The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Nadav Zeimer. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is in the Nadav Ziemer, a principal in Harlem, in public high school in New York city. He’s also the author of a very interesting book, Education in the Digital Age: How We Get There. Thanks Nadav. Great to have you here.
Nadav: It’s such a pleasure to be here, Jim.
Jim: I heard about your book and I think it was from probably your publicist actually. And I checked it out and I said, “Hell yes, this is a theme that we’ve talked about here on the show before.” We had Zach Stein on actually for three episodes.
Nadav: He wrote the preface to the book.
Jim: Yeah, I saw that. Good job that he did. Extraordinarily interesting guy. This is a different take, I would say in many ways a more tangible take on envisioning what a new education for the modern age might look like. The book is really interesting. You must have done a tremendous amount of research on it because you recapitulate the history and mechanics of debt and money, the rise and fall of economic paradigms, the history of technology, the obsolescence of econ 101, sense-making and lots more of the kinds of things that we talk about on the show, but mostly not exclusively, mostly we’re going to focus today on your ideas of building an entirely new educational infrastructure. In fact, probably better to say an educational ecosystem. Now, of course, we will refer back to some of that earlier material in the book, and I do recommend it to listeners as a good and clear and common sensical, and that’s key, presentation of many of the ideas we talk about on the show.
Nadav: Absolutely. Thank you.
Jim: And as usual, we will have links to the book and anything else that’s mentioned here on the episode page on the show, just go to Jimruttshow.com and check out the episode page for this episode. :et’s start with a brief story of your career. You graduated from college and then what happened?
Nadav: So graduated from college with a degree in physics, but I did a lot of computer science and to help pay for my college, I always worked. And so I worked in the information technology, the student services where people go to the computer lab and help desk for professors and such. And I spent one summer during college working at a bank, doing some software work. And so after college, I went out to Silicon Valley with my girlfriend who was from around there and got a job at Ford Digital Equipment Corp in Palo Alto, but I worked my day to day job was actually at Netscape. I went into software engineering and then did some consulting work and ran a metal fabrication studio at some point, and then came to New York to care for my grandparents and I was still doing the consulting thing. So I could do that and working for New York offices, doing the same kind of IT infrastructure consulting. And then suddenly became a high school physics teacher, robotics teacher, and then high school principal.
Nadav: I needed to go the private sector route to prove some things to myself, I think. And when I got that big job offer that I was waiting for, I suddenly didn’t say, no … I didn’t say yes. And that surprised me. It took me a few weeks to figure out that I just needed that offer. I actually didn’t want that job. I like to work really hard and I like complicated things. And so doing that to make money, I felt like I’d get resentful at some point, but doing that for high school kids, I just couldn’t imagine ever resenting working hard for that. So it made sense to go there earlier in my career before I went too deep. And so then I ended up here.
Jim: Really amazing story and really a gutsy move. I mean, how many people at a relatively young age turned down the career track, right? The big bucks, glory, maybe, maybe not, for a truly fulfilling and a moderately, fixity teachers are paid pretty good these days, a moderate lifestyle, but certainly no glory shall we say, at least to the external world. I really commend you for that decision.
Nadav: It was a selfish decision, right? It was for myself. But yeah, I hear what you’re saying. From the outside it might look altruistic, but it really is for my own quality of life.
Jim: Of course, at some sense, nobody’s actually an altruist, right? I think we actually all know that. You just have to understand what people’s motivations actually are. Seldom do people actually work against their own interests. And then you worked your way up from school teacher to principal and into a pretty tough school in Harlem. It had low rankings and over a period of years, you moved the rankings from the bottom to the top. How did you do that?
Nadav: So my staff did that. I really believe as a principal, as a school leader in a school, the teachers who have contact with the young people are the leaders. And so first step was leadership support and learning from my staff and learning from the right staff. My art teacher was kind of my main go-to person for all professional development, because kind of that entry, I understood that the complexity that comes with interpreting a piece of art was the kind of thinking that I wanted the kids to be doing. So it was a focus on looking at what is critical thinking. And I had for a long time actually, since the late nineties, been looking at decentralized media. I had started a podcasting nonprofit before podcasting was known as such. We still distributed on CD magazines because the internet couldn’t handle audio yet. And so I kind of was lucky to come into education with the software engineering background and with the media savvy.
Nadav: And so that idea of having high quality student work products in the form of media form of media, podcasts or videos, and focusing on just generating really high quality content generated by the students that led to a seven year journey. But what was surprising for us, nobody expected our data to be that strong because the data is based on standardized tests mostly. And I wasn’t focusing on those. My risks, the risks that I took, and I knew I could get a job back in technology. So I know I could take the risk and get fired, but I took a risk of kind of not focusing on the standardized exams. And within 18 months, we went from an F school on a shutdown list, persistent low achieving school, needed improvement, all these acronyms they step on you and all these state intervention teams and auditors all over crawling around the building because we’re about to get shut down. Within 18 months, we were a B school then A school and maintained that A top ranking for seven years.
Nadav: So that surprised me. I had seen a little bit of that with my robotics team when I brought in media and we made a documentary. So we made a documentary about the team. There’s some kind of executive function of self reflection that happens when somebody is making a documentary about you, that I just brought into individual students’ lives. And the other thing I’d say about that is I’m really data-driven, but data is like a menu, right? You don’t eat the menu. So the data would just let me know which students to go talk to when and about what, but it wasn’t the … that played a big role in our success, I think. But so for example, I would look to see changes in student performance. And so if a student’s attendance went down or the assignment they get the beginning of the class to do now, if suddenly they were always doing well on those, suddenly that dropped off, I knew something had changed and I would just ask them what changed. Just pull them into the office privately one-on-one and say, “Hey, what happened?” Or have a counselor do that.
Nadav: And conversely, you could have a student that’s failing all their classes, and one week they’re passing all of them. If you just look at aggregate statistics of the school, they’re still failing all their classes. But if you can get that change for that week, you can go grab them in the halls and say, “What the hell happened? You passed all your classes this week.” There’s no official grades, there’s no report cards, but that high, it’s kind of a high-frequency heartbeat, more than most schools that just give you data at the very end of the term after months of learning, we looked at gaining data earlier so that we could intervene on both sides of acknowledging students and supporting them.
Jim: That sounds like the way it ought to be. And unfortunately, oftentimes isn’t. What’s the name of the documentary, by the way? Maybe you could talk just a little bit about that robotics team, because that seems to be a pretty interesting story.
Nadav: Yeah. I can send you a link to it. It’s on YouTube now. It was called the G-house pirates, which was the name of the team.
Jim: Cool. And basically you went from a school that nobody would expect to do well in such a competition to one of the top teams, right?
Nadav: We were the first all minority team to compete nationally. We beat all the private schools and public schools, all the private schools included. We beat in New York city, second place in New York state and that includes in a Rochester, like these massive teams that have massive industry behind them and we were able to take them down just with brute force. I mean, for the six, we had six weeks to build the robot, this five foot tall, 120 pound monster. And I lived at the school during those six weeks. I’m not supposed to tell anyone that because we’re not supposed to stay overnight at the school, but I had a cot in the lab and we would work through the night for six weeks. And I didn’t have a family back then, so I could do those crazy things, but that’s how we pulled it off is just brute force.
Jim: You and I both know oftentimes it’s perspiration, not inspiration that’s the answer. It was that Thomas Edison I think said that. I don’t remember how many times it appeared in your book, but the word work ethic is a word you use a lot.
Nadav: Yeah. And people across the political spectrum agree that it’s kind of, we’re losing it because screens are sucking our attention and we don’t realize that we’re having to go over value to the screen instead of using the screen to support us, to meet the goals that we’re setting for ourselves, which is a true digital native, I think would be using the screen to generate a value rather than letting it suck value from their life. But there’s an issue with critical thinking, I think, and with what you call work ethic, just being able to say, declare you’re going to do something and get it done. That is a weak muscle among our people in our society generally and our youth in particular.
Jim: I hear it from a lot of employers that people that have jobs that require serious attention to detail, really hardcore stuff. Like I was talking to a guy who has a roofing business. They do high-end custom roofs and repairs on custom roofs. And you really have to know what you’re doing. You’re operating on a roof, right? You can easily fall off and break your ass. And he’s got eight open jobs that pay damn well, doesn’t require any higher education. And he’s basically just looking for high work ethic, non-drug using, attention to detail kind of people. And he says he can’t find them, here in the middle of a pandemic with a 15% unemployment rate.
Nadav: Yep. That’s amazing, but not that shocking. And I think that what you mentioned about drug use, legal or illegal, I think everybody is drugged up because we don’t have that work ethic. Actually working hard and the rewards, the psychoactive rewards you get from accomplishing things is what those drugs are filling in for I think. I think there’s a human need to do hard work and to feel successful in your own right with your own standards. And without that, I think we all, everybody’s medicating themselves in one way or another.
