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Education's Journey Into Space

Note: Chapman Snowden is the founder of Kinobi and an innovator in training at 4.0 Schools.

Evidently it's easier to send people to space than it is to fix education reform.

At the 2012 SXSW Interactive Conference, Peter Diamandis, CEO of the X Prize Foundation, announced that he was looking to create an X Prize for Education. The X Prize Foundation creates and manages large-scale, high profile, incentivized prize competitions that stimulate investment in research and development worth far more than the prize itself. Diamandis is most famous for his Asari X prize, which awarded a $10 million prize for the first team that sent a 3-man team into space twice in two weeks. 26 teams entered, spending over $100 million in R&D over the eight years it took for someone to win the challenge.

Trouble is, while Diamandis wants to create a similar prize to help fix education, he isn't sure how to do it. He wants to aim education technology entrepreneurs towards a big idea that could dramatically change education...and he can't figure out which direction to send them off in.

Also at SXSW Interactive, Paul Graham gave a speech on "Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas" that was similar in scope to Diamandis. In his speech he said, "The popular image of the visionary is someone with a clear view of the future, but empirically it may be better to have a blurry one." A visionary need not know the exact point on the map he's aiming for, just the general direction.

But how does said visionary choose that direction? First he or she must acknowledge that problems cannot be solved by using the same kind of thinking used when we created them. It's not merely a matter of rearranging the blocks that are already in place or tinkering around the edges to make things the teeniest increment better. Systems, such as the ed reform movement, do not change this way.

If I might offer some advice to Diamandis and Graham in their pursuit of inspiration, I would suggest they read "Not a Box."

You may be wondering what a children's book could do for two incredibly intelligent and wise men, much less the ed tech community. Well I think the message is fairly simple. For children, a cardboard box is much more than a shipping carton; it is tool at the disposal of his or her imagination. The child chooses not to focus on the actual characteristics and physical limitations of the box, but rather on the limitless possibilities the box can represent in their imagination. In doing so, the box becomes a vehicle for creativity.

Now, replace "cardboard box" with "technology." Technology has the potential to be the cardboard box on steroids--there is virtually no limit to what technology can do to and for our imaginations. For example, check out how The Lakeside Center for Autism uses the Microsoft Kinect as an incredible tool for helping children with autism. They've truly used the Microsoft Kinect as a vehicle for creativity in how to engage children with autism in a radically different way. So maybe, just maybe, this bodes well for education. Not the education system or education reform, but for the concept of education.

To fix education, ed tech entrepreneurs need to be the visionaries Paul Graham describes. This first involves removing ourselves from the constraints of the ed reform movement. If all ed tech entrepreneurs focus on improving schools, or processes, or classrooms, then we've failed already. Our goal should not be to simply get iPads into every classroom to improve the classroom learning environment. Rather, our goal should be to think of "what do we want education to do for children" and then "how can iPads helps us in that pursuit." The schools, classrooms, and processes are all examples of potential building blocks--they are not our destination; rather, they are at our disposal if they serve a purpose.

I'm not saying that the innovation occurring now is off the mark--radical change takes years, and we need things to tide us over. Some ed tech entrepreneurs should be focusing on how to make the day-to-day lives of students and teachers more productive. But if the majority of ed tech entrepreneurs think in terms of "how do I make schools better" or "how do I improve the education system" then we've already lost the war--the resulting change is incremental. The focus should not be on schools or other current interpretations of education--they are temporary, if not outdated, constraints that limit our imagination. Instead the question should be, "How do we equip children with the knowledge and skills they will need to be successful?"

Now Rome was not built in a day, and expecting every ed tech entrepreneur to come up with a frighteningly ambitious idea is naïve. However, there need to be more of us willing to view education as "not a box" and to be frighteningly ambitious. It's on us to remove the constraints, ask one another and as well as those we serve, "where to?" and start hacking.

--Chapman Snowden

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