Kio Stark at Kickstarter

“Don’t Go Back to School is a handbook based on over 80 interviews with people who have successfully taught themselves a wide variety of skills and subjects outside of school. Some of them are dropouts, some of them went to college, and some even went to grad school, but they all have in common an obsessive passion for the learning that they do independently. The book shares their secrets and strategies, so that anyone with curiosity and a desire to learn can find out how to do it without heading back to class.”

Last night, I got to hear Kio Stark speak at Kickstarter’s headquarters. Kio launched a Kickstarter project last fall, for a nonfiction book called Don’t Go Back to School: A handbook for learning anything. It’s about learning, education, and getting where you need to go without going to (or going back to) traditional school, such as college or grad school. The book hasn’t been finished yet, though you can head to her website to see how you can get a copy if you weren’t a Kickstarter backer. I was interested to hear what she found through interviews for her book, and to hear more about the ideas in the book, but the talk turned out to be centered more on stranger interactions and social dynamics in cities, which was just as fascinating. I think in a lot of ways, while the two topics seemed separate at first, the conversation really brought it all together.

Kio teaches at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (check out cool stuff from their Spring Show 2012!), where she leads classes in stranger interactions and intimacy and technology, and thinks about how humans relate to their technology and to each other through technology. It might be ironic to think of such a book coming from a grad school professor, but for what it’s worth, ITP definitely doesn’t work like regular grad school, and Kio herself dropped out of a Yale graduate program. I think her personal history and teaching position also just shows that everyone finds their own way to do their own thing, an idea that underlies her book.

Her talk at Kickstarter was sort of a crash course in what she teaches at ITP. She got us thinking about how cities are full of strangers, and how all of those interactions affect us, in person and online. It’s a very relevant concept for crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, where strangers often come together and help each other out, whether for personal material gain (rewards) or altruism, or that blurry middle ground where your friend is making something awesome and you want to help your friend out and also get a bit of the awesome. It’s a relevant idea for New York City, which is a liberal island in itself full of a constant interchange of ideas and very social-media-connected people (though Kio pointed out that being a liberal island is often actually very limiting and paints a skewed picture of what the world is or can be). It’s a big idea for the internet overall, which thrives on stranger interactions, and interactions with people you know that wouldn’t otherwise be possible without the internet. She got us thinking about anonymity versus accountability, such as how the culture has moved from using avatars and screen names to connecting all of your various social media accounts, and allowing openness with your name, identity, and personal details.

Interactions with strangers also facilitate learning, particularly on the internet. It’s fairly clear that while it was possible to self-learn and motivate personal education before the internet, it’s been completely revolutionized and entirely accessible with the internet — Wikipedia, open textbooks, Quora, even the Facebook posts that pop up on your feed with current events news articles. People want to share and show what they know, and in doing that, whether as a side or directed effect, they’re helping other people learn.

Overall, all of this thinking just emphasizes that there’s plenty out there to learn, in school or out of school, but doing it out of school opens up a wide variety of methods, on top of the range of topics. Kio received a range of responses from people who have built their own businesses, people who are engaging in biohacking, people who are trying to homeschool their kids, people who studied one thing in school and realized that there was so much more about other things that they wanted to learn. Humans are innately curious, and while school might have developed to nourish and encourage that curiosity, it’s become pretty clear that by trying to meet the needs of everyone as a collective, individual creativity and curiosity suffers. How do we fix the school system to still be a system, but still work for everyone? As more and more people turn to finding their own methods and paths, it makes you wonder — is it even possible?

(Side note: Kio lives with Bre Pettis in Brooklyn with their daughter. Bre is one of the founders of NYC Resistor and MakerBot…speaking of DIY)

Joi Ito – Reading the dictionary

I have some amazing friends who tell me that when they were young, they read the dictionary from cover to cover. Other friends of mine have read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

My sister calls me an “interest driven learner.” I think that’s code for “short attention span” or “not a good long term planner” or something like that. I can’t imagine being able to read the dictionary from cover to cover. In fact, I don’t think most people could sit down and read the dictionary from cover to cover.

Although reading the dictionary and the encyclopedia from cover to cover may seem a bit extreme, it often feels like that’s what we’re asking kids to do who go through formal education.

Courses are organized, sequenced in a very structured way as student scurry from class to class sitting through lectures and expected to pay attention as instructors go on and on about calculus, history and grammar.

Students with the ability to focus and motivate themselves either through the need to achieve good grades or through understanding the long term benefits of a good education are able to succeed.

Personally, I find the dictionary, the encyclopedia and videos online as excellent resources when I need to learn something. I find the need to learn things every day in the course of pursuing interests, preparing for meetings and interacting with exciting people. I’m extremely motivated to learn and I learn a lot.

I love the videos of professors, amateurs and instructors putting their courseware online. They are a great resource for interest driven learners like me. However, I wonder whether we should be structuring the future of learning as online universities where you are asked to do the equivalent of reading the encyclopedia from cover to cover online. Shouldn’t we be looking at the Internet as an amazing network enabling “The Power of Pull” and be empowering kids to learn through building things together rather than assessing their ability to complete courses and produce the right “answers”?