Leveling Up Your Children’s Chance of Success

It was almost two years ago that my wife and my own mobile rang in unison while walking our dog through Point Dume in Malibu California. The phone’s display indicated that our son’s middle school was calling. We had become accustomed to periodic pre-recorded messages letting us know of upcoming events, fundraising opportunities, and other random news about Malibu Middle School and Malibu High School, which share the campus. This particular pre-recorded message we were receiving that evening sent a shiver down our spine, along with hundreds of other families in the community who were receiving the call at that same moment…

When deciding whether or not to move to California, the key factor was access to a good school system. Among its other perks, Malibu has some of the highest rated schools in America that neighborhoods a short distance away could not compare. In fact some were regarded as America’s worst schools. Coming from Canada, after a brief journey to Texas, we realized that not all learning was created equal in the USA. If our kids weren’t afforded at least an equal shot at education we had come to expect in Canada then it was not a move that would be made.

We had made a good decision, the school was all outdoors, positive vibes, the teachers were involved, and the curriculum challenged our children’s developing minds. The school was only steps to the sunny beaches of Southern California and felt like a truly special place to drop your kids off in the morning. The vibe was radical. The phone now ringing, I expected the usual cheerful principal message about sports, fundraising, activities or student reminders. This time it wasn’t the principal though, it was the school superintendent and instead of a joyful “Hello, Malibu Parents” greeting, it was a solemn, monotone voice preemptively consoling families that there was some disconcerting news, while wanting to reassure us that our kids were safe.

Underneath those shark fins might be a more deadly predator than a Great White. Rumor has it that the soil is filled with PCB's

Underneath those shark fins might be a more deadly predator than a Great White. Rumor has it that the soil is filled with PCB's

Within hours the news media were descending on our quiet community at the news that there was a possible cancer cluster in the school. Several teachers had reported cancer or pre-cancer of the thyroid, a condition associated with external environmental factors. The root cause being pinpointed by staff was PCB contamination which was found in the soil, caulking and concentrated in a specific area of middle school classrooms. Complaints of asthma in the affected area where we were now learning that only a couple of years prior that very area had been covertly excavated in the summer break. Rumor was that chemical laced soil was removed by folks in hazmat suits and done so without proper oversight or documentation. With very few answers, and many questions suddenly the community was thrown into upheaval. Our immediate reaction, along with a large contingent of Malibu parents, was to reject that the school was safe without some real testing and accurate scientific data. Our son was going to be removed until we had more answers.

This left the school and parents in a lurch because the repercussions were immediate. We could take advantage of a California law that allowed parents and children to sign an “Independent Study” form. Without proper curriculum or even a contingency plan the school district was woefully unprepared to accommodate the educational needs of kids who wanted to work from home. Unlike professionals in the work environment that can easily carry their duties from the office to home, the school system isn’t designed to give children the tools to succeed full time when left to their own, or their parents own devices.

Ironically, it was our kids “devices” that were the difference maker to replace the curriculum hole left by The Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District. Their PC’s, iPads and game console would unexpectedly bridge the gap. It would lead me on a journey of discovery that took a page of advice from tech innovators such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

For the first week or so we tried to make do with the lessons that were posted. Contractually it is not a teacher’s job to administer independent learning for your child. If a child is not in class the school doesn’t get paid. The school board can provide outlines and criteria, they can verify that work was completed, but within weeks we watched in horror as our merit role student’s grades began to plummet. Many returned their children with a knot of guilt in their stomachs and others simply removed them. Some threw their hands up and paid for or created private schools. The latter not being an option for most parents in America who will be saddened to find out that PCB contamination above the EPA standards are widespread across schools in America, an impending environmental problem we might have only seen the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

ChildsPlay_Infographic1I wasn’t prepared for either option so I turned to the web. I have been working in youth marketing and gamification for the better part of my career. I had put a computer mouse in my kid’s hands before they could even walk. “This should be easy!” The internet is the single most revolutionary invention in the history of man. Daily we were making websites and games that entertained kids for hours on behalf of brands. Social gaming companies such as Zynga and Facebook had been proving the gamification of activity online drove commitment and loyalty. I understood that educational tools would start to replace traditional methods forever and it is only a matter of when, not if. Digital products already incentivize, gamify and reward activities more effectively than traditional methods. Parents are digital immigrants but our kids are natives to tech. We had the Dewey Decimal System and kids have iPads. We had allowances and now kids have digital achievements. I set out to find the best online tools that would supplement education and I wasn’t disappointed in the breadth, but I was disappointed in the depth. I now realize it was less in the depth and more in the curation. Something as simple as digital points could drive fervent will-to-succeed in child and parent online activity.

