Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of cri­sis.

Aengus Anderson: During some of the­se moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inherit­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future gen­er­a­tions.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it hap­pen­ing?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing the­se sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.

Micah Saul: Ahoy.

Aengus Anderson: How goes it?

Saul: Not bad. Yourself?

Anderson: I’m glad we sur­vived edit­ing that last episode. 

Saul: I’m…still recov­er­ing.

Anderson: Well, let’s go from the heav­i­ly philo­soph­i­cal into the tan­gi­ble.

Saul: Sounds good. So today, talk­ing with Lisa Petrides.

Anderson: Yes. Hopping on the motor­cy­cle, rid­ing down the coast over Devil’s Slide to Half Moon Bay.

Saul: Never heard of it.

Anderson: Yeah, it’s a fun­ny lit­tle town. I know strange peo­ple from there.

Saul: God, it real­ly just sounds like it pro­duces the weird­est peo­ple in the world.

Anderson: Folks like you, may­be.

Saul: Oh…right.

Anderson: So, Lisa. Do you want to do a lit­tle intro on her?

Saul: Sure. So, Lisa is the founder of a ISKME, which is…

Anderson: The Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education.

Saul: Exactly. She’s real­ly inter­est­ed in look­ing at edu­ca­tion, look­ing at how peo­ple learn, look­ing at how things are taught, and try­ing to fig­ure out how things should be taught.

Anderson: Yeah. Which I think is real­ly intrigu­ing. She takes a per­spec­tive that well, makes me think a lot of social sci­ence in its hey­day of real­ly focus­ing on a lot of rig­or­ous research and try­ing to go from sta­tis­tics about how things are oper­at­ing now and make the jump to a bet­ter sys­tem.

Saul: Right. 

Anderson: Which is fun­ny because that’s some­thing that has come up in a lot of oth­er con­ver­sa­tions, and how you make that jump.

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: It’s David Hume’s fal­la­cy, going from is to ought. But, that’s where pol­i­cy comes from—

Saul: Exactly.

Anderson: —and I think it’s gonna be real­ly cool to see how she assess­es the state of edu­ca­tion now, which is some­thing that sur­pris­ing­ly has only come up in our con­ver­sa­tion with Andrew Keen thus far, and he just sort of swept it aside.

Saul: So, Andrew Keen I know will dis­pute me on this, fact but I think edu­ca­tion is absolute­ly one of the most impor­tant top­ics to be hav­ing the Conversation about.

Anderson: Especially in a world where…we’ve talked a lot about infor­ma­tion and an abun­dance of infor­ma­tion, and how do you sift through that. Where do you get the tools to sift through that? Education.

Saul: Right

Anderson: You know, there are a lot of sources we talk so much about val­ue in this project, or moral­i­ty or the good. It mat­ters in the same way that like, reli­gion mat­ters, or fam­i­ly mat­ters, or vague cul­tur­al norms mat­ter. It is one of those sites—

Saul: Exactly.

Anderson: —of cre­at­ing what we val­ue. At the same time I think there’s a an inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion of, should edu­ca­tion be one of those sites at all? What pur­pos­es should edu­ca­tion actu­al­ly serve? And I’ll be curi­ous to talk to her about that. Like, what can we learn about it through sta­tis­tics? What goals should we be pur­su­ing? How do we decide on those? Should edu­ca­tion be some­thing that is just help­ing peo­ple get jobs? 

Saul: Here’s the ques­tion of the lib­er­al arts and are they still rel­e­vant—

Anderson: Absolutely.

Saul: —in today’s soci­ety.

Anderson: And that’s a ques­tion of the good.

Saul: And whether, even if they’re not rel­e­vant in today’s soci­ety or not val­ued in today’s soci­ety, should they be?

Anderson: Yeah.

Saul: Yeah. I’m intrigued to see where this one goes.

Lisa Petrides: So, I found­ed ISKME, The Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, ten years ago. And I did that because I was look­ing for an oppor­tu­ni­ty. I was at the time a pro­fes­sor at Columbia University Teachers College. I was teach­ing in the Department of Organizational Leadership. And I was real­ly look­ing for a way to take the ideas and the con­cepts we were think­ing about around edu­ca­tion and information-sharing, how we cre­at­ed knowl­edge… I was look­ing for a way to real­ly put this work in prac­tice. And I felt like that wasn’t hap­pen­ing and I didn’t have the same kinds of oppor­tu­ni­ties to do in the aca­d­e­mic envi­ron­ment.

