ll be back!” (Pause: Do you see where this is going?)


When the Greatest Lesson Isn’t Part of the Lesson Plan

That younger boy was me, and for weeks I was bummed about having to go home before my friend returned with the mega pistol. But it was years before I realized that my new best friend never, ever, ever intended to come back…

When the light finally came on, I was left with an invaluable lesson. It would be the first of many related lessons I’d learn growing up in New York City. As a teen, I watched hustlers on the street playing three-card monte with naive tourists. I heard guys in the barbershop talking about “running the murphy” on unsuspecting Johns. These collective experiences taught me what may be the greatest lesson of all:

I have to be an aware, critical, independent thinker who is responsible for what I believe. 


What’s Fake, What’s Real?

Here’s a stunning fact to consider. We are two decades into the 21st-century, and the latest PISA report found that 1 in 10 students is incapable of telling the difference between fact and opinion. Do the math…  that’s 20 years of consciously working to cultivate critical thinking in the next generation; ten plus another 10 years of innovative instruction, education technology, and modeling sound thinking. Yet the result is a generation of students who can be duped by a friendly website, a social media influencer, or a dubious group of thought leaders.

But our students are not alone. Today, we’re seeing how the critical thinking skills of millions of smart, well-educated, experienced adults can be short-circuited by “opinion leaders.”


A Teachable Moment?

The historic news of the day is that President Donald Trump has been impeached. But more notable is that half of Americans are on one side of this historic moment, half are on the polar opposite side, and there’s virtually no middle ground. This is unprecedented.

Most importantly, the stories each side believes are so mutually exclusive that one of the narratives has to be fake.  News Flash: This means half of the country is being bamboozled — the question is which half?

Of course, the other possibility is that half the country is fully aware they are drinking spiked Kool-Aid and are gulping it down anyway.  But why? 


Tribes, Echo Chambers, and Groupthink, Oh My!

2019 has been an unbelievable year. Much of what we heard this year should not be believed, but many people believe much of it anyway. Why? “Because I heard it from…”

So now, as the impeachment decision lurches ahead, we may be witnessing the most epic example of groupthink in the history of our nation. The most jaw-dropping instance of what happens when we live in a bubble, consume prepackaged thinking, and outsource our responsibility to be informed critical thinkers to… ( insert your favorite thought leaders)

A recent Pew study found that 38% of US adults identify as independents, but only about 7% of voters don’t express any partisan leanings. I don’t believe you heard me. It’s quite possible that only seven percent of us are independently managing our own minds!


The Big Takeaway

So as we approach the climactic end of the first 20 years of the 21st century, perhaps the big lesson for all of us is that teaching “critical thinking” skills is not enough. Encouraging students to “own their learning”  is insufficient.  Somehow we have to find a way to persuade the next generation to care a little less about getting “likes,” being liked, and fitting in. To be more resistant to the gravitational pull of friendly faces serving tall tales and free Kool-Aid. And most of all, to be courageous, independent thinkers who realize how critical it is today to own our minds and be responsible for what we believe.



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