Thiel (& friend) on Education

I caught Peter Thiel’s interview on Tim Ferriss podcast last night. It was, as expected, a thought-provoking Q & A from one of the more intelligent and experienced names in Silicon Valley.

And while the whole 23 minutes is worthwhile, I wanted to blog on one part of it. Thiel is asked about education, a subject he’s familiar with as he’s invested in university-busting startups and talked long and passionately about disturbing the one-size-fits-all trend in higher Ed.

The comment stemmed from something Thiel’s friend said to him — that Higher Education right now in the US is akin to the Catholic Church in the 16th century in the years leading to the Reformation.

And how it true it seems. The Church, at that point, was greedily taking money for repentence, convincing people that it could only be saved by going through its doors. It was a ‘too big to fail’ type deal, and too big, really, to even disrupt.

Until Martin Luther did something bold and changed people’s minds around him and elsewhere and changed the history of the world in doing so.

Education could use its Luther, that’s for sure. But that’s not the important part. The important part is whether our society is ready to take the leap to get behind a bold action that takes a system down. The University system has become, in modern nations and especially the US, a seemingly untackle-able beast.

Businesses consider it necessary and base salary and financial offerings on accreditation from these places.

Adults think their kids need it. (In one study, parents were asked if they thought US students needed to go college. 54% said yes. Then they were asked if their kids needed to go to college. 89% said yes.)

And, we’re defining childhood success based on this system which ultimately is made to get you into a college.

We need something to pull the fabric away and offer a (what will seem radical but will soon cease to be) alternative. There have been some intriguing ones offered, but none that have convinced a skeptical (and compliant) public that its viable.

Investors like Thiel have helped carve some spots in adult and continuing education. To be blunt, that’s cute, but it’s a far cry from taken down the bloated beast that is tuition-starved institutions.

So what’ll be? Well, I hope to see it soon. My inkling is that it will. And then we’ll be the fun part — the slow dismantle and reformation of another great institutional titan. And then all the cards are in the air.

Data Correlation, Education, and Cannabis

I can’t imagine this is the last time I’m going to see the contents of this article brought into discussion.

I’ll sum it briefly: a study found that kids who smoked marijuana were significantly less likely to graduate high school and even less likely to graduate from college. The likelihood decreased with more consistent use of the drug.

The study implies correlation and causation. The journalist in the linked article does a good job of at least addressing why this might be a misconception and, more importantly, how easy it’s going to be for this data to be misinterpreted. His sentence, “You can expect these findings to be highly cited by opponents of liberalized marijuana laws, like the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Smart Approaches to Marijuana project. But it’s important to put them in proper context.” is spot on.

I hope the causality idea is at least questioned. Is it the marijuana smoking that makes a student less likely to graduate? Or are students that might, for one reason or another, be destined not to graduate drawn more to using the drug? It’s worth asking as a qualifier to this.

A few more things come into play here. Education is used as a hallmark here of accomplishment in a completely one-size-fits-all manner. I don’t have to list the accomplished people we know that didn’t graduate from school (or *cough* the famous folks who have admitted to smoking marijuana). (In this way, the finding that smokers were 7x more likely to be depressed is much more important — but, again, what’s the causation here?).

If we can continue to look at educational achievement as the only standard idea of success, we’re not going to do any favors for our youth. The education system already does a disservice to rebellious minds. It clenches these students in its fists and attempts to squeeze out the creativity in them ( to be so emphatic about it) — so it’s no wonder that the lost souls look for other avenues for that creativity. This where the study comes back to. What sustains these kids? And how are we so damn sure that they won’t be successful — so much so that adults are telling other adults to look at marijuana smoking as a sign of some kind of failure.

But this is a system-based assessment. In the pantheon of American life, education still remains king. Learning does not. No one seems to care if one discovers something wonderful outside of school. Or learns a skill late one night while doing something that might be considered mischievous. Why can we not look at learning as something outside of education? What hurts most about this study isn’t the correlation problem, it’s this idea. Personal success can be had outside of our precious system, can it not?

So we continue on (like boats against the current) thinking that the only judge of a successful kid is his/her success in this system we went through ourselves. We see it as a future-looking prism to cast life success (and we won’t get into what the hell that means).

I suppose it’s summed up like this: we label some students as “underachievers” without considering that the system has failed them. The system, rarely, is called out for its own under achieving, but that weight is put constantly on students and faculty alike.

