What I Learned From Today’s Young Education Innovators

By 08/11/2015

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Earlier this year, Forbes released a celebration of edu-wunderkinds, its “30 under 30” in education. Reading the descriptions of their innovative, tech-focused work made me feel totally old and out of touch. Though we’re separated by only 10–15 years, the gap in worldview felt enormous.

But I refuse to be put out to pasture before my fortieth birthday, so I tracked down some of this year’s selectees (and a previous winner) and asked if they’d be willing to chat. I just wanted to learn from them. The conversations were eye-opening, and I’ve been mulling over the lessons for the last few months.

But AEI recently hosted a terrific confab on K–12 entrepreneurship (short summary podcast here). The papers and panels touched on some of the issues that surfaced during my time with the “30-under-30” crew.

Since so many of us are either involved in K–12 innovations or simply trying to understand what’s going on, I thought I’d share the six biggest takeaways from my discussions with these young overachievers.

(Note: If you’re looking for gossip, a competitive advantage, or investment opportunities, this list will disappoint. I don’t name any organization or individual for three reasons. First, those I talked to were forthcoming, and I’m committed to protecting any sensitive information they shared. Second, I’m primarily interested here in the overarching lessons of the twentysomethings-innovating-in-education field, not the specific innovations. Third, some of these folks are running for-profit organizations, many of them are competing with one another, and all of them are in competitive fields, so I don’t want to put my thumb on any scale.)

1.) Accelerators, incubatorscompetitions, and hackathons: Nearly everyone I talked to made use of one or more of these supports, about which I knew very little. They discussed the importance of finding the space and resources for testing ideas, validating concepts, engaging technical experts, learning from potential investors, meeting future mentors, and more. This supportive ecosystem seems to have developed organically, and by all accounts, it’s invaluable. As a result, these young innovators were fluent in the parlance of “convertible notes,” “tech meet-ups,” “rapid prototyping,” and “risk tolerance.” They talked very differently than most K–12 types.

2.) Of, by, and for the classroom: Most of these folks started as teachers, were frustrated by something, and started an initiative to fix it. They repeatedly expressed solidarity with teachers. Several explicitly eschewed policy work as being too far removed from classrooms. What I found most invigorating was their naïve sense of the possible. Not one betrayed any doubt about his or her ability to change classrooms for the better.

3.) The good and bad of digital nativeness: These folks simply think about technology in ways I don’t. Their instinct is to meet K–12 challenges with creative, tech-enabled fixes. They assume that big data and online learning are sensible and imminent. They talked easily about data warehousing, systems integration, real-time field population, and rapid analytics. It was very impressive. It was also a bit worrisome.

Every time I pushed them to consider political tradeoffs, schools of philosophy, historical lessons, or moral dilemmas, they were surprisingly unprepared to engage. Their thinking was unquestionably fast and up-to-date. They had horsepower to spare. But in most cases, it didn’t seem as deep or cultivated as I’d expected. I initially chalked this up to their youth (they’re in their twenties!) or the demands of entrepreneurialism. But I mentioned this to a perceptive colleague who replied that it was a sign of the times: “Their generation has always had a device in hand. They’ve never had to be alone with their thoughts. Everything is fast and fleeting. They don’t write letters, they Snapchat.”

4.) Varied backgrounds, singular focus: Those I talked to were not uniform products of affluent families and elite universities. Most didn’t expect to build careers in education; they were once aspiring social workers, heath care professionals, or economists. But varied experiences (TFA played a major role for some) led them to schools. Now they are completely impatient about this work. They didn’t want to go through a formal training program or get a master’s degree or work their way through big organizations. They wanted to solve problems. Right. Now.

5.) There is no substitute for hard work: These folks are relentless. Several came from low-income backgrounds. A few are first- or second-generation immigrants. All of them seem to work tirelessly. They said things like, “I’m a workaholic, and I love it, ” “I work seven days a week, twelve hours a day, and I’m never bored,” “I’ve had three jobs at a time since I was a teen,” “My family showed me work ethic,” and “As a kid, I was taught to believe in upward mobility.”

Today’s “privilege” narrative is helping us appreciate how society can advantage and disadvantage people from different backgrounds. But when taken too far, it can shroud the role of personal agency and, worse, undermine the value of exertion and persistence. These folks are a testament to hard work.

6.) For-profit and for-purpose: Most of these innovators are running for-profit organizations, but they’re committed to serving the disadvantaged. Several said things like, “This wasn’t intended to be a business, it was something to help teachers,” “I don’t want to build a $10 billion company, I want to equalize opportunity,” and “I’m in this for the impact, not the money.”

So why not nonprofits? One said that nonprofits compete for limited philanthropy, so if an organization can generate income, it should. One said, “We couldn’t offer the same salary if we’d gone nonprofit. Tech, data science, and design talent is hard to get. We would’ve lost.” Another said, “We built some really cool technology, and if we really want to scale it, we have to be for-profit.”

Though I don’t fully understand everything they’re working on, I’m grateful that these inspiring folks took the time to talk. They taught me a great deal, and I wish them good luck.

– Andy Smarick

This first appeared on Flypaper

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