The Toolshed

A place for visioning, tinkering, and building around the topics of education reform, technology, and female entrepreneurship.

Month: December, 2013


A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of meeting the brilliant and thoughtful Jim Jacoby, founder and CEO of ADCMi, the American Design and Master-Craft Initiative.  (Check out his podcasts here — a fascinating and worthwhile listen.)  We met at 1871, a tech start-up incubator and home to ADCMi’s Chicago campus (such a cool space), and connected on a range of topics that funneled around the seismic waves that have been running through the higher education landscape over the past few years.  He asked whether I’d take a look at a draft white paper on “a new economics in education” that he was working on, and I eagerly accepted.  After completing the final sprint for Moneythink’s design engagement with (see my reflections on this experience here and here) and then enjoying the holidays with family and friends, I finally found time this morning to read through this bold treatise, which asserts that we are in the process of transitioning from a knowledge economy to a wisdom economy, and that this shift has broad and serious implications for our current education system.  I share this opinion, though I would quickly add that I believe that this transition will take a long time to complete and that there are many unsettling comprises that will be forced and accepted in the process that could have long-term detrimental repercussions.

To put a finer point on it, Jim comments that:

“…there’s a new set of market values that is trying to emerge at least along-side the old. As mentioned, relevance and wisdom is the emerging currency. Hard assets like facts have less value and can trade more efficiently without human intervention. Conversely, nuanced assets like relevance and wisdom have huge value and require significant human intervention. Consider the switch from the gold-standard to our current full-faith system. Moving piles of gold around to manage massive economies became silly. So how do we find our way to a new standard? Well, as has been feared with bitcoin, it’s not going to be found in throwing out the old systems wholesale. Instead, it will be a period of fair and transparent trading — within and between systems. In time the two value sets will rebalance or the new will overtake the old at least in terms of valued language and metrics.”

My fear is that during the “period of fair and transparent trading — within and between systems,” we will watch yet another class-based education gap emerge, one where the “haves” are earning traditional degrees from top universities, free to study liberal arts and other fields of study less directly applicable to current employer needs, and the “have nots” find themselves in a low-cost (or free), competency-based workforce training program (potentially one where employers and government agencies foot the bill).  While I find this scenario rosier than our current circumstances, where we have hundreds of thousands of students dropping out of college, finding themselves permanently indebted to an education that they frankly would have been better off avoiding from the start, and perpetuating a cycle of inter-generational poverty — it is a chilling scenario nonetheless.  (Note that I do not float lightly the comment about students being better off avoiding higher ed in the first place.  I wince to make such a comment, as I believe that education is a human right and that it is the cure to many social and cultural ills.  And I have been many times reminded of the statistic that individuals that complete college will, on average, earn $500K more than their counterparts that fail to do so.  But I have seen the numbers — around 50% college attrition! — and if we know that we can continue to expect these numbers, I feel that these individuals are far worse off with the enormous albatross of unforgivable student debt hanging around their necks.  We need a high school counselorship program that presents youth with options rather than prescriptions.  We need a culture that embraces the miscellany of different educational, trade, and employment pathways that students can and should take.  The artificial emphasis on earning a college degree is doing as much bad as it is good.  But this is a topic for another day — to be continued.)

The above scenario and much of Jim’s article also begs the bigger question: what is the purpose of education?  Jim criticizes our current educational model for being “disconnected from the employment market.”  But can we say that our system is failing if it is not creating a prepared workforce?  I would — but many will take issue with this assumption, and it is worth dwelling on, as I feel that much of the friction surrounding the “year of the MOOC” hovers around this central question.

Thoughts?  Objections?  Let me hear you!

Maker vs. Manager

One of the biggest adjustments between my previous position as director of a non-profit open courseware initiative and my current position as Chief Innovation Officer at Moneythink has been the tremendous mindshift between operating on manager’s time vs. maker’s time.  In the past, I derived inspiration from Sheryl Sandberg, striving for efficiency and a tightly-packed schedule organized around specific agendas.  I leaned on extensive calendar-driven to-do lists in order to measure and chart my progress and I strained for efficiency and punctuality in my day-to-day.

