David Preston: Hacking High School

January 29th, 2012 | Category: Interviews

After a decade of teaching at the university level, David Preston decided to stop ignoring the ills we all know haunt those halls and dropped back to high school. He’s now trying to reform a place that desperately needs it. I got the chance to participate in a discussion with his literature and composition classes, thanks to David, Ted Newcomb, and Howard Rheingold, all of whom are hacking education in various ways. I can tell you with no reservations that David is making the difference. I want to keep this introduction as brief as possible and just let him tell you about it. Some men just want to watch the world learn.

Roy Christopher: What drove you from the hallowed hells of academia to teaching high school?

David Preston: (Hang on, let me hop up on my soapbox) Every generation thinks school can’t get any worse but somehow we manage. When I was a kid I hated school but loved learning (and still do), so when I graduated I thought I could liberate the other inmates by learning about the institution and how to fix it. After college I wrote about schools as a journalist and then I went back for a master’s and a Ph.D. in education. But in grad school I discovered the politics, how difficult it is to ask pressing questions without incurring the wrath of well-funded powers-that-be. Eventually I figured there wasn’t enough lipstick for this institutional pig and found my way into management consulting, where I worked with executives and organizations on learning and planning. Even though I was making good money and keeping my hand in by teaching courses at UCLA, the idea of school nagged at me because I could see the trend worsening. Really smart, highly-motivated students and executives told me how completely unprepared they were for life after graduation—and these were the successful people! Today’s students have it even worse. They don’t learn about their own minds, they don’t learn about how they fit in the larger scheme of things, they don’t learn how to use the tools available to them, and they don’t learn the basics of how to manage their bodies or their money. Forget the achievement gap and the union versus reform sideshow—even the best prep school curricula are designed for a world that no longer exists (if it ever did). Once upon a time the American high school diploma signified that a person had the tools to be self-sufficient; now it’s like one of those red deli counter tickets that tells you to line up at the recruiter’s office or financial aid. And the worst part is, today’s students know all this because technology allows them to see the world for themselves. They don’t have to be told that school is an irrelevant exercise in obedience.

I’ve been critical of school since watching my first grade teacher pull kids’ hair for getting math problems wrong, but after 9/11 I thought about the issue differently. I reflected on how our thinking influences the world we’re living in and the future we’re creating for ourselves. Whatever big-picture issue you care about—the environment, the economy, human rights, politics—is defined by how people think and communicate about it. And the institution ostensibly in charge of helping people learn to think and communicate is fucked. So, when a friend of mine suggested in 2004 that I take a “domestic Peace Corps” sabbatical and offered me an opportunity to teach high school courses, I turned him down immediately. But over the next couple of weeks I realized that you never hear anything about education policy from inside the classroom, and I’d get to be an embedded anthropologist. Boots on the ground. I wanted to find out what today’s students are actually like (they’re not the Digital Natives you read about!) and what actually goes on in school on the days they don’t give tours. I may have been fantasizing about Hunter S. Thompson riding with Hell’s Angels or Jane Goodall hanging with chimps when I said yes to going back inside the belly of the beast.

I taught at the country’s fourth-largest high school in LA. It had a year-round calendar with three tracks to accommodate five thousand students, most of whom didn’t carry books because they didn’t want to get jumped on the way home. But this one student, Zolzaya Damdinsuren, came into my class during a sweaty summer school afternoon and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. This is a whole other story, but the bottom line is that I spent a month in western China, Tibet, and Mongolia with Zolzaya and his family, and the experience changed me. By the time I returned I had decided not to return to my consulting practice. Instead I resolved to create learning solutions that would help people whether they were in school or not. I moved to California’s central coast and I’ve been hacking education ever since.

RC: Tell me about your current education project, the one you’ve been piloting for a while now.

DP: I’m helping students build a massively multiplayer online learning network. I started with the students in my high school classes. Initially, 100 students created 100 blogs and learned about online security, privacy, filter bubbles, search, online business models, and how to use social media to curate and broadcast information. We reached out to authors, we conducted a flash mob research project that created a mindmap out of a William Gibson interview in 24 hours, and we held video conferences with illustrious celebrities such as yourself. That was fall semester. Now we’re reaching out to recruit a study group of 20,000-50,000 people to prepare for the AP English Literature & Composition exam using both synchronous and asynchronous platforms. This is proof-of-concept: the ultimate goal is to create an online exchange that offers the resources and tools people need to acquire information, demonsrate mastery and build a portfolio of work. In five years I want to see a teacher make a million dollars, not because of some collective bargaining agreement, but because she’s that good. Maybe she’s an author, maybe she’s a mechanic. I want to create a model of community in which learning is an economic driver. I think the outcome will be a competitive market of entrepreneurs, job candidates and creatives who aren’t just eager to tell you what they can do, but eager to show you what they’ve already done.

RC: What insights have you found doing this work?

