A defining feature of the last century was that most jobs were relatively clear cut (banker, electrician, teacher, etc). In our own time, however, people increasingly have careers that are underscored by a theme. In this respect, Sam Seidel is most certainly a 21st century kind of guy.
After splitting his time between studying at Brown University and teaching inmates at a nearby prison, Seidel has worked on everything from building the Student Experience Lab at the Business Innovation Factory to writing and publishing his first book Hip Hop Genius: Remixing Public Education. He now serves as the Director of K12 Strategy + Research at the Stanford D.School. At the root of all his endeavors is his fervent belief that if we can address the structural flaws in the way we educate people, we can also mitigate a lot of our other biggest problems.
To advance his mission, Seidel is notoriously willing to experiment with whatever tools, practices, and disciplines he encounters. I recently had the chance to sit down and talk with him about both the deeply entrenched problems and unparalleled opportunities involved in the adventure of reshaping modern education. If you’re involved in a business that ever requires that you attack seemingly intractable problems, pay close attention.
Michael Schein: The Stanford D.School is not the first place that comes to mind when I think about education. What made you join them?
Sam Seidel: The D.School is best known for teaching design thinking and helping build creative confidence in all kinds of different fields. While design thinking has been applied to products including everything from the Apple mouse to better toothbrushes, it can also be used to rethink schools and social systems. There are some serious structural problems with education and so the D.School seemed like the right place to tackle these problems creatively. My colleagues and I believe that applying the design thinking approach can be used to make real progress in improving education in quite a few different ways.
Schein: Can you give me an example?
Seidel: Sure. This past year we were working on reimagining educational assessments. There are a couple of huge problems with school assessments. One is that they take far too much time away from meaningful education. On average, a quarter of school days are spent on either test prep or actual tests each year. I’m not saying that assessments can’t be meaningful and valuable when done well, but… well, that brings us to the second big problem. These test don’t measure what most everyone agrees matters. It’s become a given that success in life requires being able to collaboratively solve problems. To think critically and creatively. To communicate effectively. That’s not what these assessments are testing. They’re testing stuff you can find on Google. We were lucky enough to partner on this with the Hewlett Foundation who said, “Can you help us think through deeper learning (which is made up of all the all the things I just listed)?” So these are the kinds of tough and interesting problems I get to work on—figuring out what it looks like to test those skills that will actually help students be successful in the 21st century.
Schein: If you succeed in solving some of these problems in the lab-like environment of the Stanford D.School, how do you then break through and get widespread adoption when political and social systems can be so slow moving and resistant to change?
Seidel: I think part of it is how we frame it. Both of my parents were educators, and from hearing them talk about these issues all the time, I’ve come to deeply believe teachers, unions, and administrators can and should be down with anything and everything we’re doing. I’m always trying to see where we can approach this in a collaborative way and bring people into the design process and have them feel ownership of whatever comes of it. I think a lot of times in education we have this sense that things are being done to us. It’s top down. As a teacher, I might be like, “Project-based learning seems cool but it’s being imposed on us from the district. We’re not going to have access to a lot of what we need. We’re still going to have expectations that aren’t going to change, like getting kids to get these test scores. We’ll have curriculum we have to follow.” I think part of the solution is having people feel, and also actually have, ownership. How do you create the conditions where educators can say, “I’m doing this because it’s what my students need and someone isn’t going to come in and snatch it out of my hands?”
Schein: To shift gears for a moment…you published a book about hip hop, you done work at prisons, you’ve spent time in consulting, and now you’re in Silicon Valley. What’s the through-line in your career? What guides you when you’re choosing one opportunity over another?
Seidel: For me, the through-line is justice and trying to figure out how I can contribute in some way to make the world a more just place. Of all the things I love to do or could possibly do, pushing on what education is and can be feels to me like my best shot at getting somewhere. A big part that is because how profoundly important I feel education is to a society or culture. I think we need to build a mass of people who need to think creatively and critically and know how to work together and invest in the next generation of folks to come out and solve some big problems.