Changing How We Think About Education

On Friday I spent three hours at Tufts University meeting with Chris Rogers and a few of his colleagues at the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach.  We had an awesome, wide ranging conversation about what they are doing, how the accelerator model could apply, and how education, especially around engineering and computer science needs to radically change, as well as some concrete suggestions about how to change it. I also got a tour of the research lab which had an enormous number of legos everywhere as one of their key sponsors is Lego.

James Barlow, the Director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Program for The Gordon Institute at the Tufts School of Engineering was also in the meeting. He was as awesome as Chris and was able to speak from experience around a lot of accelerator activities, especially in Europe.

Yesterday, he emailed me a brilliant RSA Animate talk by Sir Ken Robinson on Changing Education Paradigms. I just watched it and found myself nodding my head up and down for most of the 11 minutes it took to watch the video.

I encourage you to invest 11 minutes of your life and watch it right now if you are interested in getting an insight into why much of our current approach to education is broken (the “why”) along with some of how it can be fixed (“the what”).

I believe strongly that accelerator programs like TechStars have become a very effective “education program” for entrepreneurs. While we’ve figured out pieces of it, we are now taking it up a level by trying to figure out the longer term arc around multi-year programs, along with additional programs linked to entrepreneurship, but not necessarily for entrepreneurs, such as Boston Startup School. Academic accelerators, like the one that MIT ran this summer called the MIT Founders Skills Accelerator, are introducing and experimenting with this in an academic setting. Finally, my friends at Startup Weekend are working on something called SW Next that they’ll be rolling out soon – we talked about it extensively at our board meeting ten days ago.

When we look back in 40 years, I expect another dramatic impact of the Internet and the web will be a massive shift in the way education is packaged and delivered. And that’s a good thing.

  • I think you know that I’ve been working on this for 2 years and almost 10 months (when Ellery was born). Her birth caused me to think about college in 2028 and my conclusion was that it would not and SHOULD NOT look anythink like the experience of my generation and the 3 or more generations before me. I’m looking for the right way to fund this next method of distribution for learning (not education). I’m particularly interested in consolidated learning experiences where the market tests outcomes. With transparent results, I think you form a new method of “accreditation”. To date, we’ve invested in a fund focused on higher education and partnering with the existing system (new colleges and services). We also get exposure to the next wave via a number of venture funds. I hope you will throw anything our way that looks interesting.

    • Absolutely – I’ll start making sure you see / hear things I find interesting. I’m running into more and more of them and – while I don’t expect we’ll be investors in them, some things are starting to click in my mind.

  • jeffreyyan

    Fred Wilson just posted about a related Ted talk by Seth Godin too:

  • The tools we use to learn will need to change, too. I’ve spent a chunk of my career working on that issue in the math and science classroom. It is hard to believe, but many of the tools used were invented at the dawn of desktop computing. That will need to change, too, as mobile computing becomes dominant.

  • fwmiller

    God, what a load of hooey. I felt like I was watching a modern day version of “Another Brick in the Wall.”

    • Really? What’s your background? Have you spent much time in our “modern” education system?

      • fwmiller

        Hmm, my background. Well, I spent 25 years from K-Ph.D. in the system myself. I was a tenure track Professor of Computer Science, granted only for one semester (til some VC money convinced me to leave it 😉 which was the best thing I ever did). My wife spent 27 years from K-to-M.D. She’s a Professor of Pediatric Orthopaedic surgery that actually prescribed Ritalin to a lot of kids out of Johns Hopkins (the center of the “epidemic” on the evil East Coast) for about 12 years. I’ve got three kids in primary, middle, and high school right now. Two in Catholic schools and one in the public system. But, I’m not a Professor of Education pandering to the Dept. of Education for grant money, so you can discount my opinion and the rest of this post.

        What I hear in this video is a bunch of anecdotal examples strung together to reach an at best specious conclusion. Let’s go through it item by item shall we? I’ll paraphrase what I think are the important points in this presentation.

        1) How do we educate our children for the new economy when we can’t anticipate what that economy will look like?

        The implication here is that there’s actually something wrong with our system. My impression is that we have the most creative entrepreneurial economy in the world. Certainly the creativity and entrepreneurial nature of our economy should be well suited to adapting to changes better than one that is less so. Whatever we are doing in our educational system as part of a person’s overall development seems to have gotten us to a pretty good place?

        2) How do we incorporate cultural identity into education in the face of globalization.

        While its certainly the case we don’t want to strip people of their cultural identity, I don’t see the distinction here. Education is (or should be) about infusing mainly factually oriented knowledge into a persons brain. I don’t know that cultural identity, other than perhaps making people aware of different cultures, is really relevant.

        3) He then asserts that whats been done in the past is bad because its “alienating” kids.

        I was a major nerd and very alienated in high school. I’m not sure I know anyone, including the quarterback of the football team that didn’t feel alienated at some level. However, now that I’m an adult, I understand that that alienation had very little to do with the educational system and more to do with just growing up and dealing with puberty and socialization, etc.

        4) College doesn’t guarantee a job anymore

        Um, when was there a guarantee of anything in life?

