Why I'm dedicating my career to rethinking education

Mar 30, 2021

After months of soul searching and getting in touch with my values and long-term goals, I recently transitioned out of my role leading marketing and growth at an SF-based startup to work on my own project. When I share this update with friends, family members, and others within my network, the most common reaction I get is, “That’s exciting! What are you working on?”

My simplified answer goes something like this: I’m exploring ideas to solve a critical problem within our formal education systems. They over-index on teaching specialized skills and do an inadequate job of cultivating the foundational skills that touch every aspect of our lives and work: critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, self-awareness, and resilience to name a few. In a world where careers and functional skills are evolving at a rapid pace, I believe learning and developing foundational skills has never been more important.

I find myself dissatisfied with this watered-down response and I suspect others I share it with feel the same way. So here’s a more definitive, detailed response to the question.


The great challenge of our time

On a recent podcast episode, Chamath Palihapitiya, the founder of Social Capital, was asked about the biggest issues of our time. He talked about three higher-order issues of modern society: inequality, climate change, and education. Y Combinator, often called the Stanford of startup accelerators, takes it a step further and makes the importance of education clear on their request for startups page: “If we can fix education, we can eventually do everything else on this list.”

I couldn’t agree more. But what factors have led to this dire situation? A number of emerging trends and phenomena have come together to create the perfect storm.

1. Information explosion

With the advent of the internet, our access to information has skyrocketed over the last twenty years. In the last decade alone, internet access has expanded from less than a quarter of the global population to more than half. This democratization of internet access is a net positive and no small accomplishment. At the same time, the rise of social media has ensured that more people than ever can not just passively consume information, but also create it.

An oft-repeated stat is that 90% of the data in the world was created in just the last two years. I’ll steer clear of debating the accuracy of this claim, but what isn’t up for debate is that we’re generating more information than we know what to do with.

We should be thinking of better ways and methods to synthesize and make sense of all the information we have access to at our fingertips.

2. Failing institutions

Simultaneously, trust in institutions that we have traditionally relied on and outsourced sensemaking to is rapidly eroding.

Public trust in the government is near all-time lows. 33% of Americans don’t trust mass media at all, a record high. The role of religion is declining, with 40% of millennials not affiliated with any religion.

These institutions aren’t all to blame either. They are simply a collection of people who are equally struggling to deal with the information explosion. At the risk of sounding alarmist, I believe we are in the middle of a collective sensemaking crisis.

3. Primitive education system

If that wasn’t enough, our formal education system is a relic of the 19th and 20th centuries and was designed for an era dominated by assembly line manufacturing. At best, it does an inadequate job of preparing people for the world we now live in. At worst, it just makes things worse.

Over a million students drop out of high school every year. Millions of other young adults graduate college saddled with debt, starting life in the “real world” on the back foot. And for the vast majority of them, it’s questionable whether going to college and getting into debt even helps them prepare for jobs that can allow them to do good work and live meaningful lives.

This has been a concerning trend for many years, but 2020 made it abundantly clear that people are starting to question the value of paying thousands of dollars to go to Zoom University.

We need a better system designed for the 21st century, one that cultivates the foundational skills and ability for individuals to think critically and independently, and allows them to make sense of the world around them without relying on institutions.


Rethinking learning and education

In order to redesign learning and education systems from the ground up, it’s useful to think about them along the following dimensions: curriculum, pedagogy (methods and approaches to teaching), assessment, and environment.

Curriculum

Think about how many courses from high school or college are useful in your daily work. You can probably count them on one hand. You’re in better shape if you went to undergraduate business school or took a more technical path like computer science.

But even then, the focus is primarily on functional skills that help you do a task and not enough (if at all) on the skills that allow you to be effective at work. As one example, 60% of hiring managers say new grads lack critical thinking skills.

Given the uncertainty around the jobs of the future, our society may always be on the back foot if we’re in a constant battle of skilling and reskilling based on the functional need of the hour. Today that’s coding, but do we really know what it will be tomorrow? Don’t get me wrong—I think Lambda School and others have done an incredible job of offering opportunities that were previously out of grasp for many. They’ve also established a new business model with income share agreements that others should experiment with.

But we also need a Lambda School for developing the interpersonal skills and meta-cognitive skills that are central to all knowledge work.

Pedagogy

Our methods of teaching are also largely the same as they were decades ago. How might we do a better job of balancing the need for structure and direction with open exploration and self-directed learning?

We are more effective learners when we have agency and are actively involved in the process of learning. We need to design courses that flip the dynamics of a one-to-many lecture to a more collaborative process where teachers and professors act more as guides and facilitators.

We’re already seeing examples of this with the likes of Write of Passage, which enables students to publish quality content on a regular cadence, and Synthesis School, where students build decision-making and problem-solving skills through team games.

Future educational programs will turn students from passive consumers to active creators, learning by playing games, writing, speaking, debating, and even teaching each other.

Assessment

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to education reform is the credentialing monopoly that traditional educational institutions hold. In order to get into the top colleges, you need good grades on standardized tests. In order to get your foot in the door at top companies, you need to go to a good college and attain a high GPA.

But this too is changing. In the wake of the pandemic, many colleges are deemphasizing the need for SAT/ACT scores. For programmers and developers, their work on Github can count for a lot more than which college they graduated from. In fact, Google, Apple, and IBM are among the companies that no longer require a college degree to work there.

I’m particularly interested in following the development of micro-credentials that allow for smaller, shorter programs of study and are focused on narrow, specific skill sets.

Environment

Finally, another core assumption that 2020 had us rethink was the need to teach and learn in-person. Stay-at-home and social distancing measures forced schools to adapt almost overnight and figure out alternative ways of operating. While remote learning has its flaws and is by no means a panacea to all our education problems, it has emerged as a viable option and will only get better.

Why limit student interactions with those in their zip codes when they could meet people from all over the world? The best education systems of the future will likely be hybrid, combining quality and access through strong communities and home schooling, small groups/cohorts, and both in-person and virtual events.

Online communities and learning from peers will be central to these solutions, some of which we are already seeing in adult learning with the rise of cohort-based courses and communities like Renaissance Collective and On Deck.


Bringing it all together

I’m envisioning a future where educational institutions are lifelong learning communities. Where people from childhood through adulthood can come together to learn and grow both the foundational skills that make us human, as well as functional skills that allow us to be productive and give meaning to our work.

To start my journey, I’m advising edgi, an early-stage startup rethinking education from the ground up. They’ve started with a focus on high school students and are different in a few key ways:

  • They’re courses are interdisciplinary and focus on issues relevant to students’ lives. The pilot course is Technology and the Future of Work, where students explore the social and ethical issues raised by rapid change and technological progress.
  • They create original content that speaks directly to students and curate the best resources for a topic from around the internet. This includes TED talks, podcasts, and articles.
  • The founders are becoming TikTok-famous and expect to work with other content creators who students want to support and learn from. One video has over 3.5M views.
  • They empower students to have agency in their learning with student-led discussions. Students love the freedom to explore their perspectives without the pressure that comes from having adults in the room.

If you or someone you know is interested in the future of learning and education, please reach out to me. I’d love to hear from you!