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Rethinking the Education Equation

Akaash Nanda, Stanford University November 17, 2015

Too many of us use the terms “going to school” and “getting an education” interchangeably when, in fact, a formal education is just one part of it. The experience of classical schooling is multi-faceted and encompasses a mix of acquiring academic knowledge and softer, more abstract skills. Though fundamental knowledge serves as the foundation for any innovation, being an entrepreneur takes much more than just book smarts alone.

Once, in the midst of his own academic pursuits, Albert Einstein beautifully captured all that an education is: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” That’s not to say school isn’t important — it is. But perhaps the biggest takeaways are retaining the thirst for knowledge beyond graduation, and building upon the life skills that helped get us there. While impressive, graduating from a prestigious college with a slew of classes aced and a degree in hand doesn’t necessarily say anything about a person’s ability to succeed professionally. In the video below, Stewart Butterfield, co-founder and CEO of Slack, dispels the notion that an elite education guarantees excellence.

So what else should we look for in an education? The true test should be that we are able to demonstrate our learning and showcase the skills we acquire. And perhaps grades alone can’t adequately capture this. Then what can? In the following clip, Sal Khan describes a new model for education from his book The One World Schoolhouse. The founder and executive director of the free learning platform Khan Academy highlights that walking out of school with a portfolio of work, projects and accomplishments says more about one’s ability — both as a student and as a member of the workforce — than grades and a degree do alone.

This is already the case at Stanford and campuses across the country, where experiential education is being emphasized just as heavily as traditional learning approaches. There is obvious value in both, but differing opinions abound on the importance of domain-specific expertise versus the development of someone who can just jump in and learn along the way. The debate is particularly fascinating when you pose that question to scholars and practitioners sitting right next to each other – as we see here:

A formal education remains incredibly important for a variety of reasons: It offers a venue for exposure to a wide breadth of topics and offers us the opportunity to make connections across disciplines. For entrepreneurs, school not only provides subject-matter knowledge, but also the frameworks necessary to remain a lifelong learner. Academic institutions are incredible places where curious minds gather to learn for the sake of learning. Ultimately, however, let’s not forget that classes, schooling and degrees are just part of the education equation.