Tag Archives: Khan Academy

On social innovation (and the end of the world as we know it)

In the last year, as I took part in a Council of Europe workgroup that tries to make sense of some emergent phenomena in the economy, I got the idea that social innovation is really, really important. Certainly important enough to curve the mental space I inhabit: whatever I do I seem get more and more entangled into it. The latest news – though not the last, I have a feeling – is that the Young Foundation, a British think tank close to the European Commission’s President Barroso and the single most active organization on the social innovation front, has enrolled me for the advisory board of the new Social Innovation Initiative for Europe. The projects’s objective is to create a social innovation community hub that, among other things, will provide input into the design of a new European social innovation fund.

European funds are large scale financial instruments for public policy. They are measured in hundreds of millions of euro, if not billions. Their allocation criteria among and within member states are the object of thorough negotiations, led by the highest ranking European public officials. The Commission does not design new funds every day: clearly, someone at the top thinks this is a very important matter.

From my vantage point as a Council of Europe advisor it is not hard to figure out what’s going on. The representative of the States in our group are worried silly: the welfare state, keystone of the European social model and staple ingredient of the Old Continent’s humanized version of capitalism, is crumbling before an irreversible fiscal crisis. No one believes the current level of public service provision is defensible within the current model. And no, it can’t be put down to ineffective management. We are not talking about Italy or Greece here: the most worried people I talked to come from advanced welfare countries like Austria or Norway, in which the public would never accept a retreat from the current service level – a retreat that, nevertheless, is coming.

Interestingly, though, no one is talking about privatization. We learned a lesson in the 80s, and that is that privatized public services are not necessarily any cheaper than those directly provided by the State. There are many reasons for this, and an important one is that the private for-profit sector wants to, well, make a profit. And that means high margins: if they are not there, private business is simply not interested. Here’s where social innovators gets to be given a chance; their blend of social economy (i.e. weak orientation to profit) and disruptive innovation borrowed from their Silicon Valley brethren is the only candidate for providing solution to turn public services around the way Wikipedia did with encyclopedia writing, defending the level of service while driving costs way down.

It does not take a genius to figure out where this is going. It leads to public services that are redesigned from the ground up, and that will look nothing like what we are used to. School? YouTube videos (Khan Academy style) instead of teachers in classrooms. Health care? Online fora instead of queing up at your local doctor for most less serious conditions. University? A badge system for informal learning on the open web instead of degrees (the Mozilla Foundation is working on it already). Policy design? Wikicracies instead of professional weberian bureaucracies. It’s safe to predict that the transition to such a scenario will be problematic, and it will imply very many people who are working in the public sector becoming — to put it bluntly — completely useless, because we can’t use what they can do and they can’t do what we need done.

The fund that the European Commission is designing can address at best half the problem; enabling social innovators to rethink radically public services. The other half is to make sure that the social contract holds, and that scared, enraged Europeans do not take to the street to set fire to cars, ATMs or their slightly different-looking neighbours. For this we need a high level political leadership: the present system was conceived by giants like Bismarck (the pension system) and Lord Beveridge (modern welfare). Let’s hope we find comparably enlightened leaders for the current phase.

School’s over

In North Carolina a child in twenty does not attend school: he is schooled at home. According to home schooling scholar Brian Ray, the number of home schooled children in the USA has increased from about 12,000 to slightly over two million over 25 years. Social acceptance of this practice has also increased significantly.

I don’t think this is coincidental. School serves three purposes: educate children; socialize them to live with others; and watch over them while parents are at work. These are very important roles, but is not clear to me that they are best carried out by the same institution. Especially this one.

Let’s start with education. School as we know it is designed to train the young to take their place in a 20th-century, Tayloristic-industrial economy that is no more. Sir Ken Robinson in the video above makes a very good point: it is organized like a factory, or an army base, with ringing bells, separate departments and sometimes even uniforms, and it educates children in batches and according to “manufacturing standards”. Educational methods derive from this organization and not, as one might expect, vice versa: for example our children have one or two hours long math lessons, because that is what a teacher needs to get anything done if she has to reach the classroom, hang her coat, sit down, sign the log etc. But the natural unit for learning math is the individual theorem, or the formula derivation. Surprise surprise, the wonderful math lessons in Khan Academy – recently funded by Google as a world changing project – are six to fifteen minutes long, with a few exception, and they take the time to explain things step by step. And you can replay them as many times as you want, until you get it. Worse: school teaches you that there is only one right answer to any problem, and it is at the back of the textbook. And don’t copy, because that’s cheating. Well, outside school working together on solving a problem is called collaboration, and it is at the basis of our economy, our science, and pretty much everything important.