The kicker is that this actually relates to the study aside from just illuminating our ability to separate a system from a reality. It also shows what damage that system can have. Now we have a somewhat demonized group of kids, who are experimenting with drug use — and I’m certainly not condoning that here — but are further being ostracized and pushed away because they aren’t doing well in schools. The system isn’t going to enhance those that are failing at it. It’s not built that way. It merely sustains the class system it’s rooted in and meant to continue on.

My worry is that all of this is combined into one big misunderstanding. There are the “underachievers” and the “potheads” and this study makes it too easy to loop those together — with one big group that the system can reject. And with the large majority of us complacently buying into that system, we’ll leave them behind. My hope, then, is that this group — rejected at such a young age — can figure out not to define its own success of these silly metrics.

Read, Kids, Read

Saw that another ZA posted this on her page earlier and wanted to share with everyone. It really is a great article.

Columnist Frank Bruni offers some sad new research on children’s reading habits and makes the case for improving these numbers.

As he points out from scientific research, “reading and intelligence have a relationship so close as to be symbiotic.”

Any ideas on how we can get our children reading more?


This was originally posted on May 14th as part of Zirtual’s Learningz page, a community promoting self-improvement, inspiration, and good living! Want to be a part of the Zirtual family? Check out our job openings here.

Teacher Appreciation Day

Hey Zeople — it’s Teacher Appreciation Day today and it’s time to reflect on this wonderfully important people in our lives!

Who was your best teacher? And how did they impact your life?

Here’s some other (famous) folks discussing the impact of teachers on their lives:

And I really liked this one:

_Dear Future Teacher,
You are why the world works. You are the common denominator. No, really, you are. _…..


This was originally posted on May 6th as part of Zirtual’s Learningz page, a community promoting self-improvement, inspiration, and good living! Want to be a part of the Zirtual family? Check out our job openings here.


Learningz, March 11

Today I’m linking an article with some new findings on the state of ‘reading’ in modern life. Some interesting takeaways.

More than one-quarter of those surveyed said they would rather surf the internet and use social media than read – rising to 56% among 18- to 30-year-olds.

More than half of adults (56%) said they think the internet and computers will replace books in the next 20 years, with nearly two-thirds (64%) of 18- to 30-year-olds stating this view.

Of course, the fact still remains:

The study concludes that, on average, people who read regularly are more satisfied with life, happier and more likely to feel their life is worthwhile.

Learningz, February 3

We see the power of virtual assistants everyday. ….(because we have the best group of them around!)

But what about virtual teachers? Do you think that could work?

A school district in Alaska is giving it a try…

Thoughts Zeople?

Let’s Stop Evaluating on Averages When the Mode Means More.

Original Post [Medium]


Full post:

There are times I watch my sister — a 5th grader — mull about the world and I marvel at her energy. She bounces around, she sits, runs, does twirling back-handstands off the couch onto the ground, plays games, plays the Viola, does her homework…etc. She has the capacity to do, variously, in one hour what I can in a day. Sometimes, it feels like there are five of her around me.

And while that youthful energy astounds me, there’s something else I wonder sometimes. How could her teachers possibly center in on the real her?

Looked at another way, youthful energy is just another way of describingmassive inconsistency.

And we all have that. Days where we swear we aren’t ourselves. We feel like our minds somewhere else. Or the work we produced is unrecognizable weeks later. “That’s not me,” you say some foggy mornings. And you mean it.

And yet, from basic education on up to corporate education, we’re evaluated in a way that suggests all of these inconsistencies tell the story of who we are. You take Geometry and you get a ‘B’. You bust yourself for sales one quarter and you earn a 91 on your employee report.

These are the final demarcations of your actions for a period of time. This ‘B’ represents your knowledge of that semester’s Geometry cirriculum.

But there was always that one section in Geometry you really got. And that one section you never did. You aced one test but failed another….One month of your quarter you killed it. The other was bleak. It’s been like this —this pitter patter of performance— for decades now.

And we’re grading as such. On averages. What all of these wavering scores equal out to when added up and divided by the # of evaluating presences.

This average is allegedly our story. Who we are. How we perform.

And yet what that gives you is a number that you never really are. It’s a balancing act, but it’s not your common state. It’s a number that tries to describe who you are, by not describing who you are.

And it’s doing us no favors.

We started this whole thing with an assumption:

Scoring things on a percentage scale should give us meaningful data. That the % you score at is the % you attained of perfection.

But that assumption has led us awry. It supposes that we could be described in this range somewhere, and that, in that description, it could prescribe us a marker. But we’ve seen that with averages, this marker is incomplete.

