Do Different


We’re all witnessing it.  The Flip in education.  Back in 2007, I had the good fortune to sit in on a presentation by Clayton Christensen predicting how U.S. education was ripe for it.  What has caused the widespread disruption of education in this country is of course, the massive failure of the system on so many fronts:  dropout rate,  escalating costs, teacher burnout, diminishing student performance, deteriorating bricks & mortar facilities, confusing standards debate, bullying — it’s a mess.

Into the breach has leapt a number of new educational technologies, Nuvana included, that seem like better solutions, not because they necessarily are — but frankly, because by comparison, you’d have to come up with something pretty bad to fail in a head-to-head test.   At least when the criteria is focused on engagement.  Come on:  what’s going to be more effective at engaging a modern American student already armed with their own smartphone, a game console at home, and will be watching “Fast & Furious 6” this weekend:  a printed worksheet from a textbook or an edtech game where the student’s avatar roams a virtual world?


Because Jane or Jimmy remains glued to the screen for hours playing this new edtech game which covers the same material in the book they abandoned long ago, teachers, administrators and students laud the intervention.  You’ve heard all the testimonials:  “It’s so much better than doing homework!”  “The kids were really into the game!”  “It made learning fun!”

Nice.  Can’t argue with that.  Even Nuvana testimonials have that familiar ring.  But let’s back up and ask ourselves:  what is education really for?  At best, isn’t it to enlighten individuals and give them the skills to solve problems in the real world and make it a better place?  (I know some would argue that it’s to give someone the kind of career that results in a comfortable lifestyle.  Uh-huh.  That’s old think, and what got us to this untenable place.  “Me” think instead of “we” think.  An individual’s “comfortable lifestyle” is quickly superseded when widespread famine, environmental disaster, global health crisis or war suddenly intervenes — all of which are distinct possibilities in the lives of this generation of American children.)

The gargantuan problems that face America and the global community today — in health, the economy, the crumbling infrastructure, violence, environmental degradation, food and water security — and the seeming lack of sensible solutions has prompted society to throw education under the bus.  After all, our educational system is supposed to train and deliver to us the new problem solvers who will successfully tackle these issues.

Or at least show us who can perform well on multiple choice tests.  😉


illustration by Dave Crosland @

So engagement isn’t enough to make the Flip meaningful.  The Flip has got to be about moving from “me” think (i.e. comfortable individual lifestyle) to “we” think (solving global problems collaboratively).  The Flip has got to be less about virtual eye-candy, and more about learning to grapple with reality.

Recently, I happened to watch “One Last Thing,” the PBS documentary about Steve Jobs.  It was first broadcast in 2011, but it begins with an amazing interview he gave back in 1994.  Now, no matter how you feel about Apple or Steve Jobs, one has to appreciate his understanding of learning and the real world:

“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.

I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

— Steve Jobs, PBS “One Last Thing” documentary 1994


Jobs & Woz “poking life” in their garage circa 1975

So back to the Flip.  If we can make it more about the end of training youth to just comfortably live in this life, and more about how to change the lives we live in order to make the world a better place — than this disruption WILL be truly innovative.  Somehow, I don’t think that happens inside brightly colored games, no matter how engaging they may be.  It happens when the switch that controls the Flip is put into new hands.  Namely, students who should be encouraged to “poke life” and therefore “change it and mold it.”

That’s empowerment.

The edtech that empowers and incites learners to poke around the real world — that’s where the Flip will come from.  And none of us, and certainly not this world, will ever be the same again.  Thank goodness.

                                                                                                 —  JvK

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