Prepare for the Spontaneous

Lately I have been teaching improv workshops for professionals with and the reaction from adults has been astonishingly positive. It has me noticing more and more: the principles of improv go far beyond the theater. They are a toolset to help everyday humans embrace and make the most of a constantly changing and spontaneous world while ensuring that they contribute.

Life is not scripted – unknown problems cause us to generate novel solutions and if we aren’t open minded we risk mediocre solutions or worse: inaction. I recently learned of an old Chinese philosophy concept called wu-wei (still relevant 2000 years later) that describes a state of mind similar to that of flow, or being in the zone – except it is about being completely open to the spontaneous. It is about being so comfortable in where you are that new ideas or changing fundamentals don’t scare you – rather you incorporate them into life, observe or change them in some way, and continue on. Leaders who have strong abilities in wu-wei in turn give off what is called “de” (pronounced “duh”), a type of confidence that inspires others to follow.

Improv is a set of tools to help you understand wu-wei and the art of embracing the spontaneous. To help you notice and accept the offers of the world and to feel empowered to change them, if only a little bit. Indeed everything that exists came to be in just this way, by small changes over time.

One of my favorite parts of improv are shared control activities where two people are jointly responsible for creating something (a simple example is to say a run on sentence one word at a time with someone else). By sticking to the rules – being interested; saying “yes, and!”; failing gracefully – a team can create a very compelling story or product while neither can claim credit nor lack of ownership. 

By letting go you allow more offers into your life and, counterintuitively, end up with more. To share more improv philosophies, I’ve put some together into a graphic below. Let me know in the comments if you want to see a post about any of them individually.

improv philosophy

Defining Impact in Education

“I have trouble understanding double, triple bottom line funds – there can only be one bottom line for impact funds. That’s why they call it the bottom.”   a paraphrase of Kevin Starr

I am thrilled by the attention the education market has been getting lately, from DBL, impact, and profit-maximizing funds alike. What “success” looks like is different to each stakeholder, and I consider myself lucky to work at a well financed fund that has just one bottom line: impact.

That said, there are days I  envy the for-profit investor. With dollar values assigned to every action, measuring the success and value of a company, while not easy, becomes quite straight forward. If it makes money, you did well. If only there were a dollar sign for impact. Some magical metric that people could accumulate a lot of and say “I have done good. I am successful.”

Just what is the currency to measure social return on investment, and what are companies trying? When it comes to education technology, I see four main metrics for efficacy emerging: achievement, affinity, adoption, and audience.

  • Achievement – how well does the product actually improve student outcomes? As an example, NewSchools portfolio company eSpark has shown impact through their case studies of improving student achievement – students using eSpark have been shown to advance twice as fast in a given time than control groups doing similar activities.
  • Affinity – consider net promotor score and retention metrics. Create surveys that allow you to say “[some high percent] of teachers say [your product] is excellent for teaching [subject].” As further example, Ellevation has only lost one customer in their most recent year of operations.
  • Adoption – organic growth is a third sign of impact: if it works, people tell their friends. Class Dojo’s role as the fastest growing K12 edtech company is a good example of this.
  • Audience – is your product reaching those students that need it most? How are you measuring this, and how do you plan to reach more disadvantaged students who cannot afford your technology? Learning the percentage of students who are on Free/Reduced lunch can be a good proxy for this.

While all these metrics are good indicators of impact, still none can be compared to the other apples to apples. Even in-depth qualitative research or surveys leaves a lot to be desired. That said, when looking at companies, we still continue to peruse what people are saying on twitter. For example:

There is a complexity buried in here that money misses. A true capitalist might say that if you are able to make sales and scale revenue this is a sign the product is good and the market needs what you sell. But in education I believe it is the responsibility of an investor to look beyond the financial opportunity and into the impact, however ambiguous and (un)measurable it might be.

The future of standardized testing

The College Board recently announced it is changing the SAT to better align with schoolwork. While I applaud their initiative to make the test relevant to what students are actually learning, emerging efforts in learning analytics and data backpacks will cause a shift in the underlying model of standardized tests.

Think about it: why would we sit students down in an inauthentic testing environment and ask them to perform when we have data on how they perform every single day, how long it has taken them to reach that level, and exactly how well they understand each foundational concept along the way?

I am pro-measurement but anti-test. The technology tools being developed in education today will gradually replace standardized testing by offering a snapshot of student understanding. Consider the three examples below as replacements for standardized testing, showing progress in grammar, math, and behavior.

Example 1: No Red Ink provides an in depth heat map of grammar understanding. Students work their way up colors, and if they are all blue then they have demonstrated understanding of the subject. Each block tests the basics, nuanced understandings, and edge cases of different grammar concepts.

Example 1: No Red Ink provides an in depth heat map of grammar understanding. Students work their way up colors, and if they are all blue then they have demonstrated understanding of the subject. Each block tests the basics, nuanced understandings, and edge cases of different grammar concepts.

 Khan Academy

Example 2: Khan Academy provides an entire concept map of interlinked algebra concepts, showing a snapshot of a students understanding and what ideas they are prepared to learn next. This type of data is much more valuable than a 680/800 on a math test because you can see how they have approached learning, explored, and pushed themselves and silly mistakes are not overvalued in the algorithm.

