How We Get Schools Wrong

Public education in America has long been the subject of hand-wringing and now, after over 100 years of the same model, it’s time we finally recognize what has worked and what has failed. Education is, in a sense, a kind of technology, and it’s time to ready its next version.

I’ve recently been asked to participate in some discussions about innovation in education; my mother co-founded a primary school in 1980 and I’ve had a chance to consider these topics as a student and a thinker. Here’s precisely where I believe we have failed and what we might do to invent the next generation of education.

Failure to recognize the importance of networks

What makes a successful student? Being around other successful students. We are the average of those around us. This simple fact is what has animated desegregation as well as programs like KIPP, Head Start, charter schools, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and private schools. If we really want to create social mobility and social justice, we need to change people’s position within the social graph to expose them to self-actualized learners and educated people. This suggests one imperative only and it has nothing to do with schools, per se: If we want children to learn, we must ensure that they are surrounded by people who value learning.

Overconfidence in Curriculum, Testing, and the Educational Machine

If a child’s success is determined primarily by their position within the social fabric, it cannot also follow that the machinery of education has very much impact. Consider that a single child surrounded by a diverse, thoughtful, inquisitive support network of adults and other children will undoubtedly flourish (assuming a base level of socioeconomic security). It is therefore incorrect to assume that the modern educational machine is necessary to produce a successful adult. We should recognize that successful learning can happen in many different ways, and not just through schools.

Confusion about what “school” actually is

The popular conception of “school” is that it is a place where we send our children to learn and be systematically exposed to an orderly program of ideas, culminating in a baseline level of performance that will prepare them for employment. In fact, school provides only a) a basic social safety-net within which children can be placed into a social fabric, b) state-sponsored childcare, c) minimal insurance of the breadth of instruction (via a curriculum), d) minimal insurance of the length of instruction (usually at least 13 years of 180 days each).  School enables some parents to participate in the workforce while insuring a basic safety net for students who would otherwise lack a supporting social fabric.

Confusion and guilt about the role of teachers

Many people intuitively understand the value of a good teacher. But look back on your own school experience and ask honestly how many truly excellent teachers you can recall. Most people will name three or four. Some might name five or six. This suggests that the best experiences in our educational system happen by accident. We all want to value teachers and the work that they do, but when performance varies so widely, it’s difficult to develop metrics that reward those who are making the most difference. Additionally, when others have demonstrated that self-directed learning is possible when children are working within a supportive social fabric, it’s not clear that the model of “teacher as the driver of learning” is sane. The child is the driver of learning, and the teacher is only an informed and enthusiastic member of the child’s social network. Children, not teachers, are the true drivers of learning; teachers are just one part of the child’s social support fabric.

Politicization of education

We have damaged both public education and social justice by conflating the two. Well-intentioned activists on the left identified public education as a civil rights issue. And certainly education is a matter of social justice. But education is a matter of one’s position within the social fabric, and we have been forced to try to use our public school system as the only available tool to manipulate peoples’ placement within it. Well-meaning bureaucrats and school boards make countless decisions that affect people’s placement within social networks – everything from what schools they can attend to what set of classes they can access. People on the right have mistaken left-wing proponents of public education as the enemy, when in fact the enemy is only the many layers of ineffectiveness that plague our system. We can only improve education when we understand the importance of social fabrics and stop fighting each other.

Historic co-opting of education alternatives by both the right and the left

Many on both the far right and left have historically chosen to opt out of public education in favor of religious education, private schools, home-schooling, or unschooling. Because they have been associated with extreme political affiliations, or with the moneyed (and oft-maligned) “elite,” many Americans have found them distasteful. Many intuitively believe that if they pull their child out of public education, they affect the social fabric of the schools they leave behind. However, many also fear that this alone is not a sufficient reason to participate in an underperforming school environment. You hear people say, “I believe in public education; that’s why I’ve got my kid in this school. I hope I’m doing the right thing.” People should put their children in schools only if they provide functional social networks for learning.

Over-reliance on causal thinking

We largely believe the myth that if you graduate as valedictorian and go to the best college that you’ll have a rich and successful life. That may appear true on the surface, but it’s arguable that more opportunities come from the social fabric that results from those experiences than from the credentials themselves. And even optimizing for “rich and successful” doesn’t necessarily translate to “happy and fulfilling.” We all know the old saw that “your degree doesn’t matter; what matters is that you have a degree.” That’s more true today than ever (at least outside of academia itself). The reason for this has more to do with our position within the social fabric than anything else. We need to start giving kids the skills they need to become life-long learners and stop trying to win some imagined game of education.

