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The future of education? It's a love story

There are two vibrant conversations going on in education right now.

The first centers around creativity, and is led by the likes of Ken Robinson, Tony Wagner, and Dale Dougherty.

The second is about personalization and innovation, and includes Sal Khan, Tom Vander Ark, Sebastian Thrun, and Clay Christensen.

The two conversations couldn’t be more different. The creativity clan has been around since the days of Dewey, only now with a new set of champions preaching the virtues of authentic tasks and constructivist learning. After some false starts, the personalization pack is embracing technology to create new delivery models for learning, with the promise of dismantling the factory model of education.

Competing ideologies in education often result in spectacular feuds along the lines of the Hatfields and McCoys. Remember whole language vs. phonics, new math vs. old math, direct instruction vs. constructivism? I’d rather talk religion and politics in polite company, thank you!

But I say this is a modern day Romeo and Juliet, hopefully without all the poison and daggers at the end.

The tribes driving these conversations have gone from mingling, to flirting to outright making babies. Just in the last few weeks:

Look, it’s early.  And this love affair is fueled by youth, optimism and naivete.

But I think the two movements, with creativity on one side and personalization and innovation on the other, will come together and drive the education conversation for the next 20 years.

Our young lovers put students at the center of “school.”  I run a school design activity (which I pilfered from Education Elements) where I introduce educators to an individual student and their task is to create the student’s ideal learning environment. Without fail, the designs look more like Starbucks than public schools: they are relaxed, social, and wired.  Educators begin to ask if certain technologies exist for self-paced learning. They design projects around student interest. They see if they can mash the two together.

When given the freedom to dream, educators think about how to create rich experiences for students. Technology is an enabler for many of the experiences, but rarely the focus. It doesn’t matter if you belong to the creativity clan or the personalization pack, there is enough goodness to go around. More often than not, our two lovers work closely to make everything hang together.  

Educators have yet to suggest a classroom of 25-35 students that meets for roughly 30 hours per week.

At a recent design session, a fourth grader told a room of educators how “cared about and appreciated” she felt because they took the time to ask her what she wanted from school. The moment was both touching and heartbreaking -- an important reminder to build our schools around students, not fit our students into our schools.  

Our young lovers will captivate the hearts of students and families. Families will realize that as education moves into the cloud, the learning options available to them and their children are multiplying. Today, families pick schools for their children. As options multiply and student achievement data becomes more ubiquitous, families will begin to demand specific experiences: self-paced learning, deeper learning, personalized schedules, coaching instead of teaching, etc.

This is consistent with the last 10 years where technology has shifted power away from institutions and towards individuals (e.g. think how one 9-year-old girl’s school lunch blog shamed a school into better meals).

Imagine a second grader working on second grade math at school but rapidly advances to fourth-grade content on an online math program at home. The teacher sees the student is proficient in second grade math (i.e., “doing fine”) while the parents see a student capable of so much more. The school distrusts the data from the online program and worries that moving the student to a fourth grade math class would be socially traumatic. See the problem?  

Now imagine our young lovers show up and say: “That’s great your kid is ahead in math.  How about we spend more time during the school day cultivating her love of robotics.  And, oh by the way, we’ll keep pushing the fourth grade math.” Inspiration and personalization beat standardization every time.

Our young lovers are better together than apart. The creativity movement and the personalization and innovation movement need each other to scale. Creativity in education never fulfilled its potential because it could not ideologically co-exist with the basic skills camp. Students need a foundation of skills and context to engage in progressively deeper learning.  

There is more than one way to learn foundational knowledge and personalized learning can help.  What if a group of high school students design a project to study cancer incidence in surrounding communities, a project inspired by a student’s personal experience with cancer.  The project is “unlocked” for students when they pass the prerequisite statistics unit from Khan Academy. A couple students take Machine Learning from Coursera and design a more robust study that attracts the interest of a local university.  The other students get curious about what this machine learning is all about...  The creative effort is strengthened by the interaction with personalized learning.

Conversely, personalized learning is pretty dreary if the learning experiences are weak. There is plenty of hand-wringing over the thought of plopping three-year-olds in front of laptops where they drill-and-kill for eight hours a day, with nary an adult in sight.

But this is more than a Jerry Maguire “you complete me” moment.  Many radical ideas come from “connecting the unconnected.” The merging of the creativity and personalization movements will lead to new ideas with unexpected results.  When our young lovers see that the world can be better, they make it their life mission to create “amazing.”

There is plenty of Shakespearean tragedy in K12. And the parents of our young lovers deeply disapprove of their relationship. But the world is changing and the bitter past may not matter.

I think our young lovers will stop trying to “fix” education and focus on building something better, creating experiences that stimulate “passion, purpose and play” for our children.  

Note: My employer, Charter School Growth Fund, is a philanthropic investor in Summit Public Schools.

Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a venture philanthropy that provides growth capital for high-performing charter school networks. He leads CSGF’s “next-generation” learning investments in blended learning programs and is eager to talk to social entrepreneurs who want to re-invent schools. Twitter: thinkschools

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