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What Jay-Z Can Teach Us About The Future Of Education

Forget iPads in classrooms, we need to bring aspiration back to education.

In his 2010 book Decoded, prolific rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z (a man who has the most number one albums of any solo artist) wrote about why urban youth are attracted to the drug game:

"I hit the streets for the same reason a lot of other kids do: I … loved the idea of cutting myself loose from the rules and low ceilings of the straight world. The truth is that most kids on the corner aren’t making big money … The kid on the streets is getting a shot at a dream. The dream is that he will be the one to make this hustling thing pay off in a big way … they’re working because they think they’re due for a miracle. The kid in McDonald’s gets a check and that’s it. There’s no dream in fast food. Manager? That’s a promotion, not a dream. It took me a long time to realize how much courage it took to work at McDonald’s. … But at that time, it seemed like an act of surrender to a world that hated us."

The passage underscores an essential question: How much is it the job of education to provide not only the skills for but a belief in the possibility of the future?

We’re in the midst of an epochal shift in the delivery mechanisms and content of education, thanks to a set of converging factors: the rise of wireless Internet in schools, the proliferation of low-cost web-enabled mobile devices, the massive financial pressure schools experience to deliver more for less, and the specter of a world catching up and surpassing the U.S. in global student performance.

In some cases, the new opportunities of how educational content is delivered are actually changing what content kids are seeing. Perhaps the best known example of this shift is the Khan Academy, which produces accessible, micro-lessons about important topics. Beyond Khan, dozens of other startups such as StudySync and LearnZillion are producing high-quality next-generation lessons. As educational games mature, they increasingly become a form of content themselves—no longer just an exercise for practice, but the actual vehicle through which children learn new concepts.

The nonprofit and for-profit innovators, teachers, and administrators who are collaborating around these technologies are weaving a tapestry of education strategies that can provide better efficacy at lower cost for students. Yet in the midst of this excitement and activity, there is a question that is being drowned out: Why are we educating our children?

There are so many obvious answers to the question that it hardly seems worth asking. We educate our children so they get into college, understand how to think, and are able to get good jobs and have a successful life (whatever that means).

Yet each of these answers is slightly different. Each answer is a statement of values and has the power to reshape the entire trajectory of any conceivable education system. An education system designed to maximize employability is different, ultimately, than a system designed to maximize capacity for critical thinking, and so on. How we chose to define the "why" shapes what we do and how we do it.

We simply can’t view education as a system for the provisioning of facts and formulas or even a system solely aimed at preparing kids for the careers of the future. We couldn’t have predicted the shape of industry today 10 years ago, and it is ludicrous to assume that we’re going to know enough about jobs in another 10 years to design education for it today.

Instead, it seems wise to think on a more fundamental level. What are the cognitive and social intelligences needed to navigate any world that comes next? Math and reading, of course, but also adaptability, divergent thinking, and collaboration. And even more than capacities, what are the beliefs about the future that we need to impart in children to have them participate meaningfully in shaping their own destiny?

What Jay-Z identifies in his quote above is one of the greatest afflictions of our education system: the aspiration gap. This is not a gap in test scores, but a gap in the belief about future potential. On the one side of the gap are learners who believe that they have not only the capacity but the right to use their natural talents to engage with and shape their world. On the other side are those who have come to believe that the world is how it is, and their ability to influence it is structurally limited. The aspiration gap is a cancer that could divide society as powerfully as any line of economics or ethnicity. But it is also a gap that could be addressed at the very core of our education system.

The enthusiasm around education reform and education technology is well justified. We are watching the remaking of a system that, if done right, could work better for everyone. But if we fail to attempt to understand the big, inextricable "why" at the core of the system, we limit our capacity for change and do a disservice to the future.

[Image: Flickr user Stanford EdTech]

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  • Small Biz Dev. Ctr.

    Spending more money is not the answer to our education difficulties. Ensuring the entrepreneurial spirit of AMERICA continues onward, with all students beginning to understand that they are the future, and they "make" the future what they want it to be by becoming capable, working together, sharing, and understanding that there are no limits. If you can imagine it, it can be done. You just need the inspiration to find out how. That could be high level chemistry or physics. That could be producing a new product in the garage that does amazing things. You will need skills and you will need others. How do you learn to manage "others" and work together with "others" in our educational system? You inspire with leadership and direction and not by getting wrapped up in the minutia of life and social justice pabulum. Instill the self-confidence needed. Find out what turns kids on and develop that inspiration inside them. Seek to point the direction for them to follow.

  • Barbara L. Martinez

    "Forget iPads in classrooms, we need to bring aspiration back to education" says the author but the question that lurks is- how? My team at New Futuro has an idea about how to inspire millions of kids across the nation to dream BIG. Because we understand one simple rule: Dream Big = Motivation to do BIG things!  

