We are not Waiting for Superman, We are Empowering Superheroes

At last year’s Leadership Forum, Participant Media screened an early trailer for Waiting for Superman, which opens tomorrow. Here is some commentary on the film from Diana Rhoten, Co-Founder & Managing Director of Startl:

I had the chance to attend the CUSP Conference in Chicago these last couple of days. I am not much of a conference go-er as I typically hate the contrived socializing and obsequious insider-ism that often go along with overpriced conference fees and underwhelming hotel rooms.

But, CUSP was different, and as far as conferences go, it was a pretty great experience. I actually wanted to meet the people who were there and my applause for all of the talks was authentic.

Highlights of the conference for me included: Liz Gerber’s talk on Design for America, a new non-profit that gives college student real world opportunities to apply their talent to design solutions for local problems and with social impact; Olivia B’s presentation on how she uses photography to capture the world and design nostalgia for all of us (note: she’s sixteen, sassy, and super, super talented); and, Michelle Kauffmann’s talk on rethinking home design using principles of smart design and eco design, conservation and collaboration, modernism and prefab(rication).

The theme of the conference was “design for everything,” and I gave a talk on Design for Learning. It was a new talk for me, and one I didn’t really get my head around until the morning of. So, I decided to eat my own dog food … the whole test fast, fail fast approach.

The talk came off okay for an alpha version. And, so I thought I‘d post the first half of the talk here as Waiting for Superman opens in theaters today. I urge everyone to see the movie as soon as it comes your way and to think about what you can do to change the future of learning.

How many of you have heard about the movie Waiting for Superman, which opens in LA and NY this Friday? It’s gotten quite a bit of publicity pre-release, especially for an education documentary.

If you don’t know the story, let me just give you the quick overview. Don’t worry, I won’t blow the end for you. No need for a spoiler alert.

The movie follows five children and their parents as they compete in the lottery process for one of very few slots in their local charter schools.

Through the experience of these five families, the movie tells the story of how our current education system is failing to provide enough quality education for those who demand it.

Alongside the stories of these five protagonists, the film also provides a variety of evidence and opinion that suggests the adults in the system – particularly, the teachers unions – are responsible for letting the public-school system devolve to the state of crisis it’s in today.

And, while the movie is meant to be more provocative about the nature of this crisis than prescriptive about the possible solutions, the movie certainly suggests that things like charter schools and teacher merit pay are the best ways out of this calamity.

It’s very hard to argue with the message of Waiting for Superman: Our education system is failing our kids and their families left and right.

It’s equally hard to argue with the intent of the film: Our system is in a crisis of epic proportions, we are running out of time, and we need help – everyone’s help.

But, where I will argue, or at least quibble, with the movie is with the takeaways: The movie is an incredibly poignant depiction of the crisis, but in my humble opinion is unimaginative and rather derivative in terms of the “five simple solutions” it lays out in the end.

Better accountability, world-class standards, higher expectations, better teacher pay … We’ve tried every single one of these things, many times, in multiple places.

They are not working. They are not enough.

Personally, I don’t believe the solutions to today’s education crisis are going to come in the form of traditional policies alone.

I believe we need to reframe the problem and the conversation, from one about re-forming schooling to one about re-thinking education and re-imagining learning.

This is a massive, radical design challenge.

I have been in this whole education business since about oh, 1972. What’s that, just less than 40 years now?

I started my career at the TC Passios elementary school in Lunenburg MA as a first grader. I managed to work my way up to middle school, through high school, and ultimately on to and out of college.

I was one of the lucky ones. I was a pretty good student. But, more than anything I knew how to work the system.

Eventually my student career evolved into a professional career in education. First, as an English teacher, then as a policy maker, a graduate student, a researcher and a consultant.

In each of these jobs, I continued to work the system just as I had as a student, but I never figured out how to “fix” system.

I guess, in truth, I started to resemble one of those adults in Waiting for Superman, more responsible for perpetuating the failures of the system than generating any novel successes.

After a while of feeling ineffectual and growing cynical, I left the field of education to design and facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration between scientists. I love a challenge (read: I am a masochist).

Following this brief hiatus, I came back to education a couple of years ago. For the first time (at least in my lifetime), I believed that the circumstances of crisis and the conditions of possibility had evolved to a point where supply and demand could actually align to enable – if not insist on – real change.

Today, I want to tell you a little about the work my colleagues and I are doing to accelerate the alignment of these forces and re-design of the face and the future of learning. I’m going to start by laying out a few assumptions and a few aspirations that guide the work what we do.

So, here we go, three assumptions.

Assumption 1: The future of education is about learning not schooling.
If we continue to limit our thinking about education to 28 students,1 teacher,1500 square feet between the hours of 8 to 3, we are condemning today’s fourth graders to exactly the same educational experience that I got in 1976, that my father got in 1946, and that his father got in 1916.

And, as long as we constrain ourselves to thinking about education in terms of these traditional parameters of schooling and not frame the conversation about learning as something that happens anywhere, anytime, by default we limit our ability to imagine alternatives that could actually get us out of the crisis we’re in today.

So, what if instead of trying to tinker with the existing school structure using old policy maneuvers, we actually tried to retool education with new insights and approaches so that, at least in theory, the experience of learning today reflected the life and times of 2010 rather than 1976 or 1946 or worse 1916.

Everything else in our kids’ lives has evolved. Don’t we owe it to them to try to make their education not only rigorous for them but relevant to them?

You know where I’m going with this, right. I am so transparent. But, yes, technology.