Wouldn’t you rather, on a scale that demarcates your approach of perfection, know where you stand on a consistent basis?

Isn’t the whole point to prescribe a reality? To understand a being and their place?

Who you are is not who you never are. It’s who you are most of the time. Who we expect, and, yes, might not always get, but when we aren’t getting this “you” it’s our perception of missing that consistency.

Anecdotally, have you ever tried to score something consistently on a 1-10 or or 1-100 rating. Chances are, if you have, you’ve discovered something peculiar. Most of your grades come out to fit inside much smaller range.

Take IMDB movie ratings, for example. Each movie on there is scored on a 1-10 scale by viewers and users. The top-rated movie is the The Shawshank Redemption. Great flick. My favorite movie of all time —City of God— comes in right after. They both scored a 9.2 from user voters.

And, yet, the stunningly underwhelming 1999 feature Forces of Nature with Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock (which you may find yourself watching at 3am on Comedy Central on lowly Tuesday nights) has a rating of 5.3.

Now, I’m more than willing to bow to the “voting effect” (in which people that like the movie are more likely to vote and vote high), but still. We’re talking the difference between a masterpiece and a flop at only 3.9 points. Less than 40% of a difference on the scale.

The same is true in our education system. An A+ is a 100, right? But an F is anything less than, usually, 60%. Again, 40% differential between the best you can do and the “rest”. And then you have the drop-off where, in this system, a 12% is the same as a 51%, bell curve not involved.

This is bad. This is, quite simply, a lazy way to tell the story.

And yet this is what we permeate and perpetrate. A’s through F’s.

Here’s another one:

Margaret is a student. She takes five tests throughout the course (sounds familiar from your University days, right?). She scores a 92%, another 91%, a 87%, 80% and then, and then, on her last exam, she gets a 40%.

What’s her average? Well, if all is weighted equally, it’s a 78%. Person A scored a C+.

But Margaret’s work in the class suggests much more than a C+. She aced two tests and nearly a third.

We’ve seen this. And if we haven’t seen it, certainly we’ve been riddled by fear of it.

Average-based grading systems both take into account the extreme examples (of both poor performance and stellar), and forget about them completely in the name of finding a middle ground.

So as an evaluator, you’re seeing inconsistencies play into a score without even being able to recognize the inconsistencies.

Consistency is how you evaluate things in your own life. Take your car for example.

If your car gave you a different output each day, even if it was mostly on the positive side, you’d go a bit crazy. Not knowing is an enormous human fear. Not being able to count on something we utilize is tough. Really, really tough. Say your car is an all-star 25% of the time, decent and average another 40%, and the other 35% it broke down, leaked, etc…you’d start slamming your hand on the dash.

But, it’d still average out to being okay. It’d still, by average, be a “good car”. Well, a good used car.

What you ask for when buying something is consistency. What is this product going to give me day and day out.

Same with a person who works with you, for you, or above you. It’s not going to win anyone over if you say Tom is uber-productive on Tuesdays and the rest of the week, well who knows. You can’t rely on Tom in a standard environment. [And that is what I’m going for here: standard environments. The education system, for instance, I’d like to see to measure on this rather than just total output or a ROWE type assessment]

I’ll take the Tom that I can measure accurately. As a teacher, I can see where he is and work with him on improving. But without knowing where he’s at, well, it makes that latter part nearly impossible.

I’m in a position where part of my job is to evaluate people. My team wanted to bring some objectivity into our evaluation systems and for a while we used a 1-10 system.

Guess what we found? 90% of scores were between 6-8. Worse, a rare “4/10″ on a task could bring an average down egregiously. The stray and inconsistent “10″ made candidates appear better than they were.

One day, I happened to meet an old teacher from my high school. He told me of a new grading system he was implementing that was loosely based off another teacher’s idea on an “evidence-based” assessment system for grading.

It struck a chord in me. It made more sense than 1-10, more than A’s, B’s and F’s.

So we adapted it. We use a 1-4 system now. No “.5’s” allowed. You have to pick 1, 2, 3 or 4.

We look in three different verticals for each evaluation. Each vertical gets a 1-4.

From there, we use a “Double Mode” system.

The mode, for those that can’t quite bring that to the front of the mind, is the most common number.

The mode is, in short, the measure of consistency instead of amalgamating inconsistency as an average does.

We find Mode1 — the most common number. And then we find Mode2—the second most common. Together, these give us our score and paint our picture.

This is how this person performs most of the time. And that information is greatly more important to know than where work averages out to.

