Things I’m still thinking about from Skillshare’s Penny Conference

1. “If you were to reinvent education for the 21st century from the ground up, how would you do it?”

This was the question Danya (Community Manager at Skillshare) posed at the beginning of last Friday afternoon that the Penny Conference speakers spent the rest of the day answering.

What follows – some of the things I learned, some things that have stuck with me, things that I’m still thinking about 6 days after the conference.

2. There’s more than one solution.

“I hope a lot of you (in the audience) get in the game. We need a lot of people working on a lot of different ideas to solve [the education] problem, because a lot of those ideas will fail.”
- Kio Stark, author of “Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Almost Anything”

What struck me: The call to experiment – the acknowledgment that there is likely no one “right” answer and enough room for a lot of entrepreneurs to play in the education space.

3. Knowledge is a commodity.

“With Google and Wikipedia and access to the internet at large, knowledge is now a commodity. There are no competitive advantages to knowing more than the person next to you.  The world no longer cares what you know — it cares what you do with what you know. So what we need to learn now is how to ask the right questions.”
Tony Wagner, Co–founder of Change Leadership Group

What struck me: That the massive amounts of memorization I did in 7th grade was all for moot (all 50 states, capitals, important cities; all the countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, Central America).

But also that, like any other skill, the ability to ask good questions is something that can be learned, practiced, and honed.

Case in point: Isidor I. Rabi, a Nobel laureate in physics, was once asked why he became a scientist, “rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in [his] neighborhood.”

He explained, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’”

4. When interviewing innovators,  Tony Wagner found that their parents all talked to them about giving back… they all wanted to put a ding in the universe.

What struck me: The idea that the desire to “put a ding in the universe” can be taught.

5. The culture of schooling is contrary to the culture of innovation.

A. Schooling is individual — students are judged by their GPAs — while innovation is communal.
B. Schooling is compliance-focused and risk-averse (“avoid failing”). One university is considering making “‘F’ the new ‘A’.”
C. Schooling is passive.
D. Schooling is driven by extrinsic motivations — while innovation is driven by intrinsic motivations.

6. The most important step is to bring people along for the ride.

Applicable to: starting a company, education reform, publishing a book — essentially, everything.

Baratunde Thurston, in writing “How To Be Black,” set up a live webcast that allowed people to watch him as he wrote.

(Interestingly, a lot of writers had never seen live writing before. Feedback he got: “it’s interesting to see his writing flow.”)

7. Games always put us in context.

A game would never say, “Buy this sword, you might need it.” In a game, you always know exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing – and you care about the why. There needs to be similar stakes in education.

8. The best teachers are also students

“Some of my best teachers were ones that were also learning at the same time, figuring out how to teach while they were teaching — because they were the ones that understood what it was like to be a student.”
- Adora Svitak, the world’s youngest teacher and the published author of three books

What struck me: That it’s okay to teach, even if you’re not certified, even if you’re not yet an expert in your field. The responsibility to pass on what we know actually belongs to all of us.

9. Don’t focus on access to knowledge but access to love.

“If we didn’t love what we were learning about, she wasn’t teaching it right.”
- Adora, on one of her best teachers

What struck me: The 2 really important assumptions this belies: (1) that everything can be taught in a way that inspires interest and passion, and (2) that everyone is capable of feeling interest and passion in anything, if given the chance.

10. Zach Sims of Codecademy: Programming will become a blue collar job.

11. One of the biggest obstacles to learning how to do something: “Where do I start?”

I have this problem a lot, and I’ve seen a lot of my friends struggle with this as well. Currently working on an idea that has been brewing in my head for a while to tackle this.

12. Adam Brown of Pencils of Promise: “I realized that I don’t have to convince people of the value of education, I had to convince them they could be a part of the solution.”

13. There’s magic in traveling

Adam Brown on where he got his inspiration for Pencils of Promise – when he was 21, he backpacked the world and asked one child in each country, if they could have anything they wanted, anything at all, what would that be? The little boy that he asked in India said, “A pencil.”

14. “Education is the most stupidly solvable problem of our time.”

We are not looking for a cure to a disease.

15. Big dreams start with small, unreasonable acts.

“I’ve told a lot of people I’m not special. I’m just unreasonable.”
- Adam Braun, Founder and Executive Director of Pencils of Promise

No words for how much I love this quote.

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  • John

    Great reflections, very insightful!