I spent the day yesterday at Startup School, an event co-sponsored by Y Combinator and BASES, an association at Stanford for entrepreneurial students. The room was packed full of young entrepreneurs. I felt old. No, really. I sat behind Max Swisher. I am old.

Eleven speakers talked yesterday at Startup School, including the founders of Sun Microsystems, Quora, and Facebook. They each spoke for about half an hour, then opened the floor to questions. And all the speakers tackled topics and shared wisdom about tech startups that really can't be learned in school.

"Can't be learned in school."

That's such a sad phrase, if you think about it, because it means that the place we associate with learning -- school -- really fails to teach some fundamental lessons, whatever they may be.

There were some pretty fundamental lessons imparted at Startup School from some incredibly smart, successful folks. (Sidenote: my favorite lesson was from GitHub founder Tom Preston-Werner who said told the entrepreneurs to "optimize for happiness.")

One of the things that struck me was when Groupon founder Andrew Mason spoke of how we frequently take problems and pretend as though just because we add "the Internet" that we have devised a way to better solve them. Rather than truly restructuring how we do things with new technology tools, rather than really re-imagining problems and solutions, we are simply porting offline practices online.

Education is at risk of this, I think, with the assumption that somehow simply adding technology to the equation means that you really doing something new, different, innovative, disruptive.

The Status Quo, or How We Can Talk About Education Reform and Never Talk about Learning

Speaking of disruption, I'm not feeling terribly disruptive myself having written a post that I fear sounds too much like an endorsement of the educational status quo. And it feeds into what Chris Lehmann points out as our penchant lately for being so busy having a labor debate, that we neglect to actually have an education debate.

And I'd add to that that often when we have education debates, these come in the shape of talking about how to changes but not how to rethink learning.

I am, of course, pretty invested in "school." A smart kid, I always did pretty well in class, something that made me comfortable enough (crazy enough) in academia to pursue a PhD. But I know by watching my kid struggle, that my success was a reflection of my adaptability to the school system rather than the school system's adaptability to my learning needs.

The Illusion of Reform

I think we need to figure out a way to rethink education so it isn't simply a matter of helping students "do well in school," but rather helping all of us be better teachers and learners -- in or out of what we've recognized traditionally as "the classroom," and far beyond that K-12 age range.

Bjoern Lasse Herrmann, principal of the Supercool School has written a really thought-provoking post about "the illusion of disrupting versus repairing the existing education market. It's an interesting read because Bjoern points out that a lot of technology startups in the ed-tech space are so wrapped up in the education market that they're ignoring the education piece of the equation.

Bjoern offers five assumptions about the future that I think those in education (teachers, startups, students, etc) should think about. Bjoern says that in the future content will be abundant and instantly accessible online. Institutional certification will be increasingly replaced by community-driven reputation and that communities will become the core context and driver for learning (He uses GitHub, a community code repository as an example). He argues that the half-life of knowledge is exponentially accelerating. And the borders between learning, innovation, and work are rapidly shrinking.

Reform or Revolution

The rabble-rouser and radical in me demands revolution. The pragmatic Audrey tends to be skeptical about sweeping claims and demands to overthrow the old system and usher in a new one.

That being said, it's important we take full advantage of the opportunities technology can provide us -- at the very least to question the walls we place around "the classroom" and "the school" -- and not to simply add "online" to "education," thinking that somehow that will "change everything."

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

Back to Archives