The Spike Lab’s Reason for Being
(中文) My wife and I recently had our first child and although Claire is now only 9 months old, I already find myself thinking a lot about her education. Am I going to give her the best education possible? What does that even mean? My wife and I are both very busy professionals so are we going to be able to teach Claire all skills that schools don’t focus on? I find it pretty stressful because so much is at stake.
Most parents, like me, aren’t satisfied with an “academic-only” education: an education that focuses primarily on developing our kids cognitive abilities. Yes, I want Claire to be a great intellect, but my real priority is for her to be happy and successful in life. In the US, Taiwan and throughout the world today, the purpose of grade school (Kindergarten — 12th grade) is primarily to develop intellect. For kids, especially older kids, success means academic success. But academic achievement shouldn’t be the exclusive goal of our schools. Academic success (high IQ) does not equal life success, so why is our education system designed as if it did? What if all students graduated from high school with the achievement skills often associated with great leaders and entrepreneurs?
Alongside a large and rapidly growing community of educators, parents and students, I am drawn to an approach to education called whole child development, a pedagogy that is designed to intentionally and systematically develop all critical dimensions of the student: cognitive, social, emotional, creative, moral, physical — including achievements skills. However, I am contrarian in how I believe this pedagogy should be implemented. Namely, I don’t think schools should aspire to a model where they try to take on the full burden of the job. The vast majority of US schools already struggle when held accountable to basic academic (cognitive) achievement levels. Imagine how much less effective they would be if they tried to take on so much more?
When you need to do more, it’s imperative to do less! This may be counterintuitive, but it’s now commonly accepted advice with regard to smart, efficient systems design. If you’re a computer science buff, then this concept is best articulated in the Single Responsibility Principle that’s the most important organizing principle behind most software programs today. If you’re a normal human being like me who likes to use technology, particularly Apple products, then you also understand this concept that simple design is better.
I’m going to use the two remote controls on my living room coffee table as a metaphor to drive this point home.
Schools that take on too much inevitably look like the first one (Verizon Cable), which I abhor. We want schools to look and feel like the second one (Apple TV), which I love.
Schools shouldn’t try to take on more; they should try to do even less. However, education does NOT equal school. It goes far beyond the walls of any institution and the sooner we take that fully into account when designing the education systems of the future the better.
So how could our education system be organized to take this concept of less is more into account? Matt Candler, a respected thought-leader on U.S. education and the CEO of 4.0 Schools, has been the champion of a vision that answers this question quite convincingly. He argues for smaller schools and a more responsive, networked learning ecosystem, and I highly recommend you read this blog post where he elaborates on his vision at greater depth. In his vision, kids learn from a patchwork of separate but highly coordinated learning spaces and the primary stewards of their learning are the student, the parents (or primary caretakers), the school and sometimes other independent tutors and coaches.
The key point from Candler’s vision that I want to underscore is the notion of unbundling school. The US, Taiwan and most countries throughout the world have bundled education into the institution we call ‘school’, and we’ve done so for so long that it’s hard sometimes for people to differentiate school from education even though they are two very different things. Most organizations that have bundled services for too long turn into that awful remote control above and stifle progress and innovation. This is because bundling, although it initially brings great benefits to people through cost savings (through economies of scale) and through increased convenience (one stop shop), gives the biggest, most bundled companies in an industry a highly defensible market position that’s hard to compete with by any other new or smaller player in the field. After a short amount of time, these bundled companies end up relying primarily on their size and convenience to compete and not on other forms of innovation to stay ahead of the competition. Without competition breathing down their backs, companies and organizations don’t innovate very quickly. Schools are no different. Due to regulatory barriers and public/charitable funding, most schools also operate effectively as local monopolies with a highly bundled service offering. As a result, the quality of our education system hasn’t improved very much in the last century, especially compared to less-monopolized industries and sectors.
