Sunday, July 22, 2012

What Tech Startups can Teach Educational Reform

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Let me start by saying that I have never been part of a tech startup so my view may very well be skewed. I recently read that many venture capitalists prefer investing in entrepreneurs that have already failed once. Actually in a phone conversation with my father he quoted the late Uri Menashe who told him once that he likes hiring retired IDF officers after they had failed their first civilian position. The main lesson for me is that to be successful you need to fail a few times, sometimes many times.

The problem is as Sir Ken Robinson likes to point out repeatedly is that we are building educational systems that seem to converge on the exact opposite direction. High stakes tests that constantly push one answer and the notion that failure is not an option.

So what are the lessons of startups?

1. Collaboration: most if not all startups are based on a group of individuals with different capacities and skills working together to accomplish something that hasn't been done yet. Relationships and the ability to work with others are crucial.
2. Failure must be an option: while the long term must be successful the road to success must include many short term failures.
3. High expectations: startups are successful only if they do something new, or something old considerably more efficiently that it essentially becomes something new.
4. Continued innovation: Once you do succeed you must work to improve and work on the next problem.

There might more and different ones for those who are inside startups but these are my takeaways. What does that mean in education? I believe that points to a very different system than the one we have now. Instead of a high stakes low expectation system I advocate a low-stakes high-expectation system. That is true in the classroom and in the school, for students, teachers, and administrators.

The fear of high-stakes is driving administrators, teachers and students to focus on the most direct route to a known answer- the exact opposite of a startup. Low stakes allow honest discussion and the option to fail occasionally so you can succeed in the long run. If every failure has high stakes we who are a risk averse species (see Arieli) shy away and stop innovating and taking risks. For education to match the needs and fast paced changes in modern society we must make room for low stakes so educators can experiment and provide room for short term failures leading to subsequent spectacular successes. We do not need to give up on high expectations instead we need to be patient for long term gains while short term fluctuations occur. In essence its what your investment advisor told you- don't pay attention to short term. In essence it makes all the leaders managing our educational systems akin to day traders instead of high-tech entrepreneurs.
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