Vestigial artifacts

We educate children in an industrial model to prepare them to work in industrial environments, as if they were so many machine parts. We take off three months per year so kids can help with farm tasks. These are both obviously ridiculous notions today. So much of the system is the way it is because it has always been that way, and the system begets the system. We must break free. Learning should happen continuously and year-round, individually and in groups, and should be coupled with plenty of play and breaks.

How we might move forward

Buckminster Fuller famously said, “You never change things by fighting the existing model. Instead, make a new model that makes the old model obsolete.” This is happening right now.

First, new instructional tools are emerging. The phenomenal and free Khan Academy website provides deep instruction on hundreds of topics that kids can ingest at their own pace – and as supported by their network of peers and mentors.

Second, social tools like Facebook and Twitter enable people to self-organize face-to-face peer-driven instruction for their children. This will evolve into an effective, mainstream and apolitical home-schooling movement, and it will be a juggernaut.

People will opt out of public education because they will have found something that works better.

If we want to save the mission of public education, we urgently need to get smart about the nature of school, what it is and is not, and figure out a way to offer an effective social safety net for everyone that recognizes this new reality.

The old model simply doesn’t know it’s obsolete.

The How and Why of Tech

David Lee Roth

“He who knows how will always work for he who knows why.”
– David Lee Roth

There are 168 hours in a week and you must decide how to spend them. You’ll probably want to spend some sleeping and eating. What will you do with the rest?

Many people that work with technology pride themselves on knowing how to do things the best way, with the best tools. In fact, the history of technology and its evolution is all about “how” and finding new, better ways to do things.

But in some important ways, “How” is the enemy of “Why.” Why should you do one thing instead of another thing? Why is it sometimes important to choose one technology over another? Some technologists would argue that it’s important to choose the better technology. Better for what?

After about age 15, I have always bristled when people called me a “tech guy.” And I wasn’t sure why. While I may be (on the best days) intelligent enough to pay attention to and use technology well, and maybe to have read a thing or two about algorithms and software, I always felt offended by the label. It was as if people were saying that I knew “how” to do things, but that I didn’t know why.

But I do know why. I’ve read enough philosophy, literature, and scripture to have a sense of what we should be doing on this earth. So calling me a “tech guy” feels wrong. I’m as much of a “why” guy as I am a “how” guy. They’re not mutually exclusive.

People who really know “why” often end up with real power and wealth. To save time, the “why” progeny formed a tribe. They go to the right schools and give each other important-sounding jobs. And they control many people who know “how” (but who may not yet know why.) Too often, though, the offspring of powerful people don’t really know “why.” They took a shortcut and there is none.

I spend a lot of time with tech people; in tech conferences; in the tech community. And many of those people know how to do a great many things. Fewer know “why.” Some have yet to realize it’s worth knowing. That’s OK, because learning why takes time.

It’s troubling to hear good, smart tech people get into the minutiae of a “how” question that doesn’t matter. (For me, home media usually falls into this category.) When I was younger, I might have had time to figure out the details of streaming movies to three televisions. Now I just don’t care. This is why Apple is making a fortune on its products. They generally deliver good results without requiring people to waste time on the details. (Steve Jobs knows both “why” and “how.”)

Here’s a challenge, tech people: learn “why.” And understand that “how” sometimes comes at the expense of “why.” You need to balance your priorities between both and choose how you’re going to spend your time each week. If you know only “how”, and never take the time to know “why,” rest assured you’ll be working for someone else who does.

As a tech-aware person you have a head start, because today it’s not enough to know only “why.” Someone who may know why but excludes technological study from their life can’t understand the world properly today because technology shifts so quickly. Sometimes things that once were important simply become obsolete.

Sometimes I talk to tech people who think they don’t have any real power because they are not part of the old-school power-tribe. But nothing is further from the truth, for inherited power is not real power.

No one has more power than someone who knows both “how” and “why.” Become that person and you change the world.

Is Silicon Valley Dead?

Pride, Passion, Talent on Display at Startup Weekend Seoul

I believe that Silicon Valley may soon be going the way of the floppy disk.

