Diploma is dead… Long live Portfolio.

Why our current model of recognizing knowledge needs an update if we want creativity to survive.

Last month, I participated in my first Rubyconf in São Paulo and I witnessed an amazing talk given by a 13 years old girl wearing a cat ears headband fascinating a crowd of mostly male programmers (twice her age) on how she had managed to make Rails and Angular work together. No need to understand what those are to see my point, bear with me...

Emmanuelle’s other speech earlier this year with the same headband….

What drove attention to her from the dev community was the fact that she coded her first mobile app by the age of 12 and started blogging about it. It’s hard to imagine any other technical or scientific field able to make room at a conference for a girl with a cat ear headband… Emmanuelle does not have any degree, will probably attend university one day… but maybe not. Most probably barely paying attention in class while she build her own stuff on her free time, until one of her idea gets her excited enough to dropout and fully engage on the adventure. And, in the process, learning more than she could imagine the only way she knew how to learn. building stuff. That’s the best I can hope for her anyway.

Not that I really needed to be convinced that our model of education has been completely disrupted in our “digital age” but the scene made me realize something about peer recognition that I hadn’t formalized well until now.

People will care less and less about diploma and more and more about what you’re actually building with the knowledge you got, and that you show on your personal portfolio.

Ste Geneviève Library in Paris, amazing building. How long before every book there is accessible on the Internet?

The adoption of the internet can be compared to the invention of the printing press. The printing press gave us cheaper books, which lead to building more libraries and, in most cases, Universities around them. So now try to imagine what the internet will do to our education system?

Of course it has been the norm in Computer Science for long, before Emmanuelle, tens of “whizz kids” got famous. Aaron Swartz, for instance, the future founder of reddit got invited to a Tech conference by organizers who then realized he was only 13. (Watch this documentary on him, it’s amazing). But what recent history has shown is that what happens in computer science is worth understanding because it’s usually at the forefront of coming changes. Mainly for two reasons :

1/It’s a relatively brand new field if compared to all others, so everything bloomed without any worry about breaking old misconceptions (compared to astronomy in 17th century for example…) and

2/By definition it’s the one science field which usually adopts firsthand all the new digital tools of communication and design. Those same tools responsible for the massive disruption we’re experiencing since the 90's.

So it’s not absurd to imagine that what you see in Computer Science is usually a good anticipation of what’s coming anywhere else. And here is the hard fact:

In Computer Science, no one values diploma, or degree, or certificate. Actually people despise the idea that you need to prove on a piece of paper that you know something…

Bear in mind that 2/3 of programmers in the US are self taught…(Source). No one will blame you from graduating first of a top league school, of course, but until you show what you’ve invented, built and shared (extra credit for open source), they won’t pay much attention...

I wish that Linus Torvalds had said “Diploma is cheap” for my article, but I’m too honest to tweak the quote… Oh and I don’t endorse the finger pointing… But it illustrates well the difference in things you can do on the internet and not in a University library.

So, in a nutshell, and from what I’m witnessing now that I work with developers all day long (…I launched a coding bootcamp in Brazil…), my conviction is that portfolio eats diploma for breakfast.

A diploma proves you’re smart, portfolio proves you’re imaginative.

The classical model of education is based around the idea of having the student find solutions to problems that have already been solved. Teacher only design exams he can correct by assessing answers’s distance to a unique norm of excellence. And what is measured is the student’s ability to replicate (rarely invent on his own) a way to solve the given problem. It always felt a little absurd to me that all those neurons and brain processing power were used for finding stuff we already knew. And even more absurd that using the internet or a calculator was supposed to be cheating. The way we teach in most fields would sound ridiculous for any programmer:

“Please learn this coding language, but you’ll have to learn the documentation by heart and you can’t access Stackoverflow or Github…”.

We check if people remember stuff that are one click away on google for the rest of their life. What’s that type of ability good for, I wonder? We should assess their creativity, we need that kind of people more than untrustworthy human versions of wikipedia.

Says the guy whose teachers ask him to leave school at the age of 15…

We should oblige students to check on the web first before addressing any problem to see if someone somewhere has find a solution, and then publish their own in case it’s new, or move on to an unresolved problem. Problems aren’t scarce nowadays. Of course, this new pedagogy would require to design problems differently (and teachers with imagination). But that’s definitely the kind of trained kids I’ll trust my future with.

So schools should switch to having students learn by building their portfolio instead of preparing exams. Doing so, there’s a much greater chance of them trying to address new problems and contribute, which can only be a good thing. That is in our own very nature to explore and showcase what we’ve built. If you don’t see my point there, you’ve never interacted with a 5 years old.

But how would you make sure they learn? That would be my next paragraph.

A degree gets you recognized by your teachers, a portfolio by the crowd (who is harder to deceive).

A diploma is a recognition that you’ve passed exams designed by a few dozens of teachers max. What’s completely different with portfolio based learning is that there’s no limit to how many people will eventually judge your work. And the number of people using the software you designed, watching the animation you created, or reading the blog you wrote will be the new standard of how great you’ve achieved… Followers, likes and views are the true recognition of the modern age. And those crowds are smarter. They will track any bug, any incoherence, any false information or stolen creatives way faster than the smartest of your teachers… Remember that it’s been proven that wikipedia had less errors than Encyclopedia Britannica, crowds are wiser. (Source)

In this open world where you presented your work willingly, you’ll learn to face criticism and trolls of course, but it won’t be much different from the way you handled that vicious biology teacher who hated you in 7th grade (you know the one…). And if your creation is worth something, the chance of someone in the crowd opening the right door for your next idea is way higher than with most Universities.

