Projecting from Personal Knowledge

From FASL and Syfr Learning

Thomas Edison was one of the great inventors and businessmen of all time but he had a tendency to rely only on his own bank of knowledge. Why shouldn’t he? He had been enormously successful until he was asked to change his own way of thinking.

Scott Kirsner makes this point, near the beginning of his book, Inventing the Movies. Scott says “Sometimes, innovators can behave like preservationists.” His book is full of examples and several involve Thomas Edison. 

Edison invented the Kinetoscope in the early 1890s. It was a motion picture viewer in a wooden cabinet. The viewer stood outside the cabinet and viewed the movie through a peephole. By 1915 over 14,000 Kinetoscopes had been sold. This trajectory was so clear to him that in the mid 1890s, when presented with an opportunity to create a projector for the large screen – a movie theater – Edison commented that “If we put out a big screen machine there will be a use for maybe about ten of them in the whole United States. With that many screen machines, you could show pictures to everyone in the entire country – and then it would be done.” Edison passed on the idea because he projected the sales of Kinetoscopes, with only one person watching at a time, forward. There was simply no way a movie projector for the big screen could compete in terms of potential revenues. The math did not work. His logic was right, his knowledge bank was right, but his forecast of the future from his knowledge bank was all wrong.

The movie industry is full of stories like Edison’s. The Trust of studios that he formed rejected giving credit to actors and actresses. The creation of the star system by a competitor was the final straw that knocked Edison out of the business. Sound was resisted by the Trust that Edison had formed and it lost. Disney took a gamble on color when no one else would. In all of these cases, the establishment studios were projecting their future based on their past.  

Leadership training is full of similar examples. Built to Last was a popular leadership book in education circles and paired eighteen competing companies, one high performing and the other average or worse, to look at the kind of leadership needed to build success. The authors suggested that “every CEO, manager, and entrepreneur in the world should read this book. You can build a visionary company.” One would assume that if you project the ‘great’ companies forward, they would still be great companies. “On average, the gap in profitability and stock returns between the outstanding firms and the less successful firms…shrank to almost nothing.” If you took a leadership course using this book, and many educators did, your leadership lessons might be suspect. You simply could not create your organization’s future by planning from a knowledge platform based exclusively on the past. 

Historically, by and large public education has been reasonably responsive to change. The invention of the public high school was an incredibly successful innovation. In 1954 with the Brown versus The Topeka Board of Education, schools were faced with an entirely new challenge and it attempted to solve the new issue with old knowledge. It didn’t work for a variety of reasons. Over the past thirty of forty years schools are again faced with an additional challenge as the demand for highly educated workers far outstrips the supply. In addition, there is an unmet demand for workers with excellent social skills that is growing. Unfortunately, public education never solved the first problem, so we now have to respond to two challenges: more students succeed and the standards need to be higher and more encompassing (to include social skills). Whether we like it or not, testing is an indicator, not the only indicator, but one indicator of public education’s success in meeting those two challenges – serving all students successfully while raising and changing the bar of what it means to graduate from high school. Whether we administer the right tests is a different question. Whether there is too much emphasis on the test is also a different question. We are simply addressing the question of whether there should even be a test.

An interesting lesson from the movie industry is that the steps were small. The step from no credits to credits did not require any technical innovation. It required a mental shift. The step from a Kinetoscope to a wide screen projector was not a small step technically but it was primarily a mental step, and actually not a very big one. Sound was technically more difficult but again, the resistance was mental. Color was very difficult and Disney had to develop a process through which it could experiment with color. It used the short film and Pixar copied that process to perfect animation. It still uses that process. 

Let’s wind back to the goal. Schools need to graduate more students with both higher academic and social skills than they do presently. First, if we want students to remember the important stuff, we need to first define what that is and then we need to measure it more than once. Second, if we want students to be able to use what they are learning, they need to learn and be measured in multiple ways. One format is inadequate. Third, if we believe that frequent feedback from measurement is important, we need to distribute measurement to teachers and students and believe them. Every single one of these ideas can be a small step from the current educational knowledge platform but every one of them is also different from the current knowledge platform.

In today’s world, more than ever before, standing still with our existing bank of knowledge is traveling backwards.