Rethink Education
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Rethink Education

Communities of Trust and Care: Education in 2022 and Beyond

Matt Greenfield

Last year I wrote a blog post that discussed Rethink Education’s values, beliefs, and investment theses. Buried in the middle of that post was a sentence that I think distills our core beliefs in a helpful way. Here it is again, with slight modifications:

We believe that education at every level should combine the playfulness and joy of preschool, the intense collaborative experiments of a hackathon, and the deep self-guided exploration of a doctoral program.

I and my colleagues at Rethink Education are not alone in believing in this kind of education. Many people, starting with my friend and mentor Jennifer Carolan, responded strongly to this sentence when I published it last year. My sentence helped them describe something they already passionately believed. There are tens or hundreds of millions of people who believe in and practice this kind of learning, frequently outside of traditional schools and colleges and corporate trainings. I am following in the footsteps of giants. I recommend the work of John Seely Brown, Cathy N. Davidson, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Laura Sandefer, Sugata Mitra, Esther Wojcicki, and Clark Aldrich, to name just a few examples. Inspiring examples of this approach to education include the national education system of Finland, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, XQ Schools, Acton Academy, High Tech High, the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero, Rethink Education’s own portfolio company Sora Schools, CoLearn Club, Synthesis School, the Stanford University d.school, the MIT Media Lab, Singularity University, Georgetown University’s Red House, and Big Picture Learning and College Unbound. There is a wonderful non-profit called Education Reimagined that is trying to knit together the believers into a coherent social and political movement that can pursue system change in a more deliberate way. I intend to help this movement in any way I can.

It may seem strange that a powerful and dynamic movement with tens of millions of practitioners doesn’t have a name. But there is no single phrase that points clearly and unambiguously to the kind of learning I described above. Some people call it “student-centered learning.” But that phrase is bland and a little ambiguous: some people use the phrase to describe approaches that are student-centered in only a trivial sense. “Progressive education” is a widely-used term, but one that has perhaps curdled and passed its sell-by date.

I am still looking for a simple, resonant name for the kind of education I believe in. The best ones I have thought of so far are “joyful education,” “imagination-nurturing education,” and “curiosity-driven learning.” But I have the nagging sense that a better name is just around the corner. I welcome other suggestions; please email or DM me. For now, I think “joyful education” is probably in the lead just because of its brevity and clarity. After I coined the phrase in a discussion with Kelly Young, president of Education Reimagined, I discovered that Laura Sandefer previously used the phrase in her inspiring 2017 book Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down.

Many people are suspicious of joyful education. I recently had a conversation with someone who made major contributions to the U.S. charter school movement, and he firmly dismissed my explanation of how I thought our education system needed to change. Education, he explained, could not be all dessert. Students also needed to eat a large amount of broccoli.

I happen to be the parent of a picky eater, and I can attest that not all children can be fed broccoli. As Mark Twain said, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” Forcing children to do things they hate is not right, and it is also not practical or sustainable.

Force-feeding children educational broccoli yields mixed results. Many students revolt or lose confidence, particularly those who are victims of deprivation, bias, and violence. All human beings are engineered to be voracious learners, but many of us end up hating and fearing school. And even the most avid broccoli eaters may have their own problems. Anyone who graduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has eaten a large amount of broccoli, has shown a huge appetite for broccoli. And MIT graduates are unquestionably talented and impressive people. So it is sobering to watch the famous video of multiple MIT graduates being given a battery, some light bulbs, and a wire and asked whether they can make a bulb light up. The video was obviously edited selectively and may be unfair in other ways, but it nonetheless hints at a massive failure of elite education. Now think about all of the students who become depressed or even suicidal because they are terrified that they won’t be accepted by universities like MIT.

What could STEM education look like without the force-feeding of broccoli? A decade ago I visited the original Acton Academy location in Austin, at a time when all of their students were twelve or younger. Those students had developed a shockingly strong understanding of science. At Acton, teachers are prohibited from ever answering a question with a declarative statement. Teachers can only coach, nudge, and ask questions. Acton’s curious, playful primary-school students had designed a series of experiments to understand the flow of electricity and how it resembled and differed from the flow of water. I am confident that any randomly-selected ten-year-old from Acton would have succeeded instantly where at least some MIT graduates failed. Joyful education works. Students who learn joyfully and curiously and experimentally and autonomously develop a deeper understanding of science and everything else. If you want sustained, profound, original thinking, you cannot force-feed students broccoli.

There are sparks of joyful education everywhere in education systems and platforms around the globe, but however heroic the efforts of individual teachers and administrators and developers, the norm is still joyless. What are the alternative spaces where learning is joyful and autonomous? How do we transform existing systems and platforms?

There are books that tell a series of beautiful anecdotes about joyful education but do not offer a set of practical steps for large-scale system change. System change is a daunting challenge, a wicked problem. Where do we start?

I will avoid giving a utopian, paralyzingly elaborate prescription that cannot be implemented.

There are two simple steps we can take. First, within schools and colleges, we can stop using letter grades, which create entirely the wrong kind of incentive and which are ultimately useless even for filtering students for elite colleges and employers. We can replace grades with portfolios and lists of competencies. We need to shift institutional focus away from summative assessment and toward formative feedback, experimentation, and exploration.

Second, creators of new tools and services for learning can focus on collaboration. Not all collaborative platforms are effective, but we should approach with caution any platform that does not foster collaboration.

Education tools need to integrate with the platforms people use to work and learn and play and maintain human connections. People learn where they communicate. The crucial learning platforms of our time include GitHub, Discord, Slack and Teams, SMS, email, WhatsApp, Zoom, Twitter, Figma, Facebook, Wikipedia, Roblox, WeChat, Fortnite, Snap, 4Chan (alas), Pinterest, gaming console software, TikTok, Toutiao, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, Salesforce, Facebook, DropBox, and Google Workspace, to name just a few. Web3 offers some fascinating new possibilities for the creation of new kinds of learning community. As these web3 communities emerge, it is interesting to see how dependent many of them are on Discord.

On all of these established platforms as well as on the new ones yet to be built, the challenge is to build healthy, compassionate, equitable communities. Many of these social communication platforms are predatory and divisive, geared to amplify or even create envy, insecurity, bias, fear, and hatred. Others are designed to serve the needs of institutions rather than the humans who inhabit or interact with those institutions.

Learners can only truly thrive and grow within a community or collective space that they trust. Learners need to feel accepted, protected, and even cherished. If they don’t feel safe, they won’t experiment or build or speak the truth about their own experiences. Stress inhibits not just bold exploration but even rote learning. It is completely crazy to subject students to processes designed to intensify their stress and self-doubt.

One way to think about the next generation of education platforms is that they need to create a space of safety within a hostile, attention-fragmenting, anxiety-generating environment. Education tools, platforms, services, and institutions need to function as an antidote to the rest of the world. Perhaps every learning activity ought to start with a ritual of detoxification, a ceremony of caring and trust.

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Rethink Education

Rethink Education

Unlocking human potential through education technology.