At Moneythink, I need to spend a lot of my time tinkering, brainstorming, observing, and commenting.  I need to block out large expanses of unstructured “maker’s time” during which I read, take copious notes, and — largely — write to know what I think.  Recognizing this “maker’s time” as equal to but materially different from “manager’s time” has required some mental gymnastics.   I’ve trained myself to be so output-oriented that living in the creative process has (at least in my first few weeks) occasionally left me feeling unproductive.  That being said, when I turn a big corner and find myself piecing together a more formal or robust representation of my thinking, I feel as though I’ve seriously accomplished something.  Perhaps part of living on maker’s time is recognizing that there may be latency in this system–I might need to adapt to a new cadence of achievement, but the scale of each achievement will be much more satisfying.

The other transition implicit in this shift is a move from managing people to creating things.  I have a lot of thoughts on management, but the high-level ones to note here are (1) that good managers are made, not born, and (2) that managing people well is incredibly difficult, full-stop. When I was initially promoted to a managerial position, I advanced because I was good at what I did — not because I had any business supervising the work of others.  And I would easily say that I failed far more times at managing my staff than I have in attempting to do anything else.  Management is a serious business and when you fail, you are impacting the experience, the emotions, and — in the worst of situations — the livelihood of those you manage.

While there are many things I valued about the opportunity of being a manager, it felt remote from the action.  I wanted to be in the weeds, doing the actual building and tinkering myself.  I’m right at home in my new role, though the shift back into the details has been more dramatic than I’d estimated.  Looking forward to sharing what I’ve been creating the last few weeks soon…

Outfield/Infield: Field Research with

I spent the better part of my first week on the job at Moneythink (now three weeks ago!) completing field research for our mobile application project with three incredible colleagues (and lovely people) from  There is no better onboarding experience I could imagine, full-stop.  I arrived, freighted with expectations, and I left, simultaneously bowled over by the power of what we’re doing and humbled by the imprecision of my novitiate assumptions.


{Our students at Christ the King Prep School completing some worksheets for us.  Image courtesy of’s esteemed John Won.}

Before I share the week’s many epiphanies (and I do mean epiphanies, in all its connotative glory — a word I do not take lightly thanks to a heavy application of James Joyce over the course of my graduate studies in literature), I should first mention the recurring feeling of moving into and out of zones of confidence and comfort over the course of the week.  Or rather, the feeling of blurring and then refocusing these zones as my perspective evolved.   I arrived imagining myself going into the outfield in a lot of ways — examining how youth that are underbanked, generally under-resourced, and overall economically distanced from the mainstream (and, to be candid, from my own experience) think about money.  In large part owing to’s human-centered design process, which I alternately shouldered and shadowed, I left with a radical reconceptualization of the playing field that left our teens playing the bases.  This grand shift in perspective is symptomatic of a range of other, smaller, adjustments and readjustments that had me moving from a position of insider to outsider and back again, from knowing to unknowing to knowing again, and so on.  (Perhaps this is the experience of all researchers, and if it is — wow.   I can’t help but connect the experience more broadly to tropes of Othering, The Subaltern, identity, and related literary jargon that occasionally haunt me.  We won’t go there today.)

But: let’s backtrack to the project itself.  Moneythink mentors urban, low-income youth in personal finance  through a near-peer mentorship model centered upon a 21-module Economic Opportunity Curriculum.  About a year ago, our CEO, Ted, noted and paired two important observations: a) nearly all of our students have smartphones and b) students make all of their financial decisions outside of school, i.e., outside of the Moneythink program, which runs in urban high schools.  Ted wanted to build a mobile tool that would extend the learning opportunity and afford students the chance to demonstrate that they’d taken to heart what they’d learned in class.  He’d more or less walked us right into that tricky, highly topical hotspot of topics around behavior change, the quantified self, and personal tracking.  With this app, we’re pushing away from measuring financial literacy (i.e., awareness of financial tools, decisions, behaviors) and driving towards measuring financial capability  (financial behavior and decision-making).  There are a lot of smart people thinking about the latter (including the bright folks at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the D2D Fund, with whom I have had the good fortune of speaking), but there aren’t yet any  rigorously tested measures that tell us: “Yes, this person is a financially capable individual because she has done x, y, and z.”

At any rate, we contracted with, the non-profit wing of the design giant IDEO, and the development firm CauseLabs, to figure out what this might look like.  Following IDEO’s protocol, we spent the first week interviewing our students, our mentors, experts in youth engagement, and youth not enrolled in Moneythink to learn how our core demographic interacts with money and mobile.


