Over the past couple months, I’ve had the privilege of working closely with some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. The founders of The New School SF, a charter school to open in the fall of 2015, asked me to help support their web and marketing initiatives. It’s always been a dream of mine to be a part of starting a school, an item on my bucket list that I thought I wouldn’t be able to cross off until decades later.
The New School SF is a charter school with three main distinction points. Firstly, the school will be k-12, making it a complete 13 year program from kindergarten to graduating high school. Second, the school will be mixed income, promoting diversity and openness to all of San Francisco’s children. And last (and probably the most exciting personally), the school will have an inquiry based education model.
The inquiry model is a model that is based fundamentally on student inquiry. The student takes initiative in asking the questions and figuring out how to learn. Through exploration, exposition, and expression, students are able to use the innate curiosity to fuel their passion to learn. I’ve read and written about inquiry based models for a long time, but I’ve only ever used it myself, not in an environment of a whole group of students.
Through exploration, exposition, and expression, students are able to use the innate curiosity to fuel their passion to learn.
Over the last two weeks, The New School SF put on a pop-up program in which we were able to bring together a class of students ages 5 to 10 to attempt an inquiry based learning unit. We had amazing teachers from the UCLA lab school (a school doing inquiry based learning for the last 100 years) come in to show us the ropes of inquiry based education.
The students learned about roots and wings through creating collaborative projects, learning aspects of communication along the way. Pictures can be found on our Flickr album.
Even though I was running around doing errands, taking pictures, and designing the website, I realized that even the process of what I was doing was a manifestation of experiential learning. In one of the debrief meetings after a day of the pop-up, I listened in on insights and perspectives of teaching that I’ve never heard before. Besides feeling completely unqualified to be a part of those conversations, I saw how inquiry based learning starts with building community and identity, and attempts to relate everything to empowering a child’s dream.
Throughout the whole two weeks, I couldn’t help but wish that my own education had been inquiry based. Getting to know each student individually brought a whole new depth of learning to each of the students that brought growth in a mere two weeks. I already miss the kids, but I’m excited to see how inquiry based learning scales from two week pop-up to a 13 year program.
“We all spend so much time putting up walls so that others can’t see our vulnerabilities, but those same walls often enclose us within our own insecurities” – Adam Braun
The Promise of a Pencil, a book by Adam Braun, details the journey of starting the “for-purpose” organization Pencils of Promise. Adam Braun, although coming from a upper middle class family in New York, responded to questions and challenges in a very uniquely purposeful and significant way. He recounts near death experiences, being laid off, and other big risks and realizations.
In short, Pencils of Promise is a nonprofit organization that seeks to bring education to children all over the world, mainly through fundraising and building schools in other countries. They’ve scaled to the point of opening a new school every 90 hours.
What fascinated me the most about this story was Adam’s ability to think outside the box, go against the life career path that he was set up to take, and go down his own unique path.
Let’s face it, we’ve all made excuses as to why we are not capable of taking a bold step to change the world. We’re not tall enough, fast enough, smart enough, rich enough, social enough, weird enough, knowledgeable enough, skilled enough, qualified enough, etc. Our excuses aren’t completely irrational, as much historical data points to people more or less growing up to remain in the same social position as their parents. Malcolm Gladwell even argues in Outliers that much of who we become is a function of our background and environment we grow up around.
I’ve always found this to be a tricky debate, torn between seeing people stuck with struggles similar to their parents’ and the idealistic hope of the American Dream. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that rising above the “glass ceiling” isn’t about working hard, but working smart.
Simply working harder won’t necessarily bring you to winning a Nobel Peace Prize, starting a company, or changing the world. In fact, many times hard work without proper grounding in passion and purpose leads to burn out and frustration. The question in our modern day connection economy is no longer how many units can you produce on a product line, but how can you work to be effective in the things that you produce?
Today is my birthday, and I’m giving it to help give kids an education. I’ve partnered with Pencils of Promise in an attempt to raise $1000 for kids all over the world. It would truly make my day if you could help some kids out!
Competition is a good thing. It pushes people to perform better, companies to make better products, and prices to drop.
So I was taught.
But reading Peter Thiel’s Zero to One brought a new perspective that I wasn’t expecting.
Competition, while being very helpful for companies to make progress, serves very much as a negative reinforcement rather than a positive one. The mindset is, “If we don’t make progress, we’ll be put out of business.” What results is a race to the bottom, bidding for the lowest price in an attempt to retain the control over the market.
The race to the bottom is nothing more than who can cut the most costs, production time, and other factors of business. This leads companies to borderline unethical if not unethical practices to minimize operating costs so that they can further lower their prices in order to beat competition.
