The Makers Triversity: A Father’s Education Dream

April 11, 2012 § 5 Comments

The following is a work of fiction, perhaps even of fantasy. I am no educator, and know nothing of the economics or mechanics of running such a school.  Yet I dream that my son’s future will look more like this than what passes for education today.

Friday, April 23, 2021 — San Jose, California.

Joshua Rohan Prabhakar — “J-Ro” to his friends — sprints down the street from the train station to the converted factory housing The Makers Triversity.  Today is his thirteenth birthday, and he can’t wait to get to school to launch his official Makership.

Pausing at the door, he gazes fondly at the overlapping colored circles representing the Triversity’s triple mission:

  1. Creative Heads
  2. Compassionate Hearts
  3. Confident Hands

He dashes inside and hangs up his jacket.  He has no backpack. All the work he did at home has already synced up to the cloud, where he can view it from a variety of screens scattered around the school.  He brought no lunch, as they work together to make their own meals. The school philosophy  of “learn to make what you love to consume” applies quite literally to food!

Not that they are averse to buying technology.  He gazes around the large common area at the high-resolution displays, cutting-edge 3D printers, and nano-material building blocks he uses for both projects and play. Technology is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, as with the sound walls that corral a gaggle of preschoolers with the eight-year old reading to them from an old-fashioned pop-up book. That she herself wrote, designed, and printed out just yesterday.

J-Ro toys with joining the morning calisthenics, but figures his sprint to school will satisfy the aerobic check-in.  Sure enough, the light flashes green on the breathalyzer, confirming he’s in the optimal physical condition for learning. He grimaces in memory of the time two years ago when he got so wrapped up in a project he stopped staying in shape, and had to spend two weeks in remedial workouts with Coach Steve!

A nearby screen helpfully flashes his personal schedule.  He knows it by heart — on today of all days! — but reviews it anyway:

  1. 9:00 AM – Mentoring: Arithmetic
  2. 10:00 AM – Online Seminar: 2020 Hindsight on the U.S. Presidential Election
  3. 11:00 AM – Counseling Session: Your Makership
  4. 11:30 AM – Lunch Preparation: Locavore Friday
  5. 12:00 PM – Lunch / Recreation
  6. 1:30 PM – Team Challenge: Eradicating Poverty
  7. 3:00 PM –  Individual Study
  8. 4:40 PM – Makership Presentation

9:00 AM

J-Ro sighs in mock exasperation as he heads over to mentor a group of 6-8 year-olds working to master basic arithmetic.  There are no students and teachers at “MT” (as the kids like to call it), only makers and mentors.  And even those are fluid roles, not  people. All the grown-ups spend some of their time making and learning, even being mentored by some of the kids on new technology. For their part, kids start mentoring as soon as there’s someone newer than them to help, even if only to explain how to take potty breaks.  He mutters the oft-heard mantra, “You only understand what you teach,” as he wades into the swarm of children.

In truth, the mentoring work is pretty easy. The little ones are eager to earn their first real math badges, and most have already covered the material in video lectures. He suspects many of them come more to see his cool demonstrations than because they truly need help or motivation.  His group — all boys — should love his new kinetic video  game that uses robots that reproduce when you hit them to teach (and test) basic multiplication.

10:00 AM

His heart starts racing as J-Ro heads over to a privacy cube for his online seminar. Partly, he admits to himself, because of the cute Korean girl from Alabama he shares a virtual desktop with.  She alone was worth the effort he put in earning badges on American history, statistical analysis, and media criticism in order to qualify for the class! Beyond even that hormone-induced high, though, he really gets a kick out of interacting with the professor at the Kennedy School of Government and top students from around the world as they dissect the winners, losers, and lessons from last year’s presidential election.

11:00 AM

For one last time, J-Ro goes over the final details of his Makershp presentation with his counselor. He knows he is fortunate they let him choose a Makership right when he turned 13. The school frowns on kids specializing so early, preferring them to first explore a wide range of industries and skills.  His friend Christian waited until he was 16 before settling on becoming a “Maker of Automobiles”, though he  still got Commissioned at 18 to head off to the Pasadena School of Design.  Some kids stay until they are 21, especially if they’re heading straight to a job or a startup.

But J-Ro has his heart set on getting Commissioned by 16 so he can spend a year at the Santa Fe Institute, then a year touring Asia, but still get a doctorate at the London School of Economics by the age of 21.  He knows the mentors views his goals as wildly unrealistic, but as they say, “soft dreams are great if they inspire hard work.”

11:30 AM

His feet do drag a little as he heads to the kitchen to help with the day’s meal.  At least today Aunt Barbie is in charge, so they should get some fascinating stories about where their food comes from and how it can be used.  Sometimes J-Ro gets annoyed at how preachy the school is about the importance of good nutrition, but then he remembers the data on childhood obesity and adult diabetes he had to analyze for his statistics class…

1:30 PM

After a rousing game of kickball with his buddies Alex and Joey, J-Ro heads over to the collaboration area to meet with his challenge team.  This year the school’s research theme is eradicating poverty.

Most groups are focusing on local action, like scholarships for low-income children or micro-lending in blighted neighborhoods.  J-Ro’s team — whose ages ranges from 8 to 18 — is working with a sister school in New Delhi to produce a bilingual promotional video for Next Billion.  The older kids handle the screenwriting and conceptual work while the younger ones learn the mechanics of graphic design and video production. J-Ro handles the budget, which has earned him a series of math, accounting, and business development badges. This week their external mentor, Director Matt, is coming by to critique their rough cut.