        5) The educational system was designed in a “different age”

        Its bad cuz its not new I suppose.

        6) The inherent division of people by academic “smartness” is builtin to the system and is bad because in automatically disenfranchises those that are not “smart”

        Oh my God. Now we can’t discriminate people based on whether their smart or not?

        7) This inherent segregation has resulted in an “epidemic” of Ritalin prescriptions

        How do you make this assertion? How can you correlate the prescription of Ritalin to the fact that some people may have more academic aptitute than others?

        He claims that information overstimulation is also causal, however, this is simplistic at best. He then makes this incredible leap where he “observes” some correlation between ADHD diagnoses and the use of standardized testing! Nothing to back this up, just his “observation.”

        Since he gets to make all kinds of anecdotal observations, I’ll add mine here, or more specifically, my wife’s. Ritalin is a babysitter. Its more correlated to broken homes and poverty and large class sizes than anything else. If we get to make wild assertions, mine will be that its parents not spending enough time with their kids for whatever reason thats more to blame.

        8) He then goes onto claim that the “arts” are the primary victim of this Ritilan explosion.

        He defines “aesthetic experience” as something that makes you “fully alive,” whatever that means. I felt pretty alive when I figured out differential equations and got my computer programs running but those aren’t considered the “arts.”

        9) He asserts that Ritilan is an “anesthetic experience” which is antithetical to his hand waving assertion about the arts being victimized.

        This is just putting words together for effect from what I can tell. It doesn’t mean what he is asserting it means.

        10) Education is organized like factories

        He asks why we put kids through school based on age. Well, duh, cuz their brains develop as they get older? Like many of these kinds of talks, they boil down to the assembly line nature of the system. However, I didn’t hear a single proposed concrete solution in this talk that would be an alternative. How do we change a system that is educating 10s of millions at the same time? Seems like no matter what you do, you’re going to have to have some sort of assembly line characteristics aren’t you?

        11) Standardization, with standardized testing as the example, is bad.

        See my comment on discrimination based on smarts. Come on people, we’re not all the same. We have to figure out who can do what somehow. Sure the people that aren’t “smart” are going to be “marginalized,” but what do we do instead? Should we let people who can’t add be engineers? Should we allow people who can’t play to be musicians?

        12) Divergent thinking is necessary (but not sufficient) for creative thinking

        He goes on this wild train of thought about how 6-year olds are genius because their brains come up with wild incoherent connections between thing and that that goes away as we get older. Well, the next time a toddler tells me I can fly or that the rock in the driveway can power a city, I guess I had better listen more closely eh?

        I mean this is as close as he comes to actually proposing a solution, that we should organize our system around “divergent thinking.” But he himself states that its not sufficient to support creativity so is a bit of a leap to restructure the entire system around that don’t you think?

        13) Once he starts to generalize that academic distinctions are bad, he asserts that most great learning happens in groups.

        As I stated, learning is about infusing knowledge into and individual’s brain. That means that ultimately the individual must do the learning. Some people learn better in groups I suppose, but thats hardly universal. I, for example, did almost none of my learning in a group setting.

        I’ll conclude with what I said first. IMHO, this presentation is very weak. It seems to me to be overly critical with little basic logic to back it up. I would require assertions that our entire educational system needs to be reformed to be presented with a much more coherent, well supported argument than I see here. But hey, he did have some fancy animations to go with it! 😉

        • Jeffrey Hartmann

          I could rebut a lot more of your points, but let me point out just a few things that I disagree with here that appear to be the heart of your bias.

          Smart kids with some level of support will do well no matter what. If you are driven, you will probably succeed as well. Look at the story of Ben Carson, he started out in extremely bad circumstances and everyone thought he was dumb. His drive and natural intelligence, with the proper fostering at home made him into the best pediatric neurosurgeon in the world. My son will probably do well no matter what, he was doing multiplication in Kindergarten. The kids with potential that do not discover it are the ones that are really left behind in our current system. Especially if they do not test well, or can not be assessed using a simple test.

          There are plenty of changes that can make a big difference, here are just a few that explicitly talk to your counterpoints.

          Using the schoolhouse model of integrating children. We can put children with similar abilities in classes together. Interaction with peers at the same level of development in a skill gives more appropriate opportunities to learn from them. If his current course is any measure, my son will be learning calculus and linear algebra way before everyone else. He should be interacting with people learning the same stuff, not someone who is just beginning algebra. Perhaps there will be some other skill where he is at about the same level as children his age, he should interact with them in that class or help perhaps tutor children his age in things he beyond them in to help reinforce his skills.

          Right now our teachers can not figure out in detail what the capabilities and needs of each child is so they teach to the lowest common denominator. Technology can be of great help here. Continuous assessment and dynamically adapting the material based on the results of this analysis are simple and easy for a computer to do. I say easy in comparison to a human teacher, since computers are really good at solving huge linear systems with a huge number of data points. Every computer interaction with a child is a opportunity for assessment, without explicitly testing them or forcing it down their throats. Children who don’t need help with a skill get a quick assessment and thats it. Those that need remedial help can get it without stigma.

