Reconciling Cool New Ideas With Likely Failure

The Boston Globe recently featured a story about a cool new high school.

It won a $10 million grant from XQ, a charitable foundation that comes from the founders of Apple.  It featured project-based learning and many other “progressive” ideas.

The school didn’t open. 

My friend Doug had some thoughts on this failure.

The article says, “The plan pulls from best practices in school innovation from all over the country,” but actually that’s not true. Their plan pulled from innovative–and often flawed–IDEAS… shiny but not always what outcomes bear out as effective.

Curriculum actually matters a lot. Knowledge matters a lot. Research is pretty clear that project based learning is beneficial if you are an expert. If you are not, direct instruction is more effective. Far more so.

Most new private schools in China are traditional.   One variant is Moonshot Academy.  I have never visited.  I wrote about it here.

But in my China travels, I have heard about lots of struggles as schools tried to adopt new ways of teaching and learning.

How do we reconcile that some brilliant educators advocate progressive ideas with actually, as individuals, visiting schools that have followed those ideas, and noticing immense struggle and frustration?

My friend Jeff, who helps design schools, sets out some progressive ideas:

1. Give learners agency to choose learning topics and methods that have inherent value to them.

2. Help learners grow their sense of self-efficacy by publicly recognizing when they strive hard through authentic, mastery-based progressions.

3. Get out of their way — trust learners to have unstructured time and to use it in ways that support their learning.

4. Deliberately nurture a sense of belonging and positivity.

I agree with these ideas if executed well, but they seem hard to execute well in a school setting, based on observation and experience.

1. The “agency” in schools can be really limited as to be, in practice, “faux agency” — what if a kid doesn’t really want to learn science, math, English or history?  Most schools don’t/can’t give them agency to “skip all that.”

So the school gives a narrow choice, like “Choose biology or earth science” or “Choose just the easy questions or do some hard ones too” or “Choose if you want to dissect a frog or do this project instead.”

To a kid who very much does not want to learn science at all, for whom this class will range from 2 to 4 out of 10 no matter what.   Better to have a 4 out of 10, for sure!  We let our son and daughter choose among broccoli, spinach, or Brussels sprouts, and so that yields a 4 out of 10.  We’ll take that “win” as parents.  But we don’t expect miracles.

When schools provide limited agency, but expect the result to be a culture of student happiness and excitement, they overshoot.

2. I think kids grow quite a bit when they persist in hard work and that leads to success in traditional assessments.

I agree that their sense of self-efficacy grows more “when they strive hard through authentic, mastery-based progressions.”

However, mastery-based assessments have a problem, in my experience: too much easy grading.  That is, often a terrible student effort, with no meaningful learning, still gets a high grade.

It’s human nature.  It’s easier for me to say “You got 30 out of 50 questions correct, so that’s a 60, a D-.”  It’s harder when I am personally judging a project to make the same claim.

3. The “trust learners” piece works well with real choice, but poorly with faux choice.

If you’re allowed to pursue your favorite summer camp activity out of 30 things, let’s say learning banjo, that indeed does lend itself well to trust the learners.  A kid might spend 3 hours a night practicing banjo for the talent show!  She’s enthused.

But if the only agency in biology class was choosing to learn about animals first, and plants second, or vice versa…I’m not sure how much I “trust the learner.”  It’s pretty common for kids to waste time, and computers/phones make it even easier.

4. I’ve visited many schools which tried to manufacture “a sense of belonging” through “advisory” — but where many students and teachers, in conversation, described “advisory” as a mostly perfunctory thing, mostly an okay session of teacher and 8 kids which wasn’t really taken seriously.


a. I’m sure Jeff would agree that many (or “Some”) schools which profess these principles don’t execute well.

b. Or that some schools which limit choice seem to have pretty high enthusiasm (St John’s College at the extreme, with its Great Books curriculum), and others with maximum choice seem to have pretty low enthusiasm (a common university class has students paying no attention to the professor, or even cutting class).

c. Further, lots of Jeff’s 4 things have TIME costs to the teachers.  So these 4 things might well compete against each other.

Teacher spending a lot of time to build a true sense of belonging, with many minutes devoted to building a relationship with each kid, maybe her parents?  Well all those hours are a trade-off to something — perhaps to the hours a teacher would need to create meaningful choices for students.

Where does that leave us when a Chinese leader tries to create a new, progressive school?

Execution matters more than design in schools.

Design discussions should be anchored in caution, with lots of anecdotes, lore, and data about who failed using precisely these design principles — how and why the failure happened, what iterations were tried and still didn’t work, any sorts of abandoning ship or big pivots.”

Those stories of “Failing Fast and Slow” aren’t often chronicled, and can be hard to come by in the start-up school sector.

By contrast, in the business world of tech start-ups and venture capital and restaurants and so forth, they cheerfully start with acknowledging “75% of startups fail.”  That  anyone going on a startup adventure.  Founders are much more curious about failed startup companies which went bankrupt.

I’m not sure what the right statistic would be, but within all ed reform discussions, maybe simply a preface and closing sentence of “75% of all snew chools fail, and whatever YOUR preferred design principles, hundreds of schools share your beliefs and have failed, so beware.”

I wish someone had said that to me before I clumsily started working on Match Charter School.  I realize to “school people” this emphasis on failure sounds like a “prince of darkness” vibe, but in the business startup world, somehow that is widely known and not such a downer, just a reality check.