Education Is Complex
Education is one of the most difficult, complex¹ processes on the planet.
Depending on who you ask, we expect education will empower people from wildly different walks of life to:
- Gain access to higher education
- Become productive members of the workforce
- Understand what it means to be a citizen
- Develop positive self-identity, self-awareness, and confidence
- Develop ethics, values and character
- Develop social and emotional skills
- Develop 21st century skills like creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration
- Build a portfolio of work and projects
- Be prepared for an unknown future that is evoling at an ever-increasingfpace
For every single person, this process will involve (to widely varying degrees) hundreds of people: parents, siblings, family, friends, teachers, counselors, coaches, tutors, principals, social workers.
For every single person, he/she will be impacted by hundreds of complex, bundled institutions, processes and agendas: school, district, board, superintendent, bussing, integration, standards, assessment, standardized testing, policy, free and reduced lunch, zoning, segregation, property taxes, SAT, CCSS, ACT, NCLB, RTI — just to name a few terms bandied about in the USA . If I were to add South Africa, I’d mention school governing bodies, National DBE, provincial Departments of Education, matric, former model-C schools, apartheid, no-fee schools, quintiles, CAPS, SADTU.
In short, we expect formal ‘education’ to take as raw materials and inputs young children and help them undergo complete personal, cognitive, psychological and social-emotional transformation over the course of 10–15 years.
 To quote neuroscientist György Buzsáki in his landmark book The Rhythms of the Brain, “the term ‘complex’ does not simply mean complicated but implies a nonlinear relationship between constituent components, history dependence, fuzzy boundaries, and the presence of amplifying–damping feedback loops.”
Education Is Bundled And Thus Difficult to Disrupt
Humans have successfully scaled the idea of ‘school’ (a place children go learn, from the morning until afternoon, in age-based cohorts called grades, with on average a target of no more than 25–30 students per teacher in a classroom, for roughly 12 years of their life) as the dominant form factor in education over the last 100 years through the public sector. It’s super bundled and politicized. It’s extremely difficult for disruptive innovation to unbundle the value chain² like in virtually every other industry (examples here in CPG / DTC + tech). A few examples of ideas that have gained share and scaled to varying degrees include educational approaches (like Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf), standardized testing (assessment), textbooks (content), and Common Core (standards in the US).
We have seen virtually no macro-level productivity increase for teachers over the last 50 years (Baumol effect). Today, classrooms require 1 teacher for every 25–30 students (although this varies widely and in some places it is much higher, which is rarely a positive sign). Thus, teachers are one of the largest workforces in almost every country. To be clear, this is not something I’m blaming teachers for. Far from it. There are incredible teachers I have had the privilege to observe, work with and learn from, often earning far less than they should and working much harder to do one of the most important jobs on the planet with little praise or recognition. The challenge is that it’s one of the largest workforces, one of the most demanding jobs, yet we do not pay enough for it to be competitive with other industries nor give it the prestige it deserves (outside of a few countries) and expect to attract top-flight talent across the whole system?
If we have seen any significant macro improvements (as judged by standardized tests and core academic content knowledge like language, mathematics and science), it was driven by big systemic shifts like in South Korea, Singapore, Finland, Japan and the UK (OFSTED and academies). But even in these countries, we have not seen a transformation in what students learn or are capable of at scale, but rather I’d argue sustaining innovations and improvements.
On a macro level, a few key barriers to innovation educators and entrepreneurs face the world over include:
- Compliance and government / regulatory requirements that focus more on checking boxes than empowering learning.
- Parent expectations of what school looks like, what it should prepare their childre for, how it should prepare them, etc.
- High stakes standardized testing being the dominant way a school system is judged, particularly at key transition points (e.g., high school entrance exams) or exit points (e.g., high school completion / college access exams).
- The interplay between politics and policy of education — with different stakeholders placing various agendas above student learning, growth and transformation. Additionally, a particularly fragmented system of districts in the United States that only worsens a lack of coherence or alignment across the entire system.
- Insufficient resource allocation and poor usage of what resources are allocated.
- Lack of reflection, knowledge management and coordination of lessons and insights across schools, districts, states, provinces, countries and the world.
On a micro level at Streetlight Schools, the challenges for implementing innovative learning design and experiences like project-based learning:
- Constantly calibrating between high ambitions and practical constraints (talent, finance, time). The most clear example of how this manifests is strategically and tactically balancing between helping students a) engage positively with themselves & their peers and process their lived experiences & traumas; b) develop core academic skills like numeracy and literacy; and c) develop broader life skills like character, confidence, 21st century skills, self-awareness.
- The specificity of curriculum coverage government requirements (what topics are covered, what aspects, for how long, and when) are often at odds with deeper, iterative, inquiry-driven project-based learning.