For the last two weeks I have been traveling around Asia with a group of tech entrepreneurs, on a trip called “Geeks on a Plane” organized by Silicon Valley investor Dave McClure. I took the same trip last year.

Why take a trip like this? The answer gets at some very real and seismic shifts taking place in the startup world that will be big news over the next few years.

Startups Cost Less

Ten years ago a successful Internet startup might require one to five million dollars in outside funding. Data centers, engineers, and software licenses were hot commodities and could easily drain a startup’s resources.

Now it is possible to get a startup to the point of testing it in the market — with real customers — for $25,000 to $50,000. This effectively removes VC’s from the equation at these early rounds and turns things over to angel investors. As angel investing becomes increasingly professionalized, success rates increase and more people become involved with it.

“Silicon Valley is a State of Mind, Not Necessarily a Real Place”

Pay attention to this one! This is a quote by Dave McClure and it captures what is happening perfectly. Everywhere you go, there are techies and entrepreneurs who follow the tech business scene, and they are all ideological peers.

Silicon Valley is all about embracing the idea that the world can be changed for the better, and that one can (ultimately) realize rewards by changing it. If you believe this, you are a part of Silicon Valley. What about that statement is related to place?

In Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, Singapore and Tokyo I have seen first hand the buzz and excitement that comes from people who believe that they can engage with the problems of our world imaginatively and productively. And they are not moving to Silicon Valley.

3D Printer at Singapore’s

Place as a Strategic Differentiator

Not being in Silicon Valley is very helpful if you are trying to tap into developing markets like those in China, Korea, and Japan. It is also helpful if you don’t want to have to pay Valley salaries and sucked into the echo chamber there.

As an example, a skilled developer in Silicon Valley might cost you upwards of $120,000 per year; the same person in India would cost $12,000 per year and in Singapore they would cost $48,000 per year.
If you are trying to build a product to serve the Asian market, wouldn’t you rather base your company in Singapore?

Being in “a” place is more important than being in “the” place

It is widely assumed that internet technologies like Skype and email crush distance and make global distributed business possible. True, but there are exceptions.

Real creativity, trust, and ideation has to happen face to face. This is where the magic occurs. If you don’t spend time with people you can’t create.

New-technology tools can help with execution, but only after the team dynamics are in place; they are great for keeping people connected and plugged in, but suck at creating an initial connection.

Love your place. Find the other like minded souls who love your place and start companies with those people. The creativity you unleash in your own backyard is the most important competitive differentiator you have. No one else has your unique set of talents and point of view. Leverage it.

Every City is Becoming Self Aware — All at Once

I do not know of a city anywhere in the world that is not presently undergoing a tech community renaissance right now. This is a VERY big deal.

Every city in the United States along with Europe, Asia, and South America is now using the same playbook — implementing coworking, hacker spaces, incubators, angel investment groups, bar camps, meetups and other proven strategies that will have the effect of cutting off the oxygen supply to Silicon Valley.

Let me say it again: Silicon Valley is getting its global AIR SUPPLY cut.

For the last few decades, Silicon Valley has traded on the fact that people are willing to move there to start companies. The MAJORITY of valley companies are founded by foreign born entrepreneurs. What if they stop coming? What if they find the intellectual and investment capital that allows them to self-actualize in their home turf, where they already have a competitive advantage?

The fact that we have made it so hard for new immigrants to come to the valley and create startups just makes things that much worse. That is why the Startup Visa concept is so important if America – not to mention the valley – wants to keep excelling in innovation and the economy of ideas.

“Soul-crushing Suburban Sprawl” – Paul Graham

The Valley Kinda Sucks

Everybody says that the big draw to San Francisco is the weather. True, it can be pretty nice at times. But it can also be pretty miserable.

The reality is that the weather makes no f*cking difference if you are slaving away 26 hours per day on your startup; and the fact is that humans only really perceive changes in weather anyway: you’ll notice a nice day if it has been preceded by 10 rainy ones, or vice versa. Studies have demonstrated this. Look it up.

Paul Graham said it best, “Silicon Valley is soul-crushing suburban sprawl.” And he also suggested that places that can implement a bikeable, time efficient startup environment without sprawl have a significant competitive advantage over the valley.

Nearly every major city is becoming that place for its community of entrepreneurs. All at once.

So Why Travel?

