iPads and Teachers: a Response (Matt Candler)

Matt Candler is CEO of 4.0 Schools. He responded to Peg Tyre’s post in Bright, April 6, 2015. I offer my thoughts on the Tyre post and Candler’s response below.

I loved reading Peg’s piece, especially her take on effective personalized learning at Bricolage Academy — a school I’ve watched grow from an idea in Josh Densen’s head to a thriving community fulfilling many of its promises.

While I agree with Peg’s frustrations about personalized and blended learning overall, her focus on myth-busting stops short of explaining how innovative schools like Bricolage actually get the way they are. Valuing teachers is important, but there’s much more to effective innovation than that.

In particular, I think what makes Bricolage and other innovative communities so disruptive is a focus on mindset before resources.

Here are three techniques great innovators use to create communities like Bricolage — techniques that will make your use of personalized and blended learning better tomorrow. For way less than the $1.3B that Los Angeles spent on iPads.

Good innovators start cheap and iterate.

As we’ve seen in manufacturing, software, and even the restaurant business, waterfall methods (spend tons of time and money to plan the perfect solution, then push it over the waterfall) are losing ground to agile development (start small, iterate quickly based on lots of smaller tests) in schools like Bricolage.

This simple reordering — mindset first, resources second — allows members of innovative communities to make tectonic shifts in traditional approaches by making lots and lots of little bets instead of massive $1.3B gambles that inevitably prove unfulfilling.

This is where I wish Peg dug in more in her explanation of Bricolage culture. It’s not the lack of bells and whistles that makes Bricolage special. What makes Bricolage special is investing in a mindset of creative confidence before picking the bells and whistles.

Look at the tools Diana Turner’s using: homemade YouTube videos (free), cell phone or tablet cameras (probably free) and Google Docs (free). Look at how she’s using them; they make her so human, so real. And she’s modeling for kids how to solve their own challenges in a more creative, efficient way.

This focus on making things seeps into everything at Bricolage. You won’t see many bake sales or book fairs at the school; rather, you’re more likely to get an invite to New Orleans Mini Maker Faire.

Good innovators listen to their users.

Starting cheap and iterating only works if you adjust to user feedback in between each iteration.

Before Josh Densen wrote the application to start his charter school, he started doing “pop-up classrooms” at music festivals around town. He’d cleverly set up his table close enough to the blow-up bounce house that all music festival organizers worth their salt set up — so close that you almost wondered if he was the guy who’d paid for it. He had no brochures, no propaganda. He’d just stand there next to his own kids as they played with some really cool new learning tools he wanted to test. Families would wander in to the festival and do a double take. There Josh would be, smiling, ready to talk with parents about school — what they liked, what they didn’t, what they dreamed of in a school.

A diverse mix of families started showing up at the pop-ups, and Josh felt it was time to test his ideas at a deeper level. He struck a deal with Samuel Green Charter School: he would to show up at the school a few times with some of the pop-up kids, and have them join Green kids in a test run of his design thinking class.

The best entrepreneurs do this consistently; they make high frequency attempts at new solutions — each repeated attempt an improvement based on what they learned from users.

Good innovators steal.

Josh stole his early-stage pop-up ideas from food truck operators. There was a big fight going on at the time between old-line New Orleans restaurants and a bunch of cooks working out of food trucks serving more diverse food. We talked about this fight at 4.0 Schools, where I serve as CEO; one of our teammates, Cambria Martinelli, worked with the food truck coalition on the side.

Steven Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From, explains how common this stealing — what he calls “exaptation” — is among innovators. Exaptation occurs when someone crosses the membrane between one domain and another, extracts something that’s serving one purpose there, and then adapts it in the original domain for a different purpose. Josh’s application of the food truck concept in schooling is a great example.

We could use more of this in schooling. Teachers — even the good ones Peg raves about — are often too out of touch with the world around them. In a 2012 study, McKinsey found that only 45% of kids and 42% of employers thought schools were doing a good job preparing students for the world of work. Meanwhile back in our schools, when teachers were asked the same question, 72% said they were doing great.

We’ve created a profession that’s entirely too isolated from the world around it. Shoving tools — hardware or software — into that world won’t do nearly as much as changing the mindsets of the people doing their level best to serve kids within it.

My latest exaptation candidate is twitch.tv. Twitch.tv lets experts in World of Warcraft (or any other game) teach others how to play, hack, and win. Seth Stevenson explained the learning that’s actually happening: “Well, those viewers are finding a community of like-minded souls, they’re engaging over a shared interest, and they’re getting tips from superior gamers on how to win at the games.”

On Twitch, I see more than the 24% engagement Peg mentions as the state of ed-tech today. These platforms aren’t perfect, but I’m inspired by the engagement and curious about how we could exapt this kind of platform into schooling. What if a group of kids tried a low-tech version of twitch.tv for an hour in their own classrooms? How fast could we build on those little experiments to truly rethink engagement? What role would the teacher have in that scenario? What could happen if we really mixed what we know about teaching with examples from completely unexpected places?

Peg got this dialogue going with some myths that deserve busting. But we shouldn’t stop there. We can start making personalized learning better right now. We can start by making many more, much smaller bets. This is better for our kids and for our collective wallet. And we should start listening to our users — students, families, and yes, teachers. Doing so will lead to innovation that’s much more fulfilling. I promise.


After reading both Tyre and Candler, I had these thoughts.  First, Candler deals with what “ought to be”about innovation and technology in public schools while Tyre deals with “what is” when it comes to technology-assisted personalized instruction (a.k.a. blended learning).  The difference between having a dream of a better future and getting through the day well in an urban school is the difference between wearing rose-colored glasses and seeing the world as it is.  Nothing wrong about dreaming–it can be a beginning point to a finer world–but unanchored in the daily (and gritty) realities of school life, Candler’s “should” becomes seriously detached from any workable strategy of urban school improvement.

