Thursday, May 8, 2014

Teacher Appreciation Week: A Personal Tribute to Teachers

It’s easy to see and criticize the flaws in our education system here in the U.S. – especially our public education system. And teachers are the face of public education – which means they often take the brunt of the criticism and discontent from all quarters, even for issues completely beyond their control.

Teacher Appreciation Week is a time to pause and reflect on the good and important work that teachers do – and to openly express our gratitude to these people who have dedicated their lives to helping our children (and us, when we were children ourselves) become happy and productive members of society.

I am a product of public education. I can only imagine what my life would have been like if I had been born into a society without it. And I can only imagine what my school experience – and my life – would have been like without the benefit of the extraordinary courage, kindness, and skillful teaching exhibited by many individual teachers I had the good fortune to meet along the way.

Carole Rosen-Kaplan, for example, was my 11th grade English teacher. She became a dear friend. Sadly, she passed away recently. Carole’s sons asked me to provide some comments for her memorial service. I realize now – too late – that although we talked a couple of times a year, I never told her how much I appreciated her as a teacher, or what a profound impact her teaching had on my life. I regret that.

I’m trying to make up for it a bit by “paying it forward.” Teaching is extraordinarily hard work. Often it’s thankless. Sharing the comments below is my way of saying to all of you, teachers:
Thank you.
I appreciate what you do.
The work you do influences and transforms your students’ lives in ways you (and they) will probably never know.


I met Carole when I was a high school junior. Her English Composition class wasn’t the English elective I wanted that year, but it was the only one that fit my schedule.

In retrospect, the class was so thoughtfully crafted and compelling that even today (decades later) I could probably write down most of the syllabus from memory.

I wrote my first short story for that class. It was about an archaeologist who stumbles upon a powerful relic in Egypt and uses it to travel back in time but ends up trapped. Carole (Mrs. Rosen-Kaplan to me then) asked me if I plagiarized it. I thought “Wow, that must be a pretty good story.” I don’t think it was her intent in that moment, but that honest exchange started me thinking that if I could accidentally make an English Composition teacher believe I had stolen a published story then maybe I could be a real writer who actually published stories. (Inspiration takes many forms.)

I wrote several chapters of a novel that year (which she read and commented on in her own time), and later became president of the school’s Creative Writing Club - my first formal leadership role. One of my short stories won a prize in a writing competition. I later wrote a short story for my college essay. It worked! (I got in.) AND a love poem for a woman. It also worked! (She’s my wife.)

It turns out that English Composition is crazy powerful stuff.

That year I argued against nuclear stockpiling in a mock trial of the global superpowers and wrote passionately about the Vietnam war, the Holocaust, and human slavery.

The class *involved* writing but it wasn’t *about* writing. It was about love and hate, good and evil, right and wrong, politics and power.

As I reflect back on the class now, though, I realize that what is remarkable to me about Carole’s teaching is that we didn’t simply *read* other people’s thoughts on these themes or even write about them in the abstract. When writing for Carole we had to choose sides - we had to “try on” different points of view and in the end commit to one. On the theme of War: will you, as the author of this essay, choose to glorify or vilify it?

More importantly - on the subject of war: will you, as the author of your own life, choose to glorify or vilify it?

But helping us find our voice was only one of Carole’s objectives. Her other objective was to impress upon us our responsibility to use it.

Perhaps the most poignant statement of individual responsibility I have ever read is captured in these lines by Martin Niemöller (assigned in Carole's class) about the Nazi purges:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist. 
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist. 
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew. 
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me. 
I have recalled this passage to mind many times over the decades. It reminds me of my right - and my responsibility - to use my voice. More importantly, it reminds me that sometimes doing the right thing is deeply uncomfortable all around - and that courage does not mean the absence of fear but rather doing the right thing in the face of fear. Speaking up and speaking out is not the responsibility of a chosen few - it is the right and responsibility of every human being.

Carole’s class was called “English Composition” but the full title should have been something like English Composition: How to Find Your Voice and Raise Hell Through Writing.

I think Carole saw promise in me as her 11th grade English Composition student and was disappointed that in the end she didn’t inspire me to pursue a creative writing career.

But here is what I would say to her in response to that…

Thanks in part to you I know who I am and who I aspire to become. I know what I stand for. I stand for what is right, what is true, what is just, and what is good. I stand for people - especially the people who can’t stand for themselves, like children. I stand for the right of every human being to discover their own voice and have the opportunity to be heard. I stand for the importance of helping people discover who they are, who they want to become, what they are deeply passionate about, and how to become the authors of their own lives.

No, you didn’t inspire me to become a creative writer.

You inspired me to become an Educator.  Like you.

All my love,
-Mike Connell
April 26, 2014

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Mind the Quicksand: A Word of Warning to EdTech Investors

I read about a new EdTech startup this morning in TechCrunch. It's called Galxyz. I started writing a comment on the article page itself, but then it got really long and kind of "meta." So I thought it might make an interesting blog post.

Here's the description of the company from TechCrunch:

Galxyz (it’s pronounced “galaxies”, and it’s a nightmare to spell) is building a science-focused game for tablets and smartphones. And the company really is just focused on one game — Rashid [the founder] described it as “an intergalactic science adventure,” one that kids could potentially play for years, battling a villain called King Dullard across the galaxies. As they do so, they’re also learning about science at their own pace.

You can check out their epic promo video here (I would embed it, but that might violate copyright).

Sounds interesting enough.  Although an antagonist called "King Dullard" is a little on-the-nose, if you know what I mean.

What's the new angle on education, I wondered?

Apparently the idea came to Rashid as he saw his own children playing educational games, which he found lacking in several ways. He said they weren’t engaging enough, the content wasn’t deep enough, or they required the parents to get involved in order for the kids to advance. That second point is why he’s focusing on a single title — so that kids can just keep playing rather than running out of material after a few weeks.

