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!
Many of us have dreams.
Whether it be solving a global problem, amassing a large fortune, growing a family, or climbing Mount Everest, all of these tasks are much easier discussed than accomplished.
Because even the grandest dreams are built of seemingly mundane and boring tasks. Becoming a billionaire starts with earning one dollar. Painting a masterpiece starts with one stroke. Climbing a mountain starts with one step.
But others of us just collect tools.
Not everyone has a grand dream for their life. Some people go through the system and conquer the mundane because they are told that having tools will lead to success. They never take the time to find the unique value proposition they bring to the world, because they don’t believe they have any great ideas inside of them. Some people collect multiple degrees, hoping that someday somewhere a company will be kind enough to support the lifestyle they want to lead.
But just as a house won’t build itself by having all the right tools lying around, neither will it get built if there is only a blueprint. Sometimes, the process bears little resemblance to the finished product, but it’s through a combination of vision and execution that a house gets built.
The people who are able to think big, but also persevere and show up regularly are the ones who truly accomplish anything they set their mind to.
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.
In Daniel Pink’s book Drive, Pink talks extensively about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.
An extrinsically motivated person is someone who is motivated by an external factor, usually money or some other form of good that isn’t necessarily related to a person’s occupation. For example, a doctor who is in it for the money is extrinsically motivated by the prospect of making money, not necessarily caring for people’s well being, or a student who is in it for the grade doesn’t necessarily learn, but does what is necessary for a grade.
An intrinsically motivated person is someone who is motivated by an internal factor, usually some sort of satisfaction or passion of what they get to do for themselves. For example, a programmer that works on an open source program that is freely distributed online is in it because of their love for the technology or the enjoyment of programming, not necessarily to make a name for themselves or earn great sums of money.
What’s interesting is that the book points to research that shows over and over that intrinsically motivated people always win out over extrinsically motivated people. Pink suggests that the ways that businesses and schools have been motivating employees and students are far from optimal, and by switching things around to encourage intrinsic motivators, we can take our economies and future to a whole new level.
“The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road. Indeed, most of the scandals and misbehavior that have seemed endemic to modern life involve shortcuts.” – Drive, Daniel Pink
What’s This Got To Do with Academic Integrity?
A problem that many schools face on a regular basis is academic integrity. Plagiarism and cheating not only causes harm to students, but the reputation of an institution as a whole. And as you probably know, the nearly unanimous and almost logical solution to academic dishonesty in schools is some form of punishment, whether it be detention, being dropped from a class, or expulsion.
But let me propose that by placing a punishment doesn’t actually make students less inclined to cheat, it probably causes more problems. Furthermore, along the same lines of Pink’s philosophy, I believe there is a much simpler and easier method to reduce academic dishonesty that would also positively impact learning and the education environment overall.
Let’s start by considering the very issue of academic dishonesty. Instead of dealing with the issue through reprimands, let’s consider what actually causes students to be academically dishonest in the first place, and maybe by dealing with those issues, academic dishonesty will be a thing of the past.
A student is academically dishonest when he or she chooses to take a shortcut and cheat off of somebody or something else over doing the work him or herself.
Why would a student make that decision?
That decision ultimately points to the fact that the student is more motivated by the prospect of getting a good grade than the prospect of learning the material. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the student is not interested in the material, it just means that the student is more interested in the grade than they are in the material. It may be that a student’s financial aid is dependent on their grades, or their college prospects are dependent on their grades, or even that their reputation is dependent on the grades they get.
Applying some principles from Drive, we find that academic dishonesty shows that a student is motivated extrinsically by the hope of getting a good grade more so than the hope of learning something they are passionate about.
Punishing students for being academically dishonest is placing cookies and vegetables in front of a child and punishing them severely for reaching for the cookies first.
Therefore, by putting grades, tests, and standardization around a subject, schools can actually turn something that a student is passionate about into something that a student dreads because their initial passion and intrinsic motivation for a subject quickly gets overtaken by the extrinsic motivation that schools place upon the student. (this happens far more often than you would think)
And if that isn’t bad enough already, enforcing rules against academic dishonesty is pretty much punishing students for a problem that the school caused, making it nearly a self fulfilling prophecy that people will almost naturally want to cheat and plagiarize. Punishing students for being academically dishonest is placing cookies and vegetables in front of a child and punishing them severely for reaching for the cookies first.
It simply doesn’t make sense.
That’s why I always roll my eyes and let out a sigh when I have to sit through yet another academic integrity presentation.
Instead of punishing the student for a natural result of extrinsic motivation, why don’t we place more emphasis on students being intrinsically motivated, and set up a grading system that doesn’t interfere with a student’s intrinsic motivation?