by Khalid Smith, Education Leader Startup Weekend
I’m at an amazing conference where teachers and principals are all having conversations about how to be more innovative educators. I’m in discussions about how to turn classrooms into learning spaces, how to think about “discipline” as another way that you reinforce the teaching philosophy, and learning the latest techniques to measure your importance to your social network – all against the backdrop of this amazing high school where the proof is right in front of you because the conference is run by the students. I’m hearing principals introduce “radical” notions of how they want their teachers and students to “fail faster” and watching the looks of horror in the audience slowly turn to recognition. As the Education Leader of Startup Weekend Education, I’m excited to be here. I am proud to be part of an organization that kicks-off startups, kick-starts communities, and kicks the entrepreneurially curious in the behind. I’m here mixing and mingling and learning and hoping to connect with innovative reform-minded teachers that might be interested in attending or organizing a Startup Weekend Education (SWEDU) event in their community. But something is amiss.
Judging from the looks I’ve gotten from this special breed of teacher that attends conferences like EduCon, here my friend, blogger Audrey Watters has achieved the status of E.F. Hutton or Alan Greenspan. Here a mere sigh of her disapproval moves public opinion and defines heroes, villains, goats and victims in the world of Ed-Innovation. She and I hugged and had a great chat this morning. I still love her, I do. I know you can only be heartbroken when you’ve first given your heart to something. But her comments the day before this conference have cast SWEDU and me as now being aligned with the enemy.
My last encounter with a very tech savvy teacher weighs heavily on my mind. She had a particularly great comment in the discussion and I approached her afterwards and saw her face change from cordiality, to curiosity, to recognition to disdain in our 10-second encounter. I opened my laptop to take notes and four key takeaways took shape:
Lesson #1) BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR: Audrey’s piece is here. It’s not particularly rough. I don’t dispute the facts. In it she simply expresses her sadness and concerns and doubts about the direction of SWEDU.
In the weeks leading to the partnership with Pearson, Audrey was among the voices I sought for consultation. Her advice was honest and wise and hasn’t changed. As we approached announcing the new relationship with Pearson, I pitched Audrey the opportunity to interview my Pearson counterpart and me together. I looked at it like a couple seeking marriage counseling as they entered into a relationship. I thought her the ideal foil to ask the hard, objective questions a new couple may be too polite or inexperienced to discuss by themselves. She did and concluded her piece by editorializing her sadness.
The lesson here is, although I’d invited the attention, I wasn’t adequately prepared when it arrived a little differently than I expected. It’s been 72 long hours while I formulated this response. This weekend I saw how many educators read Audrey’s latest critique of SWEDU as their cliff-notes to the state of EdTech reform without familiarizing themselves with so much of her previous praise. I’d lost the opportunity to introduce myself, to extend the SWEDU brand and establish commonality of purpose with passionate, reform-minded educators. I’d also missed my opportunity to explain myself – to show how Audrey and I both care deeply about getting more innovation into education. We just have different ideas about the best ways to enable that. I didn’t get to explain that I don’t subscribe to the belief that education reform is a win-lose game where, in order for innovation to be unleashed, the establishment must be upended. I didn’t get to make the larger point that what I do know is that education reform faces some major obstacles. In order to overcome those challenges, our community of startups needs to acquire some resources that are beyond our control.
Lesson #2) BE WILLING TO LEARN IN PUBLIC. One of the most powerful ideas I will take away from EduCon is how teachers can build an incredible culture of learning when they get off their pedestal as the authoritarian and become the model learner in the classroom. (I’m sure this is no secret to all you blogger/author/consultants out there). Embracing this first lesson helped me turn a lot of unproductive energy I wanted to spend on defending my integrity or attempting to win a debate into a very liberating admittance of what we’ve said all along. Startup Weekend Education is a startup. As the leader, my job is to #1 have a compelling vision, #2 ascribe to a set of values and principles that guide my strategic choices, and #3 constantly experiment and help this organization learn its way toward sustainably delivering the vision. Startup Weekend Education is about building entrepreneurial teams, companies and communities that make meaningful advances in the way people teach and learn. The community makes it happen, my role is to coach, to be a model learner, empathetic advocate and create the conditions where curiosity leads to inquiry and then to growth. In keeping with that, the response I choose in this moment of crisis is to use it as a moment to reinforce my own pedagogical philosophy – admit my commonality with those I lead, share a little about what choices led me to this point and, hopefully, learn something in the process.