Class Dojo

Example 3: Class Dojo feeds back data about student behavior, capturing qualities like teamwork, creativity, or talking out of turn. Their data dashboards can present viewers with an understanding 100% unavailable by current testing methods.

Proponents (I am paraphrasing Jeb Bush) will tell you that a testing environment is good — that, in the real world, students need to perform in a given moment and they need to learn to deal with the stress. From this perspective, allowing performance on tools like Khan Academy or NoRedInk to count makes no sense because students can practice and refine their solutions. Yet the real world is much more forgiving —I am constantly doing drafts of papers, revisions to presentations, and consulting the team when I need help evaluating investment opportunities.

The gradual shift away from standardized testing towards the performance snapshot model will change the conversation from “what was my grade” to “how can I better understand?” And what better goal of primary and secondary education than to have students exit with an inquisitive drive and having learned how to learn?

How to Generate Content

I have been trying to start a blog for a while. I have been nervous about various aspects like quality and “brand.” How good does my idea just have to be? If I am going to link to this from a twitter handle that is also work related, how relevant to work do my ideas have to be?

Even Boromir struggles to keep his profile up to date.

Even Boromir struggles to keep his profile up to date.

My new theory: just write it. Just show people my brain. I’m not polished. This is a blog. I have ideas. I have short sentences. I have longer sentences that morph into ideas that build but more often flow into a completely different idea. Sometimes I will delete and rewrite, other times I won’t.

I guess the challenge is to feel like the internet is a safe place. I like to be open and up front, but it is difficult to deal with not knowing my audience. I am always trying to be sensitive to my audience to communicate my message in a way that will be well received. You cannot please everyone with a blog.

So: I will find a voice. I think it will be shorter posts, with fewer theses (my formal writing training always involved a thesis and evidence). Perhaps they will just be observations, or thoughts, or who knows.

But they will be blog posts, so there.

Game on.

51 Questions any Edtech Entrepreneur Must Answer


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Any education entrepreneur knows that answering a barrage of questions is a daily given–whether it’s from parents, teachers and administrators, or investors, judges and journalists.

In January, NewSchools Venture Fund and Silicon Valley Education Foundation collaborated to launch a new learning innovation zone. Ten companies competed for the chance to run pilots throughout Silicon Valley school districts. They were drilled with dozens of questions from a panel of both educational leaders and business leaders. (You can read more here about who won.)

For entrepreneurs–from whom pitching is inevitable–these questions offer valuable insights into the priorities and perspectives of educators and business leaders on edtech. Below I’ve compiled a list of what edtech startups should be prepared to answer if they step onto the stage and into the spotlight. (Note: These are the real questions asked in the iHub Pitch games. The list is not comprehensive, but is a good place to start as you think through your own ideas.)

From an Educator’s Perspective (superintendents, tech directors, and principals)

Classroom Experience

  • How do you see a teacher using your product in the classroom? Help me understand how a teacher would use this.
  • Does your product track time on task?
  • Can you explain how the students collaborate? Can a teacher modify the student created content before it gets shared?
  • If I’m a student, how am I going to use this product? What is your hook to get students to use the tool?
  • Is this something a student can use at home?

Utility to Teachers

  • How do you train the teachers to use the system? How long does it take for a teacher to become proficient?
  • For power users, how long does it take to write a new lesson?
  • Does it give information back to the Student Information System? Is it exportable back to a gradebook? How does it integrate with other systems?
  • Can other teachers access the data to share between classes and programs?

Quality of Content

  • How do you see the content aligning to the Common Core State Standards? Are the standards tagged by users or the system?
  • Are there scaffolding supports build in for English Language Learners?
  • There are a ton of edtech products being created, why would this be a good one for schools to invest in?

From a Business Perspective (CEO’s, Venture Capitalists, and Ronnie Lott)

Content and Product

  • How does the adaptivity work?
  • Do you have any concerns about privacy?
  • How do you ensure quality of content?
  • How do you deal with disparity in students with respect to social and economic background?
  • How do you substantiate the learning gains you cite?
  • How much content will you need to gain complete coverage of the curriculum, and how are you going to invest in getting that done quickly? How will you invest in going to market?
  • Does your product slow down the top students? How do you ensure this doesn’t happen?
  • Where are your content creators based and how do they get paid?

Competition and Market

  • Who do you see as your competition?
  • How do you differentiate yourself from your main competitors?
  • What stops other companies from entering your field if your method becomes a hit?
  • How do you make money?
  • Who owns the digital rights?
  • What is your price point?

Team and Vision

  • Tell us a bit about who you are.
  • What is your pain point right now?
  • 5 years from now, what is your company going to look like?
  • What keeps you up late at night?
  • What gets you up early in the morning?
  • What do you want to do with the data you collect?
  • What is the size of your team?
  • If you prioritize your goals, what would you do right now and what would you leave to the future?
  • How did you meet your co-founder?