  • Sallome

    So the first question is "why?"  The second question is "how?"  Luckily, as someone pointed to earlier, people like Tony Wagner, Sir Ken Robinson, Karen Pittman, and recently Seth Godin have done a lot of public expressions to answer WHY: cultural creation and consumption, informed and engaged citizenship, self-actualization and innovation.  The aforementioned have also attempted to answer how, with institutions like Big Picture Learning, El Puente Academy for Peace & Social Justice, the High School for Recording Arts, High Tech High, Puget Sound Community School Sudbury Valley School, Urban Assembly and more leading the way. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with an organization - The Future Project - that is working to have students' passions and aptitude guide their creation of a project that is a contribution to community.  I believe that this will lead to the end of the industrial education complex that has done us a great disservice in this quickly changing reality.  I salute you for using Jay-Z (a product of our public school system) to show how renegade thinking and self-actualization has led to his personal brand of success.  Jullien "PurposeFinder" Gordon and Daniel Pink have been huge advocates in looking at how this translates in the workplace.

  • Jason Shechtman

    Is this article serious? It's all just talk. Maybe Jay-Z should start another foundation to help. I mean, he did make $63 million in 2010; I think he can afford it. Oh, wait; he already has a charity! How much did he give his charity in 2010 when he made that $63 million? $6,431... The gut has nothing to say about education or anything even about philanthropy in general. Lead by example.

  • Menjivar

    How? someone asked... well its simple we get to the core of being human with the kids and not just teachers or educators. We remove ourselves from believing that we have the answer and work with the kids to find answers to question we dont know. How? well we get to know their backgrounds, aspirations, troubles, and if necessary family. We will only be able to inspire and help them dream if we know who they are. @menjivar:twitter 

  • jamesriney

    Definitely agree with Jay. Without purpose, or hope for a better future, we are left uninspired. The education system needs to not only encourage an internal locus of control, but also guide inspiration and drive in the right direction.

  • Alan Huynh

      I agree, but I like how you only mention the faults and shortcomings of the students.

    "I try to inspire but many of the kids are lazy and don't want to work at

    So you discuss what you're doing with one sentence...and then go on for three sentences citing specific examples of how the children themselves are at fault.

    "I'm seeing a lack of work ethic and a lack of willingness to
    create.  The kids want to play computer games, watch TV, play on
    Facebook, hang with friends, and earn millions for doing nothing.  I see
    a HUGE problem with the current 14-16 year olds in my classes."

    Yet you don't list any of the inspirational techniques and what not that you're employing to try and increase engagement.  Many teachers in America have fallen into this template driven system and they themselves don't innovate enough in the classroom to get the kids engaged.  My 8th grade math teacher cannot teach the students today using the same methods she employed with me 10 years ago. 

    The problem with the teachers, the administrators, etc. is that they don't do a good enough job innovating their lesson plans...and I understand there are lots of barriers (lack of funding, lack of administration support, test scores, etc.) but we need schools to develop cultures where teachers can take big risks and fail but continue evolving their method to best suite the children they're teaching that semester, that year, etc.

    I think all teachers need to realize that it's a two way street.  If your students aren't responding or engaged during your class, it's probably because you're not doing a good enough job to get the engagement.  Sometimes you just need to think outside of the box, even if everyone opposes it or your idea. 

  • Lori Stuckman

    Your words are great but it's the "how" that I want to know.  How do we get the students to be independent, creative, collaborative, etc., if they aren't even willing to take notes or listen, participate intelligently to conversations, work in cooperative learning groups, create with effort, or even read current events?  As a high school teacher in business and computers, I try to inspire but many of the kids are lazy and don't want to work at all.  I'm seeing a lack of work ethic and a lack of willingness to create.  The kids want to play computer games, watch TV, play on Facebook, hang with friends, and earn millions for doing nothing.  I see a HUGE problem with the current 14-16 year olds in my classes.  Everyone's comments on this page are great; however, the willingness, the desire, and the self-motivation are largely lacking in a generation that feels it is deserving of everything at the cost of nothing.  Talent AND hard work are a necessary combination.  We can't get to the absolute higher critical thinking scenarios and explore options if a kid doesn't even know how to write a coherent paragraph or compute 7 X 8.  I have just been a teacher for 6 years and I had high dreams and much enthusiasm.  The lack of desire to be the best and the lack of even questionning the "why" or "the future" are the problem.  I am losing patience for a generation that doesn't want to work--at anything. ~Lori

  • PaulO

    "Why" is the most important question to ask.  I frequently think that schools are more about babysitting and tradition (teaching what was taught last year).  I think it should be about kids exploring their own potential and helping them get there.

  • Ess

    I hate to be that guy, but Jay-Z has only had one #1 single. The Beatles had 20. Great article, but I would be happy with some fact checking.

  • Kim Scheinberg

    This is very much along the lines of what Tony Wagner is saying, and he's my favorite guy in the education space.

  • Jasonsimmons

    Well done!!! To bad the school boards would say "this is not in the budget".

  • Martin


  • Steph Oates

    An excellent commentary on education and what is REALLY needed for our civilisation to achieve its full potential. Our children need to develop critical thinking and collaboration skills to solve a lot of the issues we have generated. Thank you!

  • Brooke Estin

    Very insightful and thought provoking article.  I love how you brought it down to the basics to help us reframe the discussion by asking why do we do what we do? How we chose to define the “why” shapes what we do and how we do it. Yes!