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An idea to improve our schools
Changing the rules of the game of innovation.
I’d like to pitch you all an idea about how to improve schools.
This is not a business idea, nor a pitch for a new product or service or kind of school... this is more like a pitch for an alternate startup universe, a way to change the rules of the game of innovation in education.
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A personal and professional mission
My daughter is having a hard time in school, so education is on my mind. Sometimes as a parent you see your kid in full bloom, their face radiant, the seeds of beauty and genius expressing themselves. And sometimes you see the opposite, your child uncomfortable in their own skin, retreating inward, the stars in their eyes gone dark. It is heart-breaking.
I am a heart-broken parent these days. It seems clear to me that the fault is in the public education system here in France – not the teachers individually, who seem well-intentioned, but in the culture and pedagogy, as I wrote about (in French) in my last note.
As a parent I am motivated to find a better way.
As a professional idealist I am downright obsessed, because education is, to put it simply, the most powerful tool we have to make the world a better place. Even though I’ve read it many times, I still feel revolutionary tingles when I re-read the lines that Maria Montessori wrote after World War Two about reconstructing a ruined Europe: “If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for the children are the makers of men. The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future.”
I can imagine a radiant future full of kind, curious, self-confident people, who treat each other with dignity, who are motivated to create a better world together. This description will never apply to everyone, of course, but what if it applied to most? That seems actually possible to me with the right education system in place. We would still have our differences, but we could finally coexist. All the other problems we face would seem solvable.
This is a dream of cultural change, and culture is a notoriously diffuse, amorphous thing, difficult to locate and describe, impossible to control. Our educational system is only one piece of the cultural puzzle, a puzzle with no clear cause and effect in the pieces, a tangle of interdependence and mutual reinforcement. But if a change in any one piece has the potential to turn the cultural tides, to spread throughout the puzzle, it is certainly a change in the school systems. For the children are the makers of men.
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The great thinkers have some clear things to say
I am (very) far from being an expert in education, but these past months I’ve made my way through the classic literature, from Rousseau to John Dewey; I’ve studied the twentieth-century innovations from Montessori to Decroly, Steiner to Freinet; and I’ve learned about the modern movements of Forest Schools, Democratic Schools, and Unschooling. I’ve read modern studies that use data to prove, quantitatively, which techniques are most effective at raising smart, literate, happy kids.
There is a striking overlap in all of the literature, a unanimous agreement about the basic approach to education that is needed, that works, that is good for children and society. It is totally scandalous and shocking that this is still not the approach of most public school systems.
There are three ideas are quasi-universal in the literature:
Character matters more than knowledge. It is more important to teach kids how to be than to teach them abstract knowledge. Character traits like creativity, resilience, kindness and cooperation are not only of supreme importance, they are also teachable in school with the right methods. This doesn’t mean that we should not teach reading and mathematics, which are of course essential, but it means that those subjects are actually less important than personal development and social skills for raising smart, happy kids.
Learning should be child-centered. Every child is unique, so each child should learn at their own rhythm and have time to pursue their own passions. This is totally compatible with learning to work in groups and being part of a social mass, but it is notably incompatible with a teacher at the chalkboard transmitting knowledge to a full class of students sitting quietly at their desks.
Children should be happy. Children’s well-being and happiness at school, on a daily basis, should be a priority. This seems obvious, but it is actually not the case in traditional schools systems: we have ideas about what is good for children, and we tend to think, “this class or year might be uncomfortable for them, but it’s important to reach X educational goal, so the discomfort is worth it.” For nearly all of the reformist writers and modern academics studying education, the ends do not justify the means: outcomes should not be considered independently of daily experience.
These ideas find their inverse in traditional schools. Traditional schools are focused on transmitting abstract knowledge; that knowledge comes from the teacher in a one-to-many transmission; and we judge success by outcomes at the end of childhood.
There are many, many ideas for alternative systems. They differ in their techniques but they share a basic philosophy. Why, if the ideas are clear and widely shared, do they remain fringe?
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The problem with innovating in education today
I can think of three big reasons why there has not been more innovation in traditional school systems:
No R&D budget. Any big company that wants to survive more than a few decades has to devote some percentage of its spending to research and development. Teams of people need to work, full-time, on studying customers, testing new ideas, figuring out how to turn the best ones into something that can scale up. The whole process requires good management, specific techniques to foster innovation throughout the organization, and a consequential budget. Our education systems, despite their astronomical budgets, do not devote nearly enough to R&D. As a percentage it is close to zero, so no wonder the systems have not evolved in the past fifty years.
Educational reform is political suicide. Because our schools are part of our culture, real change requires some clear ideas about what kind of culture we actually want. What do we value? What are our goals for our children? In our highly-partisan world, where cultural divisions are magnified by the media, it is basically impossible to have society-wide conversations about these questions. Politicians, who might have the power to impose change on school systems, avoid these touchy questions because they inevitably alienate people. So the inertia of the status quo prevails.
EdTech does not have the answers. This last point is crucial for the pitch I’m about to give here...
Our technology-obsessed, capitalistic world has an answer for problems in education: EdTech, the term for the companies and startups that use technology to improve education.
There’s a saying that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Inherent in the EdTech solution-space is the use of new technologies, especially digital; and the playing field of private, profit-seeking companies. Digital and profitable solutions are great, don’t get me wrong. Especially when it comes to higher education and job training, the EdTech phenomenon has produced some impressive, highly impactful innovations, and I hope there are many more to come.