Jim: And then attention to detail also. The essence of our current economy as you go into in the book is essentially attention hijacking. We’ll get to that a little bit later. So we have a school system and through dedicated and perhaps wild and crazy principles, sometimes you can make it work for the kids, but everything we read says that particularly for the more deprived kids, it ain’t working so well. And I would tell you, looking at the kids even in middle-class and upper middle class schools, maybe it works sort of sometimes, but at extremely high cost to their wellbeing. I mean, I look back at the college entrance craziness that goes on these days. I was in college, I filled out a couple of apps, threw them over the transom and you saw what happened, didn’t sweat it. Right.
Jim: And that was that, like I applied to two colleges, got into both of them, picked one. That was that. But now, oh my God. And so there’s some sense, a significant mismatch between our educational called the public school system and those private schools that more or less emulate the public schools, not all of them, but many of them. We do have some alternatives like the Waldorf schools, et cetera. But talk a little bit about the mismatch between the educational industrial complex and what our economy really needs.
Nadav: Right. So 1843, Horace Mann brings Johann Gottlieb Fichte his ideas right into the US and it’s this industrial idea of kind of taking the ideas from industrial production and bringing them into human thought. 1892, they pulled together a committee of 10. They designed high school as we know it today. And what you’re pointing out is that we’re in an educational system that has existed since then at least, this industrial model. And since then, the digital age has taken hold and decentralization is happening. And so the mismatch is one critical thinking or thinking about your purpose or thinking creatively or solving difficult problems is not what you needed factory workers to be doing with their time. And the industrial model of education was brilliant for what it was designed to do, and it’s outlived its usefulness because it was so effective.
Nadav: It’s hard to let go of because it was such an effective tool to increase literacy and numeracy and it had a lot of other impacts I think that were really positive. But today it’s just outlived its usefulness and we’re living in a world that’s still run by those schools. So that’s kind of the big context. Now getting into some of the details, the system right now is top-down. It’s based, it’s coercive, right? It forces you to sit in and I’m thinking about high school. That’s my area of expertise, I think is very different. You mentioned Waldorf schools. I grew up in the Waldorf schools in elementary, but I think that’s a different beast. For high school where you sit in a room for 42 minutes and then the bell rings and you go to another subject, that’s all the industrial bells and carnegie units where seat time is how you measure learning.
Nadav: It’s a system that was designed for industrial production and it’s just not useful anymore. And our kids know it, no matter how much money we pump into education, we don’t get better results even on these standardized exams that the same people get to control. They can’t even fudge the numbers because the kids know that the system is no longer relevant. I’ll let you lead us into different avenues of that, but it’s the same mismatch that industrial companies are facing when there’s inversion, right? When the cab company gets faced with Uber, when the hotel market for travelers gets challenged by Airbnb, those are the same pressures that our schools are feeling. But as a public school system, they don’t fall apart in the same way because they’re too big to fail in a sense. And so the transition is going to be one where we’re rebuilding it while we’re in flight. And so it’s a little bit different of a process, but it’s the same pressures of inversion that are happening in industry as are happening in our high schools.
Jim: Yeah. And truthfully, this sense of mismatch has been going on for quite a while. I’m a bit of an oldster. I went to high school in the late sixties. And even then, we had the sense that, well, yeah, you hop through the hoops and get the reward, go to a good college, if you did go to college. I actually went to a working class high school where only 20% of the people went on to a four year college. Even then, we felt that there was something wrong with the sausage factory as we sometimes called it, that it was not a humane use for human beings. And as I was reading in your book, I really came away resonating saying, “This would have been a hell of a lot more fun in addition to being a better preparation for the world of 1971, let alone the world of 2021.” Maybe talk a little bit about that soul suck that the sausage factory has one of its side products.
Nadav: Right. So the main engine that drove the economy and our high schools were designed to prepare kids for this engine is make stuff so we can create jobs, so we can have people buy more stuff so that we can have more jobs, right? That was the loop that ran everything. And so we were trained in high school to be consumers. And that includes consumers of how to think right from the textbooks and the standardization of thinking in a standardized test. Today to make money, you have to be a producer of content, right? You have to get an audience, you have to have people follow you and then that audience is what starts generating money in a digital economy. That attention, people’s attention. So there’s, it’s just a very different way to think because the old industrial model was based on things like fossil fuels, where it was zero sum.
Nadav: I have it or you have it. We can’t both have it. But information and information age or an ideas economy, you want things to get copied and spread. The more somebody spreads your tweet, the more social capital you gain. So it’s a collaborative, positive sum dynamic and that changed from a top-down coercive system to a bottom-up collaborative system. It can’t be gradual. The classroom, when you walk into class, when I walk into a classroom as a principal, I can see the ones that are bottom up where the students are generating the learning, where it’s their genius that’s on display. And then you can see the ones where it’s the teacher genius on display and the students are, they’re told to mimic and regurgitate. It’s a flip, right? It’s a switch. It’s not a fader. And so that’s where we see ourselves right now. I think with COVID in particular, we’re hitting a breaking point where we’re either going to have to flip the switch or our schools are going to just completely fall apart. No, one’s going to go to them.
Jim: Yep. It’s an opportunity, right? It’s an opportunity to accelerate a change that was likely to happen someday. I think the same applies for instance to business travel. For at least 10 years, I’ve been telling people why you need to fly around the country for a one hour meeting, spend $2,000 in three days when Zoom was earlier Skype would work almost as good, maybe better. Instead of spending an hour, spend two hours on the meeting. And I believe COVID has thrown a shock to that basin of attraction of high-end business travel, high and medium end business travel and I suspect it’ll never go back. It may well be that the same will happen with education.
Nadav: That’s right. And it may or may not. I hope it does. And I think you’re right, that this is an opportunity because people’s minds are open. I’ve been doing this work with media in high schools since 2003. So 17 years and all of a sudden, people are willing to see what I’ve been seeing, what people that my teachers have been seeing that that shift from students asking, “Will this be on the test?” And wondering what the brand of thinking they need to regurgitate is for that test, flipping over to students producing quality work and focusing on that student content as the measure, rather than the standardized test as the measure, because that just measures how good of a robot you become and we have robots now. We don’t need people to act like robots anymore.
Jim: Yeah. All right. Now, the one thing that I raised my eyebrow at a few times in the book, and maybe you can explain what you really had in mind here was very strong focus on digital native artifacts, podcasts, videos, et cetera, as an end in themselves, and as entering into what you called the dopamine opioid economy. Is that really what we want for our civilization to have ever higher level of attention hijacking, ever higher levels of simulation and nobody out getting their toes in the soil, nobody making anything? I got to say, I’m a little skeptical of at least we’re at a first order naive read that approach, which seem to have.
Nadav: So there are two pieces there. I totally agree with you that the screenification, the hijacking of our attention, that is not digital native. Digital natives are the ones that are going to learn to resist those forces and generate value on themselves. The economies, the cultures that learn how to produce content are going to be the ones that make money, not the ones that are consuming it, not the ones that are beholden to the apps and pouring their attention into it for others to control and others to manipulate. My proposal here, the innovation in what I call academic capital is based on uploading a representation of your work as a podcast, as a video, as code. But it’s not that people aren’t getting their toes in the water. I think high school should not be students sitting in classrooms. It should be students out at a protest, covering it as journalists and telling that story, preparing before they go with what questions they’re going to ask and the historical contexts, coming back and editing.
Nadav: I want them out interviewing the elders in their community, doing projects, interacting with the world to understand physics. And you can do that now with your phone and document it and edit and make something that’s researched and revised and relevant to what they’re interested in. What’s important now is that we teach students skills that will give them the critical thinking so that they cannot be manipulated for economic gain. They can’t have the corporations manipulate them to buy things and they can’t have the politicians manipulate them to fit into a box. Our democracy and our economy become anti-fragile when people can think in more complicated, complex ways and have their own positions that are not the same as everybody around them. So that diversity of thought and of experience is what I’m after.
Nadav: So take Airbnb. Airbnb is very much a physical thing. People are going on vacation and actually staying in these places, but they are required to enter the digital realm by taking photos of their place and entering a description and putting in the rules and saying whether they have a washer dryer or not. And by entering those forms into database and having visual representations on the platform, you can then create this platform, what you were talking about before, the ecosystem. So there is a piece that things have to get digitized and I’m recommending using podcasts in particular. That’s my favorite format. You can also do video. I prefer podcasts or code, and there are many other things you can tell your story now, but the story should be one of you getting out of the classroom, especially in 11th and 12th grade, going into the community and really being like journalists for the social studies and English credits in particular for the humanities, you should be out in the real world.
Nadav: And we shouldn’t have to tell you what the content you’re going to study is, we’re going to tell you the skills. Here’s how to do research, right? Here’s how to write a script. Here’s how to do fact checking. Here’s how to prepare for questions, open-ended, close ended. We’re going to give those skills and I let the students apply the academic skills to the content that interests them, so the content they’re producing is nuanced and revised. So I’m not talking about academic capital is distinct from social capital. Social capital, you whip out your camera, you do something spontaneous and you send it to the world. You do it a thousand times a day. Academic capital, you upload once a month, you spend a whole month on one 10 minute piece, max 10 minutes, right? No more than that.
