5 questions with Matthew Rascoff

Matthew Rascoff leads Learning Innovation at Duke University. He previously founded and led Learning Technology & Innovation for the University of North Carolina system. Before UNC, Matthew worked as an advisor to education foundations and launched Amplify’s product development center in Durham, NC. After undergraduate studies at Columbia University he did graduate work at Bogazici University in Istanbul on a Fulbright Scholarship. He earned an MBA from Harvard Business School. Matthew serves on Capita’s Advisory Board.

Matthew Rascoff

JW: The innovation ecosystem in higher education is much further developed than the innovation ecosystem in early childhood development. What can aspiring early childhood innovators and entrepreneurs learn from the experience in higher education?

MR: The American education system invests too little in research and development. This is true of all levels, from early childhood to career education. The 2018 federal budget provided $617 million to the Institute of Education Sciences at the Education Department. The National Institutes of Health’s budget? Nearly $35 billion — or 56 times greater. Is healthcare innovation 56 times more important than education innovation?

The education innovation ecosystem faces a common set of challenges. Where there have been successes, they have been through meaningful collaborations among practitioners, investors (philanthropic or commercial), and researchers. Those partnerships can take the form of venture-backed startups co-founded by a teacher and an engineer; design-based implementation research partnerships between academicians and educators; and open source knowledge-sharing communities and projects.

We need greater focus on efficacy and learning outcomes. That doesn’t mean we can’t test unproven new ideas — such curiosity-driven experimentation is at the heart of innovation. But it turns out it’s easier to generate new ideas than it is to scale up those that are working, and both are necessary for the innovation ecosystem to thrive. Education needs stage-gating processes along the lines of the pharmaceutical phased trial system. We should calibrate R&D investments to the efficacy data. When an emerging approach demonstrates results we scale it up — then gather more data for the next phase of evaluation. We need a rational system for the evidence-based diffusion of education innovations.

JW: You and I spoke recently about the power of ritual in forming children. Tell us about how you and your wife attend to ritual in your own family and with your young son.

MR: Becoming a parent makes everyone an amateur psychologist. In my case, though, it’s also made me an amateur cultural anthropologist.

Young children are creatures of ritual. They crave schedules and notice discrepancies in patterns with incredible acuity. Maybe prehistoric people created religion to provide communal rituals for their children. This would explain why children are at the heart of so much of religious practice. Rituals made parenting easier, made childhood happier, made unpredictable life more predictable, and passed on communal and family traditions and wisdom from one generation to the next.

My 2-year-old son loves the weekly and daily rituals of services, school, mealtimes. Slow Food and the “secular sabbath” reintroduced ritual by restoring and updating traditions of communal dining and disconnecting. With creative adaptations they bring the wisdom of ancient traditions to modern life. This approach is fertile ground for exploration by future social innovators.

JW: You wrote recently about the power of small group collaborations between innovators, product developers, educators, and students. Give us an example of how such collaboration has powered innovations that have been implemented at Duke.

MR: Bring together a big challenge, a team of the right size from a diverse set of backgrounds and skills, and a good design process, and you will make progress on your challenge. On my team we use design sprints, a process of prototyping, testing, and decision-making. (I am experimenting with this approach in a doctoral workshop a colleague and I are running this summer.) An excellent book, “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days,” by Jake Knapp et al, shows how to bring this approach to different kinds of design challenges.

JW: What is one book we should read, podcast we should listen to, or piece of art we should encounter to better understand childhood today?

MR: Just one? Let me give you a small selection.

  • The open course “Everyday Parenting: The ABCs of Child Rearing,” from Prof. Alan E. Kazdin of Yale University, is an evidence-based behavioral approach to parenting. (Along similar lines I’ve enjoyed the New York Times podcast about behavior change, Change Agent.)
  • The Science of Happiness offers research-based advice from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and PRI. It’s not about childhood per se, but particularly worth a listen for those involved with children. We should all understand the basics of positive psychology in order to counterbalance the negativity bias (among others) hard wired into our brains.
  • The Caught podcast from WNYC is about how interactions with the juvenile justice system affect many children (especially those of color).
  • For those concerned about the impact of digital devices on children I would recommend the “The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life” by my friend Anya Kamenetz.
  • Swim Team is a powerful new documentary made by a friend, now on Netflix, about the Hammerheads, a New Jersey swim team whose members are all on the autism spectrum.

JW: Looking ahead, what signals or trends do you perceive that make you most hopeful about the future our children will inhabit?

MR: If you want to predict the future look to our future leaders — what issues they care about, what resonates with them, what projects are they working on. The mathematics educator William Speer said recently, “Teachers remember: on your very worst day, you are still some child’s best hope.” That is true. But I would add that our children are our collective best hope.

My students at UNC and Duke are passionately committed to improving education. Last year a group of my students at UNC won a Tiny Fellowship from 4.0 Schools to launch a tool they designed in a class I co-taught that provides college counseling to low-income high school students through text messages with undergraduates. It turns out UNC students can often speak to the challenges of college admissions more authentically than professional counselors — because they have been through it themselves more recently. A student-led startup at Duke supports peer tutoring in high schools, using technology to make tutoring matches and help students help one another with challenging material.

My students inspire me. They remind me why I do what I do. And they give me immense hope for the future.