What would happen if kids took over their school, booted out the teachers, designed their own curriculum, and started playing with fire?

Not in a Malcolm McDowell, If… sort of way, but in a happy-independent-kids doing their privileged-American-leadership-thing sort of way.

Would NCLB, Common Core, university outcomes, accrediting bodies, and the workforce suffer? Or would we enjoy tremendous growth from the creation of an inspired generation of creative, team-oriented millenials?

This provocative thought experiment isn’t occurring in Washington DC (!) or in leading Colleges of Education or Business. It isn’t happening at the Innosight Institute or Lumina or Gates. It’s on TV, at 7:30pm on Thursday nights. On the Cartoon Network.

Can television not only make us smarter, as Steven Johnson argued in his 2005 book Everything Bad is Good for Youbut actually show educators a way forward that no think tank, Internet billionaire, or college professor would ever suggest?

A brief refresher: Johnson argues that videogames, TV shows and other media, far from rotting our brains (and our children’s brains), make us smarter. Today’s entertainment is so much more complicated and challenging than entertainment from the ’50s through ’90s that we need much greater cognitive capabilities to keep up.

Compare The Honeymooners or CHiPs to even middle-brow contemporary stuff like The Apprentice or Modern Family – the level of narrative complexity and assumed knowledge is much, much more expansive.

Johnson’s argument is compelling for students, since it validates their interests. Lost might be better for your intellect than Shakespeare.

Of course Lost is so 2010.

I can’t speak to the videogames angle…maybe MineCraft is a step up in complexity and cognitive load from Mario Brothers or Defender. I don’t play, so don’t know. I play Draw Rider on my iPhone once in a while:)

I do watch TV, and one of the best shows running now is my daughter’s favorite, Dragons: Defenders of Berk, which airs Thursday nights at 7:30pm on the Cartoon Network.

Take the title, for one example.

Based on the books by Cressida Cowell and a 2010 major studio movie, both of which are called How to Train Your Dragon, the series changed its name from season 1 to season 2 (from Dragons: Riders of Berk).

If The Honeymooners had enjoyed a second season (it only ran for one), and changed its title to The Bickerers, half the audience would have been unable to find it. And that was when there were only four TV channels.

Dragons: Defenders of Berk is The Wire for pre-teens (and maybe beyond): complicated story arcs that span seasons, a large cast of characters, villains (more than one!), and a growing roster of dragons to track. It’s about a group of kids, living in a vaguely Viking culture, who have figured out how to tame dragons. Their community, called Berk, is under threat from pirates, rogue dragons, and various other threats. The character Fishlegs, shown to the right poring over the Book of Dragons, is the resident scholar and could even pass for Jay Landsman’s son (a character from The Wire) .

Action-based conflict provides the backbone of each episode. The kids, a ragtag bunch of personalities and intelligence levels, run their own Dragon Academy where they focus on their dragons and dragon scholarship to the exclusion of all else. They’re recreating an R1 University from the ground up!

More importantly, Dragons is the most subversive statement on education you’ll find in the culture right now. Not only do the kids run their own school, with zero adult supervision, but they obtained it through a hostile takeover. The school’s original (and sole) learning outcome was producing little Vikings who could kill dragons. Once Hiccup, the teenage leader, realized that dragons weren’t evil and could bond with humans, the kids took over, renamed it Dragon Academy, and dedicated their lives to understanding dragons, living in harmony with them, and defending their island from threats. It’s the ultimate expression of the charter school movement – they don’t even have a budget! Jeb Bush would be proud.

The parallel is this: modern, western education vastly underestimates kids just like the Hardy Boys and the rest of kids’ entertainment from the 1950s through 1980s. Dragons commentary on education puts its relevance ahead of The Wire (cities are corrupt!) and The Sopranos (being a dad with responsibilities is even harder when you can kill people!). It shows that kids can follow complex stories and paints a picture of what education could be. In this, it’s also ahead of anything Gates or Lumina is doing. Ahead, even, of Southern New Hampshire University, Teach for America, and KIPP. Perhaps only Penelope Trunk comes close. But she isn’t talking directly to kids or to millions of adults (yet).

Dragons has created a complex world, with intelligent kids, in which school doesn’t exist. Unschooling (the idea that kids should decide what they want to learn and pursue their interests with little structure) is taken to a dramatic extreme.

To defend Berk against  Alvin the Treacherous, Mildew, and Dagur the Deranged, the kids get to play with weapons of mass destruction (dragons). Who knows what the adults do all day! They’re cardboard cutouts who drift in and out of each 22 minute episode for probably a total of 2 minutes, tracking most teens’ experience with adults. The kids defend their city-state in an ultimate expression of Project Based Learning. Even Ender Wiggin had to attend formal schooling to learn. The kids of Berk are just trying to have some fun and protect their tribe  while teaching adults that dragons and humans can be friends.