It’s simple: to go to where the startups will be coming from. Investors who wait around for startups to show up in the valley are going to miss out on serious innovations and investment opportunities.

This means leaving the Lamborghini parked on Sand Hill Road and cabbing it to a gritty hackerspace in the Arab section of Singapore to meet the innovators who are building the future. And this is something that most investors think they are too good and too important to go do.

Fortunately there are scrappy, forward-thinking folks like McClure who are willing to go out there and embrace the future and begin the creative destruction the next wave of innovation will bring to valley culture.

Our challenges are too great to demand that innovation happen one way, in one place, with one set of people. Innovation needs to be systematized and distributed, and this is the opening act.

The Future of Entrepreneurship

I had a great conversation with Dr. Meng Weng Wong today, founder of Joyful Frog Incubator in Singapore. We pondered questions:

  • In the future, will companies form teams and then try to get funding, or will entrepreneurs just gather, form ideas and try things?
  • How do bands form? And are incubated startups just boy bands?
  • Are we not always just betting on individual ability to execute?
  • Doesn’t team (and execution) always trump idea?
  • Is entrepreneurship a cycle? Shouldn’t exited entrepreneurs come hang out with first time entrepreneurs and try ideas together?

These are important questions in their own right, but the most important thing is that we are asking them. And so are people around the world. And it has nothing to do with Silicon Valley, the place.

Want in on the ground floor of this next wave of innovation? Understand the change that is coming and leverage it in your own backyard. Get involved.

Because I guarantee that in five years the Valley will be a very different place and that we will see thriving startup communities bearing real fruit in every major city.

Why go to the Valley? Good question.

A couple of acknowledgements: Shervin Pishevar pointed out that he and Dave McClure have been talking up the “Silicon Valley is a state of mind” concept for some time; he deserves proper attribution. Hats off, Shervin — the idea certainly resonates with me and I applaud both you and Dave for recognizing and acting on its power.

Also, Bob Albert — an entrepreneur I met in Singapore — came up with the “Is Silicon Valley Dead?” meme while we were chatting, and he deserves credit for crystallizing that idea. It’s been said before, but for different reasons; the forces driving this set of changes are distinctly different and I think we’ll be seeing this notion repeatedly over the next few years.

Dave McClure tweeted this article with the title “The Future of Silicon Valley Isn’t in Silicon Valley,” which is perhaps an even better title, even if it’s a touch less meme-friendly.

Thanks to everyone for engaging in this conversation!

Will That Be on the Test?

The American educational system deadens the soul and fuels suburban sprawl. It is designed as a linear progression, which means most people’s experience runs something like this:

  1. Proceed through grades K-12; which is mostly boring and a waste of time.
  2. Attend four years of college; optionally attend graduate/law/med school.
  3. Get a job; live in the city; party.
  4. Marry someone you met in college or at your job.
  5. Have a kid; promptly freak out about safety and schools.
  6. Move to a soulless place in the suburbs; send your kids to a shitty public school.
  7. Live a life of quiet desperation, commuting at least 45 minutes/day to a job you hate, in expectation of advancement.
  8. Retire; dispose of any remaining savings.
  9. Die — expensively.

Hate to put it so starkly, but this is what we’ve got going on, and it’s time we address it head-on.

This pattern, which if you are honest with yourself, you will recognize as entirely accurate, is a byproduct of the design of our educational system.

The unrelenting message is, “If you don’t go to college, you won’t be successful.” Sometimes this is offered as the empirical argument, “College graduates earn more.” Check out this bogus piece of propaganda:

But what if those earnings are not caused by being a college graduate, but are merely a symptom of being the sort of person (socioeconomically speaking) who went to college? People who come from successful socioeconomic backgrounds are simply more likely to earn more in life than those who do not.

There’s no doubt that everyone is different; not everyone is suited for the same kind of work — thankfully. But western society has perverted that simple beautiful fact — and the questions it prompts about college education — into Not everyone is cut out for college,” as though college was the pinnacle of achievement, and everybody else has to work on Diesel engines or be a blacksmith. Because mechanics and artists are valuable too.

That line of thinking is the most cynical, evil load of horse-shit to ever fall out of our educational system. Real-life learning is not linear. It can be cyclical and progressive and it takes side-trips, U-turns, mistakes, and apprenticeships to experience everything our humanity offers us.

