Connecting teachers and developers

I often say that when it comes to K-12 learning technologies, we need lots of innovators working in different ways on the same opportunities. My team and I believe this can help speed up the innovation cycle for lots of great, affordable solutions aimed at tough instructional challenges.

Grant-makers, including my team at Gates, often strive to fund the “best” intervention with hopes it will produce results and be able to “go to scale.” But this needle in a haystack approach can be ineffective when it comes to early stage learning technologies. New applications and tools are rarely “right” from the beginning. They need time for testing with users and room for shifts in functionality and business model. Philanthropy can have the unintended consequence of buffering entrepreneurs from the natural give and take between product developers and customers that makes solutions better.

That’s why we’re trying to spend more of our time and capital on increasing the number of needles in the haystack so they are easier to find. I’m not sure this haystack analogy works, though I promised myself I’m not going to edit these posts much. But you get the picture. Rather than always looking for THE solution, we’re trying to figure out ways to strengthen incentives for lots of players to tackle tough problems, trusting that in the long-run customers will pick the winners based on what works. I talked with edsurge about this a few months ago and will share more of what we’re thinking and doing on this front on this blog over the next few months.

One of the projects we’ve been working on with partners for a couple of years is the Shared Learning Collaborative.  We’re funders and I chair the board.  The project is complicated, but one of my favorite descriptions shows how the SLC tech services help Mr. Thompson, a fake middle school math teacher, personalize learning for his students.

Though good ol’ Mr Thompson is fake, the scenario he represents is very real. By working with partners to solve key pain points at the infrastructure level, the SLC aims to create more incentives for innovation in applications that help personalize and accelerate learning for students. At this point we’ve talked with around 1000 educators about what they need from instructional technologies. One thing we heard loud and clear is that many applications don’t take into account the reality of the classroom — which problems are most important, how kids and teachers interact, what resources they have available.

So, we are working to link teachers more closely with developers & entrepreneurs who want to put their creativity and talent to work on solutions that matter most for kids and teachers. In that spirit, over the weekend I was in Silicon Valley at  SLC Camp with 300 educators and developers who formed teams to generate ideas and translate them into prototype apps over about 30 hours.  Here’s a team of teachers and developers at work on their idea:

SLC camp

At the end of the weekend, seven teams of educators and developers pitched their ideas and demo-ed their prototypes. Three won cash prizes. I’ll do a short post later in the week with brief descriptions of the winners. In the meantime, let me know what you think about our intention to spend more time on strengthening incentives for lots of innovators and creating better connections between teachers and product developers.

Design principles for personalized learning in schools

Over at Impatient Optimists, the official Gates Foundation site, my teammate Scott Benson and I blogged about our investments in personalized learning in schools. It’s a solid high-level overview of our approach, but the IO editorial process resulted in a bit of a formal tone.

So, I wanted to use this blog to spark a more direct dialogue about the set of design principles we look for in schools we’re investing in:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their own optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact

Obviously not every school we’re investing in has every principle figured out. The two that are wide-open for innovation right now are self-pacing & mastery-based credit and student ownership. We think both are important and we’re following their evolution closely. Here’s a little more about what we mean by each:

Self-pacing & mastery-based credit

As soon as students learn something and can demonstrate it, they should get credit for it and move on. Move on to the next set of concepts and skills on their learning path, and move on to deeper engagement in topics they’re interested in. No more sitting through hours of classroom instruction that’s too basic or too advanced. No more tyranny of the clock and the calendar. This is such a compelling idea, and really hard to implement in a school, a network, or a district. It requires a rethink of time, classroom organization, teacher roles, student support, and curriculum & assessment. Some school leaders and policy-types are doing and saying important things on this topic. Diane Tavenner, CEO at Summit Public Schools, recently blogged about their efforts on this front over at Blend My Learning . The folks over at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation are supporting several schools that are experimenting with what they call competency-based curriculum and credit – you can read more about it here.

Student ownership

The NYT recently chronicled the college-going experiences of three low-income girls from my neck of the woods (or rather, coastal plain) in Galveston, Texas. Even though they had done well academically in high school, the girls struggled with all sorts of challenges at college. A growing body of research and practice is focused on the kinds of factors that contribute to stories like theirs. Paul Tough wrote about it in How Children  Succeed, my favorite education book last year. Some critics of high performing charter networks say the “no-excuses” model of intensive teacher support employed to help students score well on state exams and graduate fails to develop the habits and initiative required to successfully navigate learning opportunities after high school. Many of the same school leaders are dismayed by the college completion rates of their graduates. While their completion rates are often higher than others like them, these students still graduate at a rate far below those of higher-income students with similar academic records.  A number of these schools are tapping into a body of research that might help set students up for longer-term success.

The research team at the Chicago Consortium for School Research produced a great literature review  on “non-cognitive” factors that lead to better academic performance, and Carol Dweck and colleagues reviewed the research on what she calls academic tenacity. Both have extensive bibliographies if you’re interested in reading more. For a look at what a couple of schools are doing to implement the ideas, check out the KIPP NY initiative and Diane Tavenner’s description of what they are doing at Summit.

We’re at the beginning of our learning curve on these aspects of personalized learning and privileged to be working with so many innovators. What do you think about our list of design principles? Have you seen interesting implementations of self-pacing & mastery-based credit or student ownership we should know more about?

If writing is thinking…

…blogging is thinking out loud. That’s not a new idea, but it’s appropriate here. I like to think about what I’m going to say before I say it. I’m much more comfortable sharing something I’ve written after I’ve edited it 87 times. The paradox, though, is the sooner I kick my ideas around with others (or have them kicked around by smart people), the sooner they get sharpened. And the faster I learn.

That’s the goal of Thinking Out Loud. My team and I are interacting with so many innovators through our next generation learning work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This is a place where I’ll try to share ideas and reflections about what we are seeing and learning, before we’ve had a chance to fully make sense of it all. Hopefully this will spur dialogue with lots of folks who will help shape the ideas and strengthen the insights.