Triversity: How Preschool + Entrepreneurship Will Disrupt University

September 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

So far, 2013 is largely living up to the hype as a “tipping point” for education reform.  Conversations around disruption, blending, and mastery are becoming mainstream. At long last, it seems like every aspect of the educational is being reexamined and redesigned by someone. There is more opportunities for funding and innovation than ever before. Not all these experiments will work, but we as a society are arguably questioning and learning more about education in the last couple years than we have in the past century.

Yet there is one aspect of the educational experience where even the most adventurous reformers (with a few exceptions) tread cautiously:  the assumption that attending college is a (if not the) primary goal of K-12 education.

A few forward-thinking schools may dare to list “college and career readiness” as if the two were equally valuable.  However, the brutal reality of modern education is that virtually every aspect of elementary and secondary education is optimized to help colleges decide which students to admit.  This is best seen in the “transcript” — a list of standardized courses and grades that end up defining both the identity and activity of students. Even the vast majority of charters and homeschools design themselves around that same artifact, with only token efforts to prepare students for success in the real world.

You may consider this a radical and unwarranted claim.  To back it up, let me present an alternate model of what school could (and should) look like if we removed that distortion.  I call it the Triversity.  It draws inspiration from the two areas of learning where almost nobody worries about college: preschool and entrepreneurship.  Here’s what it looks like.

As with any product design effort, we need to start with the “jobs to be done” by schools.  Aa both a parent and a citizen, I want an institution that will prepare kids to make:

  1. Decent Livings
  2. Fulfilled Lives
  3. Healthy Families
  4. Thriving Communities
  5. History

As an involved parent, I see school as supplementing what we are already doing at home.  But as a concerned citizen, I want an institution that can do this even — especially! — for students from impoverished or dysfunctional backgrounds.

That sounds like a lot to ask for an institution that today hardly even delivers on the first goal.  Yet as with all good design, adding the right constraints — and removing the wrong ones — helps us zero in on what’s most important.  Done properly, we should end up with a simpler model that does far more for far less. In particular, all five of those “jobs to be done” require people to master the same core skills:

  1. Self: Teamwork & Autonomy
  2. Symbols: Language & Numbers
  3. Systems: Maps & Models
  4. Smarts: Design & Learning
  5. Sustainability: Health & Economics

Tragically, K-12 education focuses almost exclusively on (2) — especially now in the test-obsessed era of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Yet paradoxically, even those skills are much easier to acquire when integrated into a broader context of teamwork, systems, and design (e.g., challenge-based learning).

While it is easy to cast stones at NCLB, that law is merely the logical extension of an approach to education that goes back millennia.  In fact, the core ideas of distinct subjects, textbooks, and the “sage on a stage” can be traced back as far as the works of Aristotle.  These were formalized in the modern university, which since World War II has grown to become a dominant feature of American education.  University graduates and professors write the textbooks and policy guidelines that determine the structure of college, high school, and even much of elementary school.

But what if the university model is the wrong approach to K-12 education?  What if dividing knowledge into discrete subjects and testing students based on retained knowledge in those subjects was a lousy way to create and measure useful learning?  More importantly, if there is a better way, how can we discover and demonstrate it?

To answer that question, we need to understand that universities were invented when the scarce resource was knowledge. The key assets of early universities were their libraries and their scholars.  Highly-motivated students went through an arduous process to themselves become prized scholars and carry on the traditions of curating and creating knowledge. This has worked amazingly well for Western civilization for nearly a thousand years.

But as we’ve steadily used and abused the university model as an engine of economic growth, we’ve created an unsustainable “bubble” in higher education.  In the age of Wikipedia, Google, and the Kindle, knowledge is no longer the scarce resource we need to optimize around.  The scarcest resources today are:

  • Engagement from students
  • Jobs for graduates

Unfortunately, universities are generally horrible at creating these, because they were designed for a very different set of constraints.  Worse, those same design tradeoffs filter back into colleges and high schools, if not earlier.  The end result is nation increasingly filled with both unemployable dropouts and underemployed graduates.

Can we do better? Yes, we can. More importantly, we already have. I believe the future can be glimpsed in two institutions that exist outside the so-called “government-education complex“:

Though from opposite ends of the educational pipeline, these surprisingly embody almost all of the “jobs to be done” identified above (though preschools understandably avoid economics, while startups regrettably ignore health). Though neither is nominally focused on formal learning, both are incredibly effective in engaging students in practical learning. Starting with learning to manage oneself in the context of a team, which is a key predictor of both personal and business success!

Crucially, neither of these institutions is in any way beholden to the university model.  They may certainly use materials developed by universities, but they have zero pressure to issue grades or create anything resembling a transcript.  They can focus all their efforts on creating human beings who will succeed at the next stage of their life.  They may fail, but at least they’ll have gotten the wrong answer to the right question, rather than the right answer to the wrong question.

What if all education worked that way? I believe it can, and it will.  My dream is called The Makers Triversity, and it is designed to connect the dots between preschools and entrepreneurship by integrating those five “jobs to be done” in a relational, tech-enabled community of learning.

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