Scalability as empowerment, not replication

More often than not when I hear about some wonderful teacher or promising educational innovation there is an immediate reaction of “well, that’s not scalable.” It’s  a knee-jerk reaction, especially for Americans. We believe in big. We believe that bigger is better, from highways to space stations, and we need to do it at a large scale. This expansion and replication by being the biggest and bestest is seemingly in America’s DNA.

But it often strikes me that the best and most ingenious solutions to human problems are not large scale. They rely on personal relationships at the core. One person making the right decisions and making things happen.

For example, If you think about the problem of people getting the food they need – low cost, delicious, nutritious food – there are many local community farm to table programs that have had tremendous success. These programs encourage people to grow their own food. Better yet, they empower them not only to participate in the farming of food, but to form a supportive community that cares about feeding the hungry, how to get the food to those people, attention to nutrition, teaching, and more.

People are empowered when they have control and choice, and the when solution to eat properly comes from themselves and people they know and trust, it’s a better solution.

So, great! We have a solution – now, the big question – how does it SCALE?

Well, it’s not obvious.. should we recreate necessary infrastructure – the pieces and parts? Can we document the process of making a local farm to table program, interview participants, determine best practices, create instruction manuals and worksheets? Should we then we then hire a bunch of people who go into positions of authority in new areas to recreate the program?

Do you see a problem? I do…

Not everything scales the same way. Just like an ant would be crushed under it’s own weight if it were the size of elephant, not every process, practice, and program can survive a “scaling up” process that is based on replication. It disempowers the individual, and tends to create uninteresting meals that people wouldn’t want to eat anyway.

What’s gone wrong is the assumption that scaling requires replication. But we need models, you say? How would the “clones” know what to do without being told?

And therein lies the problem. The empowerment is what needs to be replicated, not the procedures.

The way to solve a big problem is not to duplicate small solutions, it’s to allow new small solutions to flourish, all slightly different because humans are different, communities are different, and that’s ok. In fact, that adaptability is what makes them work. It’s what distinguishes human solutions from bureaucratic solutions.

The answer to “is it scalable?” must be yes – if you allow the central core, the “what” to remain small, adaptable and nimble.

Last year when I was at TEDxNYED, there were lots of great talks, but the comments I heard afterwards all were about scaling. Why can’t every classroom be an incubator of science discovery like Brian Crosby’s? Why can’t at-risk kids build amazing robots like in Gary Stager’s classroom in that Maine youth prison?

What we are told is that you can’t guarantee that every teacher is a Brian or a Gary, that these few and far between “magic teachers” are required to make these miracles happen.

But it’s just not true. We are looking down the wrong end of the telescope at this problem. The problem is that we think that what these people do, and who these people are is the secret ingredient that must be replicated. That’s not the way. What needs to be replicated is empowering new people to take up the reins and try it their own way, to follow these pioneers and make it on their own, in their own way.

The mistake is thinking the scalability is replication, when it’s empowerment.

But you know what comes next. “What makes America great is how we scale up! Big problems need big solutions! We built the highway system across the continent, put a man on the moon, etc. Schools are broken and we need a big solution and we need it now!”

Not every problem is a moon shot or a highway. I know we love to compare everything to the U.S. highway system. But think about it, the highways are not monolithic, every offramp has to be individually designed to fit into the existing cities, roads and natural elments. No one in their right mind would design a single offramp and expect it to work for every exit from east coast to west.

And in schools, where the learning is constucted anew each and every day, we can’t expect teachers to use the same methods as every other teacher. The highway planner can design an overpass once and it will remain in place for decades. The teacher has no such luxury. Learning opportunities can’t be designed once and delivered endlessly. The  human mind of the learner is a constantly growing, changing entity, not an empty uncaring slab on which to chisel. It’s not the same, not in the least, and certainly not as an example of “scaling.”

If we expect to scale up these kinds of examples of student learning, students have to be empowered. And for students to be empowered, you have to empower teachers. That’s the ONLY way to scale up a real solution for America’s schools.


Big problems require small solutions

While co-hosting the TEDxNYED event last week, I found myself wondering how the amazing solutions I was hearing could spread. How could we get more students connecting globally like Brian Crosby’s kids; how could more at-risk students be freed from the assessment and curriculum that failed them so they could excel like the students Gary Stager worked with in the Maine prison; how could every urban school be part of an urban garden network teaching youth and the community about low cost, healthy food… the list was endless.

It struck me that day – some problems are so big they need small solutions.

I heard several people say after these talks – “Yes, sure, that was great, BUT IS IT SCALABLE?”

I’d always considered that a reasonable question. But now, I think it’s a rhetorical trick that really means. “CAN IT FIT INTO THE CURRENT SYSTEM?”