Before that, just sort of briefly, my back­ground was in infor­ma­tion sci­ence in edu­ca­tion. So I was bring­ing a lot of the­se ideas about think­ing about how infor­ma­tion helps us do what we do, and about infor­ma­tion and data as a means of con­tin­u­ous improve­ment. So, kind of com­bin­ing this kind of infor­ma­tion sci­ence and edu­ca­tion is some­thing that’s sort of unique in edu­ca­tion, at least cer­tain­ly was twen­ty years ago when I was get­ting edu­cat­ed myself. 

Anderson: So you found­ed ISKME based on want­i­ng to study dif­fer­ent types of edu­ca­tion. What did you want to study?

Petrides: Well, what I want­ed to study was how peo­ple cre­at­ed or made access to data for peo­ple to be able to use for decision-making. How that data real­ly got sort of trans­formed into infor­ma­tion that was usable, that could be applied to prob­lems. But the real impor­tant piece to study also for us was the com­po­nent around action. So, how you take that and turn that into real action, and then how that cycle begins again. So that was kind of the… In fact, our tagline is Turning Knowledge Into Action.” So that’s a big impor­tant com­po­nent of the pic­ture.

Anderson: You’re think­ing about aggre­gat­ing knowl­edge on sort of an edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem, and what you can learn from that in all the­se dif­fer­ent ways I assume. Different bits of data you can bring togeth­er to think about what the sys­tem is doing? And then there’s a jump there where you go from look­ing at and mea­sur­ing what the sys­tem is doing to improv­ing the sys­tem?

Petrides: Absolutely. I mean, it real­ly is about con­tin­u­ous improve­ment. And the work is real­ly about change. It’s about how you cre­ate change and inno­va­tion in edu­ca­tion. I would say in some ways that’s a sub­text, but I think most peo­ple work­ing in edu­ca­tion that is the sub­text. That things aren’t work­ing as they are cur­rent­ly struc­tured and con­fig­ured and how do you do it dif­fer­ent­ly. So this whole area of edu­ca­tion reform. It’s kind of why peo­ple go into edu­ca­tion, I think. They’re try­ing to under­stand how to do some­thing bet­ter.

The con­text could be how in a class­room you use real-time data on your stu­dents to under­stand what they need. Or whether it’s at a big dis­trict lev­el, you’re under­stand­ing how a cer­tain pro­gram is impact­ing that region of the coun­try. To much larg­er sys­tems, you know, look­ing at coun­tries or oth­er kinds of sys­tems that go across those sort of bound­aries. So the unit of analy­sis real­ly can go from the class­room to the world. 

Anderson: Okay, so it’s more a way of thought.

Petrides: Exactly.

Anderson: Okay. So that of course seems to imply that the edu­ca­tion sys­tem today isn’t per­fect.

Petrides: You could say that.

Anderson: So, with every­one I talk to, of course I was men­tion­ing ear­lier but I’m sort of inter­est­ed in the present and where we go from here. So let’s look at the present for a moment, and talk about today’s edu­ca­tion sys­tem. Education has not popped up much in the may­be ten con­ver­sa­tions I’ve record­ed thus far.

Petrides: That’s inter­est­ing.

Anderson: Except in one with a media crit­ic named Andrew Keen. And he men­tioned it more or less in pass­ing, say­ing that he felt we have all of the­se sort of social issues, and gen­er­al­ly when peo­ple didn’t know what to do they said, Well, the problem’s edu­ca­tion. Leave it to the teach­ers.” And he felt that that was just a way for peo­ple to get out of the con­ver­sa­tion. And he felt that the teach­ers were peo­ple who were part of this sort of 19th cen­tu­ry mod­el of edu­ca­tion. He thinks of us mov­ing into this world of brands were every­one must be a brand and must sur­vive in this sort of lev­el dig­i­tal econ­o­my, and the­se the­se are peo­ple who are sort of like, career-wise can’t sur­vive them­selves and shouldn’t be teach­ing our chil­dren. That’s been the only men­tion, just for your back­ground [crosstalk] that’s popped up in this project.

Petrides: That’s real­ly inter­est­ing, and sort of not sur­pris­ing. Well you know, to kind of respond to what Andrew said, I mean, in some ways I can’t read a news­pa­per or hear the news or look on the web and not see some of the prob­lems, not see almost any prob­lem and look at it and say, Education edu­ca­tion edu­ca­tion,” right? I can look and if you real­ly trace it back in that way… Now, do we mean edu­ca­tion as a school? Do we mean edu­ca­tion more gen­er­al­ly? Do you mean more edu­ca­tion as a soci­ety and how we learn our cul­ture and norms, right? So, edu­ca­tion can can be a lot of dif­fer­ent things. 