{Students play our budgeting game while’s Rafael looks on in the upper right-hand corner.  Image courtesy of’s John Won.}

Below, a few top-of-mind epiphanies:

1.  For our teens, money is social.  Money comes from people, is freely and widely discussed with people, and is most often spent with or for people.  Even among the more financially independent teens we interviewed, money has not yet become “professional” or been conceptualized as a part of an economy beyond their own communities.  Many of the teens leverage their relationships with their parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, siblings, and significant others in order to access money, which they tend to receive sporadically. Our teens are also uninhibited when it  comes to talking about their personal finances with others.  I couldn’t determine whether this is part of a culture of oversharing that Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media have cultivated or whether there are narrower, demographic-specific forces at play (maybe all youth are more willing than I recall to divulge this information?  Maybe these youth come from communities in which families are more likely to loan money to one another, thus removing the taboo?)  Regardless, these teens seemed eager to share and interested in a solution that might require a friend or peer to approve/comment on spending and saving habits.  Finally, our youth often contribute back to their families if they are earning money or spend their money shopping and eating with friends.

2.  Money is earned sporadically.  The majority of our teens have not yet entered the workforce and receive money from family members on their birthdays, at Christmas, and through occasionally dispensations of “spending money.”  For this reason, budgeting, while an important lesson in our curriculum, feels remote for our teens.

3. Teens may face legitimate constraints around opening a savings account (or any bank account, for that matter).  Coming into the project, I had anticipated that one metric we might use for measuring financial health could be the number of students we had moved from operating on a cash-only basis to opening a savings account.  We discovered that, as mentioned above, many of our students have not yet entered the workforce, making a savings account an unlikely tool — and, further, making a mobile application designed to reward the act of savings challenging to implement from a logistical standpoint.  (If our teens receive money sporadically, this might mean only two or three opportunities per year to move money into savings.)  Secondly, some of our students on the West side of Chicago (and I am presuming this to be true in other urban areas) are undocumented and are therefore unable to open bank accounts.  Some of our mentors working primarily on the West side of the city estimated that up to 80% of their classes are undocumented!  Finally, branched banks are a scarcity in low-income urban areas — there are few financial incentives for banks to open in these communities.  We spoke with a representative from a big bank who mentioned that the individuals we serve tend to carry low balances and tend to run up overhead costs by calling customer service for account information, requiring additional support for everyday transactions, and using the in-branch services more than the average client.  There are potential solutions here (a fully online bank; credit unions; etc.) but given that we work in around 30 different communities across the U.S., this may take a long time to sort.

4.  Our teens are uniquely resourceful.  As I mentioned here, our teens display an admirable and innate resourcefulness.  During a budgeting exercise, my colleagues and I were wowed by the cleverness of their financial decision-making — they knew how make a dollar stretch in the most minute of ways, whether by getting rid of a data plan and using free WiFi at a known local spot, trading out a phone for a laptop with a messaging app installed, eating at home, finding bus vouchers through community services, etc.  Watching the four girls in my group pool these cost-savings strategies was nothing short of incredible — their instinct for saving was self-evident.  There were many other one-off instances of this behavior, including one student who, during a lesson on compound interest, suddenly perked up and said: “Why don’t you just put a lot of your money in right before they add the accumulated interest at the end of the month and then take it out?”  Though we explained that this strategy wouldn’t pan out, I was impressed with how quickly they were thinking about ways to optimize the return.

5.  Our teens are genuinely distanced from the mainstream and learn about personal finance from their friends.  I cannot tell you how many times I heard students ask practical, need-to-know questions like: “How do I open a bank account?” “How do I know what bank account is OK?” “Is a college loan a good idea?”  “How do I take out a college loan?”  “My friend said X account is the worst because they have the most fees.  Is that true?”  In sharing this with one of my friends at the Center for Financial Services Innovation, she responded: “And what happens when Moneythink isn’t there to answer those questions?  Do they just stop asking?  Where do they go?”  Observing the lack of information and the lack of resources that these students have around accessing financial products and financial information was just the sort of self-evident assessment that I needed to remind me of why the work so many are doing in the area of financial literacy is relevant and needed.