Nadav: Whole month editing, revising multiple revisions, getting feedback, doing the research, doing the writing, reshooting, all of that to produce one piece a month that is academically rigorous, that is nuanced, that is researched and that represents the skills that the educators put out for you to be practicing. Like at a gym, you have to over and over exercise certain skill until you got good enough at it even if it’s editing, that you produce something that’s professional quality. So that’s what academic capital is. And it does depend you’re right on youth media being the representation of capital in the place of standardized exams. But I want kids out there in the world with their cameras. I don’t want them in the classroom and I don’t want them in their phones.
Jim: I guess one thing I would push one step further is once say a high school kid develops the skills to document and present work, might not it be also good to encourage them to actually develop some fundamental skills in the real world, have them do a video of themselves taking apart and reassembling an AR-15 or something or rebuilding a lawnmower engine. Because again, I think that one of the problems of our whole society is that so many kids today are retreating away from the physical, the actual, the hands-on and are living more in this purely digital age. And I don’t say this as a Luddite.
Jim: I do recall you told the story of old Ned Lud in the book. I go back to the very beginning of the online world. I worked at the very first tour online service, a company called The Source in 1980. In fact, they designed their second generation email system, their second generation bulletin board forum system. I was a product manager on what was probably the very first social media platform, something called Participate. So I go way back. So I’m by no means a Luddite, but to define all of life in terms of creating digital artifacts and not focusing on the skills that are documented strikes me is only making one step not two.
Nadav: No, I totally, I totally, totally agree with you. I grew up in the vocational tech. I was a physics teacher and a robotics teacher at a vocational high school. And so that vocational piece being in the shop and working with your hands is what education has to look like. I completely agree with you. And so the system that I’m designing allows teachers, vocational teachers, robotics teachers in particular, I’ve obviously thought a lot about them as I designed this, allows them to create a credit. The system decentralizes the creation of credit, so anybody can make a credit and they can make a credit that’s based on those real world experiences. And I think you’re right, that we have to get students out of their devices, into the real world to interact with it. It’s not about getting them their attention into some app that’s capturing their attention.
Nadav: We talked before a little bit about the old industrial loop that was you get more jobs by producing more stuff so that people can get more jobs because they have to produce more stuff. The new cycle that I talk about in the book is you create something, you share it and you get data, right? And that cycle, people, whether you’re building chairs for a living or highways or podcasts, it’s still a similar cycle of creation and sharing and getting data back. And so that is what I want students to engage with and I agree with you. I want the credits on the system to be ones that ask you to go out into the world and to go into a wood shop and to work with your hands and take apart machinery, like be curious about the world and interact with your world socially, physically for the different disciplines that you’re studying.
Nadav: I can’t imagine how a physics credit could ever keep you in a screen. There’s no way to study physics with a screen, right? You need to get out and bounce a ball, throw, make a pendulum, whatever it is, and similarly with chemistry. But I think that you can do a lot of that and capture your work. Instead of a scientist’s journal that they used to do on paper, you can do it as a podcast, just pick up and speak a little bit and then edit it together at the end. It’s the piece of the audio or video just adds a piece of reflection. So if you wanted to have an intern at any business, you could use this system for it to have interns as high school students and they just, the podcasting just gives a way to reflect over their whole experience and at the end wrap up and do a reflection.
Nadav: And that reflective piece is important to learning, that metacognitive piece is important to learning. And so I think it always benefits from having the that’s why I got that data in the school to move so quickly because students were being recorded and they could then hear what they said. There is something in that process of recording and listening, and then thinking about it and recording again, and journaling. It’s like keeping a journal. That process can always support any work that you do. But I totally agree with you that we cannot, if this has kids end up in the screens more, we have failed.
Jim: Indeed. You also, and I could tie back this to actual world projects, you are actually eloquent. One of the better discussions I’ve ever read about crowdfunding and how it’s a pull model rather than a push model for creation, right? The traditional is more or less ripping off your rhetoric here. So this isn’t my idea, this is yours. The traditional big industrial corporation designs a new widget that makes life a little easier, sells it for a while. And then sales started going down so they come out with the new and improved version and push it out into the world. If you’re Procter & Gamble, you spend $2 billion a year on advertising for a new and improved tide and many other products, which haven’t changed really in any fundamental way in 50 years, while crowdfunding is very much the opposite, right?
Jim: You have an idea, you put it out there and if people resonate with it and pre-commit, then you build it. Quite interesting. And it would seem to me that in this model of encouraging the high school aged kid to engage with the world, crowdfunding could be a remarkable way for staff to learn the technique, right? You don’t want to have them use it on real bullets on the very first one, but maybe the second one, they may actually put up a crowdfunding proposal that they’re prepared to execute upon should it actually gather some attention.
Nadav: Absolutely. And so that model of the crowd intelligence driving the work rather than a CEO at the top deciding what’s going to happen, map that onto the classroom, right? It fits perfectly. The CEO was the model of the teacher that would tell the students they would be the manager of the classroom and they would do a lot of classroom management, right? And it was all about controlling, coercing and warehousing our young people. And increasingly the more they understand that what they’re learning is irrelevant, the more we have to focus on coercion to keep them in those damn classrooms, studying this crap that comes from a textbook that’s totally out of date. Imagine if the students are creating the content, that’s what I’m talking about here with these credits. If the students are the ones creating the content, that is the crowdsourced model working in the classroom. And a great project is to actually do a crowdsource model in the business sense where you put out an idea and try to get a pre-funded, whether they succeed or fail, they’ll learn a ton from that.
Nadav: But the model itself of crowdsourcing the information and all I’m saying with the digital media, going back to what we were talking about before, the role of recording your process with audio or with video, I think audio is more intimate again and easier. But if you record the process with audio, that becomes the accountability for the teacher. So you can be out in the field doing the work and the accountability for the teacher, instead of asking you to take an exam at the end, the teacher knows that you’re doing it. They need to know, did you do anything? What did you do? And so editing the audio and sharing your process back with the teacher in a podcast format would be how the teacher evaluates your work because they weren’t there with you. They don’t have to be there with you when you’re in 11th and 12th grade. You should be out learning on your own. And so I totally agree that mapping that is the key innovation here is mapping that crowdsourcing model into classrooms in high school.
Jim: Interesting. One last question before we get down into the nitty gritty of your DNA system proposal. And as I said, I’ve been involved with the online world since literally the beginning, been involved with many companies either as an employee or an advisor or an investor. And one thing has held remarkably true over the last 40 years, which is in online platforms, approximately 2% of the people provide 50% of the content. 2% provide 50%. And so I say, is that a reasonable expectation that you can get a large percentage of the kids to become creators on essentially a similar level of productivity? You mentioned what was it, once a month, right? Maybe, maybe it’s only a small percentage that have the right set of emotional, mental drive characteristics that allow them to be high quality, relatively high volume producers. Is it reasonable that we can all become such?
Nadav: Yeah, I think in high school it is and university is when you want a degree, you’re willing to … If we were just asking them to spontaneously do this on, then I’d say, “Hey kids, let’s have you do some academic skill building.” I don’t think any kid will do that, but they have to because they’re in school so we kind of have them captive. And right now, what we’re asking them to do is learn how to master taking standardized tests and what a shame, what a misuse of their human potential to have them studying that instead of having them study how to make a podcast. It’s not that difficult to learn how to edit audio enough and, or build a team where you have, you do the minimum so you know what you need to know, but you don’t need to get more than one editing credit.
Nadav: If you work with a team of young people, here’s a sample of what worked at my school. We usually would have three roles. One person would be in front of the camera delivering the content to the camera, right? Somebody else would have been the one to write that content, to write the script and to research it. And somebody else will be doing the audio and video and that piece, doing the technical side. And so a team of three then can work together. And if you are someone who’s not as strong on the reading and writing and research, you get to start by being the one on camera, looking smart and sounding smart with somebody else’s ideas and that tends to appeal to those kids. I had kids that were illiterate. Couldn’t copy a sentence. You wrote down a sentence or printed the sentence and they couldn’t copy it on another sheet of paper.
Nadav: But you give them a microphone and those kids had been hiding their disability, their inability to read and write by listening, by listening to radio, by having conversations and they were actually really smart. So they were the best podcast hosts. It was surprising. And then we could celebrate their academic genius because they were really smart. And then they would start naturally gravitating toward wanting to learn how to read and write more, but it wasn’t the be all end all like it is with standardized tests because without that, you can’t take the damn test. So there are ways that I think could actually work so much better when you … Now I’m not talking about theory here. I’ve been doing this for 17 years and I’ve been seeing in the classrooms and all the kids can participate in projects. And some projects you can do groups of three.
Nadav: Sometimes you need to know that all the kids do know how to read and write. We don’t want kids to graduate in high school, just knowing how to work a microphone without being able to read and write. So they’re forced to do some credits in the research. They’re forced to show that they have practiced the academic muscle of research and writing. But if their forte is being on camera, being the one delivering the content, they’re still learning it because to deliver content, you really have to learn it, to memorize it, to deliver it, to say it like it’s your own, right? It’s not that easy even if somebody else wrote it for you.
