Shaping the Future of Education

Greenleaf Book Group
13 min readNov 2, 2023

The following is an excerpt from Shaping the Future of Education, by Nolan Bushnell and Dr. Leah Hanes, available now from Greenleaf Book Group.

Introduction

This Book Is a Manifesto

These pages constitute a blueprint for changing the world through the way we educate our children and everyone throughout life. Make no mistake, this book is a recruiting document. If we change education, we can change the world!

Yes, that’s a bold statement, and this is a bold undertaking, but it’s

one we believe is both essential and inevitable. The way we have been doing education for the last century has only worked for a handful of students. We want something for everyone, knowing that everyone is different. And we want you to join us in this mission.

A COMPARISON OF TWO CLASSROOMS

Let us start our story with a tale of two students in two very different classrooms. “Pat” is in a typical classroom, the kind of school most of us attended, sent our children to, and perhaps teach in today. “Sam,” on the other hand, attends what we envision as the “school of the future.”

Pat’s Experience

Pat sits down for 90 minutes and slogs through math class preparing to take the test. When the teacher isn’t looking, the students are catching glimpses of Instagram or Snapchat or checking their text messages. So is Pat. If they can, they play games, take naps at their desk, whatever they can get away with while the teacher is giving the lecture.

Most of the kids were up late playing the latest release of their favorite video game so that nap feels necessary. Pat manages five and six-minute naps when the teacher is busy at the front of the room with another student. In 90 minutes the bell is going to ring, and Pat is going to pack up that backpack and head to the next class, the second lecture of the day.

Some of the students have been able to focus, but not Pat. That was true for a little less than a third of the class. The rest are in their own heads working out something. About half of this group is thinking about school and deadlines, the rest are thinking about the next level in their favorite game, the next party, date, film, whatever gets their attention. They sit through the next 90 minutes struggling to concentrate.

Lunch is loud and energetic. There is a lot of energy in the room. Pat sits with the same group of students every day. Students know who belongs in which group relatively quickly in this school.

After lunch the pressure is on. The competition among students is high, and grades and rewards make a difference. Everyone becomes a little less friendly and a lot more secretive. None of the students want to share ideas and risk being copied, so competition brings the need for secrecy. When Pat needs help, there are teachers around, but it’s better to watch YouTube videos in isolation so you don’t risk giving away any of the details of your project. Sometimes Pat’s parents hire a tutor to help, but that is expensive, and the family doesn’t have a lot of extra money for educational backup.

Sam’s Experience

Sam and a group of energetic kids show up to the school ready to engage. Sam, who was up late playing a video game, is going to the nap room to catch an extra hour of sleep before settling into the day’s work. Sam wakes up from a nap refreshed and ready to take on the day. The sleeping pods are available for sign-up as needed. No questions or judgments. If you need a nap, you take one. That has helped Sam through more than one difficult day.

Instead of dreading a math test or leaning over to copy a neighbor’s paper, Sam eagerly pulls out the school iPad and fires up the game. Sam made it to level 6 this week. That tells us a lot. What Sam missed is the fact that there was a test buried in that game, which Sam took and passed without knowing one was being administered.

The teachers in these classrooms are there when needed. The system alerts the teacher when a student is struggling with something so they can intervene before frustration becomes overwhelming.

Sam has called on the teacher, who feels more like a mentor than a teacher, to help sort through thoughts and ideas. Sam and the other students are sitting in groups, and some are in cubicles working on their own. Most of the time they are collaborating with fellow students or mentoring younger students in a game or project. Sam says it helps anchor the learning. Sam has a good time working with the younger group, remembering how cool the older kids once seemed.

At lunch break the students are offered nutritious options for their meals. All the rationale for the meal is in their menu, tied to their life-sciences course, but no one asks about that. The kids have an app they engage to create their ideal meal plan, which leaves room for “entertainment eating,” and they know the difference. They also know how to manage their own meal system for their highest levels of performance. Calories aren’t counted for weight, they are counted for energy. Sam has always known that students in this school have the freedom to choose what to eat. Sometimes only a coffee or a candy bar is needed to get an energy boost.

The difference for Sam and the other students is that they will track and understand their body’s messages about each meal choice. Sam believes that food is fuel and should also be immensely enjoyable to the taste buds. Although nutrition was never a subject high on Sam’s radar, it now seems like a possible career, perhaps as a high-end chef. Sam is 15 years old and would be a sophomore in a typical high school, but Sam is close to completing a full course load and is now thinking about entrepreneurial projects that could be part of the next school year, for example, a food truck.