Usage and Users

  • Of the X% users you retain, what is special about them as opposed to those who churn? How often does that X% use your product?
  • What negative things do customers say?
  • Who is the customer? Who is the decision maker?
  • What’s your plan to get your product to your customer base? Do you have revenue targets?
  • How many users were active in [month]?
  • You have X% retention. Why did the others leave?
  • How will you scale up your customer support as you grow?

note: This post originally appeared on the NewSchools blog. This version appeared on the edsurge blog.

ReimaginED: The Future of K12 Education


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From TED talk playlists to government speeches, everyone agrees: education is changing. Exactly how, why, or what it all means is still up for debate. Are the low United States PISA scores a sign of stagnation or creativity? Does technology replace or enhance face to face interaction? Are we trying to teach skillsconcepts, or learning mindsets?

At NewSchools Venture Fund, we’d like to set the stage differently, in the context of the ground up innovation already happening. While some see the systemic challenges facing us as signs of a depressed age or solemn future, we see it as a call to action. The time is now to re-imagine our education system, and the landscape that’s developed over the last several years offers fertile ground for new approaches.

Just what are the challenges facing our nation, and what are problem solvers doing to keep training the next generation to be the best and brightest? Find out in Re-imagineda 50 slide overview of the present and future of education.

Thanks to Brian Greenberg, Emily Dalton-Smith, Evan Marwell, Shruti Gandhi, Janis Ortega, Jennifer Carolan, Shauntel Poulson, Eva Gonda Green, and others for their guidance and feedback on the presentation.

This post originally appeard on

ReimaginED: The Future of K12 Education

It’s Not Disruption, It’s Punctuated Equilibrium

As a biology student turned venture investor, I view the ecosystem of startups a little differently than most. The “Series A Crunch” is a standard carrying capacity problem, blue ocean markets are little more than keen takes on speciation, and predation, parasitism, and mutualism run rampant. I’ve even gotten to thinking that founders of companies are a bit like gorillas, and their business models are no more than reproduction strategies.

But these theories are for another day – there is one concept in the startup ecosystem that has this student of Darwin cringing from the implications: disruption.
I take issue with the notion of “disruption,” particularly in the field of education, where real futures of real student minds are on the line. I don’t want the process disrupted, because that means the old system must die by failure and abandonment. In the case of education, that’s an entire generation.

I’d like to propose instead we view evolution in the business world the same way it is seen in the natural world – through a combination of gradualism and punctuated equilibrium. Gradualism (otherwise known as “incremental innovation”) is the process of small change over time, and we see evidence for it in the geologic record. But sometimes there are big jumps, large changes that lead to a new species, or new abilities. This is known as punctuated equilibrium.

Consider the classic example of Darwin’s Finches. They all started the same,and as they were isolated on different islands, each adapted to the specific needs of the niche (“peripatric isolation”). Some got longer beaks to reach in flowers, some thicker to break hard nuts.

The internet is like the galapagos, made up of islands with niches. The mainland had its species – it’s books, pens, and [some other thing in the past]. Now it’s time to reach a new equilibrium, many little equilibriums, according to the world around us. Eventually, people will take boats to see the pretty new birds.

No need to disrupt – just to evolve.

Overheard: Thoughts on Education


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At NewSchools, we are constantly being exposed to new ideas in education from a variety of sources. This week was particularly interesting. Below is a sampling of what I learned.

Big Ideas from the Week

  • Education technology is not a zero sum game. When movies came out, live theater attendance did not decline. In fact, consumption in general of viewing pretend situations increased 28x. Technology can do the same — the value of in person teaching will not diminish (it might even increase with better tools), yet the general population will hopefully spend about 28x more time with educational content as technology makes it more available. [learned from Sebastian Thrun, founder @ Udacity]
  • Teachers are not surgeons. With the new Common Core State Standards, products are tempted to help teachers diagnose and fix minutiae of specific standards, but this is not how learning works. Products must step back and look more holistically at concepts and learning to help teachers build solid foundations. [learned from Anthony Kim, founder @ Education Elements]
  • K12 is a place to inspire. The “why” of K12 education needs a refresh. Yes, core skills are necessary, but core skills will change over each of our lifetimes. An essential goal of the first 18 years of education is to teach people to learn and to inspire them to develop throughout their lives.  [learned from Matthew Brimer, founder @ General Assembly]

Stats and Stuff

  • 80% of Youtube Education views are from outside the United States
  • The “Williams Act” earmarks school budget for textbooks that sometimes just sit in the corner of a classroom as teachers use free online tools.
  • Some think the gold standard of tech is 1:1 (one device:one student), but the future might be 1:any — one device that anyone can use by logging in (e.g. Chromebooks, or apple ID’s)
  • Startup Advice
    • “Always be collecting candidates” — the ABC’s of recruiting according to Albert Wenger, partner at Union Square ventures (corollary to “always be closing,” the ABC’s of sales/marketing)
    • A startup’s growth is usually only constrained by one thing at one time – find this, and focus most of your attention on fixing that problem. Once that is no longer the bottleneck, shift your attention again.

Please add anything neat you learned this week to the comments section.

This post originally appeared on the NewSchools blog: