Kaplan on Education

Saul Kaplan of the Business Innovation Factory, published what he calls a ‘rant’ in the Mass High Tech, the journal of technology in New England. You can also read it on his blog.

And it’s a nice rant.  It really is.

It is time to move beyond public policy debates and institutional rugby scrums to try new solutions. What we are doing now isn’t working, and far too much of the federal stimulus investment in education is being spent to sustain the current system.

Isn’t that nice? I love it.  New solutions all around!

But what Kaplan (and so many others) are saying and writing and politicizing is the same old, tired polemic.

We need actionable platforms to enable real world experimentation for new education systems and solutions. We need to bring the voice of the student and student experience directly into the education innovation conversation. And we must create a purposeful network of innovators motivated to explore and test new system solutions. Join the conversation. The water is fine.

This is the language of business.  “We need to bring the voice of the student directly into the education innovation conversation.”  A network of innovators has to be created.  We need “actionable platforms” and “real world experimentation.”

Some of these things exist, actually, Saul.  That network of educational innovators you wanted?  They’re teachers using these odd social media services called Twitter and Facebook and Ning and WordPress.  We got tired of waiting around for educational authorities to give us access to these tools, so a lot of teachers went out and started up conversations online with each other (This blog has readers, though unfortunately not yet commentators, on every inhabited continent).

Chances are, though, that the teachers are using their home Internet services to use these tools, because the tools are blocked by filtering services from school.  And those student voices in the educational debate you wanted?  Those students are blocked from participating in the conversation in two ways — one, those self-same filters. And two, most of them don’t care about the education they’re getting in school. The majority of students have one, maybe two ‘good’ teachers, and the rest are “boring”, “mean”, or just plain “stupid.”

And this mirrors your own educational experience, so you believe the teens in your life when they say stuff like this: “School is boring.” “All my teachers hate me.”

Yet when you ASK kids to design as school — and I do this a LOT — the first thing they do is design the building.  Because kids think school=building.  When you dig deeper, though, and probe them with more questions, they imagine a school that operates much like today’s hybridized monsters.

What every solution I’ve ever read in a newspaper or on a website or a blog has failed to do… completely!… is tell us teachers what it is that all you non-teachers would like us to do during the eight or nine hours we have your children in our care and tutelage. When we ask, we get lists like this:

  1. Explore real-world problems
  2. Implement 21st century learning
  3. Implement student-centered learning
  4. Stop giving pointless worksheets
  5. Stop teaching to the test
  6. Make it relevant to the kids’ lives

Starting with #5., first — we’ll stop teaching to the test when you stop basing our salaries and likelihood of future employment on The Test.  And related to that, #4., half the pointless worksheets we give are related to “teaching to the test.”

Which brings us to this list:

  1. Explore real-world problems
  2. Implement 21st century learning
  3. Implement student-centered learning
  4. Make it relevant to the kids’ lives

Real-world problems require real-world data and real-world tools.  If you want chemists, America, you have to put top-notch chemists into your high school and middle school classrooms, you have to give them instruments and equipment and raw ingredients, and you have to convince the parents to sign liability waivers in case their kid blows himself or others up, or poisons them with toxic fumes, or wrecks the science wing of the school.  If you want architects and designers, you have to give them access to working designers, architects, and landscapers.  And you have to shell out money for gardens and plants and koi ponds and things like rakes and shovels and dirt.  If you want nuclear physicists or astronomers, you need to consider building a reactor pile in the school gymnasium, and a planetarium or an observatory on the baseball field.  And you need to hire a physicist and an astronomer who will take on some students as apprentices and teach them the ropes.  A climatologist needs a dozen weather stations all over town and an Internet link for the data she and her students collect.

But here’s the trouble.  What you’ve currently got are schools built around five core subjects, plus sometimes-art and sometimes-music, and sometimes-sports.  Your school’s payroll includes a huge number of English, History and Education majors plus some football and basketball coaches, a physics teacher and a biology teacher, and some administrators.  Your school’s budget includes line items for mice for the class snake and cage litter for the hamster.  There isn’t a line item for a used gene sequencer, or a 9″ refracting telescope or its observatory, or a plastics-moulding laboratory, or a digital recording studio with a green screen and a sound booth anywhere on the list.