Bill Gates is an “outlier”. He and his peers were lucky enough to have both the brains and access to computers of the day decades ago. Those like him paved a way that has transformed society as we know it, society rife with the opportunity for anyone to succeed and where an idea can come to life days after being conceived. When global application development contests are put online the leaderboards are filled with talent that knows no political, cultural, monetary, racial, or regional prejudice. Brilliance is found in the most impoverished neighborhoods of India and the wealthiest of Southern California. Coding is key, the languages of coding can be learned early on and change the world. Code.org made a video a while back that you should watch that will transform the way you think about education in the future.

While access to computers and smartphones is often still more accessible to privileged we are approaching a world that is almost 75% smartphone enabled. In Los Angeles, the undisputed “home of the homeless” the number one necessity for transients is a mobile phone. It will be the tool that can help you get off the streets faster than any other. For less than $100 dollars you can purchase a full OS licensed Windows Tablet or a Windows Phone under $40 that is more powerful than the computers of only a few years ago. Nobody is an outlier anymore. The only obstacle is the lack of self-motivation and willpower to learn new skills. If you ever wanted to learn about anything you can pop on YouTube or Wikipedia. If you want to go deep into curriculum that provides the skills a college will charge you for than one never needs to leave their living room or drop a dime. Reddit created an entire University where full curriculum is taught by professors in accredited schools. Most people still don’t do it though. Gamification is changing this. We live in a rewards and achievement based world. It’s applied everywhere from grocery shopping to driving, exercising to education. In a world of free software people have become the product and are realizing their value. In the application business if your offer is not entertaining, fulfilling or rewarding you will lose ground quickly to more agile competitors.

So here we sat, in the kitchen. A week of classes had gone by again with nothing learned. Our son had begun to play video games after completing a week’s worth of school work by Monday evening. A combination of light content and the ability to compress it in a way that a scheduled school day could not meant that there was four days of content to fill. He had an interest in computers and French so this would be the starting point. After some tertiary research it was obvious that the starting point would be two sites who have done an exceptional job of pulling their content together, gamifying it and delivering it in a fun manner: Codecademy.org and Duolingo.com Outside of a few, none of the online kids free education sites hold a candle to the free content provided by Yale, Harvard, and other schools. Post-secondary education is ripe online and it excels at accelerating the skills of those young men and women fortunate enough to pick up good learning habits early on in life. How do we find more of the kids that will eventually become a “fortunate one”? We need only look to the myriad sites establishing the space:

What do you want to learn?

Duolingo is a language learning website that changes the way you will acquire a new language. When kids are young they are language sponges. After the age of 12 it becomes much more difficult to become the next polyglot. The site/app uses a series of fast and photogenic life relevant methods to recall common phrases and gamifies the entire process. The 20+ million users who are learning French, German, Spanish and a myriad of other languages call themselves “language addicts”. Unlike your elementary or middle school French class it truly captures the essence of gamified learning. Our son learned more from Duolingo in a few weeks than an entire semester of French classes in Ontario. It’s like learning on steroids. The site offers Spanish children among other languages an equal opportunity to learn English and it is become a primary resource to supplement or overtake the failing school systems in Latin America and the USA.

ChildsPlay_Infographic2Khan Academy is another great resource for STEM and it particularly excels at mathematics. If you are a parent you will have to relearn trigonometry, fraction, decimals, long division and a massive amount of other math skills you haven’t thought about in decades. Khan can walk you and your kids through every math problem or skill they will ever face. If they can’t get to an answer a 2 to 5 minute video awaits on Youtube or at their website. On their website their content is well organized and easy to access.

Coding has a couple of excellent resources. Codecademy which I mentioned earlier excels at getting children programming live in core languages which are simpler to grasp such as Ruby. They are the ultimate resource for dipping your toes into the pool of programming language. They will have your child coding basic building blocks in minutes and move them one language at a time through a dashboard that keeps track of their progress. Another resource that is more geared to introducing kids to the fundamentals of code is child friendly “Code.org”. Code does an excellent job of segmenting by age group and rewarding kids for succession. This is also the place to have your child learn to build the next Uber or Spotify App.

Ashton Kutcher, technology investor and Hollywood celebrity, advocates with Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and other high profile innovators that computer coding is critical to the core education system.

Ashton Kutcher believes computer coding is critical to core education system.