6.  Also, teens like selfies.  A stray thought, but we were struck by this common refrain throughout our interviews with teachers, mentors, and students.  There is something interesting to glean from this from a design standpoint — the smartphone’s design has popularized an entire genre of photography by virtue of its ease of use and its facility in self-expression.

More to come soon…!

Heutagogy + Mentorship.

I recently came across this chart legislating the differences between pedagogy, andragogy, and heutagogy.  Setting aside the awful terms of art we’re facing here, I was struck by how off-putting — or, more fairly and aptly, out-of-date — the pedagogy column is and how relieved I am that revisionist educators like John Hunter and Sugata Mitra are evangelizing with a different pedagogical credo.  I mean — really, what is to be said of the statement: “The learner has few resources — the teacher devises transmission techniques to store knowledge in the learner’s head”?  The language alone makes my stomach turn: while we’re at it, please insert a chip in my head and call me a robot.  Moreover, most of the children I’ve met have two incredible resources that many adults lack — a natural curiosity and wide-roaming imagination.  (As an aside, I recognize that I’m writing with particular and perhaps unfair force on this point.  Sugata Mitra has elegantly noted that “it’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken — it’s not broken, it’s wonderfully constructed.  It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated.”  Elsewhere, he has commented: “The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a [schooling] system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists.”  In short, we should be critical but fair when addressing the current education system, acknowledging the deep roots of our current model and, above all, avoiding at all costs denigration of the teacher.  My sister teaches K-1 at a public school in Virginia and the way she manages the multiplicity of simultaneous demands, instincts, and responses cycling through her classroom is nothing short of magic to me. )

Returning to the chart and setting this jarring “pedagogy” column aside, I honed in on the term “heutagogy” as a useful coinage to describe some of the areas of the education industry that have been generating the most buzz: the MOOC (and, to split hairs, the cMOOC, not the xMOOC), the flipped classroom, and educational gaming.  (To be fair, Maria Montessori paved the path for this art form long before we had the Internet.)  It occurred to me that the phrase also aptly describes the approach Moneythink is going for in our classrooms: not financial education, but financial mentoring, financial heutagogy. Our mentors are coaching students as they encounter–to quote my brilliant colleague Ted — “the densest concentration of life-changing financial decisions that they will ever make in their lives.”  We aren’t making decisions for them or prescribing financial products and solutions or peddling a circumscribed financial agenda–we are equipping them with the language, tools, and awareness to address decisions as they arise; we are guiding the conversation; we are listening.  I warmed to the phrasing in the chart: “managing the self-managed.”  I like the framing here and want to bring this home to our hard-working mentors as a new lens for understanding what they are doing in the classroom as a part of our soon-to-launch “Xcelerator” Google Hangout series (more on that, including a likely name change, to come soon).

As I reflected on this framing in conjunction with my experience conducting field research with our partner (see early thoughts from my colleague and co-conspirator on the team, Rafael, here), I felt a sudden jolt, a tug at the end of the fishing line.  I recalled that while I had been in the midst of an epic brainstorming session that may or may not have involved a brief photo-shoot with an branded stuffed animal, Rafael asked: “We should begin by asking: What’s right with these students?  What makes them unique?”  The question was arresting.  We’d talked a lot about teens in general, about how they spend money and interact with mobile.  But what about the specific slice of the demographic–low-income, urban 11th and 12th-graders–to which Moneythink caters? As an edu-nerd, I instantly thought about all I’d read on the topic of strengths-based education and found myself traveling down a long thought cycle circling around our curriculum.  But from a design standpoint, it made me realize that one of the tremendous and unique strengths of our core demographic (those that I’d spent a lot of time interviewing and observing) is just how scrappy and resourceful they are, and in the most unexpected of ways.  (I’ll explain this in full in a later post — lots of rich examples here.)  I commented that our students know how to save money and make money stretch far better than we could ever project.  The design of our solution would therefore need to be more flexible, more lightweight, even, to accommodate the miscellany of their individual financial narratives and decisions.  (PS: I realize I’ve said this a lot, but more on the overall project to come soon, too.)

As I thought about heutagogy, then, this revelation from our design discussion began to sing–what if both the technological and educational modalities we’re working on share the same design ethos: to make space for the student to learn and experiment and do on his or her own, but with support (and the occasional nudge) from either a mentor or the mobile app we’re building?  More to come…