Assumption 2: Technology is not an end in itself but a means to an end, and that end is better learning.
The idea that technology has an important role to play in education is not new. In fact, we’ve toyed with ideas of “ed tech” for the last 30 years. About half the time we’ve played around with teacher merit pay.

However, to date most of technology applications in the education sector have been about increasing the efficiency of institutional schooling rather than improving the efficacy of individual learning. But, what if we designed new technologies for the learner rather than the school administrator?

Today, given the lower cost and greater ubiquity of digital media and personal devices, the opportunity to create new tech-enabled experiences that improve learning is greater than ever.

And, so is the responsibility. When 30% of high school students drop out in America (as high as 50% in some urban centers) but 93% of them are online, the need to reach these kids wherever they are, whenever they need it, with whatever tools they use is more important than ever.

Assumption 3: The power of technology to advance learning depends on context of use.
We are not technological determinists. We don’t believe in simply throwing technology over the fence and seeing what happens. We know from experience that technology is never the silver bullet (though it can sometimes be the bullet).

Rather, we believe in order for new technologies to really effect the positive (rather than the negative) change in learning we think they can, we need to think about how users translate the affordances that have been designed into the products into the learning outcomes we want from the products.

For us, those outcomes still depend on the social practices and the contextual experiences of learning.

Our vision of technologically enabled learning is not one of the lone child sitting at her desktop (or laptop) passively consuming PDFs or browsing Web pages. We believe the potential of technology for learning is much greater. We believe its power resides in its ability to deliver active and interactive experiences where a learner participates in the very construction of knowledge by crafting and curating, mixing and re-mixing information with digital tools, a process which can be and should be greatly augmented by online and offline social interactions between friends, in a community of peers, or an extended network of people (both professional and amateur) who share her interests.

Technology is just a tool. Its effects ultimately depend on the people who use them, how and where. Thus, technology does not negate the role of people or place in learning, but it does change their definitions and their dynamics. And, so just as we design new technologies for learning, we must also consider the contexts for learning that will facilitate their best use … whether that is at school, at home, at the library, on the job, or a place we have not yet imagined.

Now, our three aspirations.

Aspiration 1: We want to be disruptive in our work.
Our goal is to “shock the system” by bringing to light concrete, real life, radical examples of what the future of learning could really look like. Both in terms of the technological tools and the social contexts.

If we are doing business as usual, we will have failed.

Aspiration 2: We see our work as taking place on the edges.
We believe the edge is place in the system where the risk of failure and the opportunity for success are most allowable, and we want to be the people who to take the risk to demonstrate the opportunity.

We’re not Pollyannaish about the challenges of working on the edge. We know much of what we try will fail; that’s what innovation is about. We also know that it will take time for the work we support to travel from the early adopters to the mainstream, but we don’t see an alternative.

Better to demonstrate what could be than to wait for what might be.

Aspiration 3: We want to work with thinkers and doers, makers and movers beyond the “usual suspects.”
Our success depends on our ability to recruit talented folks who haven’t necessarily considered themselves stakeholders in the system before and to engaging their expertise, their insights, and their resources to solve this problem.

That’s not to say, we don’t value the work and the commitment of those who have been fighting the long battle. We do, tremendously. But we also believe that sometime an “outsider’s” perspective can help us see what we don’t see. Wasn’t it Henry Miller who said something like ‘One’s destination is a new way of looking at things.’

Without a new way of looking at things, a charter school is just a school without bureaucracy. To me, that is still a solution that serves the adults better, but not necessarily the students.

I’d like now to just tell you a little bit about how we are trying to execute on these assumptions and aspirations through the work of Startl.

Startl wants to do for the emerging field of learning innovations exactly what Redford did for the independent film community in the 1980s.

The entire enterprise of Sundance—the workshops, the film festival, and the television channel—reshaped the independent film landscape largely because it anticipated the future and was willing to take a measured risk. We are trying to do the same.

Through its institute, Sundance provided venues for identifying and nurturing new talent. Startl is recruiting and supporting amazing new talent through its Boost and Accelerator programs.

Through its film festival, it became the tastemaker for and broker of cutting-edge products. Startl is creating a variety of events to showcase the products and companies coming through Startl and to introduce these new entrepreneurs and innovators to investors.

And, through its channel, Sundance established new distribution pathways, initially to reach underserved markets and ultimately to take the independent film sector from the fringe to the mainstream. This will be an emphasis of Startl’s work going forward, trying to create new testing, marketing, and distribution pathways to get these new products into the hands of learners.

As Geoff Canada has said: “If you want to change public education, you have to do something that feels like a threat to the status quo.  … There is no Superman coming … All they have is us.”

We agree. And, so at Startl, we are not waiting for Superman to save our schools.

Instead, through our programs, events, and channels we are empowering Superheroes to re-design the face and the future of learning.

Send us your talented, your eager. Your creative minds yearning to make change.


Diana Rhoten, PhD, is Co-Founder & Managing Director of Startl, an organization dedicated to accelerating innovations for learning. Diana has been designing and evaluating educational policies and programs, organizations and technologies since she began her career as an educational analyst in Massachusetts. Over the last decade, She has been faculty at the Stanford School of Education, co-director of a nonprofit research institute dedicated to interdisciplinary collaboration, and consultant to a host of large educational institutions seeking to innovate. She has also been the founder of three different programs focused on the future of learning at both the Social Science Research Council and the National Science Foundation. Diana has published in numerous journals and most recently co-edited a volume on the future of higher education called Knowledge Matters. She earned a Ph.D. in Social Sciences and Educational Policy and an M.A. in Sociology from Stanford University, as well as an M.Ed. from Harvard University and an A.B. from Brown University.

TAGS: , , , , , , , , ,