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Stealing Innovation from the Gods Part 2: Education Unbound

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Prometheus was set free by Heracles and eventually made peace with Zeus, but not until countless years of suffering had passed. Herculean efforts are underway in education to break the chains that hold it firmly to the past. MOOCs and other free online offerings are all attempts to set education free, but the obstacles they face are significant. What will it take to unchain education and liberate humanity?


Heracles Rescuing Prometheus by Christian Driepenkerl

This is a natural time for a revitalization to occur in education. The industrial age is waning (in the U.S. at least) and the information age is rising – changing the way we live, work, play, socialize, and educate. This is an historic moment in the course of human existence. We have an opportunity to shape the future in new and exciting ways that will benefit the long-term interests of the species and the planet as a whole. To accomplish this we must first unshackle ourselves from the past. There is no mythical Heracles who can free us – we must do it for ourselves through our own creative abilities, innovation, and education.  Here is a look at the chains that bind us and what we must do to set ourselves free.

The Fire That Must Be Stolen
There are several things required in order for education to become truly unbound – universal equitable access, uninhibited funding, and innovation in all its forms.

  • Universal Acces: The first thing that must happen in order for education to realize its potential as a democratizing, liberating force is to ensure that everyone has access to excellent schools or comparable alternatives. Vouchers are not the answer for everyone and neither is the idea that some students need or deserve a superior education. If we are to truly see what education is capable of we must first guarantee that every child has access to excellent schools at the elementary, middle school, high school and college levels. That access needs to be both affordable (free) and located so that all students can easily attend without relying on someone to drive them, public transportation, or ridiculously long bus rides. Most importantly every school needs to provide a safe, secure, well resourced, and expertly staffed environment. Young minds are the greatest natural resource on the planet and ignoring any of them does a disservice to the entire society by cutting off potential new sources of innovation before they can develop.
  • Uninhibited Funding: There is only one reason to cut education budgets – those responsible for allocating federal and state funding do not value education for the masses. Either they ignorantly, arrogantly, and blindly subscribe to a bootstrap mentality without acknowledging the societal support structures that have led them to positions of power, or they simply don’t care about those they are harming by cutting spending in our schools. Universal access to excellent educational options can only be provided through making learning our number one budgetary concern. Education funding should never be on the negotiating table when it comes to balancing budgets. Cutting funding from schools chokes the potential of the students attending those schools, and subsequently damages our societal ability to generative innovative solutions to problems, and to create new income streams. There is no limit to how much funding education could receive. More money spent on learning will always yield greater results and more innovation.
  • Innovation: Providing outstanding funding and access to excellent schools is not effective unless the curriculum in those schools is designed to support students in becoming innovative thinkers. In a global economy where it is cheaper to outsource almost everything, the final area of economic viability for Americans is in our ability to produce innovators. Reliance on standardized curriculums evaluated by standardized tests cannot, by definition, develop creative individuals. Standardization stifles innovation rather than inspiring it. This emphasis on creativity must also extend to teachers and administrators themselves, who should be encouraged to incorporate new technologies and methodologies for learning whenever possible. They should also work to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit in students which will encourage the kinds of innovative thinking that we should be cultivating.

 One way to encourage all three of these factors is to make technology a core component of educational curriculums. A move to a technology-centric model of education would "provide students with the background skills and knowledge to not only be contributors to the global economy, but to become the innovators and entrepreneurs who drive it" (Technology is the Answer to Educational Reform, 23 July, 2012). It would also demand increased funding and a focus on providing schools with the best possible resources for learning. Lastly, a techno-centric curriculum for education would help to provide universal access through online options and other innovations that encourage a globally inclusive model of learning.

Waiting for Heracles
Education is currently constrained in its ability to teach in the best and most effective manner, and will remain so until someone or something unchains it. As Heracles eventually set Prometheus free, a heroic figure must emerge to do the same for education. Some of the candidates to do so, in order from least to most likely:

  • Mitt Romney: Candidate Romney’s education agenda moves in the exact opposite direction from unshackling education. Voucher schemes provide opportunities for a small minority of students in failing schools and provide extra benefits to those who already have access to good schools. Romney is the exact wrong kind of politician to advocate for the needs of the masses, choosing rather to advocate for tax cuts and "efficiency" which would further decrease education funding.
  • President Obama: In his first term at least, President Obama has shown little will to support teachers in breaking away from standardized curriculums measured by standardizes tests. Some have even accused the President of actively (if not consciously) working to prevent our best and brightest from entering the education field, stifling the innovative potential of new teachers.
  • Any Other Politician: The problem with having politicians of any type involved in the education reform movement is that they have the wrong mindset for dealing with an institution that requires long-range planning to be successful. Politicians, because of their short tenure in office, are always interested in "right now" solutions to the problems that they encounter. Education is a process that ideally happens over the course of a lifetime or at least dozens of years – far longer than most politicians’ time in office. Looking to solve the problems in education "right now" is akin to fixing the brakes on a car by driving it into a tree. Sure it stops the car, but also wrecks it in the process.
  • Parents: While there can be little doubt that many parents know their children well, there can also be little doubt that most of them are not trained educators who understand curriculum development, educational psychology, classroom management, and a host of other knowledge that contribute to making effective educators. Contrary to popular belief, having attended a school as a student does not qualify a parent as an educational expert. The recent rash of parental trigger laws which allow parents to step into a struggling school and fire the administrators and teachers is an ill-conceived move that jeopardizes the learning of all the students in one of these schools. Further, such action indicates that the parents in question have little real understanding of the difficulties that teachers face on a daily basis and the idea that it takes community support and confidence to foster the stability necessary for successful education. If these firing squads are any indication of the way parents would "set education free," then it is probably better off shackled.
  • Students: There is certainly merit in hearing student voices in regard to educational reform, but in much the same way that parents are not qualified to design an educational system, students are just as ill-suited to the task. Their lack of life experience and resulting short-term view of the world also makes them a poor match for unchaining education. 
  • An Education Outsider: There are potential Herculean figures vying to liberate the flame of learning on a daily basis. From Salman Khan and Sebastian Thrun, to entirely new models for teaching and learning like Peer to Peer University and MentorMob U, new heroes arise daily to attempt to move education beyond its current state. There is a lot of monetary support invested in these efforts as well as some of the brightest minds on the planet. If there can be a solution for setting education free, it well could come from an educational outsider.
  • Teachers & Administrators: If we can listen to those who understand education and learning the best – the teachers, administrators, and teacher educators who have spent their entire careers inside the education system – a solution to remedying what ails our schools could be readily available. There is a vast army of trained and experienced education professionals who are all anxious to make our system the best that it can possibly be. They have the knowledge, training, and experience to make it happen. We just need to hear their voices.
  • A Herculean Grass-Roots Effort: The most likely candidate to free education from its long imprisonment and deliver the light of learning to the world is a collaborative, grass-roots effort of all of the above mentioned stake holders. Educators, parents, students, outside innovators, investors, and even politicians need to work together to make learning our primary societal value and to create a solution that is inclusive, innovative, and hi-tech. Only an effort that combines the strength and will of all members of society will have the potential to set learning free.

Education Unbound

Our spoil is won,
Our task is done,
We are free to dive, or soar, or run;
Beyond and around,
Or within the bound
Which clips the world with darkness round

From Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Education is our future. It provides us with hope for a future beyond our current limited perception of what freedom is and can be. It must however be a unified effort by all members of society from the lowest to the highest. Only then can we truly hope to make Education Unbound.