- Even after helping teachers transform how they facilitate learning through project-based approaches, the workshop model, Reggio Emilia, and design thinking — there is a limitation for teachers and students alike around exposure to
> excellent examples of project-based learning and
> powerful precedents linked to the areas of inquiry.³
- Connections with real-world experts who solve problems in different industries (but especially designers, artists, programmers, entrepreneurs) who can help expose teachers and kids alike in order to add imagination and rigour to the projects they build.
 A great discussion with a good friend (thanks 🙏 Lawrence) yielded this insight: the education sector does not behave like a value chain because the end users (parent and student) do not act like consumers, and the incentives are often misaligned at each ‘link’ in the value chain. In order to have a functional value chain, actors at each link have to be able to a) assess value proposition (which requires an effective and timely feedback loop, which education does not have) and b) make ‘purchasing’ decisions, which requires transparent pricing or at least equivalent / clear exchange of value. Differing opinions, misaligned incentives, and a whole host of other factors (some of which I lay out above) are at play that break down these assumptions.
 COVID-19 has been a catalyst and allowed space for our teachers to explore more online courses, which we are now using to help overcome 3 & 4.
Why Learning Must Transform
It is imperative that we transform education, for if we do not, we will continue to reinforce the rising inequality and inequity communities and countries across the world have faced these past few decades.
Business and technology continue to automate jobs that people previously sought to build a better life for themselves and their families.
The world continues to evolve and change at a faster and faster pace, that the skills needed to thrive in the world have continued to evolve without a corresponding evolution in what we teach and how we teach it.
In our quest for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we talk about the youth, jobs, skills, entrepreneurship, coding — we talk about the so called ‘4IR.’
Africa alone has an incredible resource full of potential waiting to be tapped — the fastest growing youth demographic (ages 15–35) on the planet, with 420 million youth in 2015 and that will double to over 830 million by 2050.
Yet the future that awaits them, if they were to enter the workforce now as it stands, is bleak. A third are unemployed and discouraged and another third are vulnerably employed. In South Africa, it feels even more extreme when you count those who have stopped looking for work altogether, putting us at over 50% youth unemployment. Can you imagine that for every two people you know, one is unemployed? With those odds, that person could easily be you.
So how might we empower people to develop and harness their uniquely human capacities for innovation?
To harness and develop the skills that I believe will be the last ones to be taken or automated by AI/ML/computers. These are skills that make us uniquely human, that help us go from being swept up and shaped by the world around us to shaping ourselves and shaping the world around us.
Working in education, being an education entrepreneur, and examining my journey as well as the journeys of hundreds of other entrepreneurs, teachers and students, I’ve developed an updated hypothesis on the skills we must help people develop.
Yes, learning design, learning institutions and learning systems must evolve and embrace the developmen of 21st century skills like creativity, collaboration, communication and critical-thinking are important.
Social-emotional learning, empathy, values and character are important.
Adaptability, innovation and navigating uncertainty are also important skills.
Curiosity and learning to learn / unlocking learning potential are an important one that I do think people have discussed a lot and I completely 100% agree with.
But, I believe that at the core of the human experience, to unlock agency and innovation, we must add a few fundamental skills, mindsets, behaviors and attitudes. And these are:
Self-awareness through reflection, and building a positive identity and self-narrative.
Confidence through small wins. Creative confidence. Entrepreneurial confidence. Confidence confidence.
(Big thanks 🙏 to Mduduzi Gama; our discussion at Lexi’s helped me synthesize and update this skill.)
Habits of hustle and discipline through getting results doing something hard through repeated effort. Hustle is to get after it. Discipline is to keep getting after it. (Other words used include grit, persistence, resilience, stubbornness.)
Building relationships through communication and empathy, especially bridging the gap across difference as the world has both become more interdependent than ever while seeing a rise in segregation, income inequality, nationalism, populism.
(Big thanks 🙏 to Gary Chou and Christina Xu; your work at Post-Industrial Design School inspire me to add this skill.)
Imagination through exposure — but also critically examined through the lens of growing self-awareness, confidence, discipline and community.
(Big thanks 🙏 to Dan Wang, your essays on optimism and technology helped illuminate how critical this skill is.)
Why These Skills? The Journey of Unlearning and Relearning
There are two parallel journies that I believe have helped me realize how important these skills are.
One is the journey of David Fu.
Two is the journey of Streetlight Schools.
I imagine having a conversation with 10-year old David.
15-year old me.
20-year old me.
25-year old me.
And man would that be a fascinating experience. I don’t think any version of those would believe the confidence I have, or understand how to make decisions with incomplete information, or how to navigate emotional commitment, or how to love one’s self without hustling for approval, or have nearly the same depth of self-awareness, or have the same imagination and dreams for himself paired with the increasing skills, experience, expertise and tribe to make that happen.
I have made the choice to lean into and take on challenges — to focus my hustle and discipline — on the important experiences, opportunities, problems that would allow me to grow, transform, evolve beyond my wildest expectations and dreams.