Nadav: So everybody on the team learns the content and they actually find that if you speak to them years after, they remember those media pieces, those podcasts, those videos that they made, they remember that so much more than anything else or even a graphic novel, right? PDF graphic novel. That stuff that you take time to draw, that you take time to edit, that you struggle with, that you hit your head against, that frustration and getting through that frustration, building that frustration tolerance is what our high schools have to be about. And we have the degree that they want that we can use to put some pressure to cause that where it wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
Jim: Yep. And a thing you didn’t really focus on too heavily, but you just mentioned it here is these teams and teamwork. And as a former business guy, the ability to collaborate with other human beings is really the number one human superpower. To a degree, this kind of education teaches people early on how to really work together as a team and create deliverables, something real, not just some fake little diorama you create for a social studies project, but something that a significant body of work, that alone is highly valuable in the world of work.
Nadav: That’s right. And kids really care about social standing, right? Teenagers in particular. So if their work is going to be posted up with other kids from around the world, and it’s going to be seen not just by like that diorama, by that one teacher or maybe that one class, if it’s going to be seen by everybody, that actually is an incentive that’s very strong for young people to motivate them to want to look good. Kids want to look good, flat out, right? And so if they see somebody else doing something, they’re going to steal and borrow from each other to look good. And what we have to do is set up the incentives that what looks good is not what is on social media, which is what inflames passions, it’s really what generates academic skills. And so that’s this ecosystem that I designed and actually is being built right now.
Nadav: That’s the focus is how do we set up the incentives so that young people can be the investors with their sweat equity, they’re investing their time and attention and that frustration of getting through the challenges. That investment is the foundation of this new form of academic capital. And if we can set the data up so that it’s measuring to some extent how well students overcome those obstacles and frustration tolerance so that they have to do that to gain academic capital and academic capital that is linked to their degree, then we’re starting to drive in the right direction unlike where our schools are taking our kids now.
Jim: All right, well, now let’s make the turn. Let’s do the reveal. And let’s start talking about your digital native academic ecosystem because from my mind, it’s an ecosystem. You’ve thought through most of the components on the sourcing, the evaluation, et cetera. So let’s give our audience a five minute overview on the essentials of the ecosystem.
Nadav: Great. So academic capital, let me keep going on that thread. In the industrial age, we fought wars by dropping bombs and flying planes. In the digital age, I’m guessing it’s going to be something like currency wars that we end up fighting. World war three will be a currency war about the dollars value or something like that. And I’m saying that just because the digital age brings forth new forms of capital. So that’s just one piece that we have to notice is that new forms like social capital. Capital is a form of control ultimately. And so in social capital, you become an influencer. You influence other people’s social experience and you measure it. You always have to have some measure with shares or downloads or followers, right? And that your audience replaces what the industrialists would look for in profits.
Nadav: So if you’re a startup company and you have a big audience, you get funded now, not so much profits, which is what they used to look for. And that’s that dopamine opioid economy that you were talking about, now that’s social capital. Another new form of capital is academic capital. So for high school in particular, students invest that sweat equity, that investment becomes the foundation of the dataset that measures this form of capital. So instead of likes or follows, what we’re talking about is approved credits to your name. That’s what you’re looking for in terms of measuring your academic capital. And we’re looking at critical thinking. So can you distinguish signal from noise? Can you take something and have a nuance position on it?
Nadav: And the key insight that drives this ecosystem or I call it a platform is that we’re using these 10 minute chunks of youth media as the building block of academic capital and that creates an incentive system that drives for high quality student work is what’s being incentivized in this new sharing loop where you create and share and get data and you’re practicing that sharing loop that the entire digital economy is based on. So that’s kind of the thousand foot overview of DNA credits as an ecosystem. Yeah. And then we should dive into taking it from different roles as a teacher, as a student, as what I call a credit studio, somebody that makes credits, what are the incentives and how do they work?
Jim: Yeah, let’s do go into the roles because they’re interesting, but let’s also talk about sort of a higher level architectural component. You propose that these credits be stored on a public ledger, an incorruptible public ledger like Bitcoin, but hopefully not one that’s accelerating the heat death of the universe at such a high rate due to all that mining activity, then students become autonomous owners of their proof of work, essentially. So that let’s say they have accumulated 10 credits in the area of audio, visual production. They go look for a job in that area or employment as you talk about probably the world of jobs is going to continue to go away, but gig employment in audio, visual world, they could send the public keys to those artifacts of theirs, to the hirer and they could then review the work itself in a way much more profound than just looking at a resume. So I think that’s important for people to understand.
Nadav: I’m a high school administrator, right? So the change I’m talking about here, I’m not talking about tearing down our schools. I’m not talking about anything radical or crazy. We’re talking about a small administrative shift moving from a centralized administration of high school credits to a decentralized one. The centralized, and we haven’t talked about this too much, but the centralized high school credit today has almost no value. A high school, if you don’t know the name of the school, if it’s a school you’ve never heard of, it’s a public school somewhere in New York and you get a transcript and it says they got this many credits of this. You have no idea what that means and colleges don’t trust it. So they need these AP exams and SAT exams and things to see if people can actually read. So the current high school credit system is easy to compete with because it’s crap.
Nadav: I’m an educator in New York state. So let me just compare the new DNA credits to New York state credits. So our New York state credit is measured in terms of hours of classrooms seat time, how long you’re locked in the classroom with a teacher that’s certified, right? That’s not easily adapted for remote learning. It’s also not a great measure of a credit. For DNA credits, one credit is earned in one month of full-time work on a final product. So it’s 40 hours times like four and a half weeks. So it’s about 180 hours of work is in one credit. The New York state is 108 hours of classroom seat time. Now, if you assume, it’s kind of shocking. The first thing that I thought is, wait, if you’re only going to earn one credit at a time and you’re going to spend one month on each credit, you’re not going to get enough credits in high school.
Nadav: Well, it turns out if you get rid of September and June, because you need to welcome and you need to close down the year, from October to May is eight months, eight times four is 32. That’s 10 credits more than you get in high school annualized credits. Annualized credits in New York state you get 22 credits to graduate in four years. So this taking six classes at a time, five and a half classes at a time where the bell rings every 40 something minutes, you actually get less credits than if you could just focus on one project at a time in your last two years of high school, one month at a time and do quality work and upload at the end of the month after multiple revisions. So that’s the other piece is this system requires three revisions minimum that you upload in the course of that month.
Nadav: So you’re practicing at least three cycles before you upload the final piece. So the transcript that you would get is what you were talking about. It’s a transcript or a portfolio that you could share with employers and every credit you could click on the credit, if you’re online or if you’re in printed form, you scan the QR code and you can see the work that went behind that credit. So you could check the value of, the quality of the credit yourself. A university, instead of interviewing a kid or instead of doing anything could either trust these credits say, “Wow, they got this many of these DNA credits,” or they can click on each one of them and see the work itself to see what the student was capable of doing.
Nadav: So that the transcript itself has the proof of work built into it unlike the New York state transcript that you get right now and say, “Oh, what was your SAT score?” Because the transcript itself means nothing. Not to mention the fact that in the old system, the teacher that grades you is the same teacher that’s delivering instruction, the same teacher that wrote the content. It’s a terrible system because very few teachers are good at all of those things. In this system, that work is graded anonymously by a committee of three credit experts. So the teacher’s not grading their own work. So the students can’t guilt trip them or manipulate them or do anything to get the credit. They have to do quality work to get the credit.
Nadav: So it establishes this gold standard high school credit that people trust because they can verify it for themselves. And in a world where current high school credits have zero value, especially now after COVID where we gave away credits last term when we went online between March and June because we just didn’t want to hold kids back because we knew we’d have social distancing and cutting budgets coming, so we just gave away credits. Now kids are expecting to get credits for free and the high school credits are going to zero. And for people that understand blockchain, it’s a very similar construction. The Bitcoin ledger is a ledger of accounts. The person’s name, how much money they have, right? This is the same thing, it’s as a ledger of accounts, your name and the credits.
Nadav: So all we’ve done is taken the administration of high school credits away from the state of New York, away from the States, and put it in the hands of a community of educators who are not being reelected every four years, who can think long-term and think what’s good for our kids, as opposed to the politicians who define credits for New York state right now, who always want the numbers to go up. So they keep watering down the standards and that’s how we just keep printing too many standards, just like we print too many dollars and that inflation goes up and now we have totally inflated grades that have zero value. So it’s a really easy market to compete in. If you notice from the book, I believe in capitalism. I believe in greed to drive useful systems. And so the system has to work in a real way to compete with the high school credit. So all I’m doing is taking the high school transcript, high school credits and decentralizing the administration of those credits. I’m not changing anything else about the high schools or how they’re run. They’ll adapt to that change.
Jim: Yeah. And I was hoping you were going to be a little bit more radical, which is to break up these large, granular credits into smaller credits. And I suspect if you don’t do that, you may have a impedance problem. You’re a physicist, you know what impedance is, right? How do you actually communicate a whole credits worth of information in 10 minutes? Let me give you an example. Let’s suppose the person’s looking for their ninth grade civics credit, right? Now there’s a shitload of content in a ninth grade civics course. How a bill becomes a law, states, counties and local, how do they work together? What is federalism? And of course, many schools aren’t doing such a good job, but I was lucky to go to one that did do a good job. We got a full year of this kind of civics education.
Jim: Now in a 10 minute video, I might be able to explain how a bill becomes a law, but I certainly couldn’t come even close to surfacing all the things that you really ought to learn if you’re going to learn the equivalent of ninth grade civics. So is there impedance mismatch between the content on one side of a standard high school credit and the delivery vehicle, a 10 minute podcast?
Nadav: It’s a great question. When students flip from being consumers of content to creators of content, the change is from focusing on the content that they need to consume to focusing on the skills they need to build like muscles, the mental skills, the academic skills for that content. So for civics, what would be the skills that we’d want students to master to understand civics? And then we want to set them up in situations if it’s an election year, we want them to go to campaign appearances or actually have experiences of civics, not talking about civics. We want them involved with civics in a real experience. And then the 10 minute podcast is they’re engaging those skills.
Nadav: So it’s a matter of redefining the credits in terms of academic skills that we want them to master. And then they will remember the content that they interact with much more than if they had to memorize a civics textbook for a test, but they will also gain some genuine curiosity and interest in the content because they’ll understand the importance and they’ll have that experience of how much power they have or don’t have or what the problems are with the system, by interacting with it in reality, not in a textbook.
Jim: On the other and, they may learn some good things, but they may not learn the things that all the way back to Jefferson were thought to be indispensable for good citizenship, which first and above all else is how does the machinery of state actually work? I mean, if a person doesn’t know how a bill becomes a law and how the legislative, executive and judicial are checks and balances on each other, pretty hard to be a citizen. So I would say that, yes, this experiential learning is very good and very valuable, but there is also just some plain old content which if we’re going to prepare our young people to be first-class citizens, they’re going to have to absorb. And it’s not clear to me a 10 minute video for a whole semester’s worth of civics is likely to accomplish that.
Nadav: If you have an interview set up with somebody involved in civics, a politician for example, and my students interviewed New York city politicians frequently, to sit down to the interview, you had to have done enough research and understand enough not to sound like a fool, right? And so you have to understand enough about how a bill becomes a law. You have to go back and do that research to prepare your questions, to then go back and edit the final product if you’re going to get the credit, right? So the credit can have built into it, you need to demonstrate that you showed up to the interview with some understanding.
Nadav: Now, are we going to be able to have standards that have our checklist to say, do the students know this particular piece of content and this one? No, that’s an old industrial way to do things and I don’t think it’s working because you ask people what they learned in high school about this stuff and they don’t remember any of it. So what we’re doing is looking at brain research and how people actually learn to make sure that they’re learning something meaningful that sticks with them so that they are an active participant in civics for the rest of their life. That’s the outcome that we want is them to be … And then if you’re actively participating, you over time learn more and more nuance about how the system works because you interact with where it’s not working.
Jim: Okay. That’s I think reasonable. Like anything else, I’m a great empiricist and I’d say, try it and see if it works. And you’ve been trying it and-
Nadav: We have been for, right. So it’s when you see the kids work. I think the difference in me sharing this with people and people that haven’t experienced it is I’ve seen all the hundreds and hundreds of videos these kids have produced. Music video, I mean, some of the most moving stuff for music videos. And I would say, how in the hell can you make a music video to cover civil rights? And then you see what … If you’ve ever seen on YouTube there are these guys that do the challenges between historical figures, Epic rap battles of history. Have you ever seen any of those?
Jim: I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never actually seen any of them.
Nadav: Those are the kinds of things that students make and you watch one of those, they’re three or four minutes, they’re very short and you can get that the people that wrote that content knew the history. They had to study that shit to put it together and to write that rap. And so that’s the kind of content. I’ve seen it. You have to experience it. It’s just like I’m saying about the kids and learning. You have to experience this kind of content to see how three or four minutes can convince you that this kid learned something about the content. And Epic rap battle of history I think are the greatest example of what I think high school students should be producing. They’re irreverent, they’re intelligent, they go into depth. The production quality is high. I think that’s the kind of stuff I imagine coming out of our high schools at a much higher rate than it is now.
Jim: Very interesting. Well, let’s go down into the details a little bit further. We talked about the fact that these credits would be stored on a public ledger where they couldn’t be corrupted and they could always be accessed and distributed by the students to whoever had a need to have access to them. The role of the teachers, you renamed catalysts as I recall. Talk about a little bit how the classroom teacher changes their role quite dramatically in this system.
Nadav: Yeah. So a system like this, just like when you opened up taxis with Uber, you suddenly had a lot more people becoming drivers. So there’s what I call catalysts in the book is a coach, is somebody that’s helping the young person with the podcasting or video editing with the digital literacy skills, right? The old literacy was reading and writing, new literacy involves editing and discerning videos. And so they’re helping with those digital native skills because some classroom teachers won’t have that. And so this system offers them a coach that works like tech support, online coach that supports them in those pieces so that a classroom teacher can take on these projects even if they don’t know how to produce a podcast or make a video of themselves. The catalyst plays the role of the educator of the digital native skillset.
Nadav: Now a classroom teacher, a younger classroom teacher might be able to do that themselves. And so they can sign up onto the system and tell the kids, “Hey, when you sign in, let’s put me as your coach.” And then that teacher by becoming the coach gets to access some of the benefits, some of the incentives of the system. A teacher that doesn’t participate as a coach, that just lets the students choose a project from the system and supports them in the academic research, academic skills, whatever they are, research or writing or delivering content that common core standards have speaking and listening. So the current standards work very well for these credits. Those teachers would get the curriculum for free. They wouldn’t have to write the curriculum. It would be a project-based curriculum and they would get out of having to teach to test. A kid instead of sitting for an AP history exam, could get the option to say, “Hey, you can either sit for the AP test or you can make an AP video that’s certified by the college board and upload to them and they grade it.”
Nadav: And so the students could choose whether they make a video for the class or whether they take the test for the class. And it would be a number of videos because if it’s a nine month course, they would make nine videos over the course of the nine credits. So the classroom teacher has a few options. Now, if they choose to be that digital coach, the incentives are very strong because they then, if you become a digital coach and you become very effective that all your students that you coach earn the credit, which means that when you told them that they thought their work was ready to be uploaded, that anonymous committee of credit experts when they evaluate say, “Hey, yes, indeed, you were right. That one is ready for a credit. That earns a credit.” A teacher that reliably does that then can flip over to the side of being a credit expert based on their track record of showing performance with students, actual students producing these credits.
Nadav: And when you are a credit expert, you get paid 30 bucks per 10 minute piece you evaluate. So depending on how long it takes you to grate a 10 minute piece and just say credit, no credit. You’re not giving a 60 or 70 or any of that. You’re just saying one or zero, credit, no credit, pass or fail. And you can make a nice side hustle in the evenings. Instead of becoming an administrator like I did becoming a principal, you can stay in your classroom and a few nights a week or a few days on the weekends, you can grade pieces and make up 180 bucks an hour doing that and that’s what decentralized administration of credits looks like.
Nadav: Instead of these people working for the department of education with all their union stuff that ends up focusing on adult interests and not on what’s good for the kids and on political interests, these people work from their homes kind of like Uber drivers or Airbnb hosts, grading work that they are experts in grading and then getting paid for that. So there’s an incentive to become one of those catalysts, but also as a classroom teacher, you can use the system just to get high quality curricula and have to do a lot less work yourself, including grading the final project. You don’t have to even do yourself. So there are incentives. Yeah. Both ways.
Jim: And one of the things I liked a lot about your system, being a person who understands human nature a little bit I think, you need checks and balances, right? When people are, as you said, the teachers are doing the teaching and they’re doing the testing and they’re doing the evaluation, right? Your system had what you call gatekeepers or I think you had another name for them too, I don’t remember what it was for the people who approved or didn’t approve the artifacts. Talk a little bit about that. And particularly, how do you get a standard of quality that a community of gatekeepers are more or less in agreement on because it would be very unfair if this gatekeeper would pass this artifact and this gate keeper wouldn’t. That would be a sort of a fundamental flaw in the system.
Nadav: Right. Yeah. And gatekeepers are what I called when I wrote the book gatekeepers, we’re now calling working with the app that is actually being built in the app they’re called credit experts. So I was talking a little bit about that before. So each piece is graded by committee of three of them. It’s anonymous. They don’t know each other. So they can’t talk to each other about it and the students don’t know who that’ll be. They grade and at the end of the month when the final grades are in and they’ve been put in, then the credit experts get to see if there are three of them, if they voted with the majority or not. So if they voted a credit and said it was worth a credit, but the other two credit experts said it wasn’t worth a credit, it’s in their interest to go and study where the discrepancies were.
Nadav: Because if they do that too many times, they will lose the right to continue evaluating credits because they’re saying something’s worth of credit when about two other people are saying it’s not. And then they can learn who each other are and talk to each other after the credits are finally in, and that’s kind of how they grow and normalize their practice. Now, remember they’re being paid for this. So there’s an incentive to keep the credit. And let me step back a second, they’re being paid and there’s a credit studio who wrote the curriculum, who wrote the credit and who set the standard saying this is what a piece needs in order to be accepted. Here’s how you look for the students practicing the skills in order to accept this as a credit. Now that credit studio’s reputation is based on the quality of student work, because you can go into that credit and you can see all the people that have uploaded work and gotten a credit for it.
Nadav: And so as a high school principal, I would go into a system and watch a few of the pieces before I decide if my students are going to be allowed to use this credit in my school. So the credits themselves need to maintain a high standard. If their credit experts, if their gatekeepers start giving away credits for free, the quality of that credit is going to diminish and it will lose value. And so it’s that crowdsource, that crowd intelligence thing, that the crowd is going to determine the quality because everyone can see the credits. And so everyone can watch and say, “Hey, this is like … Look at these, how is this a credit? The student didn’t do anything.”
Nadav: So instead of the current system which is top-down and kind of they’re surveilling the teachers and trying to monitor and it’s very oppressive the way teachers are asked to produce data right now, this is a SU valence approach where the people, the teachers, the students, the parents, the universities, everybody’s looking at this stuff, and they can see when something has no value or when it does have value. So that verification happens in a decentralized way with these credits rather than a centralized way, if that makes sense.
Jim: Yeah. I don’t want to be too cynical, but why wouldn’t the reaction in some cases be for the principal to look for the lowest level of passes, right? Everyone wants to have a no child left behind. So say there’s a hundred civics templates competing with each other. What keeps the principal from selecting the easiest path one rather than the most rigorous?
Nadav: Well, because parents then would see the type of work that’s being produced to that school. Now in the school system that that city might say, “Hey, you can only prove the ones that we’ve reviewed and we’ve approved.” Or you can have someone like the college board saying these are the ones we approve and the parents are going to say, “Hey, I want my kids to have college board certified AP credits. I don’t want them getting some other credit made by some librarian somewhere that …” So it’s again, the pressures of the system is based on the ecosystem, incentives are designed to drive quality of the student content. And so if you don’t have quality student content, your credits will just not be noticed or not be in demand.
Nadav: And if you’re a principal that chooses to have lower quality credits, that’s going to be obvious by the type of work that when people go to study your institution, they’re going to see the type of institution you are quite openly. And not to mention, the city or the district is going to look and say, “What is this? Why are you choosing, why are you choosing these credits?” Because they’re going to be held to the fire by the parents and the students, frankly, who want higher quality credits.
Jim: Yeah. I could see the curation would certainly help you to say this one has been approved by Harvard, right?
Jim: If you want to have your credit counted at Harvard, it has to be here. What we would probably see in such an ecosystem. That’s why I called it an ecosystem. It’s more than just a platform, because if it’s an ecosystem, there can be life evolving outside of the formal protocols of the initial system itself. So it actually gets richer over time in a way that Uber only slightly does. A true ecosystem gets much richer over time than Uber has in terms of the number of things it’s built. One of the things you might expect is for there to be independent bodies that then certify these templates as you say. Let’s call it the Ivy league consortium or something. It says this set of themes is acceptable to the Ivy league.
Jim: And then you’re going to see all the sub Ivys adopted and all the top tier one research universities adopt that same curation standard. And then for high schools where any percentage of the people are looking to get accepted to at least a tier one state school, pretty much going to have to go with that curation standards, something like that. But otherwise I could see frankly not all principals are great. Everything is on a curve. And unless there are some checks and balances, it would be easy to see principals taking the easy way out and going for the easy templates with the soft gatekeeper.
Nadav: No doubt. And think of it from the college board or from Harvard or from Apple even, right? If you want, having that name on the credit will give it some prestige. So they have some influence in the system to say, “Hey, here’s our brand of critical thinking.” But instead of having to create the content, they can just go and look for which teachers have produced something that they really love based on the student work that’s produced. So some teacher working out in Kansas might produce a really great curriculum that the college board then grabs and says, “Hey, we’re approving, we’re putting our stamp of approval on this one.” And that teacher is getting recognition and making money for their work that they had just been doing with their own students. And now students across the country can benefit from it because the college board has said, “This is now an AP credit.”
Nadav: So the college board gets the source of creativity of decentralized innovation that they can just look and curate the best stuff, because everybody wants to have their label on it, rather than them having to from the top down, create these standardized tests that evaluate whether people are smart or not, right? The college board if they look at this, there’s a huge incentive to trade grading. Right now you pay them to grade an exam, instead pay them to grade a video. And that video content, they can just look and grab the best stuff because what teacher wouldn’t want the college board to put their stamp of approval on it? There’s nothing to lose.
Jim: Yup. I think building out these other aspects of the ecosystem will be necessary to cause the system to converge to quality, which you make it very clear that you want. The other question I had as I was reading is the idea that the gatekeepers or the credit experts are anonymous. If we want them to have skin in the game, why not put their name on what they approve?
Nadav: Right. Because they’re anonymous during the grading. Once the grading is closed, then in the term, you can see who it is.
Jim: Okay. As long as they’re accountable for what they approve. And so they start approving shit and everybody knows they approved shit. And then people say, “Hey, we’re not going to hire you to be our credit expert anymore because you approved shit, right?”
Nadav: Well, the system connects you to say, anytime there’s one of the three, you know there’s two other people grading this piece. If you come out lower saying it was worth the credit and the other two come out not, the credit studio is going to revoke your credit expert approval to get in there and approve credits and have them in your queue. So you know the two other people are going to be holding you accountable and you’ll get to see who they are when the credits are done and you can’t change them anymore. You don’t want them talking to each other and fixing it. But once the grades are in and on the blockchain and hard and fast and can’t be changed, then they need to learn. And that’s when they can go and talk to each other and find each other and see what they were thinking.
Jim: Yeah. Okay. So I misunderstood it. So as long as the credit expert is not anonymous on the blockchain, then I think the ecosystem tendency to converge to quality will work and there’s less pernicious potential collusion. I’ll say that there’s a fair amount of game theory where even if you don’t know who the other people are, you realize you all have kind of a prisoner’s dilemma situation, we’ll all be sleazy. And if we’re all sleazy, we all get paid off. So there are some ways to collude, even in ways that are anonymous. So having that second thing that the certifiers have to be public in their certifications after the fact I think is important.
Nadav: Yeah. And all of these things, I was very skeptical of a lot of this distributed governance stuff. And Bitcoin is really what had me start writing the book and figure this out. I just can’t believe the Bitcoin exists. That the incentives worked out so that we can decentralize money. If you can do it to money, you can do it to high school credits.
Jim: Maybe. The issue is that money is actually easy because it’s a fungible product. Every dollar is like every other dollar, every credit is not like every other credit and every student’s not like every other student. So I would say it’s actually going to be a lot harder to build the governance mechanisms and the guard rails on your system than it was for Bitcoin. Bitcoin is actually remarkably simple. It’s one of those things when I read Satoshi’s paper a couple of months after it was published, I slapped myself in the forehead and said, “Damn, why didn’t I think of that?” But your system is going to have, because of the fact that all the elements are unfungible, there’ll be a lot harder.
Jim: This is a squishier problem, but Bitcoin is at least they had existence proof that things of this sort can work. So that makes us hopeful. Now the other obvious question to sort of think about the structure is how does it deal with potential for cheating, right? What keeps a fluent parent from hiring a Hollywood video producer and a top notch New York city script writer to work with their kid to produce a knockout video?
Nadav: Right. Well, I mean, it’s the same thing that happens now with tutoring for … You can get tutored now to ace these tests without really knowing much of anything. You just learn how the tests work. In this system, what we haven’t talked about is the anti-biased piece of how these blocks are formed. And we want this to be a world where what zip code you come from should not determine your educational outcomes, right? That’s the ideal. And so what this system does is says, let’s start operationalizing that and measuring how effectively we’re doing that by saying how many kids in each zip code are earning these credits and let’s require for example, this is the anti-bias criteria will be set by students, but it could be for example, that every zip code has to have a comparable number of them to form a block.
Nadav: They can get the credits, okay. You can earn the credits without being part of a block. And we haven’t talked about the basic income piece, but if the students get to be part of a block on the academic capital blockchain, they form a block of academic capital, that means they’re going to be paid out in this internet funding money for 25 years. They’re going to get basically a basic income of money that’s not worth anything unless they make it where something. So cryptocurrency, which will have whatever value the community creates it to have. So every zip code would have to participate equally. So if the Bronx in New York city only gets one of these certain types of credits, then only one person from each other zip code could get one of those credits. And so people that want to game the system have to then be incentivized to help people in every zip code, gain the system.
Nadav: You can’t just help your zip code if you want to get this basic income and form academic capital, which is kind of the most prestigious part of these credits. There are a lot of credits though that will be the system that will never form blocks of academic capital. They’ll just be credits on your portfolio. And so for those individual credits, sure, a private school could have a editing lab and could have Hollywood producers just like when we did the robotics team, some of the teams had their teams met at General Motors fabrication plant with laser cutters and they had advantages that we didn’t have. That’s going to be a reality in producing high quality content, but it’s much easier to fake it on a test than it is faking on a video where you’re on …
Nadav: When you’re producing the video and it’s that you can’t just copy and paste somebody else’s video or you can’t just learn how to game the system. The student would have to learn enough about video production. Yeah. They can hire tutors and coaches, certainly, to get an advantage. That is going to be part of most systems of high stakes data.