So in one sense I would agree that when you can you keep going back, you keep going to edu­ca­tion, I think, to bring us today where we are in edu­ca­tion, I think part of the prob­lem is that the non-education world thinks, you know, Shouldn’t teach­ers solve this prob­lem? They’re with the kids all day long, shouldn’t they do that?” But there’s a real dis­con­nect between what’s hap­pen­ing on the out­side and then what actu­al­ly the teacher gets hand­ed in terms of a class­room. And I can say this in terms of whether we’re talk­ing about pri­ma­ry school or sec­ondary school or col­lege edu­ca­tion. It’s the same thing. You don’t still have a choice as a teacher who comes your way.

So the com­plex social issues espe­cial­ly around chil­dren in edu­ca­tion, it’s become such a polit­i­cal issue. You know, polit­i­cal like from the pol­i­cy per­spec­tive. So people’s polit­i­cal careers are depen­dent. Governments run edu­ca­tion, you know. State gov­ern­ments run edu­ca­tion and they they’re re-elected, and oth­er things tak­ing place. So here’s this thing that’s sort of the fab­ric of our soci­ety but has sort of been at the whims of pol­i­tics and pol­i­cy.

And then of course there’s the issues of friends who I have a teach in schools where they tell me that 75% of their kids have come in with fetal alco­hol syn­drome when they were born, or they’re born addict­ed to crack cocaine. That wasn’t what teach­ers did a hun­dred years ago, right? So, we’re using an old mod­el of how the teacher works and what needs to fix in this whole oth­er soci­ety that’s not real­ly equipped in that way. So that’s just kind of one start­ing point to say what’s going on with edu­ca­tion today. So it’s very com­plex at that lev­el.

But let me sort of jump up a whole nother lev­el and say that I think we are real­ly at a moment and time where there real­ly has been sort of this per­fect storm of vari­ables in the world which cer­tain­ly have to do with tech­nol­o­gy and the Internet. They also have to do with this whole idea of sort of per­son­al­iza­tion. Again, the­se are sort of the oppor­tu­ni­ties that are right here in front of us, but our edu­ca­tion sys­tems aren’t any­where close to being able to even think about how to address that. I mean, most edu­ca­tion looks like what it looked like fifty years ago, a hun­dred years ago, two hun­dred years ago.

Anderson: There is some­thing then to what Andrew was say­ing about them hav­ing this cul­tur­al lega­cy that goes back a long way. The struc­tures are sort of in place to how they oper­ate. But it also seems like we have the­se new struc­tures of tech­nol­o­gy com­ing in that are mak­ing new things option­al. I’m sort of curi­ous… Well, first what hap­pens if the sys­tem doesn’t change? If it doesn’t embrace any of the­se new things. If say we con­tin­ue on with the edu­ca­tion­al sta­tus quo? Some of what I’m sure draws you into this field is the notion that if things are left alone, then we end up with a worse sys­tem, right? And what does that world look like that we’re try­ing to avoid? Why change the sta­tus quo?

Petrides: Right. Well, unfor­tu­nate­ly I feel like the worse sys­tem is kind of here already in a lot of ways. And it’s there in the schools that are real­ly poor­ly served. It’s there in dropout rates in some com­mu­ni­ties in this coun­try that are 50% of high school stu­dents drop out. The nation­al aver­age is less than that, but in cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties it is that high. 

Of course, if you look around demo­graph­ics you’ll find you know huge dif­fer­ences there, as well. We see the fail­ure of it, the colos­sal fail­ure of it. I just was read­ing some­thing recent­ly about pris­ons, and I might not have the num­ber exact­ly right, but it was some­thing like 80% of the inmates here at San Quentin, which is a male pris­on, are illit­er­ate. So that means they read at the fourth grade lev­el or below. And I’ve heard anoth­er num­ber which is some­thing like a high per­cent­age of those would be con­sid­ered gift­ed, with a learn­ing dis­or­der, if they were in tra­di­tion­al schools.

So, you start think­ing what big­ger fail­ure, you know? Can we actu­al­ly fail any more than that, right? And some­times I think we’ve hit bot­tom, you know. What could be worse? I…what could be worse than that? That we have a soci­ety that is by and large math­e­mat­i­cal­ly illit­er­ate. A lot in our soci­ety also not lit­er­ate from a read­ing and writ­ing per­spec­tive. Or a crit­i­cal think­ing per­spec­tive. Again, you can look at where you want to apply those. So, in some ways you say, What’s the dooms­day sit­u­a­tion?” It’s like uh…maybe we’re like, in it?

Anderson: How does that man­i­fest in terms of a soci­ety that’s demo­c­ra­t­ic, where you need an edu­cat­ed elec­torate?

Petrides: It’s huge. Huge. And many peo­ple have spo­ken more elo­quent­ly than I about this, that you know you can­not have a democ­ra­cy with­out the edu­ca­tion of its peo­ple.

Anderson: So may­be there’s a ques­tion of, what is edu­ca­tion doing? Is it prepar­ing peo­ple for a place in an econ­o­my? Is it ful­fill­ing them as indi­vid­u­als? Is it social­iz­ing them to work in a cer­tain type of cul­ture?

Petrides: Right. And of course those are sort of the age-old debates with­in edu­ca­tion. There are those who argue that you don’t need col­lege if all you have is a voca­tion, and vice ver­sa. There’s a lot of debates and dis­agree­ment. But I think today what we can sort of safe­ly say is we need to be able to pre­pare indi­vid­u­als to sort of live in the 21s cen­tu­ry. And what does that mean? Well, it means they need to learn how to read and to think crit­i­cal­ly. They need to know some con­flict res­o­lu­tion. They need to under­stand math­e­mat­i­cal con­cepts or analy­sis. They need a whole set of skills, no mat­ter what they’re going to do in the world. 

So sort of 21st cen­tu­ry liv­ing, of course we’re still work­ing and we need jobs. We should bring in income. So your edu­ca­tion needs to take you to a point where you can do that viably. But it also needs to give you the skills that you need to live in the greater soci­ety. So I would say that’s the the real mis­sion and pur­pose of edu­ca­tion.

I think some­times we see this very direc­tive, like every­body must go to col­lege, and must get this kind of job, and obvi­ous­ly that’s non­sen­si­cal. I mean, we know cer­tain trends, like jobs today are requir­ing more tech­nol­o­gy skills than most of our high school grad­u­ates have. Okay, prob­lem. Let’s solve that prob­lem, right? But oth­er than that, real­ly it’s all of those things.

Anderson: So those seem like those are where where every con­ver­sa­tion even­tu­al­ly moves into, or as I said ear­lier, may­be degen­er­ates into the philo­soph­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion about the good. It seems like those are some of the ideas of the good. To some extent, it is try­ing to help you sur­vive, in a way.

Petrides: That’s right. Yes, sur­vive and I might say thrive, also. What does that mean?

Anderson: What does that mean?

Petrides: Well, we we can’t thrive if there’s a nuclear acci­dent 5,000 miles away where there’s going to be fall­out con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing our water. That’s not thriv­ing. Okay. And what does that mean? Well, I’m edu­cat­ed, I’m all set? No. It means that some­how I have to know how to work with oth­ers, how we might trou­bleshoot that, how we might problem-solve. What do we do local­ly? What do we do by state? What do we do for our water? I mean obvi­ous­ly I’m talk­ing about Japan and Fukushima an exam­ple or an anal­o­gy.

But those are the kinds of prob­lems we’re going to have. We’re so inter­re­lat­ed. We we trav­el. There’s pol­lu­tion in our oceans. There’s cli­mate change. I mean, there’s real­ly big prob­lems fac­ing us. So the idea that we can just sort of know our job, do our thing, and act in that way is I think going to become unten­able.

Anderson: This is mak­ing me think of the sec­ond con­ver­sa­tion I had with a guy named Dr. Max More, and I always like to ask peo­ple at the end sort of a ques­tion that they would leave off with. The ques­tion that he would want to ask lat­er peo­ple on The Conversation was, How do you devel­op a process for mak­ing bet­ter choic­es?” As we were just hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion about what edu­ca­tion should do, I’ve sud­den­ly remem­bered that ques­tion of his. In a way our con­ver­sa­tion about edu­ca­tion has me think­ing about its role social­ly, and how do we make bet­ter choic­es?

Petrides: Yeah, absolute­ly. I mean, I like the sim­plic­i­ty of that, because in a lot of ways that is what we’re try­ing to do. It is both the dis­cern­ment, real­ly. It’s com­plex think­ing. There’s a lot of vari­ables in being able just to kind of answer that ques­tion. But I think that is a lot around what crit­i­cal think­ing is, and being able to rea­son and have ana­lyt­i­cal thought. Those are some huge pieces, I think, that many teach­ers are com­mit­ted to try to teach their stu­dents, whether the stu­dents are twelve or twen­ty. Yeah, I would say that def­i­nite­ly would fall under how do we make bet­ter choic­es.”