Lesson #3) FOCUS ON SOLVING SIGNIFICANT PROBLEMS IN BIG MARKETS
The customers of Startup Weekend Education are entrepreneurs, education domain experts, developers and designers. My job starts with asking “What problem can Startup Weekend Education solve for them better than any other entity in the world?” The answer to the question is big and scary.
Even as education attracts increased interest from would-be “disrupters” there is also a murmuring consensus. When people say that education is “ripe” for disruption, they largely mean that the opportunity exists to go around institutional sales to the education bureaucracy and effectively target parents, teachers, students or a few progressive charter schools or networks that can pay for solutions.
None of these revenue models are bad things, but they all come with trade-offs. Is it acceptable or sustainable to shift more of those costs towards teachers who already shoulder more than their fair share? Targeting affluent parents or well-funded charters helps progressive ideas get off the ground but often contributes to the already stark inequity in education.
We need an all-of-the-above strategy, but entrepreneurial ed-innovation is operating with one-arm tied behind its back. Within the $900 Billion (US) spent by federal, state and local decision makers on our educational system are hundreds of billions spent on books, tests, teaching tools, professional development solutions, software and hardware. What even the “disrupters” have conceded is that, gaining access to this market is determined less by product benefits, user-experience or evidence of effectiveness as it is determined by relationships and access. The 5 or so global education corporations are largely successful because they have the scale to operate huge sales forces that maintain relationships with networks of decision makers and very effectively push their portfolio of products through the bureaucracy. Without this network, outside ideas are effectively blocked from gaining significant traction. With no hope of a mega-blockbuster, large VC investments are hard to come by, which in turn makes earlier investors more scarce. The pattern continues down the chain until there is little entrepreneurship at the very early stage because there’s little support for entrepreneurs (capital) or there’s only capital for certain types of ideas. The big problem my SWEDU customers face is that the startups within the community have a tougher time finding funding or attracting top talent to work on education ideas.
So this is where Pearson comes in. The largest and most dominant of all the learning companies, Pearson knows that bureaucracy better than anyone. SWEDU brings in global partners (Google, Gates and Grockit, along with Kauffman) because they can commit resources to helping educational startup companies grow, because they bring global brand recognition, and because they are the best at what they do and enable our partnership to tackle problems we could do without them. Pearson and Startup Weekend Education have entered into an arrangement to see if there is a solution we can develop that would help innovative education entrepreneurs navigate the bureaucracy. Do I have all the answers? No. Do I know there is a high chance of failure? Yes. Do I understand the risks and concerns of the community on which we depend? I hope after reading this you think so. If not send me an email and I’ll get back to you Khalid@startupweekend.org
Lesson #4) EARLY ADOPTERS FALL IN LOVE FAST AND SOMETIMES GET HURT. SHOW THEM LOVE ALWAYS.
The patron saint of entrepreneurs Steve Jobs, once was boo-ed at his own conference as he announced a deal with Microsoft. He knew that Microsoft controlled a valuable resource; in his case it was Microsoft’s windows, office and browser software that had become the standard for pc communications. Apple needed access. Jobs had a very different vision for how Apple would grow and it didn’t involve wasting energy trying to out-innovate Microsoft in the arena of documents and spreadsheet formats. Most assuredly, he was booed by some of Apple’s strongest supporters who saw Apple as a rebellion against the evils of Microsoft as much as it was a movement for a more human-relatable computing experience. Jobs famously shushed the crowd with, ”We have to give up the false notion that for us to succeed Microsoft has to fail.” History has proven that Jobs knew what he was talking about and that he had a plan, but we only know that because Jobs had the guts and the empathy to stand up and tell the Apple enthusiast community personally. Your customers and community will make lots of demands of your startup. Many entrepreneur gurus will tell you to ignore them. The truth is that you owe them a debt for their early support without which you would still be floundering in ambiguity about your business, product or market. You don’t have to fulfill every wish they have, but every once in a while, just pause, get on stage, tell them that you’ve really listened and heard them, tell that you have a plan, thank them for all their support, allow them to be sad, admit you’re a little bit scared and then invite them to walk with you in this new direction.