Jim: A little course on artifacts may actually be easier to cheat. At least in a test, you have to stuff it into your head if only for one day, when an artifact, frankly, you could, other than being the … having a person on the screen, all the rest could be cheated.
Nadav: They would have to be pretty pernicious cheating. The adults involved would have to know they’re cheating because there’s three revisions that they’re doing. So you’d have to kind of do a low quality version first to upload and get some feedback. They’d have to go through the process with this coach. Somebody would have to really be interested in and have this cheating mentality of pretending, of faking to be the student throughout the month of three cycles of revision and throughout the communications and you’d have to pretend to be them in the discussions and in the feedback sessions and right. So to produce, to have a team produce content, there’s a lot of interaction that happens. And so to get somebody to sit in for you in all the interaction is really a pretty deep level of cheating that an adult or a movie producer would have to be involved with.
Jim: Of course, as we’ve seen the length some parents will go to … that’s ridiculous. So some of it certainly can happen. I did have two ideas on how to push back against cheating. One would be to develop partnerships with the tool companies and, or build a meta app. A meta app would be much better because that we could plug any software tool into it that literally monitors the student doing the work, uses the camera, does some machine learning on the keyboard sequences, et cetera, and builds a verification file attached to the work product, which if there’s any question by the content experts, the credit experts, they could then dig into this audit file and see was that the kid himself doing the typing or doing the audio editing, et cetera. And then another one, which may actually be better because it’s so simple and yet so powerful is have associated with each one an oral examination, kind of like the PhD oral exam, but five minutes worth.
Nadav: Oxford. Yeah.
Jim: And it’d be really hard to fake an oral exam, right? Say, “Well, how did you use Audacity to do this editing?” And they go, “Oh, what’s Audacity?” Well, guess what? The kid cheated. So anyway, I was just thinking about ways, because again, I’m a person who always thinks in terms of evolutionary theory and evolutionary theory always points us to arms races and to cheating. And so those were some of the ideas that I had at least and I’m sure there are plenty of better ones.
Nadav: I love those ideas. One of them actually we’ve talked about. So the team that’s developing this app, one of the things we’ve talked about is gym credits are mental health and physical health credits. Can you plug in external apps, exercise apps, foot counting apps, mindfulness apps? And if it’s a mindfulness, what stops the person from saying they’re meditating and they’re not to get their health credit. And so we were talking about [inaudible 01:08:00] you can point the camera yourself and have some AI and face recognition, right? So these things are coming about. Now, the beauty of the system, of a decentralized system, I can never pretend to be smart enough to imagine the types of credits that are to come on board. So if cheating becomes a problem, the value will to credits that have anti cheating protocols like you were talking about.
Nadav: The credit could actually be a live podcast where you’re interviewed by the coach that coached you through the process and the interview, that live interview is actually the audio that’s uploaded. So I think people like you who are much smarter than me, will come up with ways to design credits that solve these things and the decentralized system instead of counting on one pretty thick headed department of education and what they can imagine and what they can allow and what they can see as rounds of possibility, you’re decentralized saying, “Hey, anybody that can come up with a credit that is more verifiable, and that prevents cheating and levels the playing field will get a market advantage and that credit will get more people submitting to it, more people demanding it and then more money running through it.”
Nadav: So yeah, I think there are going to be a lot of innovations like that that I can’t imagine, but a system like this that’s just the rails, just the infrastructure, that’s exactly what I tend to allow is that kind of intelligence. There’s clearly people smarter than me that are going to come up with answers that I can imagine and the system is designed to welcome them.
Jim: Ah, that’s a very good answer because I’m a believer that if you set the ecosystem up such that the incentives within the ecosystem produce aim for good value, then sooner or later, the problem will be solved. So as you described that, that makes sense. So those people who published templates for credits, some of them may have some of these anti cheating mechanisms built in. They could have the either application monitors or they could have oral exams or they could have, who knows what? EKGs.
Nadav: That’s right.
Jim: Who knows what the future may bring. But yeah, if you have the ecosystem such that there are incentives for the template producers to make them as secure as possible and they can compete on their security as well as the other aspects of the process, then over time, you would hope that the ratchet of competition would move the system towards a better and better place. And you are absolutely right. There is nobody smart enough to figure all this stuff out in advance. It’s all one step at a time. Two steps forward, one step back. Complex systems are inherently unpredictable. And the only reasonable way to proceed is via empiricism and experiment.
Nadav: Right. And increasing the number of experiments being conducted. And that’s what this intends to do is just explode the number of credits that we’re trying to see which ones work. And remember what we’re competing against. In this COVID era, people are not going to go sit in a room to take an exam together. They’re not going to cram into a room with no windows to take exams much more. So people are taking these exams on computers at home possibly. So how do you ensure the security? It’s so easy to cheat on the AP exams now. You can get your uncle to sit down and take the exam. There is no way for the system not to know that. So that issue of cheating, as we go to more decentralized learning, what we want to do is create the right incentives so that the problems are solved within the ecosystem like you just described, but it’s all based on the incentives rather than on any top-down system. We just want to create a decentralized community that is interested in this and tries to solve it because their own interest would be served.
Jim: Yeah. I think it’s exactly the right way to think about it. You talk about that the credit experts would either pass or fail, zero or one. Why not trying area? A pass, high pass and fail.
Nadav: So it’s interesting you say that. So there is kind of what you’re talking about in there. So there’s just pass or fail. There’s just one or zero, but there is that incentive to get onto to create a block of academic capital. And when you create a block of an academic capital, again, you get 25 years of this basic income put into your wallet in cryptocurrency. So there’s an actual incentive for young people to want to get onto these blocks. And the only way to get onto the block aside from the meeting the anti-bias criteria is to go above and beyond on a certain credit. So if the people grading your credit say this work didn’t just earn the credit, they went above and beyond, you actually get a fast track to get into that basic income opportunity.
Nadav: So there’s really just pass, fail and above and beyond. And that above and beyond is intended to encourage kids to go further, because right now in so many schools, you just want to do the bare minimum to get passed. And so we wanted to put an incentive in to have kids go way beyond in a month. If in that month they can go deeper than they were expected to and show off that there is actual financial prize waiting for them for the ones that do that.
Jim: I have to admit, I read it twice. Your theory about this funny money, blockchain, UBI, I think you called it a BIG and I was not convinced. I’ll give you a chance to make your case. Explain what it is first and why you think it would work.
Nadav: So it’s important that our educational system … First, let me just say that we’ve talked about a little bit, but having a city of thought in a classroom, if you’re in a big city, if you’re out in the country, it’s a different thing. But if in your community there is diversity, but in your classroom there is no diversity, there is a huge piece of education that’s been missing if everybody thinks the same way in a classroom. It’s much better if you have diversity of thought to generate the kids that come out of the diverse classrooms will have many social skills and understand different cultures in ways that are very important. So I think that diversity is kind of a foundation to critical thinking. And I was looking at how to incentivize critical thinking in that sense, how to incentivize students to go and find people different from them and have conversations with people that don’t think like them to generate this content, rather than just staying within comfortable, familiar ways of thinking.
Nadav: So the basic income is generated to students that form these blocks of academic capital. A block of academic capital is just a bundle of student work every three months that has met certain criteria. The work that meets a criteria within a certain geographic region, get bundled, form a block and everybody in that block then for 25 years gets these disbursements. And so the incentive was to go beyond just earning a credit and start generating academic capital that was a deeper kind of more prestigious, like an award. Every three months there’s an award and you can see who wins the award. I’m not attached to this entire system being on a blockchain or anything like that. It could end up on centralized database. I don’t give a damn, I want the platform to work. I don’t care about, I’m not thinking technology first. But for students to run a blockchain, these bundling of credits every three months that they decide the criteria of what puts together a bundle, I think gives them an experience of decentralized currency and participation one that I think is an important part of their learning in high school.
Nadav: To learn that they can take their sweat equity, invest it, and get a return on their investment in some real way, with such an intangible thing as effort or frustration tolerance overcome, and actually get these coins distributed that every month after that, I thought was an opportunity to offer an incentive to young people to interact with kind of new generation currency, and to think about diversity and critical thinking in a deeper way so that they’re owning the process rather than having the educational system own that. So that’s where I was coming from. It was just to create an incentive structure using a blockchain basic income.