3:00 PM

Normally J-Ro would use individual study time to work on badges for future courses he wants to take. Today, though, his sole focus is preparing for his Makership presentation.  He even drags his 9-year-old sister Anjali away from her historical simulator — homespun apron and all! — to review his background video. The timing and images have to be perfect to achieve the effect he desires.  Some students simply read their speech, others create songs or videos to make their point, and one student even produced a complete three-act play.  But for what J-Ro wants to become, he needs to establish himself as an orator.

4:30 PM

The overhead lights dim as the kids and grownups assemble together.  There are no chairs, a tradition dating back to the early days when they literally couldn’t afford enough chairs for everyone who showed up. Now it is necessary simply to squeeze everyone in who wants to attend; plus, it encourages speakers to keep their presentations short and engaging.

J-Ro is pretty sure he sees his parents near the front, but he doesn’t look at them directly lest their emotions overwhelm him.  Principal Larry beckons him to the microphone, and he starts speaking in time to the visuals flashing behind him.

J-Ro’s Makership Address

My fellow Makers and Mentors, thank you for coming to share this day with me.  I was already seven years old when the Triversity first opened its doors, but I am grateful to have spent the last six years learning — and teaching — with all of you.

When I first walked through those tricolored doors, I had no idea how radical this approach was, or the bitter fights our founders endured to birth this school.  I thought the Triversity was just an unusually high-tech form of summer camp — complete with sadistic athletic director [laughter at a picture of Coach Steve grimacing].

Now I better understand the courage that generation required.  Even back then, most people realized that the rat race of textbook courses, letter grades, SAT scores, and college admission was a horrible way to prepare students for the real world.  But few were willing to stand up and say that the emperor had no clothes, that we could do a far better job for far less money if we simply jettisoned all that baggage.

I suspect part of the problem was that a Triversity education sounded too much like just having fun.  How could encouraging kids to pursue their passions possibly prepare them for the ‘real world’ of work? Wouldn’t emphasizing the arts and healthy living distract kids from serious academics? What would it do to their test scores, or their ability to get into college? 

Those questions seem laughable now, when most colleges — and many employers — have moved completely to achievement-based recruiting.   The Triversity mantra that “Our students don’t get jobs, they make jobs”  is practically a cliché, rather than the defiant protest it must once have seemed.  And even though we still ridicule test scores as a measure of learning, I’ve seen the gleam of pride in our administrator’s eyes every time we top our rival’s results.  

What the critics and naysayers missed — what our competitors and imitators still fail to understand — is that Triversity’s success does not come from giving students freedom.  It comes from giving them responsibility.

The most important lesson I learned at Triversity is that I make my world.  Or perhaps I should say that we make our world.  The fact that the kids here make their own lunches and tutor each other isn’t just a form of cheap slave labor — though I’m sure our CFO appreciates that [laughter at a picture of Master Brian giving two thumbs up]. Every service we perform reinforces the Maker’s Creed that:

  1. The world we live in is made by people just like me
  2. I can learn how to remake the world as I see it
  3. If we work together, we can make it better for everyone

Triversity proved that if you give kids ridiculous amounts of freedom, responsibility, support and accountability — in equal measure! — they can do astonishing things.

But even though we have accomplished so much, Triversity continually reminds me that much remains to be done.

  •  Though education is slowly being revitalized, our political institutions remain as dysfunctional as ever.  
  • Even as we enjoy the tight community of MT, families all around us are dissolving under economic and psychological pressures they don’t know how to handle.  
  • Our network of Triversity schools has spread to every continent — including a partner course in Antarctica! — but the larger world is still divided by ideology, inequality, and indifference.

I know I can’t solve all the world’s problems.  But I also know I can solve at least one of them.  And that if I solve it well in my corner of the world, I can create a template that inspires and enables others to similarly change their corners.  The question is, how can I best use my God-given abilities to, as the old saying goes, “dent the universe?” Or better yet, fix it where it is dented?

 I appreciate the question my father asked me a year ago, when I first started thinking about my Makership: “What gift would you most like to give the world?” That question haunted me over the last year as I worked my way through numerous courses, badges, projects, and chores.

The answer hit me like a lightning bolt during a basketball tournament.  I had just muffed a potentially game-winning free throw, and felt horrible.  Our captain Will came over to me and said, “Don’t worry, we will help you do better next time.”

Suddenly it clicked.  This is the gift that I most want to give the world — the understanding that:

  1. We are all in this together
  2. The community wants me to be the best I can be
  3. If I become who I am meant to be, everyone will benefit 

 That is the understanding that transformed even my worst failures and most embarrassing  mistakes into treasured memories of teamwork, perseverance, and friendship.  That is the gift I want to give everyone in our community, especially those who are neglected, hopeless, and feel worthless.

I know there are many ways to address that problem.  Abe wants to Make laws that promote justice.  Olivia wants to Make music that inspires faith.  Jaden wants to Make stories that build courage.  All of those are worthwhile, and I hope we can continue to work together as the years unfold.

But as for myself, I want the whole enchilada.  I want to see all our friends and neighbors connected by the same network of responsibility, accountability, faith, and hope that undergirds our school.  I want to see our political, economic, and religious structures turned upside down — or perhaps right-side up — so that every person in our community feels as loved and powerful as I do today.

My name is Joshua Rohan Prabhakar, I am thirteen years old, and my dream is to be a Maker of Cities.  And I ask all of you to be my Mentors, to help me build the character, competence, and content I will need to transform our world, one city at time.

Thank you, and may God bless the Makers Triversity of San Jose.

Bilbiography

Feel free to suggest more in the comments — especially if you know anyone already doing this!

Inspiration

Techniques

Implementations

Dedications

To my son Joshua Rohan (age 3 and 5/5ths) and Anjali Ruth (age 17 months).  I pray that they will grow up in a world where my wildest dreams are merely a pale shadow of reality.

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