And I think there is anoth­er ele­ment that many of us would agree, cer­tain­ly not every­body, that…you know, edu­ca­tion real­ly does have a civic com­po­nent to it. And that it is about it’s not just your choice like, I don’t want this trash so I’m going to burn in my back­yard. That’s a good choice for me, but what does it do for my neigh­bor? Does it put tox­ins in the air? And it isn’t sort of this thing like, Well it’s about me, it’s not about you.” It’s about under­stand­ing how the choic­es you make impact oth­ers, or that you’re part of a big­ger whole. That you can’t make your choic­es in full iso­la­tion from the rest of the world. Why does one per­son bike to work and why does some­body car­pool, right? They’re mak­ing a choice that shows that they under­stand that they’re part of a larg­er ecosys­tem.

Obviously there’s human rights that have to do with water and air and safe­ty and shel­ter, but I think edu­ca­tion is right there with it because it real­ly is a pub­lic good. I have such a hard time with peo­ple who say, for exam­ple, who don’t have chil­dren and say, Well why should I pay those tax­es. I don’t have any­body in the schools. It’s not ben­e­fit­ing me.” And I think how can you pos­si­bly say that? Those are the peo­ple that are ser­vic­ing you, whether they’re ser­vic­ing your roads or your super­mar­ket or your med­ical offices. 

Anderson: Or they’re not mug­ging you.

Petrides: Exactly. I mean, how can this not be a pub­lic good? It impacts all of us.

Anderson: Right. That real­ly seems like kind of, one of the very low­est lev­el ideas of good in there. Where does that idea come from? Is that pure, kind of util­i­tar­i­an sur­vival?

Petrides: I was going to say, it could be fair­ly Darwinian. When I was an under­grad­u­ate, I stud­ied ecol­o­gy and forestry, when we’d go out into all the­se forests and look at the tree and say well, why is this tree here, today? What are all the vari­ables? And there were many? It had to do with water, and sun, and the anti-logging mea­sure. You know what I mean, there were all kinds of vari­ables. I love talk­ing to evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gists or peo­ple like that, who under­stand how those things in fact impact. I’m not sure if I’m hit­ting your ques­tion square­ly on the head, but… 

So where does that come from? When when you think about how com­mu­ni­ties sur­vived, right, it was because cer­tain peo­ple did cer­tain things. I mean every­body con­tribut­ed to what­ev­er their piece was. Was it you brought some food, and you grew veg­eta­bles, and you… I mean we turned that into kind of a mar­ket com­mod­i­ty idea. I don’t do it, but I can buy it. But still, ulti­mate­ly if you look at how peo­ple sur­vived back then, they absolute­ly worked as a com­mu­ni­ty for their sur­vival, in that sense.

Anderson: This con­nects in in a real­ly inter­est­ing way to the last two con­ver­sa­tions I had, and both of them talked about the idea of think­ing about things in a larg­er time scale, think­ing about things in a larg­er space scale. And this seems to direct­ly con­nect with what we’re talk­ing about here, in that… Or may­be one of the ways to talk about edu­ca­tion work­ing well is to talk about it expand­ing our sense of con­nect­ed­ness, so we make bet­ter deci­sions?

Petrides: Well, I think that’s spot-on to the exam­ple of the Qatar Foundation International did a teacher exchange, with teach­ers from Doha and teach­ers in Chicago, And they went and did a whole sort of sci­ence series, sci­ence class­es, around look­ing at the water in Lake Michigan. So just a whole kind of learn­ing about water and sus­tain­abil­i­ty. Then those kids went back to Qatar and start­ed doing inter­views with their par­ents and peo­ple and said, Where does our water come from, and how do we…?” And so that sense of the inter­con­nect­ed­ness between those stu­dents showed them not only there’s water issues in the United States and there’s water issues in a desert region of the Middle East. It starts to sort of make you think about those sort of com­mon­al­i­ties. So not only might there be actu­al­ly solu­tions in those sort of disparate-seeming geo­graph­ic areas, but there might be some­thing in com­mon. So we have that part of it. And then we have the soci­etal, the more civic piece as well. I mean obvi­ous­ly the­se exchanges are made between Arabic-speaking and English-speaking young peo­ple so that they can see them­selves as col­lab­o­ra­tors and not as peo­ple who they should fear. Any amount of that inter­con­nect­ed­ness is a huge part of what edu­ca­tion should be about, also.