We’re working on telling a story by prescribing a consistency to our people. It’s working so far and we can read into those we’re evaluating so much more fully than before (with averages).

It begs the larger question. In our wide systems — education, employee evaluation, etc..— why strive to paint an incomplete picture. Just because it’s easier?

Let’s ditch the system and work a la mode.

A Simple Education: Love, Learn, Sell

Education is going to change.

As all things evolve, so must this massive system left to us by a wayward Empire that we see only small traces of elsewhere. There will be a shift in education that eventually will affect each young person, though I, and we, can’t quite be sure of this path of change. It could be something like:

  • An evolution of the early education system that permeates through the later years
  • A bubble bursting and radical changes take place quickly
  • A bankrupt-ed, graduating class rebels, demands change in the University system and that change trickles down

……or a variety of other ways.

When it changes, what will it look like? Well, I think we first have to ask ourself what do we want it to look like. I have an idea — almost too small in its scope but one that might serve as a framework on which to build a larger, more operative system.

It’s basic, not entirely copacetic (or possibly even believable), but it’s something may fuel the conversation of change.

It comes down to three words:

Love. Learn. Sell.

That’s it. Three steps. Chronologically. Easy.

Let’s break those down a bit.


Children are the world’s greatest lovers. No, I don’t mind that in a sexual manner. I mean in the context of curiosity, of innocence, of unadulterated (notice the components of that word) passions and enthusiasm.

Children, for the most part, see the world around them and want a part of all of it. There is no limit to their adventuring, no bridle on which they have to conform to the shoulds of the world (unless we make them, and we do).

So, let’s them love.

In the context of education, this means finding something they like. Something that speaks to them. That makes their hearts pitter-patter, skip a beat. Stop in the presence of that first thing that clicks with them.

This will be their first professional path. It may come at age 10. It may come at 24 or 63 and it certainly does not have to happen only once — but finding something you love starts the educational process I’m proposing.


What’s an education without some learning, right?

This is the crux of the process — of course. How could it not be? But we’ve taken learning into a new realm. We’ve made it forced observation. We’ve made it deductive reasoning. We’ve taken the specific out of learning — in favor of liberal arts attitudes, applications, and aesthetics. We think we give kids the toolbox they’ll need to succeed in life. But that toolbox is older than the pre-Lindbergh. It’s out-of-date and, as such, ceases to be a toolbox and instead just becomes a box.

In this, it is the love that dictates the learning. First step & second step.

The second step is composed of a very specific educational experience — directly related to what that student has found that he/she “loves” from the first step. It harkens back to the apprenticeship model, though it doesn’t have to be so one-side as that.

A University system can still exist here — with classroom curriculum being focused on some of the more non-specific material about that “love” (let’s say the love was architecture, the classroom portion could be geometry, for instance). From there, the student works with an expert in that particular field. A sort of job training before the job exists. An internship program at the heart of education — or apprenticeship systemized as part of the education system, not divorced from it.

Learning, however, is more of a means than an end and instead of sending a student into the world with an degree notifying some kind of educational aptitude, there’s one last step.


Sell, in this case, isn’t as simple as the push to exchange some kinds of goods or services.

Instead, sell in this education schematic refers more to fitting oneself into the world’s ecosystem.

Students, after their “learn” step, need to confer their own place in the wider atmosphere or marketplace. If they want to be entrepreneur, so be it. But sell the world on your abilities and make it happen.

If a student wants to join a big firm, that’s great. We’ll need that to happen. In this case, the “sell” might be something akin to the standard job interview we have now.

But, that job interview-ish selling will have come after the first two steps, which confirms (1) a genuine interest in that job/field and (2) a specific education pertaining to that work.

In the “sell” step, through some kind of internship or apprenticeship previously, students learn where to sell themselves and how. It’s no secret that getting a career going in different fields can be specific to that field. An entrepreneur may not have to wait three years to “move up”. And businessmen are judged on their punctuality; which artists, for instance, might not be.

The “sell” is the last part of the three-step education process and the bridge to the next part: a life based around a passion and career.

And so the education system closes itself. It can be reopened at anytime, in one’s seventies if need be. Older students, too, will want to learn how to sell themselves back into the market.

Three-steps. Basic. But it can start a larger conversation on both the macro and micro level.

It’s time for education to change and adapt to what we need. The first adaptation can be simple: a push for online learning, for instance. But it can also be a mindset shift. We want education to be whole — to provide all that is needed before the next step. As it stands, it provides too much, holds too many back because of it, and that information is vague and opaque.

Let’s change that.