Second, Tyre’s focus is on the centrality of a knowledgeable and skilled teacher who understands when and how to use available technologies. Candler’s focus mentions teachers, of course, but unrelentingly directs the reader’s attention to innovation and what’s in the heads of those innovators–their “mindset.” No word about the conditions on the ground, the context in which school and classroom innovations are birthed and nurtured.Not a syllable mentioned about the abundance of inexperienced teachers visited upon urban children and youth.

Third, Candler’s takes the one example of Josh Densen, founder of the New Orleans Parish charter called Bricolage, and shows how Schools 4.0, an organization Candler founded, helped incubate the charter to where it is now. Bricolage opened two years ago and now has 150 students in kindergarten and first grade. It is a fine, worthy example. But Bricolage or similar instances of schools cannot do the serious cooking in the kitchen necessary to understand deeply the work facing teachers seeking to improve urban schooling. Tyre’s analysis of myths points to a stronger meat-and-potatoes (or vegan) technology-enhanced diet that can improve urban schools. Candler’s offers bytes of cotton candy.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

13 responses to “iPads and Teachers: a Response (Matt Candler)

  1. Sandy

    “We could use more of this in schooling. Teachers — even the good ones Peg raves about — are often too out of touch with the world around them. In a 2012 study, McKinsey found that only 45% of kids and 42% of employers thought schools were doing a good job preparing students for the world of work. Meanwhile back in our schools, when teachers were asked the same question, 72% said they were doing great.”
    I find the condescension of this writer insulting. First, teachers are doing the job they are told to do. Then their students are required to take him stakes tests. If neither the curriculum nor the tests are about job skills, then who’s fault is that exactly? Is the high school biology teacher missing somthing in his/her curriculum that an employer is specifically looking for? Is the earth science teacher suppose to be able to send his/her students into the work force with some essential job skill? “Identify that rock and tell me if the land is suitable for development.”

    Second, this writer cites limited experiences and extrapolates a strategy that will work for all. Seriously? Technology has been in our schools since the 90’s. There are many fine technology innovators in our schools today, but with the focus on standards based curricula, technology tools are used more in support of testing not learning.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks very much, Sandy, for your comments on the Tyre piece.

    • Matt Candler

      Sandy, Thank you for taking the time to respond. I appreciate it. And I appreciate your feedback that I came across as condescending. That was not my intent.

      My intent was to acknowledge the reality you describe. We can’t possibly build the future of school without our teachers. But if we’re making the job so incredibly hard and loading teachers down with more and more stuff, and we’re condescending to them to be nothing but test preppers, we’re in big trouble. Getting teachers into the conversation starts with acknowledging that reality. I am sorry that didn’t come through.

      I totally agree with your assessment about tech being used to support testing, not learning. Amen. As we find ways to give real teachers the time and support to inform tech’s role in their schools, we’re seeing small much better alignment between tech and actual learning. That’s pretty exciting to me.

  2. Matt Candler

    Larry, this is great. Thanks for taking the time to respond. I really hope the discussion on this topic keeps going deeper. Acknowledging the intense pressure teachers face in doing the present work is absolutely vital; thank you for reminding me of the importance of making sure that gets through. I agree with you on Peg’s piece; she did an awesome job framing tech around the actual work of teaching not some silver bullet sold by a detached entrepreneur who doesn’t know what a real classroom looks like.

    My response – more “yes, and,” less rebuttal – was aimed at digging into precisely how we can bust those four myths and get something meaningful done.

    We need more small bets. We need the people taking those bets to be teachers, families and students. Great stuff happens when someone who knows that brutal reality of serving kids every day finds a way to test a hunch about making things better for kids at a super small scale.

    But I don’t see “cotton candy.” Bricolage is small, but it’s meat and potatoes. Here are a few more little bites of meat and potatoes, built by teacher since Bricolage got started: Fantasy Geopolitics, Enriched, Branching Minds, Brightloop, Classroom Media Workshop, Community Guilds, Education Modified, Maker State, Beyond Margins, formative, True School. (more here: http://4pt0.org/our-ventures)

    Like you, I’m skeptical of the sweet stuff many edtech vendors are selling.

    I’m going to keep ordering my plate of little bites of meat and potatoes, served up by the people who matter most – teachers, families and students. No cotton candy for me.

  3. Gary Ravani

    Was this entry supposed to be about education? Or was it a primer in Silicon Valley jargon? As to the term “disruptive,” I take it as close synonym for “creative destruction.” In either case, in my 35 years in the classroom I never came across a parent who desired to have their child’s education “disrupted,” or the school or classroom “destroyed,” even if it was accomplished “creatively.” Feel free to “kick that over the waterfall.”

  4. Daniel R

    Matt, I understand what you’re getting at, and if pressed, would agree with your meat and potato premise. I think we can point to a number of charter or private schools where tech and personalized learning is considered a huge success. It seems the conclusion that is then pushed is that those successes should be the model for all schools, namely our free, public schools. Well that may be a worthy goal, but what steps do you suggest urban public schools take to implement the same kinds of success? How do you implement in high poverty, large urban districts? How do you implement system wide? Be specific and tell us how to make it happen? What happens to all the layers of entrenched systems like testing and accountability systems? I’m thinking about two major roadblocks that have stymied reform for as long as I’ve been around – politics and the constant battle to fund education. Change those and I’ll be ready to serve the meat and potatoes.

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