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Dr. Keith Devlin Headshot

Silicon Valley: Failing the Way to Better Education

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If there is one thing Silicon Valley knows how to do, it is fail. We do it all the time, and that is the secret of our famed success.

To the rest of the world, the Valley is a place of enormous commercial successes in the tech world: HP, Intel, Cisco, Apple, Sun, eBay, Yahoo!, Google, LinkedIn, Zynga, the list goes on. (Facebook started in Boston, but moved here to become big.) But to those of us who live there - and with a home in the center of Palo Alto and an office at Stanford, I live right in the heart of it - the dominant and recurring theme is failure.

Companies fail here all the time. The Valley draws its strength and amazing resilience from the fact that failure is not only accepted, it is expected and encouraged. One of the mantras in the Valley is this: "If four-out-of-five (the ratio varies depending who says it) of your attempts don't fail, you're not being bold enough." Failure is the fastest route to success there is.

My debut blog last week was viewed by many as an attack on the Valley, and on two of its stars, one old the other new: Sun co-founder Vinod Khosla and Khan Academy founder Salman Khan. But to anyone familiar with the Valley, my attention-grabbing headline was not an attack but a (mundane) observation of life in these parts.

Though several of the comments on my blog took me to task for my words, it's telling that one of the supposed targets, Sal Khan, whom I know, responded by noting that he, Khosla, and I basically agree, and Khosla, whom I have not met, replied by suggesting we might meet and talk. Very different reactions from many other respondents, and typical of the Valley! Incidentally, it seems to have slipped past many readers' notice that I was able to use Khosla's recent blog post as my jump-off point precisely because I follow his blog!

That's how different the culture is here. And because it is almost impossible to move a culture, that goes a long way to explaining why attempts to replicate Silicon Valley elsewhere have all failed, some more so than others.

In most parts of the world, people focus on other people, not their ideas, and the result is often polarization, personal attacks, and conflict. Just take a look at the current GOP primaries. Choosing a president or candidate for president should be about policies and ideas, but that has not been the focus at all. Walk into any coffee shop in Palo Alto, however, and you'll hear mostly discussion about ideas. Who espouses those ideas is of little relevance, except, to some extent, at funding time.

So is it the case that, as my previous headline claimed, "Silicon Valley executives keep getting [something] wrong about education"? Yes, I believe they do. (My post would have had little point otherwise!) What they keep getting wrong is that they do not involve experienced education experts in the loop - at least not often enough.

I think that should change, and in the same "I am a fan and a believer" spirit as my Huff Post blog, I recently "berated" my academic colleagues about the same thing in my monthly blog for the (academically oriented) Mathematical Association of America.

Education presents technology companies with a particularly hard challenge, in that the success of its products depends on changing the way a young human brain works - something centuries of teachers' experiences have shown to be extremely hard to achieve, particularly in mathematics (my area and the focus of my previous blog).

Cognitive scientists and education researchers have learned a lot about math ed over the past half century, but as I noted in my MAA blog, a lot of what has been learned has yet to cross the academia-industry divide. Both sides need to do more to change that.

Not that I expect the Valley techs to stop trying just because the education experts think something won't work. After all, when two young Stanford grad students told their supervisor (a friend of mine) they wanted to try to build a better search engine, he told them that the problem was hopeless, and that Alta Vista was probably as good as could be achieved. Fortunately, Sergey Brin and Larry Page went ahead anyway, and now the world has Google.

Vinod Khosla's suggestion that we should be "trying hundreds of new ways of doing things" in education is very much in the spirit of the Valley. It's what it does well. Most will fail, as they always do. (The latest casualty in the educational software space, Airy Labs, occurred just this past week, but I'd be amazed if the folks involved don't just bounce right back.) But if there is an educational equivalent to Google to be found, chances are high it will be found in Silicon Valley.

The point of taking note of all the things that education research has found to be difficult is not to give up in despair. Rather, it's to better know what we are up against, and thereby increase the chances of success. And, in the final analysis, success is what Silicon Valley strives for.

Oh, and for the record, I have enormous admiration for risk taking, Silicon Valley executives. I'd have to. Like everyone else in these parts, I have my own startup company!

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