Eric Ries’s brilliant philosophical treatise on why startups succeed in the marketplace — ”The Lean Startup” — is often cited by edtech leaders as their north star for building successful companies. Many of Ries’s ideas and concepts that have become entrepreneurial doctrine, including validated learning, build-measure-learn loops, the pivot, and the minimum viable product.
While our team didn’t realize it at the time, we embedded many of Ries’s philosophies from the very beginning of the School of One pilot. Our initial scheduling algorithms relied heavily on Excel spreadsheets. Our assessment system included “collating parties,” where our team assembled customized testing packets for each student the night before their assessments. Even the large monitors that displayed which stations students should go to were managed manually — a team member flipping through PowerPoint slides just before the bell rang.
By testing our hypotheses about how to make personalized learning a reality, our team learned many key lessons that would inform later pilots and help us improve the student and teacher experiences. It sometimes took us late into the night to create and distribute customized schedules for the 80 students in the initial pilot (something we now do for more than 6,000 students by late-afternoon every day). Daily assessments, recommended lessons, and the content on the large monitors have now largely been automated.
Is “The Lean Startup” applicable to education models?
But while we’ve seen a lot of the wisdom in “The Lean Startup” approach, it is largely written for technology-based products, where testing environments can be relatively controlled and where the success or failure of the product itself may not be consequential to the end user. Our work — and that of others like us — focuses on reimagining the classroom itself to create new instructional models that fundamentally change the relationship among teachers, students, and instructional content.
And engaging this type of innovation is different from the consumer technology market.
There are skill maps, learning progressions, instructional content, and assessments that have to be designed, developed, synchronized, and then adjusted as state and federal policies evolve and change. There are innumerable operational considerations like traffic flow, acoustics, and varying school schedules and staffing models. There are staff members that need to be recruited and trained (and retrained, as it’s an iterative process) to support implementation. And there are technical components to worry about, such as authentication, data management, user interface, privacy, servers, portals, APIs, and so on, some of which we control and some of which are out of our hands (e.g., school or district IT).
If that weren’t enough, all of this R&D must take place in a high-stakes world where Jane needs a high quality lesson tomorrow, Mr. Jones needs high quality materials, and Enrique’s parents expect a grade by the end of the marking period. The fact that the internet went down, that the principal is leaving for a job at another school district, or that there are new accountability requirements that have come down from the central office is just the way it is. Students get just one chance at middle school.
Realizing the opportunity that personalized learning promises requires serious, sustained R&D over many years. It requires different kinds of specialists working with pioneering schools over a sustained period of time. It requires money, time, and patience.
Where will the innovation required for new models come from?
Meaningful investments in R&D that explores new instructional models may be the only way to move beyond the factory model classroom. We hope our most recent results — and their anticipated improvement over time — give credence to that case. We’d love to see dozens more organizations embarking on a similar path.
But the ecosystem required to support this type of innovation at the earliest stages does not yet exist. It does in healthcare (through the National Institute of Health and the pharmaceutical companies) as well as in defense (through DARPA and the defense industry). The Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) grant program (which New Classrooms is a recent awardee) is a meaningful step in this direction, though it is generally not geared toward supporting the earliest stages of innovation. At even the lowest levels of support in the program, applicants are required to demonstrate evidence of effectiveness.
The private sector has not yet filled this void. The education market — with its highly fragmented set of buyers and laborious procurement processes — is often misaligned with the time horizons and investment returns expected by private investment. That’s why a large portion of private capital for education technology falls outside of K-12. And the dollars that do go to K-12 are more likely to focus on teacher tools and curricular products (most of which assume the same model of instruction) rather than new models of instruction all together.
Via EdSurge: “Other” category includes products for professionals skills training, teacher professional development, learning games, apps for parents, and other miscellaneous products.
Many thought that charter schools — conceived to be ‘laboratories of innovation’ in the 1990s — would be the most likely place new instructional models would flourish. But most continue to operate with the same one-size-fits-all, “I do, we do, you do” model of instruction. Charters typically do not have the internal capacity to design new models and are consumed with the day-to-day responsibilities associated with operating a school. Rigid accountability systems also make iterative, bold R&D even less likely to happen there given the perceived existential risks associated with failure. (There are some exceptions to this, most notably Summit Public Schools and Rocketship.)
We all know that students arrive on the first day of school with vastly different needs and abilities. Yet our schools continue to place 28 or so same-aged students in an 800-square foot classroom with a single teacher and a textbook. Our nation has too much creative, pedagogical, and technical talent to think we can’t do better.
But getting there will require rethinking the ecosystem we have to support the development of new, thoughtfully designed instructional models.