Anderson: I’ve talk to every­one about sort of the present, right, and the­se dif­fer­ent crises, whether they think of them as envi­ron­men­tal or eco­nom­ic or no cri­sis at all. Do you think this is a par­tic­u­lar­ly crit­i­cal moment in his­to­ry?

Petrides: Yes, I think that… I think this is a real his­tor­i­cal moment. I mean, I’m old­er than you, but you’re old­er than the four­teen year-olds right now who are say­ing, What? What are you leav­ing us? What is the chal­lenge I have?” If you talk to young kids today, they know they’re gonna have to solve some of the­se big prob­lem. So it’s not like just, Oh is there an oppor­tu­ni­ty now to do it?” It’s like, it’s there, it’s in their face. So in some ways I think our task, at least as the adults, [is] to kind of cre­ate the capac­i­ty in terms of the struc­tures in the­se oppor­tu­ni­ties, and let peo­ple actu­al­ly solve the­se prob­lems. And again, I think the tech­nol­o­gy allows a lot of it. I don’t think it’s the cause, but I think it enables a lot of the­se things to take place. Mostly around com­mu­ni­ca­tions, around the shar­ing of data and infor­ma­tion. I mean, just those two things alone are enor­mous.

Anderson: So, sort of like set­ting a foun­da­tion of open com­mu­ni­ca­tion, in a way. It’s not direct­ly attack­ing the prob­lems on a policy-by-policy lev­el, but it’s sort of set­ting up the frame­work for peo­ple to do that?

Petrides: Yes. And I think that’s sort of some of the best that edu­ca­tion can do, in a lot of ways. 

Anderson: Something that I like to sort of always go to in the con­ver­sa­tion is talk­ing about the Conversation and about, is this a time where peo­ple are com­ing togeth­er and talk­ing about the future?

Petrides: Well, I feel for­tu­nate to to work in an area of edu­ca­tion and inno­va­tion where that’s absolute­ly what peo­ple are talk­ing about. In fact, we have this event every year called the Big Ideas Fest, and bring all dif­fer­ent types of stake­hold­ers in edu­ca­tion togeth­er. So, every­thing from the high school prin­ci­pal, to the col­lege stu­dent, to the provost of the com­mu­ni­ty col­lege, or a researcher, a pol­i­cy­mak­er. We bring them all togeth­er and we we put them in rooms togeth­er and say, Okay, so here’s a design chal­lenge that we’re going to solve for.” But at lev­el one, what we’re doing is get­ting peo­ple, all stake­hold­ers in edu­ca­tion, to kind of have con­ver­sa­tions and think about how they solve prob­lems with peo­ple who they don’t nor­mal­ly do that with.

Anderson: As you’ve been bring­ing all the­se dif­fer­ent peo­ple togeth­er in the world of edu­ca­tion, does that make you opti­mistic that we can do that on a big­ger lev­el, where say we’re bring­ing edu­ca­tors and oth­er peo­ple togeth­er to talk about what kind of future we joint­ly want as a soci­ety or as a globe, hav­ing actu­al­ly given that a shot in your field?

Petrides: Yeah. I total­ly believe that’s what needs to hap­pen. I can’t say that I’m real­ly see­ing that hap­pen. Part of the dilem­ma and edu­ca­tion is, espe­cial­ly as edu­ca­tion has become a new kind of hot sexy top­ic, which it wasn’t for many years… And what that means is there’s a lot of invest­ment dol­lars, there’s ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists putting mon­ey… And we’re see­ing a lit­tle bit about the­se con­ver­sa­tions just being like, How does it make mon­ey?”

I’ll prob­a­bly get in trou­ble for say­ing this, but there’s a lot of con­de­scen­sion in the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty about edu­ca­tion. And to me the­se are two of the biggest com­mu­ni­ties that need to real­ly get togeth­er and solve the­se prob­lems. In fact, I had an inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion last year where I was try­ing to get some­body to come speak at Big Ideas Fest. And this per­son was a big Silicon Valley entre­pre­neur, high-tech suc­cess­ful inno­va­tor. And I thought it would be great for edu­ca­tors to hear this per­son speak and tell us about that, kind of inspire us, right? So I tell him all about that the Big Ideas Fests and what it is, and what I think he can offer, you know. And he says, Hold on. Let me get this straight. You’re say­ing that I’m going to come. I’m going to talk all about my years of expe­ri­ence as an inno­va­tor in the­se fields, and then they’re just going to go back to their class­rooms on Monday?” 