Until about two years ago I was focusing on interdisciplinary curriculum and information-referenced assessment models as ways to extend what I could offer students. But basically these were just ways of remixing the standard curriculum and providing more formative feedback to learners. Even my use of social media was essentially limited to conserving paper, helping absentees, and trying to make the same old lessons seem more engaging or entertaining.

You see that sort of thing all over the Web. Blended learning, virtual schooling, online lessons, LMS, SIS—some of the ideas and applications are really cool, but it’s all essentially Skinner’s Box 2.0. It’s what happens when anything good gets sucked into the school policy meat grinder. Apple in the world = Think different. Apple in school = Electronic textbooks. Peter Drucker said the worst thing management can do is the wrong thing more efficiently. Standardizing and streamlining is great if you’re starting with something of quality, but otherwise incremental change makes the problem worse because it reinforces the idea that change is impossible. You can’t lose twenty pounds by eating one less Twinkie a day. You have to radically, fearlessly redesign from purposeful scratch. That’s how evolutionary adaptation works: one day there’s no fin, then the water rises and—Whoa!—everybody who’s still alive and reproducing has fins. So I gave up trying to tweak the finless and started thinking more about where we are trying to swim. This took the form of a simple question: What does it take to be an educated global citizen in the 21st century?

The real opportunity of the Internet is creating a network that takes on its own momentum, grows, and exponentially increases its value. In fact, I think at this point network theory has a greater payoff in learning than learning theory does. The really cool part is that as the network grows and gains experiences, it also changes purpose and direction. School isn’t built to tolerate that, which I think is a big issue, considering the need for innovation in this country.

It’s exciting to be a part of something so dynamic. In too many places learners are forced to wait for an institution, or a government, or an economic sector to get its act together and do right by them. Learners don’t have to wait for Superman. They are Superman.

RC: Well, one of the things I wonder is where the funding comes from. That still seems to be a major problem with education reform, and I’m not just talking about funding for technology and other resources, but funding for teachers: One of the main reasons interesting and innovative people avoid teaching in high school is because there’s so much more money to be made elsewhere. How do we fund this revolution?

DP: Learning needs to become the economic driver. We need a learning environment in which learners and mentors select each other, co-create interdisciplinary curricula and demonstrate mastery in ways that translate to the broader economy and life in our culture. Such an open market would allow learning innovators to create revenue streams that feed communities and align compensation with perceived value and performance: if you suck you starve, if you rock you make bank. This is happening already. In Korea, teacher Rose Lee is known as the “Queen of English.” She makes over $7 million a year. If clients are willing to invest that much in university prep, imagine what they’ll do for top-shelf professionals who can prepare the next generation for economic success without needing the university at all. Creating a new economic sector around learning makes mentoring a much more dynamic and potentially lucrative endeavor than teaching ever was.

Until that exists, though, it’s still possible to integrate coursework and network once learners get the basics of the Internet and online privacy/security. It doesn’t take much money for an individual teacher to offer online learning opportunities. I started off guerrilla style. Everything I’m currently using with students is available for free to anyone who has access to the Internet—and every student has access to the Internet. It drives me crazy when I hear well-meaning adults suggest that we not work online with students because not everyone has a computer at home. We read books with students, and some of my students don’t have those at home either. This is Problem Solving 101. If you don’t have a computer at home you have an access problem. That would be a cruel proposition if the problem wasn’t super easy, but we are surrounded by solutions. Go to a friend’s; go to the computer center or library; spend $3 at the copy store. If an entire community is impacted to the point that an individual really can’t access the Internet, document the case that supports getting the community connected. Agitate. Citing lack of Internet access in 2012 is an admission of defeat that suggests a lack of determination and imagination.

RC: What are you up to off-campus?

DP: For the last six months I have been neck-deep in the work I’m doing with students. Writing curriculum, reading blogs, and replying to messages around the clock seven days a week. It’s insane. I’ve never worked harder as a teacher or had more fun. Now I’m documenting the process and starting to promote it. I’m writing a white paper, starting a blog, designing the system architecture for the learning exchange, consulting, and speaking about the proof of concept. Next event is the CUE conference in Palm Springs on March 15.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of liberating learning from school. Our present is competitive and our future is uncertain. My old mentor used to say that in chaos there is profit, but success in 2012 is not for the passive, weak, or risk-averse. Intellectual and financial freedom isn’t something that can be given to you. You have to take it.

Further Posting:


  • Andrew said:

    Roy, excellent interview; very informative and thought-provoking. I especially liked David’s point that learning is not the same thing as schooling, and it shouldn’t be.

  • (RE)VITALIZE VISUALS » David Preston on Open Learning said:

    […] is hacking high school. Roy Christopher puts it eloquently in his blog post and interview with […]

  • Abraham said:

    thats my teacher Dr. Preston hell yea, very well conducted interview Roy.