Here I am thinking about basic stuff like language translation, support for reading, vocabulary, even the ability of a machine to pronounce a word for you, or read a passage if you want. Basic stuff. But while these are simple solutions, you’ll be surprised at how big of an impact they actually have on the lives of individuals. I know I was the first time that I saw it happen.
I was observing a fourth-grade classroom a few years ago and they were participating in a study where we were testing the effectiveness of a new digital science curriculum. Now, I’ll be the first to say this new digital version wasn’t fancy. In fact, it was pretty basic. The thing that it had going for it though, was that it did not assume that every student in that classroom was reading at grade level.
Now, one of my favorite things about this particular classroom was the teacher. Because she hated technology. And I know this because it’s the first thing that she told me when I met her. And, my response was, “OK, why did you sign up for a study that’s about technology?” She told me she was willing to go through this in the hopes that it might help one kid in her class. His name was Billy. And Billy as she told me had a mind for science. But he was one of those kids who was a below average reader. And she was hoping this might reach him now while he’s still learning to read.
Now, I have to say that actually made me nervous. Because as I said, the technology was pretty basic. And I didn’t want to disappoint her. So, you can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was about halfway through the study the teacher reaches out to say hey, guess what? Not only has Billy taken to the technology but I’m starting to see improvement in his performance. So, that was nice. But nothing, nothing prepared me for what I saw when I went back to that classroom at the end of the study.
Billy had become the de facto smartest kid in the class. No kidding. And everybody knew it. In fact, the first thing that I saw when I walked through the door was six or seven kids huddled around Billy’s desk asking him questions about the assignment. And boy did he have answers it turns out.
The thing is all we really gave Billy and his classmates was the learning equivalent of adjustable seats. And in return we got a glimpse of Billy’s talent. And sure, you might say well look that’s one kid in one classroom, but then again, that’s one kid in one classroom. And isn’t that what it’s actually about? Nurturing individual potential. Jonas Salk was one individual and he cured polio. What if Billy is the next Jonas Salk? What if the cure for cancer is in his mind? Who knows? But I do know that we came dangerously close to losing his talent before he even left grade school. Not because he didn’t understand science but because he was still learning to read. And that’s what I mean when I say that simple solutions can have a profound impact on individuals.
So, the real question to me is how do we get these adjustable seats for learning in the hands of every student as fast as possible without spending more money? Here, I actually think the Air Force has given us the formula for success. What if we ban the average in education? We know it destroys talent. Instead, what if we demanded that the companies that sell these materials into our classrooms design them not to the average of dimensions of learning but to the edges? It would be a bold move. It would certainly send a strong signal to the market: the game’s changed.
But trust me, if we do this not only will we increase the performance of the kids in our classrooms today, we will dramatically expand our talent pool. Because right now there are so many students we simply cannot reach because we design on average. Design to the edges and we will reach them and we’ll get their talent. And I have to say I know because I was one of those students.
So, today I’m a faculty member at Harvard. But I’m also a high school drop-out. It gets better. I was a high school drop-out with a 0.9 GPA. For those of you who don’t know that’s pretty bad.
But here’s the thing. I’ve been to the very bottom of our educational system and I’ve been to the very top. And I’m here to tell you we are wasting so much talent at every single level. And the thing is because for every one person like me, there are millions who worked as hard, who had the ability, but who were unable to overcome the drag of an educational environment designed on average. And their talent is forever lost to us.
The thing is we can’t really afford to lose them. The good news is we don’t have to anymore. I’m telling you we have a once in a lifetime chance right now to fundamentally re-imagine the very foundation of our institutions of opportunity like education in ways that nurture the potential of every single individual and therefore expand our talent pool, make us far more competitive in the world. We can do this. We know the formula. And it’s time we demand it.