Last week Mrs Wordsmith CEO and Founder Sofia Fenichell spoke at the GSV-ASU Edtech Conference in San Diego where the world’s thought leaders on education convened. Here are the 50 most interesting things she heard over two days, listening to the good, the great and the truly visonary.

To give you a flavour of the quality of attendees, it included the Provost of Stanford University, Angela Duckworth, author of the best-selling book GRIT, President George W Bush (‘43), CTOs and Superintendents of some of the biggest and most thoughtful school districts in America, and the list goes on…

What I saw was a highly engaged, close-knit community that has been working collaboratively for a decade to solve the world’s education crises. Experiencing their mental energy, rigour and passion for intellectual debate restored my faith in the system.

Monday April 16, 2018

# 1 America is obsessed with education research
And for good reason. America is home to some of the brightest and most diverse minds on the topics of education, literacy, early learning, social-emotional learning, personalised learning, neuroscience, technology and artificial intelligence. And they were all at GSV-ASU – University professors, best-selling authors, government policy makers, NGOs, venture capitalists, 300 leading Edtech entrepreneurs and educators representing districts from across the country.

#2 The sun rises in the east on education
The conference was different this year, I was told (as this was my first year). Listening to conference veterans, the most significant change was the presence of Chinese educators, and machine learning and language learning startups. Numerous English language learning startups have catapulted to scale in China, driven by the law of large numbers. China has approximately 214 million nursery aged (Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten) children. Compare that to the United States, which has a total population of approximately 325 million people.

# 3 Chinese English language learning dwarfs all K-12 spending in America
According to Cindy Mau, CEO of VIPKids, the Chinese spend $15 billion per annum on English language learning, or 23% of parent income, versus $7 billion in spend for the entire US K-12 curriculum market which includes science, maths and other subjects. VIPKids is a Chinese video-based English language learning company that rose to meteoric heights, generating $600 million in revenues in the span of just two years.

# 4 It’s easy to forget that teachers have families too
According to VIPKids, 70% of US teachers are female and have small children of their own. VIPKids is making it easier for teachers to manage their lives around work and family. They have a growing community of 40,000 American teachers who get up early to teach English to Chinese kids over a video calling service, before going to their day job at school. These teachers can make $1500-2000 of monthly supplemental income, working early in the morning or on the weekends.

# 5 The most important thing you can do in life is to stand up straight and embrace the world
So says Marc Brackett, head of research for Yale Ruler. Yale Ruler is the emotions research department of Yale University. It has positive effects on your attitude and how people respond to you.

# 6 Yale has a department of emotions research
How cool is that? It’s called the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and they want to understand how emotional stress inhibits learning in children and teacher performance.

# 7 School is an emotional roller coaster
Sounds obvious? Then think twice next time about telling your children to ‘get over it’. Children who are aware of and able to label their emotions are more likely to succeed. Yale calls this the RULER. You’ve got to ‘name it to tame it’, is their basic model for emotional development.

# 8 Not true: Happiness is getting into an Ivy League school
Kids and parents today like to say things like, ‘When I get into a university such as Yale, I am going to find happiness.’ It’s not true. The stats show that they feel anxious and stressed. According to Marc Brackett, every year for the last six years in the state of Connecticut, there has been a 20% increase in university kids seeking mental health treatment. That suggests that in a few years, 50% of all kids will seek treatment.

# 9 The top three emotions high school kids experience at school are…
Tiredness, boredom and stress. According to a study of 22,000 high school kids by Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence.
# 10 And for teachers, the top emotional states are…
Stressed, frustrated and overwhelmed, according to a study of 6000 teachers, also by Yale. And teachers are drinking more alcohol as a result of job stress.

# 11 Emotions alter your quality of life
Five decades of research tell us to care about emotions for five very powerful reasons. First, negative emotions impair attention, memory and learning. Secondly, we make poor decisions when we are bogged down by negative emotions. Thirdly, emotions impact relationship quality. They also affect your physical and mental health. And lastly, they can fuel or extinguish performance and creativity.

# 12 Emotions even influence teacher grading
In a blind test, Yale showed that 87% of teachers were surprised to learn that emotions had influenced grading their students.

