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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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