I had to unlearn and relearn so many habits and mindsets. That took critical examination, both through introspection and through seeing how would respond through experience.
I had to take my achievement-oriented personality and completely redefine achievement and success.
When getting top grades no longer represented the bar for achievement, what then?
I’ve been using these skills to reshape my fundamental assumptions and north star.
Now, achievement for me is empowering myself through growth. Growing myself personally, professionally, emotionally, spirtually, physically so that I can better empower others.
For Streetlight Schools, I believe that the leadership of Heidi, Melanie, Tatenda, Beve, myself and from each member of the team has also enabled an equally challenging and supportive culture, one which has allowed every person who has come into contact with the school to also go on their own journey of unlearning and relearning. At the moment, in fact, I have a growing hunch and hypothesis that triggering such reflection is going to be important for positioning Streetlight Schools strategically now and for the future. The goal now is to make conscious what key aspects allow us to do so, to build the fundamental blocks for an innovative culture.
We’ve seen that to trigger transformation, we ask thought provoking questions, we also challenge our staff, but try to define expectations and provide supports as well. We’ve seen some unbelievably powerful examples of mindset shifts and transformation too. They have embraced these skills implicitly and explicitly as well, and we have tried to transform everyone through building these skills:
And then through embracing these and designing for our community, context and constraints (financial and otherwise), we see the ability to design a school that transforms students.
Questions and performance management designed to trigger reflection and introspection — for our teachers and students.
Opportunities to take on new responsibilities, while being given the support and coaching and training and professional development needed to perform well has helped build confidence.
We reward and look for people who have those habits of discipline and hustle. All our staff work hard, and we expect our students to do the same.
We prioritized building strong, loving, supportive yet accountable relationships with each other as staff and with students. It is through this lens that we incorporate social-emotional learning, trauma counseling, and more into our approach to help our kids build positive self-identity and self-awareness. They have internalized so many damaging and hurtful narratives and perspectives already (experiencing violence, alcoholism, poverty, sex, abuse and even already internalizing views on skin color, e.g., that lighter is prettier or better).
And finally, exposure. It’s one of my most important roles to expose, expose, expose — a big shift happened for me coming into 2020 when I realized that bringing the ideas I get exposed to helps expose my team, and the more I do this, the more they start to learn how to build systems and habits that allow them to gain exposure.
For the whole team (including our admin staff, cleaners, handyman, security, intern), my kickoff to 2020 involved a reflection exercise looking back on the last decade and forward into the upcoming decade. We then introduced the team to 4IR technologies (e.g., autonomous vehicles, robotic process automation, 3D printing, artificial intelligence) and had them get in groups to research and present their findings back to their peers on things like autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence.
And we then see changes. To share a few powerful examples.
Zooming Out and Focusing on Learning Design & Learning Experiences (LD/LX)
Thus, I believe that we must take all this knowledge and critically examine:
We need to examine and update the principles by which we organize, incentivize, build, train, create, staff, recruit for transformational learning experiences.
We need to share exemplars, and we need to analyze them to understand what makes them so powerful, and what are the experiences, lessons, insights they have gleaned. We need to build knowledge management across the sector.
New design aesthetics
New business models
New sandboxes / labs
New divergent, first principles thinking and approaches
To unlock innovation that truly pushes next-generation learning design for transformational learning experiences.
While COVID-19 has killed hundreds, infected thousands and impacted millions — the silver lining is that it presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we must seize. Students, parents, teachers, schools, and communities are working together and have never had more empathy or understanding of the roles that each stakeholder plays. From my team, to schools across Africa, to districts in the US, to young people in Minsk, Pune, Bangalore and beyond, I have never seen more urgent transformation to support continued learning. We can harness this urgency by continuing to empower everyone to be involved, for it takes a village to raise a child.
We can build a movement so that we may empower villages the world over to raise all children and build a better world.
To empower the next generation of innovators, scientists, artists, entrepreneurs and leaders.
We need to ask ourselves how might we transform how we design learning experiences for the next generation to empower them?
That’s the next phase of the journey I’m embarking on.
Starting with discussions, reflection and writing which I plan to share via a series of posts and eventually publish into a book onsome hard-won insights and lessons on innovation in education, why it’s so hard especially in low-resouce contexts, and how we might enable transformative learning design and learning experiences (LD/LX).
I invite you to join me.
PS: Just like with Wikipedia history, GitHub version controlling and knowledge management more broadly, I believe tracing the evolution of thought can be a powerful exercise that yields insights and alignment as well.
Thus, here is the initial draft so you can see how this piece and my thinking evolved while I was reflecting, synthesizing, writing, sharing and conversing with various folks from Google to IDEO to ALX over the course of ~2 weeks. Plus mulling over my own direct experiences at 4.0 and Streetlight.