Nadav: Now, I also think that the foundation of the digital economy is going to be in education. The communities that have a good education system that students really maintain their love of learning, learn that work ethic and frustration tolerance are the ones that can generate high quality content, are the ones that are going to do well in the digital age. So it’s important for us economically to have good education. And so the question was, how do we incentivize? Yeah, so that’s where I was coming from is in terms of setting up the incentives using the blockchain, using that basic income award. I kind of went around in circles and confused myself, I think. Was there something specific that didn’t make sense to you about it or something that-
Jim: Yeah. I’ll give you two specific critiques and then maybe a more general one. First, because of the way money supply works versus GDP, et cetera, as you point out, there’s only a relatively small amount of growth in currency per year. You said 2%. My own work says five to 6% of the money supply grow each year. Still a relatively small amount relative to any given economy, even a pseudo economy or simulated economy. So it’s going to be a quite elitist, small number of people that get these grants in the current world. And is that what we really want is to be encouraging hyper-competition for a small percentage of the kids, rather than a more egalitarian way of cooperating to do the best we all can together. That’s number one. Number two and this is probably the deeper critique is funny money that is not yet convertible to any other currency, not useful for any transaction, actually going to be an incentive for fairly hard minded high school kids that looking together to put five bucks together, to buy a six pack on Friday.
Nadav: Right. Those are two great points. So the first point, we’re talking about only high school. So these are out of, if we can have a digital cash system where the inflation is printed by putting money into these kids’ wallet, high school graduates who are the most digital native that have produced the best content based on these criteria, if we can put into their pockets, it’s actually that 2% inflation or 5% inflation is even better. It’s actually not that elite, especially at the beginning of the system where cash needs to get into distribution for them. Money can’t be useful unless it’s widespread enough that people … If only one person has all the money, it’s really not useful. You want to get it out into a lot of people’s hands. So at the beginning of the system, there will be maybe a 10 year period where you have to ramp up to the monetary base.
Nadav: And so at the beginning of the system where it’s unfamiliar, it would actually be almost everybody who gets a credit could probably get onto the blockchain and get this incentive. And then as time goes, you would get down to that two to 5% inflation rate. Now, even that two to 5% inflation rate, once you’re at a monetary base, if you’re thinking of just high school kids, what percentage of population are kids graduating high school right now? That’s already not a hundred percent of the population, right? And so 2% of the monetary base going to, or 5% is even more exciting every year being printed, it’s actually not that elite if you’re looking at, you’re just talking about kids graduating high school that year, getting these incentives. So it’s actually a lot more high school kids than you might think of, just 2% of a population globally.
Jim: I ran the numbers and it was 4%. Using your 2% number, about 4% would be able to get a 25 year UBI.
Nadav: Right. So that’s once it stabilizes. For the first 10 years, there’s incentive for people to get involved earlier, which I think is interesting because it gets the system up and running. And then it would be a little bit more exclusive to get onto it. Again, anybody can get the credits and the credits have their own value as gold standard credits. But to get this UBI, to get this basic income, you would have to be in that more elite group and elite based on how diverse, how much you can work with kids around the city. Not all kids want to do that work. To get this, if the criteria is that a student in every zip code has to pass one of these credits, to do that work, you have to coordinate … You have to be somebody that’s interested in coordinating across the city and looking at data across city of what people are doing to ensure that you get the credit.
Nadav: And so not all students are interested in thinking at that social level and that’s the thing I want to encourage. I don’t think we would have a huge number of kids participating, but I think the kids that made an effort to, for example, if one of the credits, a thousand kids in every zip code get the credit, then a thousand kids and every zip code get onto the blockchain and get those basic income. Now, they get a smaller disbursement because they’re sharing that 2% inflation, whatever the system has to print in money that for that period, but they would all be able to have part of it. So if it’s very successful and everybody gets it, then they all get a much smaller UBI disbursement for each credit and they would have to earn a lot more credits to get a meaningful amount of the cryptocurrency.
Nadav: So it doesn’t have to be exclusive to number of kids, if a lot of kids across the city get it and it’s in that sense anti-biased that all zip codes are successfully producing it, then a lot of kids would get this award and the award just would be worth a little or a lot less. Now, the point about the currency itself having no value, I really think, I mean, I am a believer in Bitcoin. And I think if you make a Bitcoin side chain where from the beginning, the coin is programmatically set to the number of Satoshis that it’s worth. And over time that the value goes down, that it encourages people to get it off their hands. It should be a cash, not a savings instrument. So the number of Satoshis that it’s worth over time diminishes because we’re printing more, it’s an inflationary instrument and encourages people that are holding these coins to get rid of them.
Nadav: So if over time more and more of these high school kids every month are accumulating these coins in their credit, they’re going to have a bigger and bigger base of people to go advocate to the coin exchange to say, “Hey, accept these DNA coins. We’re all holding them.” The more people get them, the more that public and the more the customers of these exchanges will be incentivized to take these coins and then the coins will have some real monetary value. But it will be up to the community of people receiving these coins so that was a risk for the early investors of sweat equity, they get the biggest disbursement at the beginning, right? Because the system has to print a lot of cash in the beginning. And so a lot more people are getting them and each one is worth a lot more because of the inflation hasn’t started.
Nadav: So the incentives at the beginning, it’s high risk, but high return. If these things do turn into cash, you can actually get a shit load of money from your high school diploma if they’re successful. If they’re not and you never get them turned into cash, you were part of an interesting experiment that taught you something about economics. But the more people over time that had these in their wallets, the more there’s going to be a bigger and bigger community of people advocating for them to have some real value. And I don’t think that’s a huge barrier if we already define programmatically how many Satoshis they’re worth. The exchanges don’t have to do too much work to list them, and then we can start exchanging them. And because they’re losing value over time as cash, people would have an incentive to transact in them, not to hold onto them.
Jim: I would say maybe. Interesting. My advice from a, I call it political rhetorical perspective would be to sell the DNA system and leave the UBI system for another day.
Nadav: [inaudible 01:21:46]. Because yeah, absolutely. In terms of being in reality, the app that we’re building that we have coming out that I’m playing with this week, it creates these gold standard credits first with a ideal of creating this academic capital, these blocks of academic capital as an added incentive mechanism for as an anti-bias. So yes, the main gold standard credits stand on their own and will have to exist first before we can talk about the next piece. But I do think it’s important for us if we’re designing an educational system to talk about measuring whether the system is biased or not, and not creating another system that just gives advantage to rich people, and then doesn’t give any opportunity or it leaves an uneven playing field. I think it’s important for us to think about that and to have that in, but you’re right. There are two separate systems and they will launch separately with the credits being first.
Jim: After being a bit of a fuddy-duddy there on the UBI, let me go on the other side and suggest that your platform may have a lot more potential for bigger ambitions than you laid out. You described that it’s in a one-to-one correspondence with the current high school curriculum, but it seems to me the obvious next move is to change the granularity to be arbitrary. Instead of having to be equal to 120 hours where the civics, be able to break it down into how does a bill become a law and what is federalism, et cetera. And it’s a bunch of micro credits and each school could choose what its curriculum looks like in terms of macro credits and micro credits. And it may well be that the 120 hour or 140 hour, whatever the hell it was, granularity is not really useful in the modern world. And that a different and fractal style of granularity at different scales may be the right way to go. And then once you have done that, aha, this is the big play. It ain’t just for high school anymore. This could be used for the whole world of lifelong learning.
Nadav: Right. That’s micro-credentialing and there are a lot of organizations that are trying to do that type of micro-credentialing. They don’t address high school. So I think if this idea is successful, I do agree that people will take it and use it in other contexts. I think that’s great. My expertise and my interest is specifically to end standardized testing in high schools. That’s what my life’s work is and to replace it with project-based evaluation. And I’m a data person. So data that’s based on these projects rather than on standardized tests. But yeah, I think that similar things and personally, I don’t think it’s going to come out of this. I think that other people smarter than me are already developing what you’re talking about for the professional work and maybe for before high school. I’m not sure. And then in terms of the size of the chunks of a credit, I think that’s a good discussion to have, and the system is designed to evolve and grow over time and get better.
Nadav: The way I launch it at launch at zero state is definitely not going to be the best way because the community will grow and get smarter without me. So I definitely welcome thoughts like that to see. I think that just like how Facebook, when Myspace was out, Facebook limited the number of options and made everything blue. And I think that that worked better because people wanted to focus on what they’re sharing in their community, not figuring out how all these different pages work. And so there’s something about a uniformity for a high school credit and what one credit is defined as that has some value in itself in exchange for academic institutions. But I think the system will grow and grow in places that I can’t imagine and it’s designed to do that.
Nadav: And I think that ideas like that will happen that I can’t predict now and that we can’t predict now, but you’re absolutely right. That this is going to go in directions that I certainly didn’t imagine. And I think that’s an interesting one is that fractal approach. Each one of the credits could also build that into their credit and interesting ways. So yeah, I think that’s an interesting place that people like you will think about and develop things that are beyond what I’ve imagined.
Jim: Well, I got to thank you. This has been an amazingly interesting conversation. You’ve made a gigantic probe into thinking different as old Steve jobs would say, and I would actually strongly recommend to the audience that they go get the book. And what was the name of the book here?
Nadav: Education in the Digital Age: How We Get There. And the audio book is coming out shortly if you prefer audio books. It should be out in about a month.
Jim: Yeah, my wife, I’m going to have her listen to the audio book. She loves audio books. Amazingly, even though I was one of the people that helped put Audible together, I’ve only listened to one audio book in my life. Wow. But anyway, different strokes for different folks. Thank you for being on our show. This has been a really wonderful episode.
Nadav: My honor and my privilege. Thank you, Jim.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.