Summit 2011: Innovation, honesty, and muffins

May 23, 2011

Yes, there were some marquee names.

Mark Zuckerberg. John Doerr. Joel Klein. Sal Khan. Kaya Henderson. Reed Hastings.  As Tom Vander Ark noted, “We don’t have many rock stars in education, but most of them were on the stage at the Summit.”

But it was more than just star power that people were talking about in the hallways at Summit 2011, and in their Facebook posts and tweets. It was a spirit of honesty, and an excitement about the change that’s possible through innovation and entrepreneurship.

Every year since 1999, when a then-fringe idea drew about 200 attendees, NewSchools has thrown a Summit to unite, inspire, and grow a movement of education entrepreneurs.  This year, we worked in partnership with the Aspen Institute to create our largest event yet, with some 800 entrepreneurs, policy makers, philanthropists, scholars, journalists, and others in attendance, including nearly 300 first-timers. In all, 75 speakers participated in 17 sessions—easily double the offerings of any previous Summit.

It’s not easy to draw a single theme from so many conversations. In trying, probably the most vivid comparison came from Doug Crets (who did a remarkable job summarizing the day in real time). In a Fast Company post, he likened Summit to “walking into the Mormon Tabernacle and rejoicing in hope and the potential for change.” And, while others chose different metaphors, the point rang true—the day was filled with a hopeful feeling about what innovation can do to improve education for low-income kids.

Perhaps the headiest moment of the day—and surely the most crowded—was the headline-grabbing keynote with John Doerr and Mark Zuckerberg. In a fast-moving conversation with Doerr, Zuckerberg emerged as open, personal and often funny. On his way to describing his passion for education, he talked about when he wrote his first computer program (sixth grade), his feelings about his time in college (“awesome”), relationships (“No one teaches you how important friends are”), and his annual challenge for himself (“It turns out you cannot learn Chinese in one year”). But the conversation soon moved to the serious, and to Zuckerberg’s thoughts on what it takes to make innovation successful. Zuckerberg pushed back against a focus on the individual leader, and toward crediting his leadership team; a quarter of his time, he said, goes to recruiting, internally and externally, and he advised, “Don’t hire anyone you wouldn’t want to work for.” He pushed the crowd to think about how to learn from their peers, and talked about his own habit for keeping time free for spontaneous discussion by barring planned afternoon meetings. And to make innovation work, he advised, “Give people the resources they need to explore–and get out of the way.”

The same excitement over the possibilities of innovation extended to a pitch session for up-and-coming entrepreneurs, and to a talk by innovation guru Steve Blank (“Startups are not smaller versions of large companies… Creating something new is an art.”) But complementing the excitement of the new was the notion of honesty about both success and failure as an essential element of innovation. That candor started early, in a good-hearted and fast-moving conversation between Joel Klein, who recently left his post as Chancellor of the New York City schools to join News Corporation, and Sal Khan, author of more than 2,000 free, virally popular instructional videos. In the session, moderated by NewSchools CEO Ted Mitchell, Klein and Khan debated what the future of education will look like, as honesty mixed with early-morning good cheer. To laughs, Klein admired Khan’s ability to attract tens of thousands of users to “a site on the internet that doesn’t sell sex,” but the balding veteran chastened Khan about the realities of systems change:  “If you spent the last 10 years the way I did, you’d have the same hairstyle.” Truth-telling also characterized a session called “Inside the Entrepreneur’s Studio,” as KIPP’s Richard Barth offered a warts-and-all progress report on graduation and college completion.  And deep and sometimes emotional moments of honesty punctuated a session called “Learning from Success and Failure,” featuring half a dozen leaders from government, philanthropy, and entrepreneurship. As one attendee tweeted, “Powerful candor at the failure panel on personal regrets.  Touches my heart. Goose pimples.”

The day ended with surprise fireworks, at the conclusion of the day’s last keynote, where DC Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Netflix founder and education activist/philanthropist Reed Hastings squared off on what it will take to bring change for large numbers of underserved students. Ellen Winn of 50CAN captured the feeling of the session in a tweet: “Reed Hastings: Are we just treating symptoms & not the problem of #edreform? We’ve been doing this for 50 yrs, not enough change.” By the session’s end, Henderson and Hastings had reached enough common ground for Hastings to make what we heard as an offer to fund Rocketship Education’s entry into DC, as long as Henderson provides the space (stay tuned).

Oh, and the muffins. A day with 1500-plus tweets was sure to have some off-message good humor, and Stanford student Andrew Humphries stole the show with his muffin updates:

9:16 AM Lots of freely available muffins.

9:20 AM Just saw Rich Crandall from @stanforddschool. Says he’s prepared for his session. Was aware of muffin surfeit.

9:33 AM Big TVs showing curated tweets. Want on but think focus on muffins is poor plan. All first timers have yellow lanyards (me).

10:47 AM Muffins replaced with apples and bananas.

But in a thousand words, we’ve just scratched the surface. We’re looking forward to offering much more from this extraordinary day—pictures, video, materials, and reflections—in the days and weeks to come. Watch this space.

No promises on muffin updates.