I’m ready for more Menlo Park Laboratories of the education sector. My work, research, and scholarship is largely focused on educational innovation and entrepreneurship, self-directed learning, human agency, and the intersection of education and digital culture. I proudly admit that my work is not that of a neutral scholar. I do applied scholarship with a social agenda. There are values and convictions that inform my work, and one of the things I’ve been thinking about lately has to do with the broad landscape of educational innovation and why we do it, and I’m ready to turn even more of my attention toward an effort to generate a steady flow of unconventional and impactful innovations in the education sector.
The First Moonshot
I’ve used the word moonshot more lately, so allow me to give some background, which will lead back to this drive for social innovations in the education sector. If we think about the concept of a moonshot, we need to consider two dates. The first date is May 25, 1961. It was the day that President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to the joint congress. We were in the middle of the Cold War, and JFK brought up the topic of our space program. He shared a vision for the entire nation to rally around, that by the end of a decade we are going to send a man to the moon and that man will return to the earth safely. That was the vision and it was the first moonshot. The clock started and countless people ramped up their work to make this vision a reality. Some people even died as part of the pursuit. Nonetheless, they persisted, they innovated, they experimented, they explored, they designed, and they planned.
Then, July 20th 1969 arrived. This is the day when everything came together. Just as stated, it happened within a decade that the first man walked on the moon. “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.” Then these astronauts came back to earth safely, just as the moonshot vision was cast by JFK years earlier. That was the first moonshot achieved.
Now we use the term to describe comparable visions and innovations. Google uses a phrase moonshot to represent some of their more far-reaching research and development. They even sponsored an event in 2015 that drew people together around education moonshots. We see the term in the blogosophere, throughout social media, and among startups with grand visions for changing an industry.
What are Our Education Moonshots?
What are our moonshots for education today? What are yours? What are those compelling visions where your passions meet a real and potentially game-changing need in the education sector? And how do you begin to cast that vision? How do you rally people around you like JFK did?
I, along with many others, was interviewed by Steve Hargaddon for teacher entrepreneurship week in the summer of 2015. He asked each of us to share a definition of teacher entrepreneurship, but I guess I broaden it to educational entrepreneurship. Here is how I defined it. “Teacher entrepreneurship is a creative, radical, passionate mission-minded pursuit of the unconventional.”
Why unconventional? It is because moonshots are about doing things that haven’t been done before. The conventions represent how things are done today. You can see where other people have walked, where they’ve gone before.
Moonshots are about doing things that people haven’t done before, or they have at least never been done in your part of the world or your context. As such, there is not a clear path, an easy guide to follow in the footsteps those before you. This is a new and uncertain territory. You are venturing into a new land other people have never been there before.
Learning from Thomas Edison
Certainly there is a benefit in learning from and building upon traditions and experiences, and in fact many great moonshots and many great innovations in the world are inspired by past innovations. They didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Consider Thomas Edison. His first patents focused on the telegraph, different types of telegraphs and different tweaks and twists on this existing innovation. His work was interative, and initially largely a set of sustaining innovations (improving instead of disrupting the existing products). He added new features and capabilities that improved upon past models.
He started off working as a telegraph operator. He wasn’t inventing the, just using them, getting to know this new technology and field of work. He became more familiar with that industry, discovering some of its problems and its limitations. He let his mind wander, imagining some of the possibilities and the opportunities. Then, Thomas Edison started to think about his own innovations.
He moved to the big city and started a company that focused on selling some of his early innovations and creating new ones. With these early innovations, he generated the revenue to explore even more inventions. Then he started taking some even bigger moonshots.
When work really took off, Thomas Edison created his Menlo Park Laboratories. In his Menlo labs he gathered gifted people together from around the country, even the world. He had this vision that there would be a minor innovation every ten days, and every month or so there will be something big. He rallied these people together. People wanted to be around this innovative mind, this moonshot-minded guy (not that they used that term back then).
There are many biographies about Thomas Edison showing his flaws and his strengths, his brilliance, and his lack thereof in some cases. And yet, he did something phenomenal. He pulled together a community around the spirit of innovation. He cast some visions and they produced tons of patents. As one commentator said in a documentary, Thomas Edison’s work helped people to realize that a lot of the real inspiration in America moved from the capital buildings to the patent offices. The groundbreakers and innovators established a distinctly American mindset as much or more than any set of politicians. And the patent office was truly becoming a more significant part of an American culture in our sort of global mindset, as we thought about dealing with some of the biggest issues in society and some of the biggest challenges in society. Generally, many Americans like to think that we can innovate our way through almost anything.
It is Time for more “Menlo Park Laboratories” in the Education Sector
I’d like to suggest that we need more Menlo Park Laboratories in the education sector. In fact that is one of my dreams. I recently started an LLC called Birdhouse Learning Labs. Birdhouse Learning Labs is about the spirit of the original Menlo labs. It hasn’t officially started any work, and it might never do so. Yet, it is a placeholder for this vision, one that I will pursue in one way or another over the upcoming 12-24 months.
I strive to create a laboratory where our focus is not primarily upon trying to influence or change policy. Policies make a difference in education for better and worse, but I’m interested in focusing on the metaphorical patent office for solutions to problems in education. We’re focusing upon unconventional innovations, creative, radical, passionate, mission-minded pursuits of the unconventional with the goal of a social good in the education sector. Imagine a group of people gathering physically and/or virtually, and our goal is that of minor innovation every ten days, and to have something big every month or so (or least least something closer to that scale/range).
Let’s tackle some of the biggest challenges that we see in education. Let’s put together people who are passionate about innovation, passionate about education, gifted and skilled. We put them together in the space, define a problem that gives the team a compelling why, and then we set them loose to see what they can do.
Stay tuned for more on this dream.