Sam and the others are energetic in physical education (PE) class. The game (the place where learning is buried) has helped them understand the importance of aerobic and anaerobic movement. They track themselves for optimum output — both physical and mental. Sam has never been a fan of PE. But here it’s a little different than at any previous school Sam has attended. At this campus it is about movement and heart rate. Caring about sports is a personal choice; it’s not required. Sam chose dancing for the physical education class but wasn’t comfortable dancing in front of anyone. Not a problem, Sam can monitor any movement at home and log it onto the app to chart progress.

Art class is similarly self-directed with an artist/faculty member functioning as a sounding board or facilitator. Each student is in charge of their artistic expression. The school has supplied enough raw materials for any student to find an art form that helps them with focus, expression, and voice. Sam discovered a talent for sculpting and a keen interest in voice and music. Sam will be one to watch.

Sam loves the group projects. Most of the students collaborate within and outside of their group. At weekly meetings each of the groups present their progress and receive feedback from each other.The atmosphere is one of support. Competition may exist, but no one is focused on beating or outdoing anyone else. This group has the mindset that when one group does something well, it will positively affect other groups. They motivate each other and cheer each other on.

Sam also has a support system that goes beyond the project group. Tutors are available to help with group projects and individual needs; they are experts in their fields and are generous with their time and expertise. Sam is so far into this process that any and all advice is considered. The motivation to dig deeper comes from within, because Sam is looking for information not validation.

FOLLOWING OUR CONVERSATION

Given those two options, which do you think a middle school student would choose? High school students? We were all those students once, and I have no question about the choice the majority would make. What we’ve presented here is not a collection of random ideas but a collection of workable solutions. Every bold concept is lifted from the available research. If it has been proven and tested by rigorous and capable scientists, does that mean it’s also bold ? Not always. So think of this as an execution document. How do we use all this current research in a friendly and cohesive way? A way that does not break the bank? And how do we further document and prove that our ideas work?

We start with this book. Think of it as a conversation between two speakers: a serial tech entrepreneur, Nolan Bushnell, who is the father of the video game industry; and an educator, myself, who is a leader in the field of STEAM education and environmental stewardship.

Later in this book you will find a blueprint for how we propose to change the world through changing the way we educate. We’ll show you what we mean by workable solutions.

If not now, when? If not us, who?

THE AUTHORS

Tech as a sector has disrupted and changed our world, and it has its own unique culture and language. Ideas from this world can be of tremendous benefit to educators, but they require some degree of contextualization for the rest of us in order to be understood and applied. In order to give that context, we will provide more background on the nature of Nolan’s proposal for the changes required in education through his well-considered contribution to this text.

Nolan writes not in the form of a thesis or essay, but in the form of a User Story. In the technology world, user stories are descriptions of a system or feature from the perspective of the user of the product.

USER STORIES: GRAY TEXT BOXES ARE IN NOLAN’S VOICE.

The first tech-world cultural difference we encounter is in the use of the word “product.” We educators would rarely think of education as a product. It’s not to be bought and sold according to consumer demand. It’s the mission, the efforts of our joint passion for building the next generation through engagement in their learning experience. However, a product in the context of a tech company is whatever the company’s end goal is to create, whether this is software, a service, or anything else that is designed to meet a need and create value for a group of people.

A document such as the one Nolan has written is intended to lay out the ideal experience of the end user, describe how the product meets that experience, and guide creative and technical contributors to put forward the strategies and tactics that will be used to achieve those goals.

There is one central technique you will see used again and again in this book: imagining how the end user interacts with the product. You may have heard that “the design process begins with empathy.”The first step is to build profiles of hypothetical users, based on research. Then these profiles are used to imagine how a particular subset of hypothetical users would interact with the product from beginning to end: the user journey.

What needs would bring them to the product? What might their experience be like while using it? What end results would they achieve for themselves? When you see stories about students or teachers sprinkled throughout this work, keep in mind that these are not always accounts of things that have happened. They are often journeys of imagination, which help the builders of the product work in such a way as to later achieve those desired results in real life. These users tend to be composite characters based on information gained from a wide variety of interviews, human-interest pieces, and academic research.

In the words of Carl Sagan, “dreams are maps,” and the stories you will find in this book are the dreams we will use to map our way to a better future for education.

So, bearing all that in mind, what you will experience in the coming chapters is a conversation between a tech entrepreneur with a vision of education and an educator with a lens on the foundations and practice of that vision.

Who Is Nolan?

Most people between 20 and 50 know Nolan as the single biggest architect of their childhoods. Many people over 70 (i.e., their parents) blame him for their kids’ addiction to video games. For the record, Nolan Bushnell is best known for founding Atari and Chuck E. Cheese and being the first person to hire Steve Jobs. A lesser-known facet of his history of innovation is that he launched one of the earliest tech incubators, the first in Silicon Valley. There he had the vision to experiment with ideas and grow the best. These experiments led to the creation of technologies that are now common but were then ahead of their time, such as the precursor to today’s GPS-based automotive navigation systems and digitized maps. Nolan saw the world and dreamed of how it could be better, inspiring an entire generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Nolan says, “I immediately found that video games were satisfying to kids; you can even call them addicting, because they represent a very tight, sensitive, and thrilling environment. Everything that we’ve thought about traditional school subjects can be set to games.”