Code.org was created in 2013 to “Expand participation in computer science by making it available in more schools, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color. Our vision is that every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn computer science. We believe computer science and computer programming should be part of the core curriculum in education, alongside other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, such as biology, physics, chemistry and algebra. You will find everyone from Ashton Kutcher to Will.I.Am, Bill Gates to Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn advocating and participating financially, while lending their celebrity to the effort.

Then there is the wild west of kids learning that we find on the internet. These are the unstructured sites such as National Geographic, Whyville, Funbrain, Disney, Nickelodeon and others that understand that gaming give the fastest feedback loop to learning. With a system of organization children will have access to an unbelievable amount of content. If it is served up to tickle their palette the way everything else in our modern world is, gamified and incentivized, we will be at the cusp of an education revolution that will change the world as fast as the internet already has. It isn’t limited to language either. The University of Reddit teaches everything from coding to animation. Watch this video on drawing a woman’s face.

College and Universities are in a bubble that has never been more ready to burst and it will be up to the digital native generation to mop up the mess and revolutionize the way they learn. As long as we provide the tools and content the psychology is sound. Leveling up life skills should be as easy as level 5 of Angry Birds and it should happen at a scale once thought unimaginable. The playing field has been leveled now it’s time to let our kids hit a home run.

The School of the Future

"Next century, schools as we know them will no longer exist," says a feature in The Age publication, based in Melbourne, Australia. "In their place will be community-style centers operating seven days a week, 24 hours a day." Computers will become an essential ingredient in the recipe for an effective school of the future.

Students, The Age asserts, will see and hear teachers on computers, with "remote learning" the trend of tomorrow. Accessing "classrooms" on their home computers, students will learn at times most convenient for them. Yet some attendance at an actual school will be required to help students develop appropriate social skills.

The problem right now is that it we are ready, but nobody has structured it in a meaningful way. At our company we spend a lot of time as Youth Agency thinking about this. What would the school 2, 5, 10 years from now look like?

The first part is access to technology that companies such as Google and Microsoft are working to help become the status quo. Free laptops, free software, and virtual teachers. Lesson plans will be individualized based on students aptitude and ability. Crowd sourcing is effective so group projects never have to be confined to those within in your classroom monkeysphere.

Languages and coding are most important. It’s a global economy, a global world that is highly connected. If you don’t have the aptitude for language learning you will certainly have access to translation systems that are getting better by the day. Memorizing is passé because access to information is so easy. No longer should we rely on memorizing or filling minds with information that is 90% unusable. We can now think of a smartphone as the external hard drive to our brain. When was the last time you memorized a phone number? It’s unnecessary. Critical thinking, internet navigation, and courses on how to investigate solutions via the web are much more important that traditional models of memorization. Artificial Intelligence will be a game changer for expediting learning and the big thing connecting all of this is Gamification. Kids through Millennials have become accustomed to being rewarded. Artificial Intelligence that we see in call centers will come to course instruction. In fact it will take out the grey area of learning in many respects. Once it is black and white with a feedback loop that is immediate, direct, and unequivocal we may see a massive cultural change in learning. Great teachers were never perfect, but perfect teachers (AI) don’t have to be great. They need to show up and allow the “me” generation to succeed on their own terms, regardless if they live in Malibu or Mexico City. Manhattan or Mayberry. Online teaching and learning won’t work for everyone, but it WILL even the playing field for many.

I can foresee a future where a child’s grades and success are associated with Amazon accounts and Walmart wish lists rather than bumper stickers on their parents SUV…and that’s OK. Leveling up throughout the year will take place at all different times of the day. It’s already proven that early to rise high schools have some of the most underachieving students in America. In fact part of the reason I have decided to move from Malibu to Seattle is their more enlightened school system, almost the best in America. A number of studies have shown that timing learning to a growing child’s key attention spans has a huge impact. It’s science. “The time of day that students are expected to function, or their brains are expected to function, really matters,” said Teny Maghakian, one of the co-authors of the 2010 University of California, Davis study, who now teaches economics at Santa Clara University. They found generally that students randomly assigned to courses later in the day performed better than those taking first-period classes.

None of this will happen overnight but I highly suggest you register your child on Duolingo, Codecademy, Code.org, and Khan Academy in preparation for the surge of students across the world who are taking control of their learning. Direct your children to 30 minutes of unstructured, gamified learning per night and let them choose the subject and reward them for their achievements. In a few weeks you might just be ready to make it a full time endeavor. You will want them to learn the basics. Learn Ruby, learn C++, learn Java, and learn Chinese. They will need it all.