Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Land of the EdTech... and the Home of Unity?

One of my faviourite conferences started yesterday which is the Education Innovation Summit. I stayed up into the wee small hours to tune in to the event live. The theme of the event this year is on "The American Dream." 

After Michael Moe's keynote I thought I'd call it a day, but then Betsy Corcoran from EdSurge came on... It would have been plain rude not to remain tuned in (Although there were mixed reviews about Don Grahams "Dreamer" program).

Next up was Jeb Bush, definitely time to say good night all, I thought.

I ended up listening to it, in part because I wanted to compare what US and UK politicians views on education were. There was also the fact that the Twitter stream had a good mix of insightful and humorous commentary. I found Katrina Stevens and Jaime Casap's Tweets particularly interesting.

Something that surprised me was how pro-EdTech Bush's speech was, how "Entrepreneurship is not a threat to public education and that the government's role in education is 'to serve as an honest broker'"

There was even a shout out for some of the EdTech innovators.

I work in EdTech and know that Education was not always ran or funded by the Nation State, but found this free enterprise speech highly unusual, not you're usual political rhetoric... I also found myself taking a slightly cynical viewpoint and thinking "Is this speech designed just to appeal to the audience" and "Wow! Is the economy in such a bad state that politicians are so desperate, that they've taken to pitching EdTech?"  

Part of what makes this conference great is that it brings a diverse group of education stakeholders together. I wonder if anyone will come away from this years' event with an anecdote that starts out with "an Educator, a politician, and a EdTech founder walk into a bar during the #EdInnovation summit..." I doubt the punchline of the story would have anything to do with unity. If you were to throw in a parent or two, a few students and the various socio-economic factors I think this would only confuse matters, as opposed to clarify anything.

Education: Same Old Story 
This is one of the reasons why I'm a little fearful about education. Different stakeholders can tend to read into the actions of other groups. I wonder how much this disconnect and these mis-perceptions play in the fact that economic background still determines people's life chances today. Have things really remained unchanged since World War 1? All tools, education methodology, additional teachers, technology... and the same outcomes? 

Lewis Terman's longitudinal study in 1914 highlighted that economic background was the determining factor in whether or not 1,400 kids with high IQs would reach their potential. At the Education Innovation summit Michael Moe highlighted the synergy with high SAT scores and kids who have wealthy parents.

I'm reading a book that few educators would probably pick up, it's called "Life's a Pitch - What the World's Best Sales People can Teach Us All" (And in line with people's misperceptions, yes the reason I got this book was to see how to fleece hard working educators for every penny ;) Lol).

I found a real nugget of wisdom in this book regarding organisational culture and leadership;

Steve Wynn, a billionaire hotel and casino owner was speaking at a conference and began his speech with the following statement "I'm going to discuss something publicly that I've never discussed in my career...A few years ago I had dropped my wife and daughter off at a Four Seasons Hotel. My daughter ordered a croissant. It was delicious and rich, and she could eat only half of it. She wrapped the rest in plastic and left it in the refrigerator so she could eat it when she returned.

When they returned to their room, the croissant was gone. Ah well, they thought. Fair enough. Housekeeping must have assumed it was left to be thrown away. Then they noticed the message light was flashing on their phone. They called reception and housekeeping wanted to have a word. "Thank you for calling" the housekeeper said "We wanted to know when you got back so we could bring you a fresh croissant. The one you left would have gone dry by now." So  impressed was my wife that she called me on the other side of the world. I was so impressed that I called my friend Issy Sharp, the founder of Four Seasons.

After speaking of this exceptional customer service Wynn said to the audience "If I could have one professional wish come true, it would be this;

"That my employees would relate to people not as customer with employee, but as two human beings talking to one another... if somehow we could harness that energy, we could change the history of the enterprise and achieve total market dominance in any service business in the world"   

Wynn achieved this dream through story telling. The lowest ranks in the firm meets with their supervisors who begin meetings with "Anything happen yesterday that's interesting?" Slowly, the hands go up. Good news stories about exceeding customers expectations which are published on the Wynn intranet and posted on the walls of service areas and staff rooms. Now every member of staff wants their story on the wall. Everyone goes to work looking for a story. It is pristine, it is simple, it is profoundly effective, and it has changed the history of my enterprise"

Doesn't sound so difficult does it? I know that this unity and these great stories happen elsewhere. Elite Universities tell their stories of "Having a proud Tradition of alumni who work in Fortune 500 and/or IPO Startup" The best Tech and EdTech companies call it "culture and core values," but its the same thing, using stories to say "This is who we are... this is what's important to us... this is how we roll"  

This is also the reason that I fear many of the issues that are "creating an aristocracy in education" might perpetuate in the US and anywhere else, because I'm not sure if all stakeholders are able to put aside their differences (and stop the blame game) and to come together to look for, encourage and share these great stories. 

Empirical Data
The UK has always had its aristocracy, it's old boys networks, elitism and divide and conquer as a strategy to rule it's Empire. It's a shame to hear that the US might be heading the same way, and because the very thing that first generation immigrants used to help provide their kids with a better life is becoming less and less of an option to them.

The patriotism, land of opportunity, the "can do attitude" & pioneering spirit... the American Dream has been a breath of fresh air... but it looks like the winds are changing.

However, while I'm a realist, I am also an optimist. I wonder if the reason the US is become an aristocracy if it's a survival mechanism because they know to heed Andrew Carnagie's advice;

"It is not the rich man’s son that the young struggler for advancement has to fear in the race of life. Let him look out for the “dark horse” in the boy who begins by sweeping out the office" Andrew Carnegie

Maybe first generation wealthy people know this and have played their part in "The big sort," and do what they can to give their kids a "leg up" to provide the "cultural advantage" that comes with their hard work: confidence and contacts... Miles Corak highlights how some 75% of children with wealthy parents work for the same employer as their parents (this goes up to 90% for the richest 1%). Of course, this is only natural.

However there are other environmental factors that would appear to be at play at the other end of the spectrum. Oliver James suggests that there are conditions that are strongly associated with high achievement... like having a family that is in some way socially marginal, for example an immigrant family.

Michael Moe suggested that "perhaps universal education was perhaps the greatest American invention" So when the doors of education are closed to the most margialised groups... I'm not sure what the policy makers, teachers, parents or students will do.

If they can't come together to create and tell some great stories, I know what I will do... I'll put my money on the dark horse who's fresh off the boat and has a brush in hand and his sleeves rolled up, and is ready to bring in some sweeping changes. When you look at the people who have went from poor to rich, who would bet against them... 

From Poor to Rich

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