Turning Around Schools by Telling Better Stories

An interview with Sajan George of Matchbook Learning

photo: Dave Lewinsky

Sajan George specializes in transforming something bad into something good. It’s lucky for our nation’s children that he applies this skill to public education. From 2003 to 2010, Sajan helped restructure some of the largest urban K-12 and higher education institutions in the country, from New Orleans to New York to Washington, D.C.

In 2011, Sajan left the firm of Alvarez and Marsal to start Matchbook Learning, a hybrid education model that works with the nation’s bottom 5% of schools. Since 2011, Matchbook’s work has focused primarily on Detroit (Michigan Technical Academy) and Newark (Merit Preparatory Schools). The Matchbook model is an innovative education model that arms traditional classrooms and teachers with technology in order to customize content and learning experiences for students.

Since day one of Matchbook, FiveStone has partnered to provide branding, organizational storytelling, and design thinking to help properly position Matchbook amongst the sea of competing pedagogies and models.

Recently, the work has shifted to focus on the classroom experience. FiveStone has provided product research, user research, UI/UX design, and strategic thinking to Spark, Matchbook’s technology platform.

I sat down with Sajan to discuss the role of story in communicating new ideas into an industry that, historically, resists change.

Locy: Can you paint a picture of the public education system?

George: Our nation is falling behind our international peers in educating the next generation to be competitive, competent, and impactful in the 21st century. Where we once led the world in how we educate our children, we fall somewhere in the middle/bottom-half of the world in international tests in math, science, and reading. Our nation’s high school graduation rate plateaus at 70%, and for children of poverty, their chances of getting a college degree is a shocking 9%!

Locy: That’s alarming! Why are the numbers so low?

George: Our delivery of education — how we introduce, sequence, and present knowledge and concepts, the feedback mechanisms for understanding whether or not learning has occurred, and the means by which we train and develop teacher — all of that is outdated. They have not fundamentally changed in 100 years. Any other industry competing on the same basis today as it did 100 years ago would be obsolete. Public education has been protected only by the fact that it is a government–run, government-sponsored monopoly ensuring its existence and continuance despite its general lack of performance.

The Detroit schools we’re in are ranked in the bottom 5% — as far as performance — in the entire state of Michigan. We also took over a failing school in Merit Prep in Newark, New Jersey.

Locy: I remember our first meeting together. I asked, “What makes you think you can solve the education problem?” I’m not sure how much you appreciated it at the time, but that was the moment I knew you had what it took and your philosophy was sound. So, what makes you think you can solve the education problem?

George: Was this before or after you said the idea was crazy and nothing could overcome their poverty? (laughing)

Locy: (laughing) I think that’s when we realized we were both a little bit crazy.

George: (laughing) Seriously though, transformative movements stem from overlapping networks that stem from tipping points which stem from proof points. Our focus is simple: create a powerful proof point at the bottom of the education spectrum (i.e., the bottom 5% schools where we work) in a replicable manner. Do it again. Do it again. Keep doing it until the proof point becomes a tipping point. There is an established ecosystem of public education already (i.e., networks of elementary, middle, and high schools), but one that is absent easily scalable proof points. Start with creating one and go from there.

“…transformative movements stem from overlapping networks that stem from tipping points which stem from proof points.”

Locy: One of the first things we did together was evaluate and define the stakeholders that Matchbook would need to communicate with. We realized that each wanted something different from your organization. How has understanding each stakeholder and their connection to one another and to Matchbook defined how you operate?

George: Any field of complexity is difficult to understand and effectively navigate until you have a framework within which the complexity can be mapped along familiar dimensions. This framework serves as a guiding compass of sorts to help navigate a consistent direction. A stakeholder map gives us a framework in how to address the numerous and sometimes competing needs of numerous stakeholders vested in a school’s turnaround. It helps us sequence and structure our communication to be reinforcing a common vision among varying viewpoints.

Locy: Your pitch is crafted with the compelling narrative of a student named Jalen, whom we met at one of your schools. It feels much more like a story than a normal “problem-solution” presentation. How has your understanding of story impacted how you present?

George: At the heart of every story is emotion, which can grip the audience. Too often presenters convey information, logic, and strategy regarding their problem-solution, but they miss the importance of emotionally connecting with their audience. Stories about our work naturally do that.

Locy: Yeah, presentations transfer information while stories transfer emotion. In the story sits the information and context and emotion, all in one neat little package. Don Norman talks about this in his book Things That Make Us Smart. Of course, this can be hard to figure out. I think it’s safe to say we didn’t nail your story on day one. How much has iteration and trying new ideas made your pitch better?

George: If the story is “perfect” then it will not evolve. If your story is not evolving then your organization likely is not either. Iteration of story should flow from the iteration of your organization — as your organization’s vision, strategy, and model gets clearer so should your story. Sometimes clarifying your story can also clarify your organization. The tail can sometimes wag the dog in surprising ways if you have great people helping you communicate your story.

If the story is “perfect” then it will not evolve. If your story is not evolving then your organization likely is not either. Iteration of story should flow from the iteration of your organization — as your organization’s vision, strategy, and model gets clearer so should your story.

Locy: I think of your “When I grow up…” tagline. That idea helped shape your brand, your story, and your pitch. It also became an additive to your offering to the students.

George: Right.

photos: Dave Lewinsky

Locy: We often say that the story you are telling proves that what you are doing is working. But, the story you want to tell shapes your vision and mission. In most cases these start to roll into one another to the audience. But, on your side, what specific outcomes have you imagined as the future of Matchbook and how has story helped you work to get there?

George: When you are a start-up, the biggest threat to your idea not being realized is a lack of funding. No dough, no go. How do you get professional funders to part with their funds when as a start-up you have no track record, no proof points, no real patents or defensible IP or other assets on your balance sheet to leverage? You leverage the one thing you do have — an idea that no one else has — by crafting and then communicating your story in a unique, distinctive, and almost undeniable way. Without this we would have never gotten off the ground. Story is how you get funded.

Locy: Speaking of ideas being realized, how has story helped shape the imagination of your team as it relates to the tech platform you created, Spark?

George: I am not sure. I think what has been most compelling for me is that our vision for how children can and should learn was not being realized by the variety of existing marketplace learning platforms we had contracted with. Frustrated that the story we envisioned was not being realized, we decided two years ago to build our own platform, Spark. Spark today, still does not fully realize the story we imagine — students learning in and outside of class, mastering competencies through projects and learning pathways that they have agency over, in accelerated ways that deepen their readiness for a 21st century world. So we keep iterating on Spark, continually revising and refining the platform’s user experience and user interface to better reflect the story we envision for the children we serve.

Locy: In addition to being featured in magazines and newspapers, you have been asked to speak at the White House, TEDx, Google, and colleges and universities around the country. Why do you think people are so attracted to what you are doing?

George: To whatever extent Matchbook Learning has been able to carve out some recognition in this space — despite a lack of a track record — it is because our vision connects people with the heart of God. Why would anyone start a venture targeting the worst public schools in America? It does not follow any kind of logic, but God’s love rarely does. When people see, hear, and experience our vision, I believe they see, hear, and experience a tiny part of God’s heart for the underprivileged children in our nation, and that experience with His heart resonates deeply within them.

The better we get at reducing noise, clutter, marketing, and even “branding” and letting the heart of our vision be the heart of God, the better we seem to do. The more we can capture in text, speech, imagery, and practice God’s sadness over the current state of His children’s education and His hope for their future, the more the world responds with favor.

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