The parallels between competition in education and competition in business is strikingly similar. When a student isn’t focused on performing better than their classmates, they are able to focus on being creative and unique. Students are then able to define what it means to win in their own game, rather than how not to lose at someone else’s.
The mark of a truly effective and powerful education system is one in which cheating isn’t even a temptation for students, because the desire for learning and creativity become so much more powerful than the desire to merely obtain an external result.
What does the opposite of competition look like?
I’ve thought about education a lot in the past couple years, especially when it comes to my own.
Most people enter college expecting the institution to hand them everything they need for their future on a silver platter. After all, college students followed all the rules in order to get into school, so the thinking is that if they continue to follow all the rules they will find themselves in a good career.
However, through my journey in learning over the past couple years, I realized I was responsible for my own learning, whether school is a part of it or not.
Strangely enough, this term used to refer to someone who is taking charge of their own learning is a “hackademic”. As if somehow learning isn’t supposed to be done apart from an institution, and you have to hack it in order to get take control of your learning. The other issue is that many hackademics think that being in college is somehow incompatible with being a self directed learner. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. In fact the whole point of this post is to show how college can be used within a self directed education.
Don’t get me wrong, college is a great experience to meet professors and peers, as well as open yourself up to a wide variety of perspectives and subjects. Being in school can be one of the best decisions you can make if you have reason to be in school. And even for me, I plan to finish up my Computer Science degree unless an opportunity of a lifetime presents itself before I finish. I am grateful that I have the means to attend a four year institution, and do not mean to belittle the privilege of being in school.
But by no means is college the end to learning.
Around the beginning of my undergraduate career, I began thinking about how I could fully take advantage of college while also fully being self directed in my learning. I wanted to figure out how to remain in the system in order to be relevant to my peers while also exemplifying how it was possible to have autonomy in education.
I had support from many mentors to bounce ideas off of as well as a few peers in the same boat to process things with along the way, and I am eternally grateful for their support.
I soon realized that the very core of being a self directed learner was having your own personal reason to learn, and things that you want to achieve.
I began pondering how to integrate college into self directed education by establishing a list of things I wanted to learn. As a list, I wanted to:
- Learn how businesses operate, how to go from an idea to a profit and value generating company.
- Learn how people operate, how to interact and network with people to add the most value to others.
- Learn as much as I can about technology, and areas that I can apply technology to industries such as agriculture and education in a significant, paradigm-shifting way.
The next thing I had to do was figure out the best sources to learn these different subjects, what college was good for that I could extract from, and what I needed to get around.
The good is that college is a great hub for networking and meeting people, especially being able to leverage my age and my status as a student to meet alumni and industry professionals. This power to network that comes with being a student is one that few people understand how to leverage, and fewer people actually do leverage.
The bad is that most classes bore me out of my mind, assignments often serve little purpose, and grades are often extremely arbitrary and not reflective of how well you actually learned, not to mention the astronomically unjustified price to attend college. Every once in a while you’ll meet a professor who truly knows how to empower their students in a way that is engaging and relevant, but in my experience, those are hard to come by. But when you do find yourself in a class with a phenomenal professor, taking advantage and putting effort into that class is totally worth your while.
Upon realizing that the value of being in school for me personally wasn’t primarily the academic material, but my ability to leverage my status as a student, I began setting up systems to implement the 80/20 rule into my academics. I began figuring out how to chunk course material in such a way that 20% of my effort would generate 80% of the academic result, while also spending time to deeply learn the things that were truly interesting to me.
One example sticks out very clear in the last quarter. I took a software engineering project project class last quarter. This class is based heavily on your team’s ability to build a software product within 10 weeks of the class. As our team was discussing and brainstorming projects to do, the natural tendency was to propose difficult projects that would require large API integrations and other complexities.
But as we thought about it more, we realized that the easiest way to get the best grade possible was to simply fulfill all the requirements. We realized that it would be better to create a simple application that works flawlessly rather than a complex application that barely functioned. At the end of the quarter, we had spent a total of 10 hours to complete our project, while some other teams were working 10 hours a day to get their project working. Our final grade? 100%.
School doesn’t reward people for taking bold risks, it actually often unconsciously penalizes the people who take bold risks. Failure is seen as a negative thing, not because it’s explicitly warned against, but because the rewards only go to the people that have followed all the rules.
Part of applying the 80/20 rule to my academics was learning how to play the game of school without being sucked into the toxic standardization and performance mentality that has been traditionally present. I had to set up the things that I did in order to maximize authentic learning and networking while being as efficient as possible in my studies.
The hardest part I found was keeping focused when my mind simply wanted to wander and not engage in any productive activities. I ran into this issue often as I was trying to be productive, only finding myself wasting hours of my day. This problem went away when I solidified my purpose and began to intentionally build routines and structures that would help me achieve my goals.