# 13 Self-control is overrated
How many times have you been told to ‘calm down’ or ‘focus’? It doesn’t work. It usually elicits the opposite response. In some cases, aggressive teacher behavior is being condoned with the excuse of getting kids to behave or concentrate. What matters is creating safe environments for students to take risks.

# 14 Most Edtech startups are not trying to disrupt the system
According to a study by Navitas. They are building software to support the existing system and curriculum and that’s okay. We still need that.

# 15 Dyslexia impacts 1 in 5 students
And according to Microsoft, 73% of Teachers have four or more reading levels in a classroom.

# 16 Interoperability is a big, fat, hairy problem for school districts
A representative for the Indianapolis school district says there are too many tools and softwares. Toolsets are spread all over the internet. It’s a real struggle to find the resources because the web is so uncurated. They also buy 100 products. There are so many logins for these softwares. Their biggest issue is interoperability. They need things to work together. They need both data and content interoperability. Indianapolis is a diverse district with 30% African Americans, 16, 000 students and 90 languages spoken.

# 17 Figuring out how to use our tools is a challenge
A Southwest Louisiana district head says the challenge is using all the technology we’ve invested in for decades to retool the profession, to offer a truly personalized environment. How do we integrate all of our technology and content tools to personalize learning? This district covers 1030 square miles, and has a 60% poverty rate, and 34,000 students.

# 18 Data security is another big, fat, hairy problem in schools
In the Baltimore schools district with 86,000 kids and a billion dollar budget to renovate schools, the challenge is security. Data security. Visibility and transparency. We don’t have the skill set for all of this. Staffing is key. And for Edtech vendors, your products need to be minimum compliant with cyber security or schools will say no.

# 19 There is no 5 year plan to change schools
Says a CTO who formerly presided over a district of 90,000 students. Thomas Friedman talks about exponential change hitting our schools. School systems are reluctant to change. Most systems haven’t been trained in organizational redesign. We jump from initiative to initiative. We are bombarded with hundreds of vendors which tell us they have great technology. But there is no one to deploy and stick with it. We never fully deploy and operationalise an improvement, and it’s because of staff problems.

# 20 Create technology that works across subjects
Or it won’t get used. The key for vendors is to not exist in a silo. And how do you track data across so it helps the whole school.

# 21 Just in time training is what teachers need
For every dollar spent on technology, 25% is spent on teacher training. Budget is increasingly a problem. We need more budget in classroom instructional use. We need more technology and support around training. Teachers want just in time support. Or short weekend modules that can be consumed online over the weekends. Not multi-day offsites that are broken out of the school week.

# 22 It’s a myth that teachers don’t know how to use technology
President of ISTE says teachers are technologically savvy. “I watch teachers bid for things on Ebay and post on Facebook. And yet they can’t use edtech apps! Maybe that’s because people don’t make apps that look like Google search. The interfaces are so complex they are unusable.”

# 23 Professional development is not the solution to bad technology design
ISTE CEO Richard Culatta says, “Teachers complain about how complicated the apps are. The developer or edtech company says, ‘we’ll fix that with professional development.’ So many apps are not built with teacher input. There is a knowledge vacuum. The development process doesn’t incorporate a teacher feedback loop. We work with communities of 200,000 educators to build feedback loops into the development process.”

# 24 We need to prep three year olds for the future of jobs and artificial intelligence
The future of education begins at age three. The Omidyar network is trying to help people understand that an developing future skills needs to begin at Early Learning. We have to tell stories about how the world is going to work. We can’t expect that people know what a safe childhood and a prosperous future looks like. We need to help young children understand mental agility, different cultures and a changing world. We need to give them stories about an uncertain future

# 25 Life is a 50-50 mix between academic skills and social skills
The head of KIPP Network’s 220 schools says we need to think more about social emotional learning and early learning. Learning pre-Kindergarten (ages 3-4) gives you a jumpstart on reading and social skills. The KIPP research shows that children who attend PreK show statistically significant advances in literacy, comprehension and executive functioning skills. There isn’t the same positive impact in maths.

