From Mindfulness to Pivoting: On Education’s Obsession With Startup Pageantry


In case you’re not up to speed:

A startup is a newly established entrepreneurial company which is typically founded upon an innovative product. Startups tend to be focused on rapid development in order to secure venture funding, crowd-sourced capital, or lucrative acquisitions. They are associated with highly skilled, if slightly oddball team members, and are often associated with non-traditional, low stress, fun working environments. Startups are high risk, high reward ventures.

There are quite a few features of a typical startup which make them attractive as role-models for innovative schools:

  • The rapid absorption and use of new ideas around motivation, management, and getting things done.
  • The allure of massive, unprecedented, and paradigm-shifting success.
  • A culture of expertise, experimentation, and high expectations.
  • The liberal, non-traditional environment which encourages high performance.
  • The marketing appeal of a culture of innovation.
  • The potential of attracting highly skilled people.
  • The nimbleness of being able to adapt, realign and re-imagine themselves in a relatively short period of time.

And so on.


A great deal of the pageantry draped around startups has already made its way into many liberal schools and educational discussions:

  • The vaguely Zen Buddhist notion of mindfulness – which involves a singular, undistracted focus on the immediate task at hand. In education, this mindfulness is used to get kids to focus only on the immediate lesson or task, and to encourage them to prepare better for high stakes assessments.
  • The similarly Buddhistish culture of meditation to clear the mind of intrusive thoughts – which could potentially sabotage success with distraction or self-doubt.
  • Re-imagining spaces and environments to make them less traditional and more conducive to engagement and performance. There is a big trend in education at present to make learning spaces more child-centered, movable, modular and fun.
  • The notion of removing time and space as an obstacle to working. Blended learning and life-long learning have become the educational equivalent of telecommuting.
  • Project-based learning (PBL) programs aim to emulate startup environments by encouraging 10X thinking, ideation, rapid prototyping, real world innovation, design thinking, ‘failing forward’, resilience (aka ‘grit’), and entrepreneurial aptitudes.
  • The nearly magical alchemy of collaboration and crowd-sourcing which takes ordinary learning and makes it both richer and deeper.
  • Growth hacking – Questioning the often invisible structures, policies and procedures associated with education, taking them apart, and designing better, more efficient solutions.
  • Disruption. In the sense that we make a sea-change in how things are done. (See this post.)
  • Pivoting and agility: The ability to change course rapidly in the light of new demands and developments. (These two items of jargon are not yet widespread in education, but, if the trend I describe in this post holds true, I imagine they will be soon.)
  • Leanness and big data: Scrutinizing data in order to eliminate waste and bolster what works.
  • Gamification: Using the structures and features of games (like experience points, levels, powers and rewards) to motivate and engage.
  • Technology stacks: The unique set of ‘Lego bricks’ from which a school’s technology-enhanced learning solution is composed. Some schools prefer a single provider, most others prefer a mix-and-match, ‘horses for courses’ approach. (Note: ‘stack logic’ will, I predict, soon invade schools, and we will talk about ‘talent stacks’, ‘learning stacks’ and even ‘staffing stacks’)


So what’s wrong with all of this?

Well, for most of it, not much. When it comes to engagement, enhancing learning and generally getting things done at schools, borrowing from the trappings of the startup world has many merits.

But I do have concerns:

Progressive schools tend to seek out and implement strategies and processes which have worked elsewhere. Most often, there is a cost involved in doing so – whether it be in terms of human resources, training, infrastructure and even time. As with most things, the sunk cost fallacy makes schools loathe to backtrack onĀ their investment – even if these new programs are not working as well as anticipated.

Related to reluctance to tank a new program because of sunk cost, is the fact that confirmation bias often creeps in to how we see new educational programs. We evaluate the successes of these programs by selecting and focusing on what works, and by minimizing and ignoring what doesn’t. Many poorly planned and implemented iPad programs, for example, suffer from confirmation bias in evaluating their effectiveness in boosting learning.

Most startups fail. And yet we tend to focus on the ones that do not. I have written about this survivorship bias in relation to education before, but in a nutshell: focusing just on ‘what works’ and ignoring what doesn’t often leads to false cause-and-effect conclusions, where the truth is more likely to be coincidental.

Wikipedia has a very relevant example of survivorship bias:

…if three of the five students with the best college grades went to the same high school, that can lead one to believe that the high school must offer an excellent education. This could be true, but the question cannot be answered without looking at the grades of all the other students from that high school, not just the ones who “survived” the top-five selection process.

(David McRaney has a fantastic example of how overcoming survivorship bias saved lives by allowing more bomber crews to return home safely in World War II.)

But my biggest concern in the trend of schools trying to learn from startups is this: No school, no matter how corporately-minded is purely about profits. They are about people. Specifically young people.

What works to secure funding doesn’t necessarily work neurologically, educationally, or emotionally at schools. High stakes and high risks are a part of school, yes, as are high expectations, but to go ahead and adopt startup solutions as haphazardly as we download apps is more than a little bit irresponsible. Schools need to adopt a research-based approach instead of being dazzled by the latest piece of startup glitter.

We also need to relearn to focus on the long-term. Our mission is not to make a short-term profit (by looking good when our students do well in their final standardized assessments), but rather to invest in their long-term future. We must never lose sight of our ultimate aim: to help our young people to become more independent, resilient, adaptable, fulfilled, and engaged citizens.