But when it comes to early childhood, primary school, middle school and high school (collège and lycée in France), I fear that EdTech has less to offer. These parts of the education system are mostly taxpayer-financed and free for families. The vast majority of children attend public schools today, and that will almost certainly be the case in the coming decades. Solutions that cost money for families, including private schools, will always remains niche, and therefore miss the opportunity to transform our societies, because the alternative is free.
So the customer for any highly impactful business would be a government-run system, and it is difficult and slow to build profitable businesses with government customers. The procurement process tends to stifle innovation. This is not always true, of course. Selling innovative solutions to government is a complicated subject that I hope to write about in the future. But in the context of education, it is manifestly the case in both the US and France that private companies struggle, to put it lightly, to sell real innovation to public systems.
The digital part is even harder, because there is a growing body of evidence that screen-time is actually bad for kids. Using a screen for education is totally inappropriate for children below a certain age. There is no consensus on the age, but the World Health Organization recommends zero screen time for kids under 5. Even at ages six, seven and eight, studies show that parking a kid in front of a screen does some harm to their developing brain, regardless of the educational content. Pre-teens are harmed by addiction to apps, as everyone now knows thanks to leaked research from inside Facebook.
What if the solutions we need are neither profitable nor digital?
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The Pitch: School Impact Prizes
OK, if you’ve made it this far, here’s the pitch: School Impact Prizes.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this is not a business idea. This is not an idea for a new school, nor a new pedagogy. It is a strategy that existing school systems – especially public, which educate the vast majority of children – can use.
In the US, these public schools systems are managed on a city or state level. The New York City system for example, with over one million students, has a budget of $38 billion per year. In France things are more centralized so this idea would certainly be most impactful at a national level, but there are nevertheless regional branches of the system that have some limited room for initiative. To pursue this idea, then, is to engage in lobbying.
The idea is to choose a number of quantifiable goals for schools. These can be the traditional goals like test scores in reading and math, or rates of disengagement and graduation rates. But the real power comes from measuring the more fundamental questions of (1) how happy kids are to be at school, and (2) how well kids get along with each other.
Both of these things have been measured, successfully, just by asking kids directly. (See, for example, a recent UNICEF study, with data from the OECD, that uses the Cantril Ladder technique. The US scored rather poorly in children’s happiness, just below Poland. The report concludes, among other things, that “more time playing outside is linked to much higher levels of happiness”.)
So to start, the school system chooses multiple metrics, including children’s happiness.
For each goal, we set a target.
Then the school system creates a prize for reaching each target, split into three parts:
A cash bonus for the teachers whose classes reach the target (let’s say, for the pitch, that it’s a 25k € bonus).
A cash bonus for the school directors / principals who reach the target (same).
A large, ongoing contract for the startups who provide the “solutions” that were used by the winning classes/schools, to deploy their solution to all the schools in the system. (Let’s say, for the pitch, that this is a contract worth millions of euros per year.)
When the prize is first announced, the rules of the game are also announced: Startups are encouraged to come up with innovative tools to help classes and schools reach the targets. These could be physical materials for classrooms or outdoors, lesson plans, teacher training, tutoring schemes… anything and everything is fair game.
There is a centralized “marketplace” on the web where teachers and directors can browse the solutions offered by startups, and choose which ones they want to use. By getting teachers involved, we would bias towards solutions that are in-classroom and not on-screen.
Each teacher and each school director is allowed to “buy” the products and services of participating startups for free while the prize is in progress. This is the key twist that allows for a period of experimentation and innovation at no cost. Startups are incentivized to provide their solutions for free, and investors are incentivized to invest in the startups to fund it all, because if their solution actually works and they win the prize, the return-on-investment will be excellent.
The prizes will, of course, cost money for the school systems. But I suspect that something like 3-5 times as much money will be invested overall as part of the contest, because a whole ecosystem will be mobilized. Teams studying pedagogy at universities will likely also participate, and big companies may devote teams to winning the prizes.
I think the concept works even if there is no ongoing contract at the end for the winning startups, and the prize is just a one-time payment. School systems may decide to internalize any solutions instead of relying on a third-party provider – in that case, the prize would be like an acquisition of the solution.
With this kind of contest framework, targets can be a mix of short-term and long-term, intellectual and emotional. There will, of course, be a debate about what goals are most worthy. This is an important debate to have as a society, and I suspect that having it in the context of a forward-looking, optimistic, innovative project will make it slightly easier. Using a framework that supports multiple goals in parallel lowers the stakes, as well, for choosing any one goal.
There are thousands of smart people who are motivated to improve our school systems, many of them inspired by the common ideas of reformist thinkers. The private markets and the tech ecosystem, while immensely powerful, are mismatched to the challenge of mobilizing all those talented folks to invest their energy in innovation. A more appropriate framework is possible.
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In conclusion: we can do better
I am not a school administrator nor an expert in pedagogy, and I am very far from understanding the politics of school policy.
But I can plainly see that the status quo in our public schools represents the world’s biggest missed opportunity for positive impact. Scores of people smarter than me seem to be saying the same thing.
I know that public education has an innovation problem.
School Impact Prizes may not be the answer, but I certainly hope we find some way to do better for our children, and for ourselves.