Scalable should mean replication. Can you do “it” – whatever “it” is, over and over again. And the answer is yes, you can have urban gardens, do away with 19th century curriculum, and have globally connected classrooms IF you let the conditions flourish on the ground level. IF you let the teachers teach and the students learn. IF you let the solution be a small solution, carried out at a human scale. IF it remains a local, adaptable solution that meets the needs of the participants, not the system. The proof of that was given by Dennis Littky of the Big Picture Schools, who has started over 60 schools that value each and every student. That’s scalability.

But it doesn’t mean you impose a solution from above, put layers of bureaucracy and administration on it, and add untold costs in demanding that everyone do the same thing. We are just used to doing things that way in American education and we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s cheaper, more efficient, and the American Way. It’s not. Every problem is not a moonshot or the same as building interstate highways. Learning is certainly not.

Big problems require small solutions. And they demand we trust in the human beings implementing those solutions. My thought for the day.


PS – The videos from TEDxNYED are not up on the site yet – when they are, I’ll link them up to the examples in this post.

TEDxNYED and me

So back a few months ago, before I devoted my life to airplane seat testing, I got a chance to attend TEDxNYED. TEDx events are independently organized small conferences, typically one day filled with invited speakers who, in TED style, speak for a short time about a common theme. This TEDxNYED was held in New York City and the theme was education. It was a great day filled with inspiring speakers and terrific hallway conversations. I had every good intention of writing my reflections about the day, the speakers, and the theme, but time slipped away and I never did it.

Perhaps this is a good thing, because sometimes reflections need to percolate through the brain for a while. Plus, waiting this long means that the videos are all online for your enjoyment! So don’t take my word for it, enjoy the videos yourself!

First off, the facts –

Now that some time has passed, my reflections are coalescing around a few key points:

  • I am hopelessly attracted to people who DO stuff. Yes, thinking is important and I did enjoy some of the more cerebral speakers. But the one I recall most is Andy Carvin, who spoke about how quickly the Internet has changed response to disasters by crowdsourcing information. His talk, The New Volunteers: Social Media, Disaster Response, and You, was terrific. I think that K-12 students could be playing a huge role in completing local databases and maps that could be essential in a crisis. His video is embedded below.
  • I really enjoyed Dan Cohen’s talk, “The Last Digit of Pi”. It was geeky, historical fun. There is a sort of transcript here. But it did have a point about how hard it is to change ideas in education.
  • A couple of favorites I’d heard before: Chris Lehmann and Dan Meyer. Both did nice jobs, Chris talking about why this is all important and keeping the crowd going very late in the day. Dan did a great job of deconstructing a textbook math problem to remove the layers of “help” that it provides for students, and explaining why that “help” is not helpful in the long run. When students ask their own questions about the world (and there is a teacher there who can provide enough of an answer or just a bit of motivation), they become less dependent and more imaginative, critical thinkers. Be sure to watch their videos!

The diversity issue
I had more than one person whisper to me that it was a real shame how underrepresented women and people of color were as speakers. I KNOW the organizers tried, they told me they did and I believe them. What’s worse is that of the three women speakers, two were disappointing to me. Yes, I’ll be brave and name names. My two least favorite speakers of the day were Gina Bianchini, co-founder and at the time CEO of Ning (she has since left the company) and Neeru Khosla, co-founder and Executive Director of CK-12 Foundation. Gina Bianchini gave a generic speech about using technology to connect optimists, and then made a left turn into education, where it was immediately apparent that she knew nothing about the subject. Her idea of taking the “models” of open source software and agile product development and using it for teacher evaluation was breathtaking in its lack of understanding of any of these subjects. But there she was, simply being “optimistic” about it. Sorry, just not good enough. Neeru Khosla, on the other hand, is a woman with a plan, which she repeated over and over again in a relentless sales pitch. Her non-profit has taken textbooks and put them online for free. So without any thought to whether this is a good idea or not, but lots of buzzwords about digital literacy and 21st century skills, she pitched her website to the group. Digital textbooks are certainly worth talking about, and it would have been interesting to discuss if they have relevance or if it’s simply putting an old content model in new delivery system. But no, that was never touched on. It was simply a blatant sales pitch for a free product. Her session unfortunately stood out like a sore thumb for its commercialism and lack of thoughtfulness.

But… back to the good stuff. Here’s Andy Carvin – TEDxNYED Talk: The New Volunteers: Social Media, Disaster Response And You

I hope the upcoming youth-planned and youth-led TEDxRedmond event this fall is just as thought-provoking!


TEDxNYED – the role of new media and technology in education

I’m excited to be participating in a new kind of event this weekend, March 6, 2010. You may have heard of TED – a once a year, incredibly expensive (but free online), invitation-only event where “riveting talks by remarkable people” are showcased. TEDx events, in contrast, are locally organized and run with a minimal entry fee. These events are meant to bring people together to share and talk around common interests.

TEDxNYED will  examine the role of new media and technology in shaping the future of education. There is an incredible line-up of speakers, and you can watch the conference live on Saturday from 10am-6pm EST.

You can also visit the TEDxNYED Facebook page and become a fan.