Education Opinion

An Educator’s Lean Startup Mindset

By Tom Vander Ark — June 20, 2014 2 min read
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By: Matt Candler

For the first fifteen years of my career, I had a stubborn “kids’ lives are at stake” mindset that championed certainty and perfection. I’ve since realized
that what kids’ lives really depend on is me having a growth mindset that champions curiosity over certainty and iteration over perfection.

A few years ago I was asked to write a chapter for a book on entrepreneurship in education. After a few chapters by actual academic experts, mine would be
the chapter by the guy with the smaller vocabulary - the ‘guy on the ground.’

When I got a letter from Harvard Press encouraging me to rethink the phrase “sucking less than our predecessors,” I took it as a badge of honor. After all,
it was not the first polite letter I’d received with a Cambridge, MA return address.

My call was to reformers to avoid ‘just sucking less’ than our predecessors. If we were in the business of fixing schools that the establishment had
broken, we’d better get it perfect, because kids lives were at stake. I thought my job was fixing the ‘schools are busted’ problem, but the big problem is
not brokenness, but obsolescence.

My hubris was one problem. But so was my focus on fixing the wrong problem. The right problem to fix in our schools is the obsolescence of the current
system to prepare kids for the world they’ll enter as adults.

Fixing an obsolete system requires at least three shifts in mindset:

1. Be user-centric.

Focus on the problems that face those you serve - your users. The problem our users face is that 65% of the jobs they will choose from a decade or two from
now don’t even exist yet. The more we embrace that real problem as our own, the less likely we’ll be to assume what worked for us when we were in school
will be best for them.

2. Be curious.

Kids don’t need to hear me say things like “I know what works, just let me show you.” They know the world’s changing. What they need to hear me saying -
and modeling - are things like “Wow, this is hard. I don’t know what the future will hold; let’s get to work trying some new ideas”.

Curiosity is critical to preparing kids to be confident, gritty, joyful lifelong learners in a world changing too fast for us to tell them what the future
will hold. Choosing curiosity over denial in this situation is key to creating schools that better prepare kids for the exciting, big world they’re growing
up in.

3. Iterate.

In the pursuit of a better way, we must make many, many more smaller, faster bets. This requires a bias to action, not a bias to certainty.

Shipping an early version of a new idea to your user is scary. But when you get this right, your user appreciates that you’ve involved them in the process
of finding new ways to meet their needs. And if you respond quickly to their feedback, you’ll create deeper loyalty and investment than you ever could
trying to read their minds.

I’m much less certain these days. And hopefully less prideful. I’m shipping stuff that’s not as perfect as it used to be. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Don’t miss our Google Hangout with Matt -

Smart Cities
blog series catalogs innovations in learning in America’s great cities. We’re writing a book about what we’re learning--
and you can help.

Matt Candler is founder of
4.0 Schools
, an early-stage incubator full of people who don’t know what the future of school will be. You can find him at

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.