It seems clear that school is just not very good in training children for a fruitful professional life. The Internet is a more credible candidate: why should I put up with a mediocre, underpaid, bored teacher when I have access to the Khan Academy and TED Talks? Each of us can be taught by the best teachers in the world. We can interact with a planet-wide classroom, in which it does not matter how old we are and each child can make progress at her natural pace, exploring many combinations between theory and practice. Some people say children need cohercion to learn, but this does not seem to be a valid argument. Education experts and cognitive psychologists agree that children are naturally curious: school often succeeds in stifling this instinct, and this alone should get us to wonder whether anything is seriously broken with it.

As for socializing children, school does an excellent job: it teaches them not to raise their voice, to arrive on time and so on. However, in this area too school encodes a model of a nineteenth century hierarchical society: its values are obedience, predictability, conformity. For some kids it works well, but others learn hypocrisy, cowardice, conformism and opportunism that, in adults, gives rise to the wonderful world of Dilbert. I am no expert, but I’ll bet you that a better tool for socialization is playing rugby. Rugby teaches you hard work, team playing, the idea everyone is different and contributes differently to a common goal, to be passionate about what you do, fair play. It teaches you competition, and that opponents are not enemies. It’s even good for your health.

Over and above education and socialization, school retains the very important role of a safe space for kids while parents go about their business. This form of care is a much needed service: probably it is the one that makes a world with no schools unimaginable for most parents (and therefore it makes it more difficult to redesign education). However, if that’s the core business, the future of school does not look bright. As wealthy parents realize that school is actually decreasing the chances of their offspring to succeed in life, they’ll abandon it in favour of all sorts of private sector services: as they do so, they will be more and more reluctant to pay taxes for a public service they are not using. This will push public school into the role of daycare facilities for low income kids, a mere patch on the education system, with dwindling funding and low priority. Not that I advocate such an outcome: being an optimist, I would suggest a radical redesign of education for a connected world. But what you and I think is unimportant: as John Brockman was saying at last week’s Science Festival in Genova, the really important things affecting our lives (the automobile civilization, globalization, global warming) have never been chosen by anyone. They are emergent, and all we can do is adapt as best as we can.

Hat tip: Andrew Missingham

UPDATE – Nice coincidence! The participants to the Future of Education session at Mozilla Drumbeat 2010 (ended Saturday) have put together this video, in which they bring more ammo to the argument. Don’t miss Massimo Banzi‘s assertive blurb. (Hat tip: Nadia El-Imam)

La scuola è finita

In North Carolina un bambino su venti non va mai a scuola: viene istruito a casa. Gli americani lo chiamano “home schooling”. Secondo lo studioso Brian Ray, i bambini in questa situazione negli USA sono passati da circa 12.000 a oltre due milioni in 25 anni. La cosa è diventata socialmente molto più accettabile.

Non credo sia un caso. La scuola serve a fare tre cose: istruire i bambini; socializzarli alla vita in comune; parcheggiarli intanto che mamma e papà vanno al lavoro. Questi tre ruoli sono molto importanti, ma non mi è affatto chiaro che debbano essere svolti dalla stessa istituzione. In particolare da questa istituzione.

Dal lato istruzione, la scuola è progettata per preparare i giovani a prendere posto in un’economia che non c’è più, quella industriale e tayloristica novecentesca. Come dice sir Ken Robinson nel video qui sopra, è organizzata come una fabbrica o una caserma, con campanelle che segnano gli orari, dipartimenti separati (scienze vs. discipline umanistiche), e produce “lotti” di diplomati nel modo più standardizzato possibile. La didattica è figlia dell’organizzazione e non, come dovrebbe essere, viceversa: i nostri figli fanno l’ora di matematica, per esempio, perché l’insegnante entra in classe, saluta, appende il cappotto, apre il registro etc., e così se ne vanno cinque-dieci minuti. Ma l’unità naturale per l’apprendimento della matematica è il teorema, o la derivazione della formula, non l’ora. E in effetti, le (bellissime!) lezioni della Khan Academy – uno dei progetti “world changing” finanziati da Google – durano dai sei ai quindici minuti, con qualche eccezione, e si prendono tutto il tempo di spiegare bene le cose, passaggio per passaggio. Ma c’è di peggio: la scuola ti insegna che la risposta giusta a qualunque problema è solo una: sta alla fine del libro, nelle soluzioni agli esercizi – il che è evidentemente falso. E che non si deve copiare, perché questo vuol dire barare. Ah sì? Lavorare insieme su un problema, fuori dalla scuola, si chiama collaborazione: è il motore della nostra economia, della scienza, di tutto.

