Monday, December 29, 2014

No silver bullets in education... except maybe this one

Someone recently asked me about red flags for investing in early stage companies.  Particularly when it comes to education, a red flag for me is anyone promising that their product or service will “revolutionise education” or “disrupt the educational system as we know it.”  We all know entrepreneurs are prone to hyperboles, and I certainly appreciate a bold vision, but I usually find these type of statements to be overly dramatic, simplistic, and short-sighted.  In fact, by believing that you are single handedly revolutionising education, you’re missing the potential for revolution entirely.

I have been thinking about this concept quite a bit and have been mulling over how to write about it for way too long, so I was delighted when I was looped into a conversation around this video “What will revolutionise education?” by Veritasium. The author posits an interesting point that many technologies have promised to “revolutionise” education, yet none have.  At one time, Thomas Edison was so excited about the potential for motion pictures to revolutionise education, he is quoted as saying, “Books will soon be obsolete in schools… scholars will soon be instructed through the eye.  Our school system will be completely changed within ten years.”  That was in 1913.  So, what happened?

Veritasium points out that the motion picture did not successfully revolutionise education, and neither has any technology since, because when it comes to education no technology is inherently better than the other.  I don’t disagree entirely but I would add a qualifying factor that no technology is inherently better than the other at scale.  For certain concepts, for certain students, some technologies are actually better than others.  Everyone learns differently.  For me, I remember pictures much better than moving images.  I remember words that I see much better than words that I hear.  (Fun fact, I had a grade school teacher who thought I had a photographic memory.  I don’t, though that would be awesome.)  In any case, each person is different, which makes a revolution nearly impossible given each person wants and needs different things when it comes to their education (I mean that on micro, macro, and meta levels).  So the what we need to do would be figuring out a system that allows for scalable individualisation, mass customisation of content, delivery, trajectory, and motivation.  Clearly, no silver bullets here.

Suspending our disbelief for a second, let’s say there were some silver bullet technology that could “fix education” — scaling it to any sort of “revolutionary” level requires cooperation of a diverse group of people and systems, which is exceedingly difficult.  When people are so different, how can we convince them that any one thing is the answer? In fact, the comments section of this Youtube video embody this challenge.  Let me share some highlights:  
  • Everyday, millions of children march to school with drudgery and resistance.
  • It is the teachers job to try to inspire their students, but let's be honest, they don't. Most don't try or fail miserably at it.
  • Kids are without homes, and without clothes. Teach these first and you will revolutionise education with full stomachs.
  • For you to personally accuse me of thinking I'm better than them just shows how irrelevant your train of thought is.
  • Stop wasting your time criticising my ideas when you could be thinking of your own. Get a grip.
  • Everyone is being a total bitch?

Clearly, it is all too easy for a productive conversation around education to devolve into a virtual pissing contest.  My point is that the challenges with education are incredible, astonishing, diverse, far reaching, and incredibly complex.  Given all of these competing factors (egos included), it is all too easy to throw our hands up in the air and say, “Forget it!  It’s impossible!” 

But here’s a thought.  Maybe the truly revolutionary concept is simply embracing that there is no revolutionary concept.  By acknowledging that there is no “one size fits all” solution, no single technology that will change the system forever, we are liberated to pursue a multitude of different strategies that solve different problems for different learners in different markets around the world.  We will never have the answer because there is no one answer.  That’s not discouraging, either.  It’s incredibly empowering.  It frees us to stop talking and start creating solutions (or in my case, investing in them).  That’s why I truly believe that empowering engaged and passionate entrepreneurs with the resources and networks they need to succeed is the only thing that even comes close to a silver bullet in education.