I said, Yeah! You know, they’re going to go and we want them to think about how they can inno­vate there…” 

And he’s like, Well, why would I waste my time doing that?”

And I just…you know, my heart just sank a lit­tle. Luckily it was on the phone and not face to face with him. But I think that’s such the mind­set. We’re the inno­va­tor, we have mon­ey. You’re the edu­ca­tor. We’ll deliv­er you a pro­duct that you can use.” It’s sort of like the same sys­tem all over again. I mean, already edu­ca­tors talk to so many oth­er peo­ple. Educators talk to librar­i­ans, and edu­ca­tors talk to researchers. So it’s not that those con­ver­sa­tions don’t hap­pen. But I think some of the real sig­nif­i­cant ones that have to hap­pen around sort of how invest­ments are made, how the future’s made in edu­ca­tion… We’re see­ing a dis­con­nect between the edu­ca­tors being in those con­ver­sa­tions togeth­er.

Anderson: That’s a dynam­ic I see at play a lot and I try to get to and every con­ver­sa­tion I have. But some of the­se things like, here’s some­one who actu­al­ly believes that edu­ca­tion is not a pub­lic good. How do you, when your world views are based on fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent things…can that con­ver­sa­tion hap­pen?

Petrides: Yup. No, that’s a great ques­tion. I mean, I’d like to think it can. and I’m sure if we real­ly tried to say, Alright we don’t agree on that, but what can we put in prac­tice here?” I’m sure we could find com­mon­al­i­ties and that we could move for­ward. I think right now what we see is so much of a push and pull back and forth. It’s one thing to sort of think okay how do we work togeth­er in agree­ment even though we don’t agree on the issue, than say­ing, I got it. My turn. No, it’s my turn.” Okay, and four years lat­er, Nom, it’s my turn.” And so instead that kind of thing is very waste­ful and not effec­tive. It’s not effi­cient. We see great pro­grams built up and then pro­grams just tak­en apart. We see that all the time beca­sue of that.

Anderson: Are you opti­mistic about the future?

Petrides: You know, you just can’t get up every­day and do the kind of work we do and not be opti­mistic. I don’t know. Maybe I was just born this way. It’s fun­ny, also at Big Ideas a few years ago, there was a speak­er, a wom­an named Yvonne Chan. She was Principal of a school in LA, and we just loved what she said in her talk. She was say­ing when it comes to edu­ca­tion reform, you just have to pro­ceed until appre­hend­ed. And I just loved that quote, and we you know we use it a lot. And you know, it’s just this idea that you have to be opti­mistic. You have to just keep try­ing and you have to just keep doing it. Otherwise why would you both­er being in this field?

Aengus Anderson: So. Lisa Petrides.

Micah Saul: Yes.

Anderson: We now have edu­ca­tion in the project, in a sub­stan­tive way.

Saul: Yes. Which is excel­lent.

Anderson: Where should we start? The cri­sis?

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: For her, the cri­sis of now seems to be edu­ca­tion. And she named a lot of oth­er crises, but the one she’s focused on of course being edu­ca­tion. And they’re tied togeth­er. And she seems to think that edu­ca­tion is pret­ty bad.

Saul: Yes. In fact she asks how it could pos­si­bly be worse. Which…there’s a sort of opti­mism in that sen­tence.

Anderson: Right? That’s sad.

Saul: Which is fun­ny, con­sid­er­ing what the sen­tence was. But well, I think it get a lot worse.

Anderson: Which is amaz­ing, because it is doing a real dis­ser­vice to a lot of peo­ple, and I think… You know, we didn’t get into the details of this and we’re not here to talk shop and pol­i­cy the whole time, but she’s stand­ing on firm ground and I think she makes it pret­ty clear how and why it’s not doing a great job.

Saul: Totally.

Anderson: We didn’t get into phi­los­o­phy as much as some of the oth­er con­ver­sa­tions we’ve had, but cer­tain­ly there’s a lot of implic­it good in here. And I think the base one is that edu­ca­tion is a social ser­vice. Like, it’s a right. That’s huge.

Saul: It’s one of those old ideas, and sort of ebbs and flows.

Anderson: Yeah. As we think so much about the ten­sion between the indi­vid­u­al and the col­lec­tive, that push­es us towards a col­lec­tive idea. But I think this is what’s so cool about Lisa, is that she’s also real­ly inter­est­ed in tai­lor­ing edu­ca­tion through tech­nol­o­gy, which push­es you towards an indi­vid­u­al idea. So it’s not mass-produced but it is a mass right. Which I think is a real­ly cool bal­ance to have.

