I’m currently en route to New York City for an event called Hacking Education that is being put on by the good folks at Union Square Ventures. Fred and crew have invited some of the leading thinkers, entrepreneurs and investors in the edu space for some spirited discussion about how we can revolutionize education. I’m honored to have been invited.
I have a lot of my own thoughts on the subject, some of which I’ve posted here before. I wanted to try to sum up my thoughts in a blog post. I know I’m naive and don’t understand how much of the education world work. But I guess we all to some extent. And I’m not entirely unconvinced that people who are naive won’t come up with the best solutions to the massive and mind-blowingly colossal failure that is the modern education so here goes…
A Manifesto for EduChange
#1 – Get really clear on whether you want incremental or revolutionary change. Before you get started with any initiative, start-up, investment, etc. you should think long and hard about whether you’re dealing with incrementalism or revolution. This can be described by the Peter Drucker distinction between management (”doing things right”) and leadership (”doing the right things”) and best summed up by this Russell Ackoff quote:
The righter we do the wrong thing, the wronger we become. When we make a mistake doing the wrong thing and correct it, we become wronger. When we make a mistake doing the right thing and correct it, we become righter. Therefore, it is better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right. This is very significant because almost every problem confronting our society is a result of the fact that our public policy makers are doing the wrong things and are trying to do them righter.
Every action you take to change education either helps us do the wrong thing “righter” or helps us to do the right things. Which best describes your actions?
Let’s be clear. There’s a ton of money to be made in doing the wronger things righter. Almost all of the money currently being made in the space is being made by people enabling the wronger things to be done righter. So if you want true change you are going to, at least at this moment in history, be fighting the current that will push you into working to make incrementally better a fundamentally broken system. If it’s just about the money for you then go do that. And probably stop reading here because the rest of this article is going to strike you as a lot of idealistic hot air.
But if that’s not you, please keep reading. :)
I’m not going to go much into why the current system is broken. Heroic guys like John Taylor Gatto have already devoted their lives to chronicling that. Basically it breaks down to the fact that the modern education system was originally developed to make us into good factory workers. Basically it optimizes around turning us into cogs in the wheel. It does a darn good job of that. Or at least it did until the modern form of business started melting down. And now it completely fails.
In the words of Jonathan Kozol (from the Russell Ackoff book Turning Learning Right Side Up, the most underrated book on edu revolution):
U.S. education is by no means an inept, disordered misconstruction. It is an ice-cold and superb machine. It does the job: not mine, not yours, perhaps, but that for which it was originally conceived…The first goal and primary function of the U.S. public school is not to educate good people, but good citizens….In the double talk of Schools of Education, we employ…elegant expressions like ‘the socializing function.’ The function is…: 12 years of mandatory, self-dehumanization, self-debilitation, blood loss.
We’re doing a really good job at turning out people who fall in line, can’t demonstrate creativity and view learning as compulsory. And that completely sucks. So get really, really clear on whether you want to continue to perpetuate that system or whether you want to actually change it. The latter = much, more difficult. People will call you crazy. But then again the only people crazy enough to think they can change the world…
#2 – Realize that edu revolves around credentialing and until we change that system it’s going to really, really hard to do much else. Credentialing dominates education. Want proof? See how much value people place on a degree from Yale vs. online lectures from Yale. The former has 1,000x, 10,000x, 100,000x as much economics demand right now. Sure you get other stuff from attending Yale…the network, interaction with the professors, etc. But let’s not kid ourselves, if you didn’t get a degree at the end of the day people wouldn’t doing everything in their power to get into Ivy League schools (or trying to get their kids into Ivy League schools!).
What’s needed here? Take the power out of the hands of the power brokers. Give it to the people who care about a systems that more about effectiveness than maintaining the status quo.
Can’t be done?
Bullshit. (Pardon the French…I tend to get excited about this stuff.)
Rewind 20 years and people would have said the exact same thing about software. If you take control out of the hands of a few select people at the top it will never work. We’ll have anarchy. No way could a group of hackers ever compete with companies like Microsoft. Never.
The situation isn’t identical with credentialing but it’s really darn close. It will take the same courage that people like Eric Raymond exhibited. But it’s possible. I’ll go one step further. It’s inevitable. It’s just a matter of how long we’re willing to suffer with ineptitude. We did it for a long time with software. But we moved passed it and look how much the world has changed. That’s the opportunity that exists right now in the edu space.
#3 – Move towards efficient markets. True, unfettered capitalism (not the crony capitalism that we’ve seen as of late) is the most powerful force on the planet (next to the sex drive perhaps! :)). Let’s unleash it on education. How? Do for education what companies like eBay and Etsy have done for goods market. What Mechnical Turk is doing for the market for peoples’ spare cycles. What ELance, oDesk and Guru do for service providers. Soooo many other examples.