# 26 The gig economy has implications for Early Learning and Pre-K
The founder of Urban Sitter says, “We are seeing that a third of parents are using us because they have flexible work schedules. They work in the gig economy so they don’t need a nanny or PreK. The want to find trusted connections. Parents are looking for childcare providers with specific skill sets like good at art or sport or science. They are looking for custom fits. Two thirds of our sitters are teachers or nurses. 85% tell us the money they make is crucial to making ends meet so they can live in a city.”

# 27 Critical skills are built before the age of five
The Omidyar Network did a mapping of US education system from birth to university. (It is available online). They concluded that the future of work begins in early childhood. Complex problem solving, critical skills and creativity are the most important skills. Yet, the Torrent Creativity test shows kids are becoming less and less creative in the USA. The science is clear that these skills are built before the age of five, even three.

# 28 There are few entrepreneurs in Early Learning
And few great products. Early Learning is far more fragmented than K-12 which makes it a huge opportunity. It is one of the few areas of education that is growing rapidly. The Omidyar Network sees a huge opportunity in child care with 40% of freelancers in the economy needing flexible childcare. We need more flexible learning opportunities that work at home Parents are investing more and more in early childhood . While this is positive, it also makes early childhood inequitable.

# 29 Use technology to engage parents to talk to their kids
Screentime for Early Years should be limited, according to the American Association of Pediatrics. No surprises here but it’s worth reinforcing the point. The quality of screentime matters, too. Screen time could be a good thing if it’s active learning with engaging content, where kids are not sitting passively in front of a screen. Brain development research shows that the key for Early Years is around personal interaction between child and carer.

# 30 The barriers to scale in edtech are coming down
There is a new generation of techie teachers. And the cost of devices is coming down.

# 31 School needs to be more relevant
When asking students what would make school less boring, the answer was make it more relevant. Students want content that is connected to the world around them.

# 32 Your values are defined by your KPIs
Newsela, a rising star in the Edtech community, said if you define your KPIs to measure for test results, than your values are about testing. Create KPIs focussed on engagement and learning, based on research.

Newsela’s goal is to help a child connect with a piece of content, in a non-gamified way. They want the child to be motivated to find what is interesting to them.

# 33 Software has to have a point of view
The CEO of Newsela expressed software design like this. The software has to have a point of view as to who is responsible for the learning. Software should not break the spell of inherent curiosity. When we created our software we made a decision that the student could change their own reading level. We are trying to get to a place where the student can address their own ability – did they understand what they just read. Not making that feature available, and locking in the level can overreach and devoid the product of agency. It robs the child and demotivate them.

# 34 Points and badges don’t work in the long-run
Newsela talked about trying to create gamification that is based around a curiosity to learn more and not rely on badges. The rewards have to be about wanting more content. We know points and badges don’t work in the long run. It’s a short term fix.

# 35 Relationships between kids and teachers matter
Child behaviour at school is co-regulated by child and teacher. Developmental relationships have to have enough force to trigger biological responses. Positive developmental relationships trigger an activation of the brain. Tools are needed to help teachers form relationships with kids. You have to ask yourself, how would products change if school optimized for quality time for teachers and kids?

# 36 Remember these numbers – 2 and 10
There was a test done by the 2 and 10 organisation that short, high impact time spent with children is more important than long periods of low quality time. Have a two minute conversation every day with a child and never stray from that promise of two minutes a day. That two minutes can transform a child’s behavior. Two minutes a day, for ten days in a row has a bigger impact than summer school.

# 37 Relational trust matters
The way in which adults interact with each other, also creates the conditions for children to learn.

Tuesday April 17, 2018

# 38 America is better at thinking than executing
“There is tremendous passion in America for solving education problems,” said the Provost of Stanford University. But then it gets left to bureaucracy.

We are great at being forward thinking but we don’t know how to implement change, we don’t know the difference between teaching and research. We have made progress, but it has been clumsy.

# 39 We need to hold ourselves to efficacy
Do we hold ourselves to measuring improvements in learner outcomes, or do we just keep creating stuff? asks John Fallon.

# 40 How do we accommodate the model learner in the second machine age?
We need to look at tech in the context of globalization. Just look at the massive influx of Chinese innovators at the conference this year. We need more liberal arts skills. Problem solving, creativity, empathy and persuasion.