Nolan has been thinking about the educational power of video games since the first moment video games twinkled into existence with his creation of the very first one, Computer Space, and then Pong.

When Nolan left Atari in the late 1980s, the first thing he did was create an educational computer camp for kids. Since then he’s never stopped ideating, experimenting, and dreaming about ways to improve education using the power of video games, and this book is the fruit of that lifelong obsession.

Nolan shared his story of founding Atari in his previous book, Finding the Next Steve Jobs. In that book he also confirms what he has long believed: that we learn more from our setbacks than from our successes. He is candid about how that perspective in life helped shape his approach to both games and education.

He says, “We build challenges into the games so there are setbacks and failures that the student learns to navigate. This is how to nurture grit and help students understand what one can do to find their way to the other side of those difficult and informative experiences.”

Nolan also has “Dad” experience on his resume, with three girls and five boys, all of them now exceptional adults. Clearly, as the father to eight kids, he’s comfortable being challenged.

Who Is Leah?

For the last decade, I have worked exclusively in education. First, as executive director and now CEO of the Two Bit Circus Foundation, I have developed and conducted professional development that encourages teachers to adopt project and problem-based learning in an effort to move teachers from lecture-style teaching to a more engaging, hands-on format. In the case of the Two Bit Circus Foundation we also add an environmental stewardship message to our programs and projects by using upcycled materials rescued from manufacturers’ waste streams. We have done this in hundreds of schools and have built 200-plus STEAM Lab Makerspaces (SLMs) filled with material and standards-aligned project books for teachers to help them work with their students to prototype their ideas.

Also during this time I worked with industry experts and educators like Russell Billings, former educator with NASA and STEM educator, and Darlene Torrez from the Department of Innovation of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), to design the STEAM curriculum. I presided over the design of this curriculum and introduced the program into the LAUSD, one of the world’s largest and most complex school systems. This was and is a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) program that engages children and teaching staff. In our ongoing relationship we train their teachers to engage the students in standards-aligned, project-based learning.

We then set up a successful program to install those SLMs into other unified school districts around the country.We design curriculum, maintain the labs with fresh materials, and, most importantly, offer professional development to teachers interested in moving from traditional teaching styles to learning by doing. We have trained hundreds of LA Unified teachers, under the auspices of the district administration, for the last seven years. We have done this in dozens of school districts in California and now also in Nashville, Tennessee. These SLMs are hubs of inquiry, exploration, and collaboration.

But my story as an educator doesn’t start with “I was doing so well at everything that I decided to stop, evaluate, and redirect my life into higher education.” No, as Nolan noted earlier, struggle is where the learning takes place. My story as an educator starts with “things were no longer working for me and I needed a change.” I had been in the entertainment industry for a couple of decades. It was where I had developed many of my entrepreneurial skills; I had a few great successes and a few spectacular failures. I had learned a great deal from those failures and was considering my options. Among those options was finishing a PhD and teaching at a local university, which I did for a few years. It was a considerable change from my earlier years in education, when I was a preschool teacher.

Our ability to face failures and find a lesson without seeing the experience as defeat is essential to the long-term success of a project, an education, or a career. Few have made it to the top of a profession or an industry without firsthand experience with failure. My way of adjusting was to follow a lifelong passion for education.

Education was a passion I couldn’t afford to follow as a young woman. I was a mother at 21 and a single mom by 25. I needed to make more money than I was earning as a nursery school teacher. So, rather than finish a degree and teach, I made choices about work rather than career in order to make a difference in my income. I often joke with friends that it took me 30 years to finish my homework. For those years I was a businesswoman and considered by those who knew me to be fairly successful.

I also bring that business and entrepreneurial experience to this discussion. I come with informed questions about education from a variety of personal perspectives, including as a mother of two children who completed their education in the public school system, first in Canada, followed by middle and high school in Los Angeles. As a community member, I mourn the reality of what I see in the physical buildings we send our children to year after year. Those buildings sometimes look more like detention centers than schoolyards. Nolan’s ideas about the physical building and its use for students are both intriguing and ripe for research, as you’ll see in the coming chapters.

So many of the issues I run into in the schools we serve punctuate the need for change from the physical experience of the building and schoolyard to the way we operate in the classroom.

Educators are our rock stars. They spend every day nurturing and inspiring our children. This book is our offering to those educators as well as every parent, community member, or business leader looking for ideas for implementing new systems in a world that may not be ready for, or embrace, change.

--

--

Greenleaf Book Group

Publisher and distributor serving independent authors and thought leaders.