Wow - it seems so obvious once he points it out.  I wonder why this hasn't occurred to anyone before? 

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I believe it is entirely possible to make education orders of magnitude better.  And that I applaud any authentic effort to try.

But from where I stand, this has "Titanic" written all over it.  

I am confident that producing truly effective education at scale is harder than any business or engineering challenge the good people at Galxyz have ever faced.  

This isn't about them, though.  I wish them well.  For purposes of this blog post, they represent just the latest in an endless parade of investor-backed EdTech entrepreneurs who seem to have almost exactly the same creation story.  I'm not upset about it.  I'm more intrigued.

One aspect of education that fascinates me is that to outsiders it always looks so *simple*.

As simple as running across that wet, sandy patch of ground in the jungle to get to a fabulous treasure twenty feet away.  But's hard to believe no one has run over there and taken that treasure before...hmmm...don't you wonder why? (Hint: That's not sand.)

What follows is my prediction for this venture.  

To be clear, this is not what I wish for them.  I want truly better education more than just about anything, and I'm indifferent as to whether it comes from a for-profit or non-profit venture, as long as we get it.  And it's so close I can almost taste it.  

The prediction is based on a pattern that I see play out over and over and over and over and over again (that's right - five 'overs').  

It looks like this...

Day 1: Outlook bright, mattress so overflowing with cash I can't climb onto it so am sleeping on the couch, burn rate 7, feeling great, gonna make history and be a hero by fixing education because I'm...
(Choose all that apply)
  • A product of an education system, and therefore I know how to educate...more better...than anyone
  • More funner than anyone in education today
  • In possession of more revolutionary technology than those other people
  • More smarter
  • Mo' richer
  • A bit confused about the difference between money, intelligence, and expertise

Day 30: Epic teaser promo video produced, first prototype created and friends (who are also employees, or hoping to be) are saying it's definitely the next big thing - time to pick up the pace of hiring animators, writers, and engineers!  Mattress so overstuffed with clams that I rolled off it last night.  (Ouch.)  Outlook blazing, increasing burn rate to 9.0.

Day 180: A bunch more concepts storyboarded and prototyped, things seem to be moving right along.  Still, things are getting a bit confusing.  We discovered that narratives are inherently linear and learning appears to be inherently nonlinear, so that's creating some "design challenges" (so-called).  Can the kids go through the same narrative ten times if that's what they need in order to understand the concept?  But wait - even if they will tolerate that, isn't one definition of insanity "doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result"?  Should we have multiple narratives for each concept? Wow - that would be expensive.  Let's stick with the one narrative.  Should we at least present each concept in multiple different ways to help kids understand it? But will all those choices confuse them?  And what other ways are there to present the concepts within a single narrative? This is taking longer than we thought - better hire more animators and engineers!  Mattress slightly overstuffed with cabbage. Burn rate goes to 11. Outlook bright.

Day 240: Somehow a couple of teachers got wind of what we were doing and we invited them in for a demo.  They were really harshing on our mellow.  They think the whimsical five minute cut scenes between short sets of learning activities are too long - complaining about how that's going to "steal learning time" or something.  But don't they understand that's what makes learning fun?!  (And how many simoleons we have invested in those videos?!)  They also wanted to know what kinds of student performance data we are going to provide.  We showed them the awesome score meter and the leaderboards but they didn't seem to get it.  That's why we didn't want to bring any teachers up in here - we just knew they wouldn't understand our Vision.  Mattress still stuffed with ample Benjamins. Burn rate holding steady at 11.

Day 330: Brought some kids in to play test for the first time.  They thought the narrative was kind of hokey and felt tacked on to the learning activities.  Lenny's kid called it "chocolate covered broccoli."  That's why I didn't want to bring students up in here - we just knew they wouldn't understand our Vision. The writers and animators are getting a little up in arms because people keep changing requirements and trying to mess with their narrative.  I sympathize with them - the narrative is the hard and expensive part, so shouldn't we revise the science material to fit it instead of the other way around?  Running a bit behind schedule.  Mattress feeling a bit lumpy.  Better pull back on contractors to conserve cash.  Burn rate reduced to 8.

You can imagine where it goes from here - the way of 38 Studios or a quick exit that amounts to a soft crash landing.  Like I said - quicksand.  The pattern is that they don't discover where the real complexities in education lie until they are in it up to their necks.

Here's some unsolicited advice for engineers and investors who are eyeing EdTech:
  • If you think you can crack the code on better education with money, you are wrong
  • If you think you can crack the code on better education with raw intelligence, you are wrong
  • If you think the core challenges in EdTech are technical, you are wrong
  • If you think the silver bullet is in "making learning fun" or "engaging" students, you are wrong
  • If you think the solution is in making clever lessons for each concept, you are wrong
  • If you think you can solve this problem with better graphics, animation, and narrative, you are wrong
  • If you think bringing even all of the above elements to the table *must* be sufficient to crack the code on better education, you are still wrong - though you might be able to generate a positive ROI that way.  Or not.

Relay Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, and Emerson Collective (the investors backing Galxyz) - you are welcome to use the above as a litmus test when evaluating EdTech pitches in the future.  (Acknowledgement as the source is always appreciated.)

Don't get me wrong: I strongly believe there is a path to better education.  This just isn't it.

I can hear the incredulous guffaws now.  We are on Day 30 and the outlook is blazing - we have an epic promo video and the prize is practically within reach!

I don't really see any point in debating the matter right now - this is a prediction, not a challenge.  Let's check back in a year and see where things stand.  I would be pleasantly surprised to be wrong.  But I wouldn't bet on it.