Mi pare chiaro che la scuola non svolge molto bene il compito di preparare i giovani alla loro vita professionale. Internet è un candidato più credibile: perché dovrei sciropparmi un insegnante mediocre e demotivato in un istituto di provincia quando ho la Khan Academy e i TED Talks? Tutti possiamo avere i migliori insegnanti del mondo. Possiamo interagire con una classe grande quanto il pianeta, in cui non importa quanti anni abbiamo e ciascuno fa progressi al proprio passo naturale, esplorando infinite combinazioni tra teoria e pratica. E non mi si dica che i bambini non imparano se non li costringi. I bambini sono naturalmente curiosi e desiderosi di imparare, dicono tutti i pedagoghi e gli psicologi cognitivi. La scuola riesce spesso a uccidere questo istinto, e già basterebbe questo per indurci a metterla seriamente in discussione.

Quanto al socializzare i bambini, la scuola fa un ottimo lavoro: insegna loro a non alzare la voce, arrivare in orario e così via. Di nuovo, però, la società a cui li si prepara è una società ottocentesca e gerarchica: i suoi valori sono l’obbedienza, la prevedibilità, la conformità allo standard. Per alcuni funziona bene, ma altri imparano l’ipocrisia, la codardia, il conformismo e l’opportunismo che poi, negli adulti, genera il meraviglioso mondo di Dilbert. Non sono un esperto, ma scommetterei che un veicolo migliore per la socializzazione è il rugby, ovviamente quello giocato. Ti insegna il duro lavoro, il senso di squadra, l’idea che tutti sono diversi e contribuiscono in modo diverso al successo comune, la passione per quello che fai, la correttezza. Con il terzo tempo, ti insegna la differenza tra avversari e nemici. E in più fa anche bene alla salute.

Al di là di istruzione e socializzazione, per la scuola resta ancora un ruolo fondamentale: il parcheggio per i figli. Di parcheggi c’è molto bisogno; probabilmente è questo il ruolo che rende alla maggior parte dei genitori un mondo senza scuola semplicemente inimmaginabile, e quindi ci rende più difficile riformare l’istruzione. Se questo è il core business, però, temo però che il futuro della scuola sia buio. Man mano che i genitori benestanti si renderanno conto che la scuola di oggi riduce le possibilità dei loro rampolli di avere successo nella vita, la diserteranno (come, appunto, succede negli USA); e siccome non usufruiranno del servizio, saranno molto restii a pagare le tasse per un servizio pubblico che non usano. Ci sarà una pressione sempre più forte a favore di soluzioni educative personalizzate e erogate dal settore privato, e le scuole pubbliche saranno sempre più trincerate nel ruolo di parcheggi per i figli dei poveri, sempre peggio finanziate, ridotte a toppa del sistema educativo. Non che io auspichi una soluzione del genere: se chiedete a me, io proporrei una riforma radicale dell’istruzione pensata per la società connessa. Ma quello che voi e io pensiamo non conta molto: come diceva John Brockman al Festival della scienza, le cose davvero importanti (la civiltà dell’automobile, la globalizzazione, il riscaldamento globale) non sono oggetto di scelta collettiva. Sono emergenti, e tutto quello che possiamo fare è adattarci per quanto siamo capaci.

Hat tip: Andrew Missingham

UPDATE – Bella coincidenza. I partecipanti alla sessione su “Il futuro dell’istruzione” a Mozilla Drumbeat 2010 (finito sabato) hanno prodotto questo video, in cui si dicono cose simili a quelle del mio post. Non perdetevi l’intervento secco di Massimo Banzi. (Hat tip: Nadia El-Imam)