Saul: Totally. I hadn’t thought about it quite in those terms, but you’re right. I like that. It’s…yeah.

Anderson: So it’s a mass right. She would like to see more peo­ple actu­al­ly able to take advan­tage of it, sup­port­ed in ways that they can make it through school. And what is school good for? 

Saul: There’s sort of an old idea of the lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion which just… Learning for learning’s sake makes you a bet­ter, more well-rounded per­son. And I cer­tain­ly think there’s some of that to what she’s say­ing. But there was also a sort of voca­tion­al tinge to what she was say­ing edu­ca­tion is good for, as well. There was very much, I thought, an ideas that edu­ca­tion helps you sur­vive in the mod­ern world.

Anderson: It helps you fit into soci­ety. It helps you not sink below the water. It helps you find that place in the econ­o­my.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And there’s a demo­c­ra­t­ic good in here, right. Informed elec­torate.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: That’s some­thing we talk about a lot as a soci­ety. We didn’t get into it much in this inter­view, but it’s cer­tain­ly an implic­it good, you know. And why have an informed elec­torate? Well, They make bet­ter choic­es. Maybe an informed elec­torate is the kind of elec­torate that can come togeth­er and have the Conversation. I mean, it seemed like for her, crit­i­cal thought is a real­ly big part of this.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: And f we were to make an odd con­nec­tion, I think this is some­thing that Max More would’ve real­ly liked, the idea of sort of the indi­vid­u­al ful­fill­ment of edu­ca­tion, the encour­age­ment of crit­i­cal thought, of a real­ly dis­ci­plined inquis­i­tive pop­u­lace who are find­ing self-fulfillment in a lot of dif­fer­ent ways, through edu­ca­tion. I don’t know if he would’ve agreed about sort of the right to edu­ca­tion, nec­es­sar­i­ly. But I think he would’ve real­ly liked this approach to how it’s done.

Saul: I agree.

Anderson: And that one of her goals is actu­al­ly encour­ag­ing peo­ple to think about bet­ter decision-making. Thinking about Max More and sort of the ten­sion between the indi­vid­u­al and the col­lec­tive that we find some­what in Lisa’s work and think­ing on edu­ca­tion as well is kind of an inter­est­ing segue to our next con­ver­sa­tion with Gabriel Stempinski. He’s a self-proclaimed evan­ge­list of the shar­ing econ­o­my. These are sort of, large­ly tech ser­vices that allow peo­ple to sell skills, rents their per­son­al equip­ment and spaces, and it’s kind of cre­at­ing a whole micro­econ­o­my here in San Francisco which has been real­ly inter­est­ing ram­i­fi­ca­tions for what can the indi­vid­u­al do eco­nom­i­cal­ly. And when you frag­ment an econ­o­my into a bunch of indi­vid­u­als sort of com­pet­ing and bid­ding for jobs, what’s ram­i­fi­ca­tions does that have on the col­lec­tive good? So I’m curi­ous to see how that will link up.

Saul: Yeah. Sounds good. I would just like to throw out we’re final­ly start­ing to get some con­ver­sa­tion on the web­site. And I would love to see more of that hap­pen­ing. So if you’re lis­ten­ing, go to the web­site, find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com, sign up for an account, and let us know what you think. Let us know how you think we’re doing. Let us know what you thought of Lisa. Let us know know what you want us to ask future inter­views.

Anderson: Yeah. And any of the oth­er inter­views, they’re all there wait­ing to be com­ment­ed upon, and we will jump in when we can when we’re not run­ning around and inter­view­ing peo­ple and edit­ing audio. I mean, I think for both of us this is real­ly one of the most excit­ing parts of the project. And we’re look­ing for­ward to it actu­al­ly com­ing to life, now that we’ve start­ed to get enough inter­views and may­be enough lis­ten­ers to kind of spark a con­ver­sa­tion.

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: And it’ll be real­ly fun we start get­ting to car­ry some of those ques­tions in to the next con­ver­sa­tions, and bring all of you into this project with us.

Saul: Cool.

Anderson: We ask every­one if they’re opti­mistic. I’m opti­mistic about that. And I guess you have to be. Proceed opti­misti­cal­ly [crosstalk] until appre­hend­ed.

Saul: —until appre­hend­ed.

Anderson: That’s what we’ll try. So we’ll be back, soon.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: Until then. 

That was Lisa Petrides, record­ed May 31, 2012 at the head­quar­ters of ISKME, The Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, in Half Moon Bay, California. 

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

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