The hyperbolic Valley

Sometime last year my boyfriend had wanted to launch a startup to aid learning new languages for English speakers. The idea was to use popular media such as videos, radio, and song tracks to help intermediate learners leap from stiff textbook phrases to everyday language used by native speakers (when I put it like this, I understand it seems like it had being done before— but he had a secret weapon for the videos). He worked on perfecting his elevator pitch, and soon he’d open his grand introduction with, “We want to fix language learning.”

I was taken aback by this. I asked him, “Why would you open with something so vague and grandiose?” To me,  it seemed unnecessarily overreaching and simultaneously lacking any concreteness on the actual product. It felt like it would be more productive to quickly get to some-sort-of tangible visualization of the product rather than resting on abstract, aspirational claims.

Then he gave it to me good, “Trust me. People in the Valley want to hear that you have a some grand vision– otherwise they are not even interested.” This vision is partly attesting to your own ambition as an entrepreneur, and partly as an implicit reference to the size of the market available for conquering. As a footnote, I should add that he previously worked in venture capital — so while we are young and nubile souls, we are also basing [some of] these claims in experience or at least things we have heard in the corporate hallways.

Fast forward to my adventures in edu-tech, I am reminded of the above conversation every time a new piece of technology promises to disrupt and revolutionize. It seems like you cannot have a conversation about MOOC’s or data or adaptive learning or any new efforts in the space without being bent on changing the paradigm of something. Much of the hotheaded hostility in the debate on MOOC’s, especially, can be distilled to shouting matching of “this is revolutionizing higher education!”, against “no, this is not!” The actual discourse is of course more nuanced than I am giving it credit for. But the fact of the matter is that most of the conversation is still anchored around enthusiasm and resistance, rather than acceptance with attempt at informed improvements.

As much as it is a Silicon Valley thing to fawn over the next app that promises to disrupt & revolutionize (when in truth it just automatically imports your Facebook friends), it is not just a tendency of the valley but also of policymakers. Notwithstanding the fact that many of these “revolutions” are not at all so revolutionary, and are in fact grounded in similar paradigm or format, they are often ignorant of the years of theory and valuable research that have gone in this very, very ancient field.

But what worries me the most is not the clamor nor the poseurs– what I question the most is our bent for revolutions in the first place. When we look at the people most involved in our education today, it is the teachers and the students who are in the grind day in and day out– not the techies or the policymakers. Especially the teachers and the administrators who are in the battlefield everyday and cannot afford to disrupt the learning trajectories of children for untested promises. Revolutions imply attrition– and kids’ learning is one attrition that we should not be volunteering for.

And what’s wrong with doing away the idea of revolution, anyway? This is not to say that we shouldn’t believe in the urgency and need for change-– but perhaps just the methodology and our informed discourse around it. Nobody’s education happened overnight– in fact for most of us it was an arduous process lasting often more than a decade. How do we expect that education can change over night, when our own took its time?


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