Where Edtech and Its Investors Miss the Mark

Opinion | Investors

Where Edtech and Its Investors Miss the Mark

By Jim Lobdell     May 6, 2018

Where Edtech and Its Investors Miss the Mark

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” - William Butler Yeats

To Impact Investors, Foundations, and Policy Makers, I wish you knew deep in your bones why it’s so hard for teachers to light that fire for students.

I wish you had to plan a lesson and teach a class. At least once. In a public school. Figure out how to boil down a big subject into scaffolded, age-appropriate and differentiated chunks. Make it interesting and engaging for 50 minutes for 30 of the unwilling—kids walking in from a world of distraction and the instant gratification of a tiny screen. And create an experience that ensures students actually understand and internalize the content and want to learn more, not simply memorize and regurgitate. If you had that firsthand experience of this enormously daunting task, I’m convinced your perspective on how to “disrupt” education would change profoundly. In education, clarity is found in the eyes of students in front of you, not from 30,000 feet.

I wish you understood the essence of great curriculum and appreciated how lesson construction makes or breaks the student experience every school day. In three years as an investor at Reach Capital, an edtech venture fund, I’ve watched public, private and philanthropic dollars pour into school operations, adaptive software, data analytics, teacher development, and teacher tools in worthy attempts to improve education. But most entrepreneurs and funders overlook the thing that matters most—equipping teachers with the recipes and ingredients, in the form of quality curriculum, to light that fire for students.

I wish you shared my deep conviction that supporting caring, skilled teachers with great curriculum, along with relevant professional development, is the most immediate and meaningful way to improve education, more so than revamping school structure or increasing the level of tech integration. This conviction is born out of my 30 years in and around classrooms, first as a social studies teacher at Milpitas High, and then as co-founder of Teachers’ Curriculum Institute (TCI). TCI created the History Alive! program that lit the fire in social studies classrooms across the country, disrupted the big publishers in textbook adoptions, and grew into a financial juggernaut.

I wish you wouldn’t pin all hope on OER or content marketplaces or playlists as curriculum solutions. These resources are filling the void as big publishers die a richly deserved death, but most of them aren’t very compelling. More filler than fire-starter. Quantity over quality. To be sure, there are gold nugget lessons within the vast OER and marketplace libraries, but finding them is difficult and time-consuming. That’s why most students are still bored and disengaged much of the school day. Not because their teachers are unskilled or uncaring, but because they don’t have the time or unique talent to create great learning experiences themselves out of mediocre options.

I wish you understood that creating great curriculum—lessons and units of study that produce memorable learning experiences—is a time-consuming, nuanced mix of science and art that is very, very difficult to do well, and nearly impossible to do daily as an isolated teacher. It’s a rare skill to be able to design learning experiences that are relevant, novel, inherently engaging, standards aligned, and energize a classroom of diverse learners. Done well, it’s magic.

I wish you could feel what it’s like to teach a group of kids when you don’t have great curriculum. It’s dispiriting. Like my first year teaching when I painstakingly created and delivered what I thought was a content-rich, well-sequenced lesson that would have made my School of Ed professor at Stanford proud. It was fueled by primary source documents and photos about the horrors of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the rise of industrialism. Instead, the lesson fell flat, 35 bored and disengaged high school juniors not compelled nor inspired by my enthusiasm or the historical documents. Kids won’t lie when a lesson has no spark or relevance. Shadow a student for day and you’ll find out, sadly, that most lessons don’t.

I wish you could feel what it was like the following year, when I figured out how to hook my students into caring. I recreated an assembly line in my classroom, with students in teams competing feverishly to mass produce a drawing of a man for 30 pressured-filled minutes as I commanded them to work faster.

I wish you heard the debrief of this simulation, when students fought to share in detail the pro’s and con’s of mass production, all before we cracked a book. Afterward, I had them in that elusive, magical sweet spot, primed and ready to see the historical photos, read the primary source documents, and relate them to their own experiences working minimum-wage jobs. As a teacher, this is what you live for.

I wish you saw what happened when that assembly line lesson was codified, along with dozens like it, as part of TCI’s History Alive! program I co-created and sold to schools across the country. How teachers took that idea and ran with it—bringing in space-heaters and factory sounds to simulate a noisy sweatshop, “firing” workers who didn’t work fast enough and replacing them with “immigrants” desperate for jobs, and placing the best artists at a separate table to create individual drawings to represent cottage industries.

I wish you could see all the inspired curriculum I have seen and feel the energy in those classrooms. How body language and facial expressions and animated conversations tell you kids are challenged and engaged. How students lose track of time. How the lines between “smart” and “remedial” kids blur. How these experiences change students’ self-concept as learners. And how, even before seeing any assessment data, you know that kids are learning in ways that matter most. It’s a beautiful, inspiring thing to witness.

I wish you realized that great curriculum liberates teachers from reinventing the wheel each night and frees them to apply their artistry and take sure-fire lessons into the stratosphere. It’s what all teachers deserve and what every teacher (and student) wants.

Bottom line, I wish you spent more time in the classroom. Because that’s the key—being there to watch how students respond reveals the profound difference between the standard, meat-and-potato curriculum that regularly fills their pails and the harder-to-find great stuff that lights the fire of the lucky few who are taught with it. Then you’d see the massive business opportunity to fill this market void.

I wish you’d explore new models for scaling great curriculum because the teacher artists who design it typically aren’t the entrepreneurial type, and very few edtech entrepreneurs have the skills or proclivity to take it on.

I wish you’d consider deploying resources in two ways: 1) to systematically mine the great curriculum that exists in isolated classrooms throughout the country, subject by subject, grade level by grade level, and codify and disseminate it for wider use, and 2) to identify the curriculum designers most capable of making great curriculum, and commission them to create and share it at scale.

I wish you’d approach this endeavor with a quality-first credo because the point is to create curriculum masterpieces that teachers clamor for and students love, not to produce and scale quickly simply to “cover” everything. It’s folly to try to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with a roller.

I wish the investor in you would recognize this is the patient way to generate outsized returns.

I wish the philanthropist in you would recognize this is the most overlooked way to make a real impact.

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