# 41 There is no Moore’s Law equivalent for humans
The Stanford provost noted this, and also that there is no Moore’s Law for Policy. Changing man and changing the world is an opportunity for all of us to rethink what we are teaching, and how we are teaching. We need new pedagogy and new tools. There will be greater learning needs over a greater range of people’s lives. This is about lifelong learning.

# 42 People struggling to hold down 2-3 jobs are clueless about the future
One of the policy makers noted that blue collar workers don’t realise their jobs will be gone and they won’t pay their mortgage and car payments. They are heads down just trying to stay afloat with 2-3 jobs. But those jobs are about to go away. Someone needs to stand up and send a message to the people. Don’t be afraid. This is the first time in my life that there has been an imperative for adult learners to retool themselves. We can handle the young children and retool their education. I am worried about the 35, 45 and 55 year olds. We need to explain to people that their lives will change unless they are willing to adjust.

# 43 How do you talk about the future without scaring people?
The biggest issues are always organization and people resisting change. How do we lead this? If you make change seem distant and vague, people will be frightened by it and disengage. If you make change small, medium and specific, people can work with this. If we tell university professors to tell their students that jobs will be created in industries we don’t know about yet, what can anyone do with that statement? Make change specific and near term, in bite sizes so we can wrap our heads around what to do.

# 44 Test scores are lower in areas without access to technology
A policy maker from North Carolina said that we need to use research and technology to help under income kids. We all know that technology and devices are critical for America and also for developing economies. Even in America, every school needs connectivity and devices. The NAEP scores were lower in areas that didn’t have access to devices. You cannot scale innovation in education without equal opportunity access in technology.

# 45 The demand for education outstrips the supply
The Stanford provost said, “My personal experience came from MOOCs. What we learned: there is absolutely huge demand for learning. But the simple idea that we could scale our lectures with video was extremely naive, and a failure. A successful course involves so much more than the lecture. Demand is bigger than supply for learning. In my mind the issue is not technology, which is easy to build. It’s pedagogical. I don’t believe we will scale uniformly and top-down. There will be many ways to learn. Learning doesn’t have to come from curriculum. We need to increase pedagogical sophistication.

# 46 Everyone knows what good looks like
John Fallon said, “If you go to any community in the world, everyone will tell you what the best school in the area. The best school has three ingredients: an enlightened leader, an expectation that every child has the capacity to learn, and a culture of learning that stems from it’s leadership.”

# 47 Save the country, save the middle class
Chairman of Chegg said, “We cannot become something that only the rich can take advantage of. That’s the way it’s heading now. Today, we have 8 billion students registered. 10 million people visit our site every month. We reach more students than anyone else. We are in a good position to understand the needs and voices of the student. We have the data. We need to empower the middle class”

# 48 Universities are in deep financial trouble
Half of U.S. colleges may shut down in the next five years. 47% of leaders are worried about the financial stability of the colleges they run.

For the digital age, what is the college model? What are we doing to deal with how fast, global and ruthless the digital age is? Everyone is competing for the same opportunities globally.

# 49 Only the educated will have job security
The Chairman of Chegg said, “If you graduate from college there is an 80% likelihood that the job you take will exist in 10 years. So you have job security, but it comes with an indentured servitude to the government for your student debt. Who wants that? But hey, it’s a better situation to be in than those who don’t go to college. The problem with not going to college is that the jobs on offer – e.g. taxi driver – won’t exist in 10 years. There is no safety valve for someone who isn’t educated. There is no taxi driver job when autonomous cars come. So you avoid the debt but you can’t make any money.”

# 50 Procurement is byzantine
The U.S. spends $7 billion on K-12 education but procurement is byzantine. Amazon and ProcureK-12.com are trying to simplify the purchase process in schools. Daniel Smith, General Manager for Education at Amazon B2B said, “Stuff takes 45 days to buy and there are eight steps in the purchasing process. Amazon is providing compliance. 650 of the largest 1000 districts are using Amazon Business. 87% of orders happen in five days rather than 45.”

Were you at ASU+GSV? Do you have thoughts on any of the points mentioned here? Leave a comment, or join the conversation on Facebook.

Facebook Comments