Dragons is pop culture proof that K12 education in the US is completely irrelevant. How would a standardized math test, or crummy reading comprehension assessment, help these teen Vikings save the day? They wouldn’t! Period. Here’s a little taste: the Dragons gang setting up their own “lesson plan” for the day ahead:

There’s plenty to critique in the show: the kids have recreated the gifted program of many upper middle class school districts, where the duller boys and girls are shunted aside (in this case the twins Tuffnut/Ruffnut and Snotlout – even their names tell us they’re stupid) and a white male leads the pack (he has a prosthetic foot – perhaps an acknowledgement of the toll our 10 years in Iraq/Afghanistan have taken). The main female character, Astrid, is feisty and smart but doesn’t get much screen time. At least she hasn’t had to kiss Hiccup in the TV series.

And the dragons! They love their masters/partners…and are sort of domesticated, very smart dogs. But they’re property. The teens in Defenders of Berk get a dragon like American kids get a car.

The ultimate critique, and where Dragons fails to provide a useful framework for our own school system, is that the kids of Berk are intrinsically motivated. They get up every morning, raring to go, and plan missions that require complex teamwork and problem solving. They have a common enemy and a clear goal: defend Berk. Their motivational situation is closer to Sergio Juarez Correa’s students in Matamoros, or the beneficiaries of  Sugra Mitra’s experiments dropping computers, without any instructions, into remote villages so 11 year-olds can learn to hack Android or study molecular biology.

Astrid, Hiccup and even Tuffnut/Ruffnut will do just great in San Francisco’s start up culture (as long as they can bring their dragons to work). But what about the kids who are happy laying in bed all morning watching Scooby Doo on their iPads? Or who fall prey to a million distractions, large, small, and malevolent? But those are separate challenges from the basic demand of learning. Kids don’t need school to learn, it seems. So rather than obsess over school funding, or different curriculums, US education needs to fundamentally restate the problem it is trying to address. The problem isn’t learning, its motivation.

Increasing Colorado property taxes from 4.63% to 5% to fund education reform is like pitching Kodak senior management, in the late 90s, that just a little more investment in the production line making Polaroid instant camera film will result in a long, prosperous future for the company.

The challenge to American education, and indeed all of the developed world, is to truly innovate around important problems. Almost all the conversations about education in America are about sustaining innovation (to use Clayton Christensen’s term). Minor improvements. Embroidery. 5% better test scores.

Very little of the dialog around education, particularly in higher education, is about student motivation. The kids of Berk can joyfully learn, with a little guidance and mentoring from friendly adults, because they are powered by deprivation. And the uniting force of a common foe – which, for the kids of Berk, is the equivalent to gainful employment.

In the US, particularly in K12 and the insane, generation-long experiment that is NCLB/standardized testing, we have turned our backs on motivation. What matters is lock-step curriculum. 25% of school time spent taking exams (or preparing to take exams). We debate teacher pay-for-performance where “performance” is, yup, based on test scores.

Another recent, hugely successful film aimed at kids depicts the only way Dragon Academy-style unschooling could work in the US. In The Hunger Games kids are dropped into a tightly controlled world, devoid of external distractions, with a clear goal. Of course the kill-or-be-killed assessment system doesn’t really scale, or fit with our value system. But the idea of deprivation (with a small ‘d’) and student-led problem solving just might. If we were open to innovation.

Developing nations have the disrupter’s classic opportunity to leapfrog us, making our education debates seem ridiculous in comparison. The cheap or free world class education (MOOCs, OER, YouTube, Khan and other solutions) available to students in developing countries combined with their relative deprivation, is a huge advantage for these communities. Their students don’t have 100 channels of HD, Netflix, 10gb/sec broadband, iPads, and 50″ flatscreen TVs to distract them – yet. A truly Machiavellian foreign policy would subsidize Disney, Comcast and Nintendo games so that learners in developing nations waste their time playing/watching mindless entertainment instead of taking Udacity courses. The only thing holding millions of kids back in these countries is the lack of employment opportunity. And this will change, through the Internet’s relentless osmosis, unleashing an army of MOOC-trained kids who are “poor, smart, and desire to be rich” (to paraphrase Ace Greenberg) to displace American students with near-worthless marketing degrees.

Of course Rabelais (and others) had this figured out by the 16th Century. He wrote, “A child is a fire to be lit, not a vase to be filled.” Public K12 and even charters are too constrained to really experiment with this guiding principle and its call to figure out motivation. The only chance for radical change comes in the shape of a small army of unschoolers, like Penelope Trunk .  But they’re operating independently, for the most part. What if there was an online community and learning platform, sort of Kickstarter crossed with LinkedIn, that could power the work of these brave families? Leveraging common problems and solutions, giving children a network, mentors, and thousands of role model projects and areas of inquiry? A showcase for achievement and common experience? Rather than recreating the “sage on the stage,” like Udacity, Coursera, Khan, and others, such a solution could redefine the challenges of education by putting motivation and engagement first, experimenting rapidly to see what helps kids make the most progress, and connecting students to paying work as early as possible.

In the end, Dragons: Defenders of Berk is visual, if fictitious, proof of Rabelais’ argument. And if Hiccup, Astrid, Tuffnut and the others get a little bored? They can light a real fire, with the help of a Gronckle’s  lava blast, and start melting stuff like mini David Lettermans. Assuming no one gets hurt, I’d take throwing stuff off a roof any day over studying for standardized tests.