I began applying many of the principles from Tim Ferriss and other “productivity gurus” to my daily routines (Tim Ferriss has a great article on the choice minimal lifestyle). For example, my breakfast and lunch plans were a very specific handful of dishes that I would make over and over again to simplify decision making and standardize my diet. My exercise routines were very consistent from day to day. My sleep schedule looked almost identical day to day, and even the clothes I wore were chosen from a handful on a regular basis.
By freeing up my academic as well as streamlining my life errands, I suddenly found myself with more free time to learn, explore, network, and do the things that I knew I wanted to learn. Note that this is different than “following your dream” because I set up a way to systematically take steps toward achieving the things I knew I needed to learn instead of merely being driven by how I feel on a day to day basis.
That being said, this last quarter I was able to accomplish the following:
- 4 CS classes (101, 110, 130, and 140)
- Part time internship (8 hours a week)
- Kept my blog regularly updated (once a week)
- Worked closely with Student Voice
- Did freelance web design work
- Cooked nearly every meal
- Exercised 2-3 times a week
- Had a social life to the extent that I wanted
- Read one book every two weeks
- 7-8 hours of sleep per night
- Had time to spare for spontaneous fun activities
I’m not saying this to brag, but to provide an insight into what is possible with a little bit of structure and motivation. If I can do it, anyone else can.
I’ve found that the core to being able to “self hack” your education isn’t about whether you are a part of a system or not, but it’s about the mindset that you have when it comes to being able to critically consider the strengths, weaknesses, and value of the opportunities around you, and taking the best of what is around.
An illustration that can be used is imagine shopping for a set of wrenches. Not every repair project that you take on will require every single size of wrenches, but most people would rather get a whole set of wrenches rather than just one or two. And sometimes you’ll encounter projects where none of the tools in the set are adequate for what you are working on, and you’ll need to go out of your way to get a specialized tool for that specific scenario.
School, while providing access to a great deal of connections. knowledge, and experience, is much like a standardized set of tools that a person can draw upon when faced with different projects. It isn’t sufficient for solving every problem, and many of the tools acquired in school you will never actually find a use for. Thus, the mindset when it comes to self directed learning is your ability to combine the tools that you personally need, whether it be knowledge, experience, or connections.
The reason why most college students are simply satisfied with the tools that colleges give and rarely go out of their way to learn is because they have no idea why or what they need the tools for. And as I mentioned, the most important aspect of self directing your education is knowing what you want to achieve, and having a purpose for learning.
Self hacking your education in general isn’t simply doing whatever you want, but it’s about having systems that facilitate learning through understanding the value of the opportunities that are around you.
Before we begin, I’d like to preface this post by saying that I am not claiming to be an expert in education or common core. I have never been a school administrator or a teacher, so this post is simply a compilation of my personal thoughts and research on common core. If you spot an inaccurate comment or interpretation or simply want to spark some good natured discussion (please share your perspective), feel free to leave a comment.
What is Common Core?
In simple terms, Common Core is a set of unified standards that benchmark what each child should know at a certain grade level. It’s purpose is to unify standards across the country so that every elementary, middle, and high school have the same standards of being “college ready” across the board. It’s framed as a solution to our national achievement crisis, supposedly being the way to fix the lack of college preparedness.
The Common Core consists of math and english learning standards that can be seen here.
Up to this point, most States have begun to adopt common core, but other states are beginning to repeal Common Core, finding it difficult, frustrating, and confusing. Again, since I have no experience as an educator, I will refrain from making comments about the standards themselves and the quality of the standards. I’ll leave that discussion to much more qualified individuals.
First Things First
Before we can begin discussing the implementation of Common Core and whether it plays a positive or negative role in our schools, we must define what the goals of education, and more importantly the goals of school are. Unfortunately, this point in it of itself has advocates from all over the spectrum, leaving it nearly impossible to talk about a set of goals that everyone can agree on.
But for all intents and purposes of this post, I will be building my interpretation and perspective of the Common Core off of my convictions of education. In case you haven’t been reading my blog long enough to get a sense of what I believe about education, I’ll give a quick run down.
I believe that the goal of education isn’t to educate a certain collection of knowledge into our children, but to educate our children in such a way that they would be empowered to find their most fulfilled place in the world.
I believe that the goal of education isn’t to educate a certain collection of knowledge into our children, but to educate our children in such a way that they would be empowered to find their most fulfilled place in the world. I believe that education should cultivate growth through fostering a child’s creativity and curiosity by providing them the tools and instruction that is necessary. I believe that the best education isn’t a school that tells students what to do, but an environment made up of resources, peers, and mentors that equip students with a practical toolkit for their specific path in life.
