Patrick Tanguay (PT) — You’ve said before that you have a passion for education and are constantly learning about the industry, do you find that gives you an edge vs entrepreneurs who might simply aim to disrupt?
William Zhou (WZ) — Entrepreneurship itself is about learning, experimenting, and doing. As an entrepreneur, you have to be in a position where you’re growing faster than the company you’re building. Otherwise, you’ll squander the opportunity. Many education technology companies are started by founders with backgrounds in technology without much prior understanding of pedagogy. To make a real impact, these founders have to understand the methods of teaching and learning. Education entrepreneurs have to gain mastery of teaching without being a teacher, and that’s no easy task. Without such knowledge, the industry will be littered with beautiful applications that do not actually move the needle in student outcomes.
At Chalk.com, we like to think of ourselves as a learning company rather than a tech company. Understanding pedagogy is the responsibility of everyone in our company.
PT — The education system is largely based on a factory model, “chain producing” students for the workplace, often years behind current job markets, never mind in a few years when today’s students start working. What are your thoughts on that and does Chalk address the situation somehow?
WZ — The factory model was designed to transfer knowledge as efficiently as possible. It certainly increased literacy amongst people, but missed out on fundamental skills. This model of education also created uniformity, leading to an epidemic of apathy towards learning.
A high quality education cannot be automated or mass produced. What we need is a model that doesn’t rely on rote memorization, but rather, we should be teaching fundamental skills. The system needs to accommodate your needs to give you the best chance to succeed. A high-quality education is one that captures the imagination, engages the learner, and builds on skills.
A high quality education cannot be automated or mass produced; it must be personalized by a professional who understands the readiness, interests, and preferences of each learner. Why? Because learning is innately human. The problem is that this has not been possible at the K-12 level within the current system. We would all be better off with one to one instruction, but you simply can’t have 30 teachers for 30 students. As a society, we simply don’t have the resources for it.
Technology can help education in two main ways. The first is that teachers are overwhelmed with work. When used right, technology can help teachers save time. Technology also dramatically reduces the friction required for teachers to collaborate over large distances. This is the case with teachers collaborating over lesson creation online. This transfer of knowledge and techniques is especially helpful for newer teachers.
The second way is by giving educators insight into their classrooms and their students’ needs. Personalizing an education for every student in a 30 student classroom is impractical, teachers don’t have that much time. Technology can give insights to teachers, allowing them to cohort their students into 5-6 smaller groups that have common interests. Teachers are then able to differentiate their instruction to these groups. It might not be one to one instruction, but it is personalization.
PT — Curiosity, a love of learning, agility and a growth mentality are often mentioned as skills to “future proof” students. How do you think this can be taught in school and do you have some other skills or characteristics you feel should be part of a student’s toolkit?
WZ — Rarely do we see children coming home yelling they love school. Often, it’s quite the opposite. At some point, we have to start wondering why. Sir Ken Robinson famously said in one of his TED talks that creativity is educated out of us. Why is it such an unpleasant place? Clearly, students aren’t being engaged in classes. Perhaps, it has to do with how material is passed down, or the rote memorization of facts that can easily be found via a Google search.