Right now the markets in edu are horribly inefficient. Demand isn’t meeting supply in many parts of the world. People are way over-paying in some areas and others are under-charging for their services. It’s a mess. One of the things we’re trying to do at eduFire (and what others at places like Myngle, TeachStreet and WizIQ are doing) is help change this. But there’s so much more opportunity here. Clayton Christensen talks a lot about this in his book Disrupting Class. It’s well worth the read.
One of the reasons why efficient markets will rock is that they will help empower teachers to capture more of the value from the service their providing. Right now teachers take home approximately 10-20% of the revenue that their students are charged (Note: This does vary widely but for the majority of teachers are in that range). The only way that is possibly sustainable is in an inefficient market. If I’m a tutor and the only way I can find my students is to join a tutoring company that charges my students $80/hour and pays me $12/hour then that’s what I settle for. But when I can find my tutor on eduFire, craiglist or TeachStreet I’m not going to put up with that for very long.
Education is on the verge of going through Napsterization. Many people might not agree. That’s fine. People in the music biz didn’t agree 10 years ago. People in the newspaper biz didn’t agree 5 years ago. But the same forces that caused creative destruction in those industries is starting to do the same thing in edu.
#4 – Turn Teachers into Rock Stars. We’ve talked a bunch about this already on the blog so I’ll let you read posts like this one, this one and this one if you want more background. Simply put, we need much (much!) bigger incentives at the top end of the spectrum if we want to see true innovation. Look at industries like music, movies, sports. Think what people do to succeed in those industries. Read Outliers and and give a long hard think to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours concept. The Beatles at Hamburg. Tiger Woods putting for hours, even after he finishes his rounds.
Out-sized efforts come when people are seeking out-sized rewards. In education the rewards (money, fame, etc.) are extremely modest. Which is why people like Rafe Esquith who actually do put in Tiger-type hours are a complete anamoly. Read There Are No Shortcuts and then tell me if his efforts don’t actually border on insanity given the lack of rewards (and often even, unbelievably, punishment for putting in extra effort). God bless him though.
When you attach big rewards to something you’ll raise the level of competitiveness. You’ll attract in more talented people. You’ll get innovation. Sure, it’s not all about the money or fame. In fact, for many people it’s decidely not about that. It’s about appreciation they receive. It’s about their feeling of contribution. Amp up the opportunity to have those needs met in a profession and you’ll ramp up the number of people who want to enter the profession.
We don’t need more teachers. We need more talented teachers. And the only way we’ll convince the uber-talented high school student to pursue teaching instead of banking is when we raise the potential upside of entering the education field. In the words of TED curator Chris Anderson:
For one thing, the realization that today’s best teachers can become global celebrities is going to boost the caliber of those who teach. For the first time in many years it’s possible to imagine ambitious, brilliant 18-year-olds putting ‘teacher’ at the top of their career choice list. Indeed the very definition of “great teacher” will expand, as numerous others outside the profession with the ability to communicate important ideas find a new incentive to make that talent available to the world. (Link)
Turning teachers into rock stars, like the other stuff in this manifesto, isn’t going to be easy. But some people are already doing it. The top teacher for Korean-based Megastudy made millions of dollars last year. Teacher videos on sites like TeacherTube (rock it out Mr. Duey!!) and YouTube are getting hundreds of thousands of views. World-class professors are more visible than ever thanks to kick-ass services like iTunes University and Academic Earth.
We’re getting close. Long way to go. But look how far we’ve come in a short amount of time.
#5 – Recognize that arguing over offline edu vs. online edu is like arguing whether it’s better to have arms or legs. It seems like a lot of energy is being spent right now figuring out how much of education will be online or offline. That’s pointless. It’s much smarter to figure out what offline does best and what online does best. Then ruthlessly shift education in the direction of the more efficient modality.
A couple of areas that offline does best
Rich interaction between teachers and students – Say what you will about web conferencing (and we’re obviously big proponents!) there still isn’t a good substitute for in-person interaction. I’m currently listening to an awesome Berkeley class given by Steve Blank and available on Venture Hacks. Blank is a master of classroom interaction. There’s a great energy in his class, awesome banter and stuff that simply couldn’t be duplicated (at least not now in an online classroom).
Socialization – Although I pretty much hate that word I can’t think of a better alternative. Learning to interact with others is huge in the world we live in and while the online communications mechanisms provide some socialization it’s not enough. This isn’t to say that school needs to be the sole place for socialization. I actually think things like sports, drama, etc. provide more positive models of socialization and better frameworks for developing teamwork and leadership skills. Still, physical schools are still the most common place this happens.
