Pioneering a more human education ecosystem

“What is this but the most diverse, creative and longest-standing mass migration in the history of the world — that is California.” – Jerry Brown

The world needs bold experimentation that pushes the human race forward – particularly today. The knowledge economy no longer needs masses of “average” graduates like what our "factory-like schools" churn out each year.  California stands ideally positioned to pioneer a much more creative, individualized, and frankly more human education ecosystem than what we have today.  More than the home of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, the state welcomes innumerable creative spirits.  

Roy Choi’s Kogi Taco offers a perfect example.  This little innovation fuses together Korean BBQ and Mexican tortillas in an awesomely creative -- and delicious -- concoction.  In his own words: “There it was. Los Angeles on a plate. Maybe it wasn’t everyone’s L.A., but it was mine. It was Koreatown to Melrose to Alvarado to Venice to Crenshaw crumpled into one flavor and bundled up like a gift.”  The Kogi Taco stands as a perfect example of California’s habit of pioneering zany fusions and exactly the sort of creative mindset imperative for success in the modern economy.  

Yet current public schools remained trapped in antiquated factory-like structures that too often stifle rather than nurture creativity.  We still batch students by age in 2014—as if their most important attribute is their date of manufacture. We notify students that they should go to their next class by ringing bells, the same signal used for shift changes in 19th-century factories. We continuously measure student achievement with standardized tests.

Public schools are run with the logic of mass production and the goal of optimizing the outcomes of average students. Yet as Tyler Cowen points out in his book Average is Over, the world economy increasingly rewards rare and exceptional talents. The huge demand for semi-skilled, high school-educated workers that defined the mid-20th century has dried up.  The trick then, if we have a hope of realizing the American dream that the next generation will live a better, is to figure out how to unlock the unique talents within each individual student.  

Faced with this landscape, policy wonks will ask a fairly predictable question: how do we teach fusion as exemplified by the Kogi Taco?  How do we educate the next Roy Choi?  Yet a better question than "how" is perhaps "where".  In what environment does this sort of creative, quintessentially Californian fusion naturally occur?  The problem with "how" is that by its very nature such combinatorics elude a set process.

So instead we might look at an entrepreneurial ecosystem (i.e. take a trip to a startup weekend in Silicon Beach) or a skunkworks environment like Community Partners by Union Station or the creative milieu that is Hollywood spilling into the coffee shops and yoga studios of West LA.  And we could perhaps distill a principle that such fusion is a function of an environment that has lots of useful parts (i.e. tasty ingredients from korea and mexico and all over Los Angeles in Roy's experience) and a high degree of rigorous measurement.  If you don't have a well defined standards of excellence, you're just throwing spaghetti at the wall.

So what might we do to put students in that sort of environment? Here it’s important to note that children learn to create just as part of being well children. Have you ever met a five year old that didn’t want to explore the world and try to combine different things together? The challenge is to make that open-ended, exploratory approach rigorous. Luckily we have a quintessentially California archetype to look to: the startup entrepreneur. These individuals create something out of nothing and by definition chart new paths.

So what might we learn about learning from a well-developed entrepreneurial ecosystem like Silicon Valley?  First, note there is a clear and unavoidable metric: fiscal sustainability.  We need to draw a clear line between learning as an educational goal and as a way to meet the demands of entrepreneurial capitalism.  Yet an important point remains: what works is what matters – not arbitrary standards.  Second, note that rather than following the instructions of ostensibly omniscient teachers, entrepreneurs cultivate a network of mentors and advisors who can help them navigate inherently uncertain terrain.  Third and perhaps most importantly learning is recognized as an inherently lifelong activity, something that transcends titles and formal schooling.

Public education needs rigorous measurement that actually reflects real learning.  Students generally understand the importance of graduating high school, and the fact that there’s a test that’s (somewhat) a prerequisite for that.  But today’s High School Graduation exam assesses little more than the number of students who’ve been pushed through the system.  So why should students care about the exam?  Sure many students care in the sense that they care about showing up to school on time, but why should they actually care about passing the test?  

What if instead students completed an open ended project and presented their results to a panel of community judges?  Kids from around the state could collaborate on science experiments or starting a small business or investigating a public problem -- really anything that moves humanity forward.  Such things already happen in schools across the state.  We need a thousand time more.

Similarly we might learn from the importance of mentorship in entrepreneurship.  People who’ve already walked the path students want to trod can offer guidance and advice on “why” students are learning what they’re learning and how it connects to where they want to go.  

Currently a student might meet a mentor through their family or perhaps if they’re lucky through an after school program, but these pathways are poor and underdeveloped.  Web tools exist for connecting volunteers to classrooms but are far from optimized for education.  If one were to look for a date online, they could search by age, education level, geography, and job status.  Yet a nonprofit looking for more volunteers in their business partnership program would probably be better off picking up the phone book.

More broadly, we too quickly forget that schools are but one pathway for learning and that substantial areas of human knowledge are necessarily unmapped. Community members have a wealth of knowledge on their craft and really just life that students could benefit from.  Think of what a doctor learns in residency, a novice carpenter learns in an apprenticeship or an aspiring public servant learns in a Coro Fellowship. The whole point is that such practical insight, what the ancient Greeks called metis, cannot be gained in a classroom or through a book.

Today such knowledge can be spread organically and through a mindboggling array of pathways.  The Internet has dramatically matured, providing categorically new pathways for learning. Platforms such as Quora offer a virtual glimpse into how community might transform education towards a more inquiry based model. The popularity of social media sites such as Meetup and Skillshare suggests a hunger for local knowledge and a desire for lifelong learning across diverse groups.  

Why can’t formal public education build from these existing platforms?  Why can’t high schools host meetups for a local historical society or a quadrocoptor hobbyist club?  Why does public school act like learning isn’t a lifelong activity and why do we insist on segregating students away from the rest of the population?  Why not enable the world to become the student’s classroom?  And who not work towards an education ecosystem where a student’s ability to learn is limited only by their capacity to dream?

California today is famous the world over for its creativity and entrepreneurial ability. And remember, education at its limit is nothing more than a subset of culture, as one generation passes on knowledge to another. Why not seek inspiration and build from those quintessentially Californian strengths to tackle our pressing educational challenges?