The notion that a college education is a safety net that people must have in order to avoid a life of destitution, that “it makes it more likely that you will always have a job” is also utterly cynical, and uses fear to scare people into not relying on themselves. Young people should be confident and self-reliant, not told that they will fail.

And for far too many students, college is actually spent doing work that should have been done in high school — remedial math and writing. So, the dire warnings about the need for college actually become self-fulfilling: Johnny and Daniqua truly can’t get a job if they can’t read and write and do math. See? You need college.

An Education Thought Experiment

I do not pretend to have “solutions” for all that ails our educational system. But as a design thinker, I do believe that if our current educational system produces the pattern of living I noted above, then a different educational system could produce very different patterns of living — ones which are more likely to lead to individual happiness and self-actualization.

If we had an educational system based on apprenticeship, then more people could learn skills and ideas from actual practitioners in the real world. If we gave educational credit to people who start businesses or non-profit organizations, and connected them to mentors who could help them make those businesses successful, then we would spread real-world knowledge about how to affect the world through entrepreneurship.

If more people were comfortable with entrepreneurship, then they would be more apt to find market opportunities, which can effect social change and generate wealth. If education was more about empowering people with ideas and best practices, instead of giving them the paper credentials needed to appear qualified for a particular job, it would celebrate sharing ideas, rather than minimizing the effort required to get the degree. (My least favorite question: “Will that be on the test?”)

Ideally, the whole idea of “the degree” should fade into the background. Self-actualized people are defined by their accomplishments. A degree should be nothing more than an indication that you have earned a certain number credits in a particular area of study.

If the educational system were to be re-made along these lines, the whole focus on “job” as the endgame would shift.

“A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance, 1841

And so if the focus comes to be on living, as Emerson suggested it should be, and not simply on obtaining the job (on the back of the dubious credential of the degree), then the single family home in the suburb becomes unworkable, for the mortgage and the routine of the car commute go hand-in-hand with the job. They are isolating and brittle, and do not offer the self-actualized entrepreneur the opportunity to meet people, try new ideas, and affect the world around them.

The job holder becomes accustomed to the idea that the world is static and cannot be changed through their own action; their stance is reactive. The city is broken, therefore I will live in the suburbs. The property taxes in the suburbs are lower, so I will choose the less expensive option.

Entrepreneurial people believe the world is plastic and can be changed — creating wealth in the process. But our current system does not produce entrepreneurial people.

Break Out of What’s “Normal”

It may be a while before we can develop new educational systems that produce new kinds of life patterns.

But you can break out now. You’ve had that power all along. I’m not suggesting you drop out.

But I will say this: in my own case, I grew up in the suburbs, went to an expensive suburban private high-school — which I hated — where I got good grades and was voted most likely to succeed.

I started a retail computer store and mail order company in eleventh grade. I went to Johns Hopkins at 17, while still operating my retail business. Again, I did well in classes, but had to struggle to succeed. And no one in the entire Hopkins universe could make sense of my entrepreneurial aspirations. It was an aberration.

I dropped out of college as a sophomore, focused on my business, pivoted to become an Internet service provider in 1995, and managed to attend enough night liberal arts classes at Hopkins to graduate with a liberal arts degree in 1996. This shut my parents up and checked off a box.

I also learned a lot. About science. About math. About philosophy, literature, and art. And I cherish that knowledge to this day.

But I ask: why did it have to be so painful and waste so much of my time? Why was there no way to incorporate that kind of learning into my development as an entrepreneur? Why was there no way to combine classical learning with an entrepreneurial worldview?

Because university culture is not entrepreneurial. And I’m sorry, universities can talk about entrepreneurship and changing the world all they like, but it is incoherent to have a tenured professor teaching someone about entrepreneurship. Sorry, just doesn’t add up for me. Dress it up in a rabbit suit and make it part of any kind of MBA program you like; it’s a farce. Entrepreneurship education is experiential.

I had kids in my mid-twenties and now have moved from the suburbs to the city because it’s bike-able and time efficient. And I want to show my kids, now ten and twelve, that change is possible in cities. I believe deeply in the competitive advantage our cities provide, and I intend, with your help, to make Baltimore a shining example of that advantage.

I don’t suggest that I did everything right or recommend you do the same things. But I did choose to break out of the pattern. And you can too.

Maybe if enough people do, we can build the new educational approaches that we most certainly need in the 21st century. This world requires that we unlock all available genius.