Innovation accelerates fastest when excessively bundled models are unbundled into connected yet more specialized pieces. For example, society benefited enormously when Craigslist unbundled the classifieds from century-old newspaper business model and then a decade later when AirBnB, Etsy, Stubhub et al unbundled Craigslist. Companies like Chunghwa Telecom Co (CHT) or Verizon in the Telecom industry also clearly exemplifies how unbundling generates massive innovation and benefits to society. To this present day, CHT and Verizon, like all Telecoms, are still pursuing their age old strategy of bundling services that enable fixed-line phone calls, mobile phone calls, text messaging (SMS), media messaging (MMS), paging, cable television, pay-per-view Movies and Internet. However, consumers are gradually replacing all the Telecom services, except Internet access, with Internet-based Apps like Skype, Google Hangouts, Line, WhatsApp, Instagram, SnapChat, Slack and Apple TV. (There is a reason those remote controls look so different!) Nonetheless, across the world ever since compulsory education was established in the mid-19th century, schools have remained bundled, and we have not benefited from massive innovation-driven improvements in the quality or cost of education. If you’re curious what the bundle is, then I highly suggest reading Michael Staton’s (a successful SIlicon Valley education entrepreneur and investor at Learn Capital) popular blog post that outlines the 12 education services bundled into school.
I agree with Candler’s vision that unbundling schools will bring massive improvements in our education systems. So when I say that schools should do less, I mean that they should hold on to some of the critical functions of education, like teaching the core academic subjects, and then take on the new responsibility to make it very easy for their students to access third party experts, institutions or software tools that teach other key developmental skills. In Silicon Valley speak, school should become the platform (iPhone) but there can be many education providers (apps).
How does all this connect with The Spike Lab? Christine and I founded The Spike Lab because we fervently believe that we, as a global society, can and need to do a much better job teaching kids life achievement skills. Achievement skills include both hard skills like planning, goal-setting, prioritization, strategy, self-initiative, entrepreneurship, productivity management, time management, and execution, and soft character skills like empathy, resourcefulness, grit, agency, confidence and growth-mindedness. Parents across the world, like Christine and I, aren’t satisfied with an ‘academic-only’ education.* We want to give our children an education that is not only the very best at developing our kids’ cognitive skills but also their achievement skills. More importantly, kids want this too! Instead of just crossing their fingers and hoping that their school will do a good job at teaching them life achievement skills or having to take the initiative to teach themselves these skills on their own, kids can take control of their own education and get a coach from The Spike Lab.
The Spike Lab exists for the dual purpose of helping our students get into top US colleges and to help them learn these critical achievements skills. The two are very closely connected. Teaching these life-long skills is a focus of this program both because it will fundamentally change students’ lives and because it is also what top colleges looking for in applicants now more than ever. Our achievement coaching program helps our students get into top US colleges AND serves as a meaningful developmental opportunity to fundamentally change their lives beyond college admission.
Furthermore, we also founded The Spike Lab because it fits into what we believe is the right model for the future of education. The unbundled future of education described above needs specialized programs like ours that are designed to fit into and complement ‘school’. Our ability to be hyper-specialized has enabled us to set a new bar for what it means to teach life-achievement skills and unleash the potential of a new generation of changemakers who have what it takes to build beautiful and meaningful things.
Just as Google is an Internet search company with a moon-shot mission to organize the world’s information, we are a college counseling company with the mission to enable all students to graduate from high school with the achievement skills often associated with leaders and entrepreneurs. As our education system slowly gets unbundled, The Spike Lab will be complementary to school and serve to give students, like my daughter, Claire, the incredible whole-child education that isn’t attainable today.
Read our website to learn more about our 6-month achievement coaching program, and contact us to learn more. Sign up for our newsletter (in Chinese or English) if you (or your children) are at the end of middle school in Taiwan or in the beginning of high school — the equivalent of 9th or 10th grade in the US — and want to receive more important information about preparing for US colleges, learning life achievement skills and hearing about related, upcoming events.
*Qualifier: Educators reading this might be offended by this simplification of their work. They also put a lot of time and effort into non-academic skill development. My point here is that students’ cognitive development is by far the priority of school. It’s what the institution values more; it’s what is being measured, tracked and rewarded, especially in late middle school and high school, which is my primary concern right now.