A couple of areas that online does best
Self-paced learning – Disrupting Class is a manifesto for this. Online every student can go at their own pace in a way that simply isn’t possible in the physical world. Computer-based self-paced learning has the potential to completely revolutionize education if we approach it properly.
A Global learning environment – We’ve had classes on eduFire where more than 20 countries have been represented. The power of bringing together people into a true global classroom is staggering in its potential. Can you imagine an Iraqi child and an American child taking a world affairs class together. Do you know what that will do for the planet? I can’t even begin to imagine the impact but it’s very, very exciting. Online brings together the world in a way that offline never would be able to.
There are a ton of additional things that could go in either category. The key here is identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each and then creating a blended learning program that best leverages both. Way (way!) better than having a holy war over which form of education is “better”.
#6 – Revel in the Power of the Tail. The new edu has amazing opportunities on the tail. Here’s a good example: Cramster. My buddy Rob who started this site has done an awesome job with giving people a chance to interact with other people who are working on the exact same homework problem that they are, regardless of where that person happens to be. This is very, very big.
Take this one step further. Imagine a teacher who simply decides to focus exclusively on getting extremely good at explaining the problems in one particular chapter of a popular textbook. Let’s say that they develop movies and games and anecdotes and all sorts of stuff to make the problems in that one chapter just totally come to life. 10 years ago there was no market for that. Today, there are whiffs of a market. 10 years from now it will be really obvious that there’s a market. And that teacher will create a great livelihood by simply getting incredibly good at being able to teach a micr0-chunk of content and then scaling that teaching across millions of people.
But now here’s where it gets really fun. If one teacher can support himself or herself teaching the problems out of one chapter of one textbook then it’s easy to imagine thousands of teachers doing the same thing. And now as a student it gets really good. Because for every subject/textbook chapter, etc. you have someone who is world-class available to teach you. It would be like going to school and having a teacher in every subject who’s as knowledgable and passionate as Al Gore is teaching about climate change or Richard Feynman is explaining physics.
Some start-ups are already heading in this direction. Besides Cramster, it seems like Knewton and Brightstorm are planting seeds for platform that could serve the tail very well. And there’s a ton of opportunity there.
#7 – For goodness sake, leverage the power of “students teaching students” already! Who came up with this arcane notion that all the knowledge is in the teacher’s head and can only be transmitted in a one-way direction from teacher to student? That’s simply a perpetuation of the system’s politically autocratic beginnings. As Ackoff puts it in Turning Learning Right Side Up:
There is a well-defined hierarchy, a clear chain of command. Each level has almost unlimited control over the next level below, the student being at the bottom of the heap. There is no regular means of appeal, only the hope of moving someone higher up by playing on their good will.
Time to get rid of that and the best way to start is by empowering students to teach each other. It’s fairly well-estabished that the best way to understand something is to teach it to others. So why aren’t we doing that? There are some cool things happening online in this area, most notably Grockit. But we an awful long way to go here.
What’s great about “students teaching students” though is that while it increases retention for the students it dramatically reduces the pressure on the teacher. Freed up of the constraints of being the sole vessel for the transfer of knowledge the teacher know has the ability to use their energy to augment the learning process. Take a look at this video of “power teaching” to see what I’m talking about.
Like most of the stuff in this list, student-to-student learning isn’t applicable in every situation. However, it’s relevant in a lot more situations than it is currently used in and the latent potential of that is immense.
#8 – Design it from the ground up to be adaptable. I’m rolling into 3,000 words here so I’m going to end with this one. No true revolution can occur unless the new system that is being built is being built for change. Peter Drucker has a great quote in the Tom Peters book Re-Imagine:
My ancestors were printers in Amsterdam from 1510 or so until 1750, and during that entire time they didn’t have to learn anything new…Knowledge becomes obsolete incredibly fast. The continuing professional education of adults is the No. 1 industry in the next 30 years.
And no doubt you’ve all seen this video by now:
We’re using outdated methods to teach irrelvant skills but our schools and training institutions can’t keep up with the pace of change we’re witnessing in society.
Wanna guess what the most in-demand skill on oDesk was in 2008?
How many people are teaching kids how to use WordPress effectively?
We need to re-think how we teach and learn in an enviroment where the only constant is change.
There’s so much more I could say but hopefully (if you’ve made it this far!) you’ve got a better grasp of what I think could be done to shake the foundations of the education industry. Which, by the way, is a massive freaking industry…$2 trillion globally by many accounts. And I can’t think of an industry more responsible for the health of the world, or lack thereof, than education.
We stand at a really unique point in history. As I mentioned in my personal blog earlier in the week, I think we have a real and unique opportunity to re-make entire industries. I can’t think of a more powerful opportunity on the planet today than the opportunity to re-make education.