I believe that the goal of education is to create the next generation of thinkers, innovators, and leaders. I believe the goal of education is to help students grow in such a way that they can be challenged to fearlessly tackle and solve the problems of the future, whether it be social, technological, or otherwise.
With that perspective of education in mind, it brings up the question “what should be standardized, if anything?”
As Sir Ken Robinson points out, standardization is not a bad thing. Many things require standardization for our world to operate. It would be hard to imagine a world without a standard set of rules and regulations governing things from products to behavior.
However, when it comes to students, it becomes a fatal mistake to apply the same mindset from products and services onto students. Every student is unique. Parents can attest to the fact that applying the same set of standards and expectations to multiple children simply doesn’t work because each child is so different. It doesn’t make sense in light of our definition of education and human nature to force every student into the same cookie cutter mold.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein
However, although I believe that students themselves should not be standardized, I think there is a difference between writing a set of standards for the students and writing a set of standards for skills. Somewhere along the line, a distinction needs to be made between who a student is and what a student does.
For example, if you walk into a physician’s office, you’re going to want the physician to have background in human biology before you’re likely to trust the physician’s judgment on your physical condition. You’re going to want a standard that the physician adheres to.
In that sense, we should be careful to ensure that students acquire skills that can be backed up by standards, instead of educating students so they fit a standard. The difference is nuanced, but with extremely significant implications.
A student who is taught to achieve a standard learns that they must look exactly like a profile of a model student, often teaching students that their future success is dependent on how well they can fit the profile. But students who are empowered to most effectively be themselves learn that they will have to pick up skills of a certain standard in order to achieve where they want to go.
Tying it All Together
Bringing it back to Common Core, it seems to work in theory to apply a set of standards defining “college preparedness” to students all across the country. But in practice, I don’t think that the Common Core State Standards will do much to change how much students are learning.
As I looked deeper into education and different learning philosophies, I’ve found that the most foundational differences to learning lie in the psychological and emotional areas of a student. In other words, the most important influences on how a child learn is their environment that is made up of their community, teachers, peers, standard of living, prospects of the future.
The reason why many charter and private schools do so well isn’t because of their standards, but because of the culture and environment they cultivate in their classrooms. It isn’t so much about the standards as much as it is making sure that the student is in a safe place. All the young and hip startup companies are beginning to understand the importance of a good company culture, and I believe we will see the same effects when we apply a positive learning environment to our schools.
Without a proper and healthy environment for students, implementing learning standards will likely have negligible effects. It doesn’t matter whether the standards are of quality or not, the problem is that the standards are being implemented in a way that does not consider improving the learning environment of schools, practically forcing a standardization of students.
Students deserve to be free to be themselves in their learning, and teachers deserve to be themselves in their teaching.
tl;dr – Common Core is the right solution to the wrong problem. Standards in it of themselves are not a bad thing, but it depends on how they are applied. The lack of “college preparedness” isn’t because of a lack of standards, it’s because we aren’t creating the right culture for our students to learn.
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” – Mark Twain
As a kid, I dreamed of becoming a pastor.
Of course, I had no idea why or how, but the younger version of me saw my future as a leader of a church, helping to see people be encouraged in their faith. I was inspired by the pastors around me, who invested in a little kid that couldn’t sit still. I was inspired to be a pastor because that was the only experience I had of my life being changed.
But now, nearly a decade later, my eyes are set upon entrepreneurship, education, and technology.
The thing is, I was never interested in becoming a pastor for a love of theology or apologetics, similar to the way that I’m not interested in business for a love of money. The dream of being a pastor hasn’t disappeared from me, but it’s pivoted over the last few years to look different, keeping the same core passion that existed in me as a kid; to make a difference in people’s lives. And the more I’ve thought about things, the more I see business and entrepreneurship as my way to make that difference.
“Business is one of the last remaining social institutions to help us manage and cope with change. The Church is in decline in the developed world, ceding leadership to a materialism of unprecedented proportions. City Hall is subservient to the economic interest of its constituencies. That leaves business. Business, however, has a tendency to become tainted with the greed and aggressiveness that at its best it channels into productivity. Left to its single-minded pseudo-Darwinian devises, it may never deliver the social benefits that the other fading institutions once promised. But, rather than give up on business, I look to it as a way, indirectly, of improving things for many, not just a lucky few. I accept its limitations and look for opportunities to use it positively. In the US, the rules of business are like the laws of physics, neither inherently good nor evil, to be applied as you may. You decide whether your business is constructive or destructive. I help people understand this and express themselves in what they do, trying to make a difference in the world through business.” – Randy Komisar
The core of what I want to do is to make a difference in the way that people see and believe in themselves. When I think of what I do and what I am going to do, I think of a variety of different things. But I do these things with a common driving factor that is close to who I am.