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Design EDU and the "Education Conversation"

 [Estimated Read-Time: 6.5 minutes]

I recently had the good fortune to participate in Design EDU, an event that brought together 50 education professionals including teachers, foundation heads, school founders, program directors,  CEOs, etc. from both the private and public sectors around the country. The structure is very similar to Startup Weekend, where participants rapdily design, prototype, pitch innovative projects/start-ups, and network with funders over the course of a weekend. Design EDU is slightly different as it's centered around innovation in education.

In the first section of this post I'll talk about the Design EDU experience; in the second I'll discuss some of the major problems I see with the conversation around education in America. There's a lot to talk about so click here and I'll let you know when I publish future posts.

The Design EDU Experience

Much like The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Design EDU experience was one part experimental, one part virtuosic. Their selection process yielded participants with very impressive projects/experiences who are dedicated to innovating in the education space. My team of four and I had one day to move from problem identification through prototyping, and all the way to the project pitch phase. I won't get into the details of the weekend here but there will be another round in the spring of 2013--it's definitely worth applying to if you're interested in ameliorating education.

Summary of my weekend: Worked and hung out with many of amazing people, actually participated in a high-speed start-up event, lots of great conversations, and further developed some insights about education innovation/reform in the US (see the "Education Conversation" section below).

Summary of my team's project: A web interface that gives students control over what their daily educative experience looks like, and a building that takes the place of the traditional school to facilitate this for students. Teachers then become the facilitators of learning instead of the end-all be-all purveyors of knowledge. Education then becomes an experience that a student enacts, not a set of procedures that a teacher executes. The actual educative experience takes place online, in actual physical buildings, with experts, and so on. Here's a picture of part of the first-draft prototype--this is the web interface homepage.

The "Curious?" search bar allow students to type questions/interests; they are then directed through a process that allows them to customize what and how they learn with the help of a facilitator (aka, teacher). The left-hand sidebar shows the student's past performance data in various forms. The center boxes show the student their progress with the option to compare with their friends.

All in all, if you're interested in innovating in the education/ed-tech space, I recommend applying for the spring 2013 round of Design EDU. I'm happy to answer specific questions if you have any.

The Education Conversation: Good Answers to Bad Questions

[First: bear with me here. Innovation means doing things differently, and this is all going to seem pretty foreign and bizarre at first.]

In a recent post, I discussed how work in education reform completely skips over an absolutely fundamental step for well-designed solutions: justification. A la that recent post, I mean something very specific by this, but I can make the point more quickly with an analogy:

"In chemistry we use beakers to contain liquid because if we didn't use them, the liquids would be all over the counter and our lab would be a mess."

That is very, very true...but this also isn't relevant if you care about whether or not that particular chemistry experiment is a well-designed experiment. Just because a chemist understands the reasons behind their procedures, can execute them flawlessly, and can create new procedures, doesn't mean they're an innovative or excellent chemist.

On the other hand, the innovative chemist might ask a questions like, "Given that non-insulin-mediated glucose transfer into the muscles occurs when GLUT-4 receptors are activated via sustained muscular stress (this is what I'm calling "justification"), what happens to insulin spikes if glucose is administered during this window of time?" Notice that the procedures of the experiment (the metaphorical beakers) aren't yet relevant at this stage. That comes later.

The conversation around reform and innovation in education suffers from the beaker problem. As far as I know, there are very few in the space talking about "the non-insulin-mediated glucose transfer" of education.  Everyone is talking about what sort of beakers we should use, how we should use them, whether we should find something other than beakers to use, and so on. In other words, everyone is talking about curriculum, testing, pedegogy, teacher training, "the system," and the list goes on. Incidentally, there are people talking about "the non-insulin-mediated glucose transfer" of education, but they are in different sectors/fields, mostly removed from the actual work of education. More on that in a later post.

This problem is pervasive not just in local or regional circles, but in the work of the most well-respected thinkers and do-ers in the space including Diane Ravitch, Ken Robinson, and Salman Khan. And that's not to say that theirs isn't great work...and there's no "but." It is great work. Great work can be done without intentionally designing projects from the level of justification--some people either accidentally stumble into projects that coincidentally have great justification, and a very small few seem to be born with a natural sense for it. The vast majority of people don't fit into either group.

It also doesn't work to argue in favor of the current approach to innovation/reform by pointing out that, "we need to solve these problems of curriculum, testing, etc. now because kids need it now." That's true, and that means that those whose work is in the immediate here and now should be primarily concerned with the cracked beaker that's spilling it's contents all over the lab. But that means if we're coming up with new, better procedures for our experiments, we should be very aware that we haven't begun to address the real problem. The cracked beaker is a real problem in the sense that it's not a fake problem, but it's not the real problem in the sense that it's not what we're actually primarily worried about.

In chemistry, you don't design the experimental procedures before you know what chemical hypothesis you're going to test. That would be ridiculous. Unfortunately, that's what nearly everyone is doing in education--most seem to be unsure of what the equivalent to a "chemical hypothesis" would even look like in education. Again, see the previously linked post for an example.

To make this all more concrete, my next post will be a look at what all this can mean in the pracitcal sense.

The Challenge

So here's the challenge that has been made clear to me over the course of this past weekend at Design EDU: we need to slow down. Like, slow down a lot. As a space, we're preventing an enormous, incredibly promising sector of innovation from even beginning to see the light of day. The education space implicitly defines innovation in terms of procedure. As a result, most innovation that comes from the space will be procedural. It does and will continue to suffer from the beaker problem until we start to recognize this, slow down, and do something about it.

Khan Academy did not emerge from an innovation space that constrained "education innovation" to curriculum, pedagogy, teacher training, classroom/school/network/district structure, governance, etc. and asked how to make all of that better. It emerged from what seems to be an implicit understanding of justification, what Salman Khan might call the accident that became Khan Academy. He stumbled upon an approach that happened to have great justification (more on exactly what that looks like in a future, even more boring post), but haphazard stumbling is not much better of a model for innovation than constraining innovation to procedure.

It's also not enough just to say, "ok, we just won't constrain innovation to just those things anymore" without having something to replace it with. So, to get there...

We need justification. I'll say much more about what this looks like in a practical sense in upcoming posts. But if you're impatient, let's get drinks. In the mean time, click here and I'll let you know when I publish future posts.

P.S., here is Part 2 of this conversation.

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