          Anyone who has taken one of the massive online courses knows that the traditional lecturing model is not the only or even the optimal way to learn. If you have not experienced this I would suggest you pick something kewl out there and take it on Coursera, it will likely change what appears to be your bias to the traditional socratic method of teaching. Obviously Coursera is full of lectures, but they are micro lectures and there are active peer discussions and application problems and quizzes throughout. We can learn things from these early attempts at something new and make something great.

          I think Sir Ken is more about trying to get people to critically think about the problem then spending a whole bunch of time describing the solution. I think defining the problem is always the first step, and this video is really in this category for me. There are tons of ideas on how to alter our education system for the better. We could spend literally days going through them. I believe what he is doing here is attempting to start that discussion and throwing out some first ‘seeds’ of what he thinks. Taken in this light I feel the presentation is quite good.

          • fwmiller

            I like this post, its full of concrete suggestions. I would point out a couple of things tho. Segregation is taking place for my kids within the existing system. They are in honors and AP classes in both the Catholic and public systems. I would assert that this is similar to your proposal to separate them based on ability. However, this notion of segregation that you are alluding to seems to be contrary to the talk, where Sir Ken talks about discriminating based on “smartness” being a bad thing.

            I’m interested in your notion of “micro” lectures vs. long and multiple lectures before there is any interaction. An analogy leaps to mind immediately between this and the traditional waterfall vs. agile development models in software development. As in software development, both likely have a place, the right tool for the job. This is hardly a systemic change however as Sir Ken is advocating for with his “paradigm shift” to tailoring the system towards fostering “divergent thinking.”

            Finally, I wish everyone that has commented here on their desire to help with their various ideas the best of luck. The beauty of our economic and I think are existing educational system is that it has, despite all these shortcomings, yielded all sorts of creative people like yourselves. What’s even better is the “market” will ultimately decide whether what you are trying to do is worthwhile, rather than some ranting blog post by a “biased” old curmudgeon like me. 😉

    • I liked ‘Another Brick in the Wall.’
      Of course there is a sinister connection – Sir Ken and the Floyd are both British so they are likely conspiring to f***k up the US education system.

  • that video is one of the top 5 things to blow my mind this year. thanks for that.

  • Colin

    This is great Brad. I’ve got one of Sir Ken’s books and I think some of the points he makes are spot on. This article by Seth Godin ties right in with this –

  • Very cool. Totally agree. And I think that a massive revolution is within our reach. Exciting times. 🙂

  • Btw there are some interesting things happening in terms of people being educated for a shrinking world. E.g. NYU opening a full campus in Shanghai.

  • Jeffrey Hartmann

    Thanks for sharing Brad, I am very passionate about this subject and feel like Sir Ken that the factory mentality and trying to make everyone fit a certain mold to be a very big problem. What is the prescription for change though? I think technology will be the disruptive force that is needed. There is a lot of potential for building more dynamic experiences using tools like adaptive learning, the computer can help teachers manage each child no matter if they are ahead or behind the pack. I just had a conversation with my son’s teacher today, and she is having to assess him on things that he finds are very easy. She is required to do so because of the rigidity of how we assess children and their teachers. He is in first grade, but reads much better then his peers. She should be worrying about how to let him practice his multiplication and read advanced books, but she is having to teach him what everyone else is learning. Instead of doing what he needs she has to test how he reads simple paragraphs that others his age are having trouble with. With technology, I think we can equip our teachers with tools that let them continuously assess and adapt what the experience is for each child.

    Computers can free up teachers to spend more high impact one on one time rather then just spending time on assessment, paperwork, etc. That is where the magic is at in my opinion. I’m very excited to see how our classrooms look 5 – 10 years from now. As our technology evolves new senses, capabilities, and how we interact with our computers becomes more seamless I know it will have a grand impact on how we teach and learn.

  • Powerful “I Quit” message from a former US public school teacher –

  • Tony F

    I’d be interested to hear what he has to say about including
    health education standards as part of the new paradigms. The fact is healthier students perform better
    academically. He says ADHD isn’t an epidemic, but it is without a doubt a
    barrier to learning.

  • 1234x

    I haven’t watched that video in a while, but something he said in a TED speech really stuck in my mind: “Not everybody should go to college, and not everybody should go now.” It’s something this country needs to really think about, but I don’t have much hope for change any time soon. Right now the political debate around education seems to be all about figuring out how to get more kids into higher education … throwing good money after bad! Never mind that most people entering higher education will never graduate, never mind that many of the rest will never take jobs that actually require a college education (let’s face it, most don’t). We should be figuring out what higher education should be, who should go, and when they should go.

    My son is currently in college studying computer science. He wants to program, but is frustrated that two thirds of his time is spent doing things not related to programming: American Civilization, Biology, Wine Tasting (yes, Wine Tasting), etc., etc. And don’t give me the “well-rounded” nonsense. I’ve got nothing against people being “well rounded,” but this ridiculous system is not creating well-rounded citizens, it’s teaching kids to figure out how to just “get through it all” … No wonder kids pick easy courses (see, no wonder they cheat … because they know it’s all a giant scam!

  • Speaker makes some great points. My favorite story of innovation/startup is the Wright brothers, watching the video reminded me of their feats.

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