Or the budget to hire personnel to operate, maintain, and upgrade these kinds of facilities.  So anyone who is going to do those kinds of 21st-century skills trainings in the classroom, Mr. Kaplan, is going to be a teacher who happens to already be interested in the tools. As a hobby. Not someone trained in their use, who uses them professionally.

And your current incentive system says

  • No money for failing schools
  • Only money for schools at the top
  • more testing
  • more testing
  • more testing
  • better discipline

and, oh, yeah:

  • more computer use in the classroom if you can swing it
  • NO Actual, health-oriented, real sex education. Ever.

I read somewhere that there’s like 144,000 schools in the United States, and that we’ve just allocated $4.6 billion for school ‘reform’.  So if you want Reform, and not ‘reform’, I suggest a Marshall Plan for schools.  Take that $4.6 billion, and give every school in America … $31,944.44.


Better figure out your priorities, America.  Apparently you can send thousands of soldiers to Afghanistan, but you’re not interested in giving one more teacher to every school in America.

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  1. Nicely done. Andrew. Dueling rants is a good thing if we can leverage the passion to transform the student experience and education systems in this country. Nothing is more important.

    You are right that there are a lot of great things already going on. The beauty of innovation is that it often doesn’t require inventing anything new, just the ability to recombine capabilities in new ways to deliver a better student experience and outcomes.

    We need to design and experiment with new system level approaches because as you rightly point out the current system builds barriers and antigens to anything that threatens real change. As Clay Christensen reminds us systems do not disrupt themselves and this industrial era system is in dire need of disruption.

    Lets keep this conversation going because the student is waiting.

    • Thanks for the thanks, Saul,

      The recombination of practices and capabilities is very difficult in schools, actually, and not just because of the antigens to change. So much of it is dependent on what we might call “ways of knowing.” And what’s even more difficult is that most teachers don’t get outside the box frequently enough to adopt a new form of teaching.

      Consider: the average teacher works around 180 days a year. Some work more, some work less. Yet during those days they are expected to spend about 175 of them in the same building, in the same room, with the same people. Even when they leave, they’re in chaperon mode: safeguard and guide this group through this experience. The emphasis is still upon the children, not upon the experience.

      A teacher who takes too many days for professional development is a liability, not an asset. Yes, she may be developing a new set of skills for future students, but the students she has now are suffering from her absence, and someone else is operating in her place — someone who is costing the school district money and time.

      And you’re right, the system resists disruption and change. For one, schools are resource-eaters, and they produce nothing. Feed a hundred sheets of good construction paper into the hands of some artists, and you get art. Feed a hundred sheets of good construction paper into the hands of some students, and you might get art. You might also get a wastebasket full of destroyed paper.

      You also have a bunch of policy makers, politicians, and administrators yelling at teachers, and telling them their methods aren’t good enough. That their jobs are on the line if test scores don’t improve. It makes for a high-stress job where the only controllable thing is what happens inside the box of the classroom.

      So the notion of being open to the internet, open to computers, open to facebook, and more, is all very frightening.

  2. Excellent post! Why cant America decide what they really want from their schools – or what educated really means? And as a member of the data team, why can’t the idea that every child is different and expecting every child to get a top score on a test is impossible (or go to college, or ___ fill in the blank.)

    I don’t know about you, but those of us who are teaching 21st century skills in our classes are under great scrutiny especially at the high school level. One of the biggest obstacles to delving into real world problems is the massive amount of content we have to teach (because it could be on the test) and solving problems takes time. In the end, you have to choose pseudo-21st century skills in order to slog through it all. Of course, we look like ranting lunatics but we are the only ones in our right minds and brave enough to say what we think.

    • Louise,

      It’s not that our colleagues aren’t in their right minds, or brave enough to say what they’re thinking. It’s that their salary, income, and future employment opportunities are all tied to doing things the way they’ve been done in the past.

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