Art diploma is an oxymoron

Diploma reveals your conformity, Portfolio your uniqueness.

If you’ve read the different studies on Artificial Intelligence, it’s quite obvious that being good at repetitive “normalized” task is not the kind of learning you want your kids to focus on. And the jobs that will most certainly never be taken over by machine are the one revealing our inner uniqueness: our creativity, our ability to interact “humanely” with people to take care of them or understand their needs, and of course our ability to raise new question that AI programmers did not think of…

Artificial Intelligence may be coming of age, Artificial Imagination not so soon…

The great news (for the creative ones) is that what Robots will take over is the boring part of our lives. Which leads me to my next point:

Exam is boring, portfolio is fun

Let’s be honest, wasting hours of our youthful years parked in silent classrooms to write pages and pages of essays or crossing boxes is just sad. Especially if compared with the excitement of showcasing a new work to an audience, where you have to get everything ready on time, you hope for it to work, and whatever the results, you end up printing those moments in your memory for life. We all have a presentation, a play, a project we remember almost by heart from our college years, and yet 95% of what we learned for the exams seem to simply have evaporated from our brain. Cognitive science now proved what seems obvious. We learn by playing and engaging, learning must be fun and active. And we get excited when we build stuff, not by answering forms or writing essays that need to stick to a very narrow format…

Exam is 100% theory, portfolio is always theory put into practice

The other great thing about a portfolio based pedagogy is that you force people to get their hand dirty. Of course theory is needed, it’s hard to build a complex website without grabbing the Model View Controller theory for instance. But teaching MVC to people without the perspective of actually building a website sounds like torture to most. Would you impose gravity theory to your kid before he’s allowed to ride a bike? Of course not. But once he falls, and gets up again, you’ll have a good starting point to explain the attraction force for sure. (But wait for him to stop crying first…).

One of the common mistake of the diploma mindset is that you put too much effort into preparation and planning. You’ve been formatted to study a whole year for a final exam, and learn four to five years in a university to prepare yourself for 40 years of career… As a result, the mindset is that to achieve great things, you need to learn to design complex system before starting practice. That’s why you see young business school graduates putting so much energy on their business plans and not actually trying to find customers. On the opposite side, the portfolio mentality teaches you to start simple and iterate… And that’s actually the only way every single complex system got started.

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.
 — John Gall (Gall’s Law)

Exams reward competition, portfolio value collaboration.

When education is built around a philosophy of students being trained to conform to become their teacher, it’s easy to rank them. And it’s actually a way of motivating them to become better (unless they’re really bad and lose interest, but that’s a collateral damage we do not seem to care about much…). When your education is based on building projects, the very first lesson is that your ability to cooperate is your biggest asset. The best team always outperforms the best individual. So maybe it’s harder to compare one project to another, but who cares, really? I’m not saying there should not be any form of feedback, of course not, and especially negative feedback if need be. But whoever got the chance to work in a group knows your team mates are usually the harshest in case you don’t deliver. Because they know what you can and can’t do, and if you do or do not put enough effort into it. Way more demanding than a teacher. You might say that you don’t care, but good luck finding a new group next trimester. No one likes to be cast away. That’s peer pressure used for good.

Conclusion, it’s the mentality, stupid!

Should we shut Universities down then? Of course not, and especially since most of them already give their students fantastic opportunities to start a portfolio in the field of their choice. At my business school, I learned to edit videos, use photoshop, speak in public and organize work in voluntary teams of 40 (not easy). None of it in class, though. But at least no one forbid me and I had the time to do it. Good enough. What really needs to be addressed is the mentality surrounding diplomas, valuing them way too much even decades after graduation as if it was a lifelong guarantee of success. If you stop practicing you’ll stop learning, and if you stop learning you’ll become irrelevant in matter of month… Scary? In a way, but the good news is that practice has never been that accessible.

We now live in a open world where anyone can publish anything. So if you build something worth noticing, there has never been a better time to be noticed. Use the platforms! Blog if you want to be a journalist, post on instagram , vimeo or dribbble if you want to be an artist, put your music on soundcloud if you’re a musician, post on github if you’re a coder, publish your videos on youtube if you want to teach, create a business and try raise funds on angel.co if you want to start a business… None of those platforms can guarantee that you’ll reach success, but no diploma will either. The only big difference is platforms will let you try no matter who you are (or your math score in high school was).

So pay attention in class, stick to the best teachers, but start building things and show it to the world.


My name is Mathieu Le Roux. I’m a French guy living in Brazil. I graduated from a business school and got mostly bored so I went on designing a trip project which was just an excuse to meet all the great entrepreneurs that I admired (among which future Nobel Prize Muhammad Yunus in Dhaka). The one-year adventure around the world gave birth to a best selling book translated in 9 languages (no english, sorry…). After a few years as a VC and launching the music streaming service Deezer in Latin America, I cofounded Le Wagon Brazil, the first Brazilian Coding Bootcamp to teach people how to code in 9 weeks and start their portfolio. We don’t deliver any diploma.

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