Peter Sims: STEM Education, Chris Rock, and Pixar are More Alike Than You Think
Editor's note: This post was written by Chris Correa, Media Strategist at Ashoka Changemakers.
Peter Sims knows innovation, technology, and social entrepreneurship. He's a Stanford GSB alum, frequently collaborates with Stanford’s Institute of Design (the d.school), and is the consummate valley guy, having served as an advisor to Google, Eli Lilly, Pixar, ConAgra, and Cisco Systems.
His latest book is Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, which asks pointed questions about how system change occurs on a methodical level across myriad industries and sectors. For example, what do Apple CEO Steve Jobs, award-winning comedian Chris Rock, famed architect Frank Gehry, and Pixar scientist Tony Derose (watch for his upcoming interview, to be posted here) have in common?
Answer: Their outputs are the result of what Sims considers "little bets," or small, experimental steps. He posits that typically desired outcomes are often planned in advance, but are better achieved through learning critical information from lots of little failures and from small but mighty wins. Sims has written frequently about STEM education for various publications, including TechCrunch, and brings his insight and passion for the learning process to the Partnering for Excellence competition.
Changemakers: What led you to do the research for Little Bets?
Peter Sims: I had formally worked in venture capital. I worked a lot with entrepreneurs and was naturally interested in the way they think. I had been through all these years of education, including business school, and had been amazed by the way they think, especially those at the Stanford Institute of Design. I'd never learned how to think using rapid prototyping, iteration, and developing ideas from the ground-up.
As far as these “little bets” are concerned, are they ideas about trial and error rather than mapping out the entire equation before you engage?
I think we are given very little opportunity to perform original experiments, or to be able to make mistakes, and discover how to solve a problem through a trial and error process. There are people who say that teachers don't have the bandwidth to do this.
I think it's also a question of what we're prioritizing about learning. Change happens in very small achievable ways. For example a student asks a teacher, "Where's a box of pencils?" The teacher can respond in a couple of ways.
One, the teacher might say, "The pencils are over there," and be very direct and authoritative. Or they can pose the question back to the student and say, "Where do you think the pencils are?" The student will respond, "Maybe by the markers." It inspires the process to kick into gear.
The ability to ask questions is so crucial to education. And down the line, design and methods of design are about the creative skills as well, as the linear ones.
It sounds like STEM education initiatives like this one are, in a sense, little bets.
Right, people don't yet know the answers to what's going to solve education problems. It makes sense to back up a lot of experiments to see what will be fruitful. Generally speaking, STEM is important to emphasize, so long as it's in conjunction with developing the types of thinking skills that promote discovery processes, because STEM on its own is not going to be enough.
I've traveled quite a bit across the world, and while in Europe I interacted with many engineers. They just don't have the same mentality that Silicon Valley does—they don't learn from testing or from failure in the same way. I think the education system needs to develop those same skills.
Do you envision these kinds of education-related little bets taking hold?
It's a paradigm that's applicable across pretty much any industry, any person. People need to think differently. It's not about just the brilliance or the end goal, it's about the approach. We have all these preconceived notions about needing to be perfect and needing to have the answer before we start.
The organizations involved in this competition include Google and Amgen—tech and science giants that are dedicating their resources. They want to bring STEM to the classroom in unique ways. Is that happening in your point of view?
My natural response is to say, of course. I'm not an expert on this, but my brother is a PHD at the School of Information at Berkeley. He works on the processes and the way kids learn. It's self-directed. I think that's the key: How do you facilitate more self-directed learning in a classroom? It's the medium, like gaming, which can unlock their intrinsic interests. It will be important for them to be actually picking up what is learned, instead of simply memorized. I think technology can allow kids to learn—their environments: applied structure that allows kids to learn—that's going to be a winning formula.
How can social innovation impact education?
I really think it facilitates this discovery. Creativity is driven by two things: One is discovery and experimentation, the other is having access to broad insight and knowledge, and the ability to connect one part of your knowledge base to another. We have to nurture curiosity and the willingness to learn. What is the purpose of education? That's it!