Babbel: So, let’s jump right into it. I’d like to have you just tell me a little bit more about yourself, your various experiences, and how Getting Smart came to be.
Tom Vander Ark: I’m an engineer by original training. Backed into finance, worked for a big energy company, quit and started a planning company. Jumped to a startup, Costco competitor that went from zero to $5 billion in five years, where I was CFO. We sold the company to Kmart. I spent two years running a technology practice for Capgemini, and then became a public school superintendent. Traditional pathway, right?
I was the first business executive to try to be a public school superintendent. Did that for five years, then helped Bill and Melinda start the Gates Foundation in 1999. Spent the first eight years there, ran the X PRIZE Foundation for a few years, and then left to start the first edtech venture fund, which is now called Learn Capital. While I was launching that, my wife started what became Getting Smart to advocate for innovations in learning. I joined her full time about six or seven years ago. We were also able to hire both daughters. So Caroline runs Getting Smart, and our daughter Katherine runs our non-profit Edu-innovation. So the future of learning is decidedly a family affair. We’re kind of all in on innovations and learning because we just think it’s the most important thing that anybody could work on. Given the exponential change that’s happening around the globe, and the concentration of wealth and power that is going with it, we think the most important antidote is learning. And so we’re really excited about the new opportunity to learn more, faster. And to spread that more equitably around the world.
Babbel: That’s great. We’re obviously big fans of learners, that’s our community here — probably more specifically lifelong learners. What we do find is a lot of Babbel subscribers have previously studied a foreign language in their school career at some point, usually in K-12. And they still felt, for some reason or another, they’re unable to really use their foreign language skills. What are you seeing as primary challenges for teaching and learning?
Tom Vander Ark: Well, like most things, 20 and 30 years ago we sought content rather than practical and applied knowledge. So we taught the rules of grammar rather than teaching global competence. And I think at the core of global competence is really being conversational in a world language. So I think approaches like Babbel are super important. They create personalized pathways, rapid pathways to mastery, maybe initial mastery. And subjects like world languages are just more important than ever. We’re living in a global planet and the ability to understand yourself as a citizen of the world has never been more important. And one of the best ways to learn about the world is to travel, and knowing a world language is, I think, an important subset of that.
Babbel: I would agree with that. You mentioned competency, and that reminded me of some reading I’ve been doing. Maine and Vermont are looking towards making proficiency, competency-based [high school] diplomas the standard. Both of which I think include requirements around learning a second language. I’m curious if you have a take on this.
Tom Vander Ark: So the world is moving to competence. What we mean by that, it’s a “show what you know” world. We’re moving away from seat time, taking Spanish one-two-three to standards of initial mastery. And we’re really excited about what’s happening in New England, the five New England states have, to varying extents, adopted proficiency or competency-based diplomas, that describes what graduates need to know and be able to do.
We think most of K-12 will move in that direction over the next few years, but it’s extraordinarily challenging. It really changes everything about how we’ve organized school. But the neat thing about world languages is that as we’ve written at Getting Smart, world language teachers have understood competence forever. And they’ve often been leaders in personalized and competency-based learning, often blended learning as well. Creating combinations of face to face and online. And we think this move to blended, personalized, and competency-based creates a great opportunity for world language teachers to shine, and take on leadership roles in their school to describe what those kind of learning experiences and environments are like.
Babbel: It’s estimated that 21 percent of American households speak a language other than English at home. Have you seen any innovation in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages)? Or any specific challenges that you think are worth talking about?
Tom Vander Ark: Well, I’m excited to see school districts around the country embracing dual language. For the last 30 years it’s been a sprint to English, and almost always that meant forfeiting or forgetting about competence in one’s native language. But we think there’s a growing body of evidence that nurturing literacy in a native language while learning English is really important. And that, as you mentioned, New England states embracing language proficiency as part of a new diploma, we’re really excited to see districts like Dallas and Houston, and El Paso, to embracing a dual language for all students. And once you do that, we’re seeing a growing number of students, not only becoming proficient in English and Spanish, but taking on a third language. This has been common in Europe for 100 years, and it’s exciting to begin to see it happen in the United States. We’re at a point now where every high school in the country can and should offer four or five languages. Not everybody can staff those with a teacher, but with online resources and apps like Babbel it’s quite possible for one teacher to have a world language class where students are learning four or five different languages and often connecting with native speakers around the world.
Babbel: What do you think are some of the benefits for students who learn a second or third language?
Tom Vander Ark: Well, the most practical is that we live in a global culture and that there’s monetary benefit. You’re worth more as a graduate if you have at least conversational proficiency that you can put on your resume. So it’s likely that you’ll make more in your first few jobs. But beyond that, I think the ability to travel internationally and interact as a native is so valuable in terms of the cultural experiences that you’ll have. But interestingly, I think traveling internationally is often the most important way that we learn about ourselves and the country that we live in. Looking back at the United States across the ocean is a great way to reflect on who we are and where we’re headed. I spent Christmas in Rome and Paris, and in Rome, I was there with speakers of Italian and it just dramatically increased the enjoyment of our trip in the way that we were able to interact with restaurants and shopkeepers. We struggled a bit more in Paris, and so just the contrasting of traveling with proficient speakers and not, really changed how we were able to enjoy the vacation.
Another thing I want to add is learning a language, I think, is an interesting way to create empathy. It does help you, we’ve talked a little bit about global competence, and a big part of global competence is empathy and being able to walk in other people’s shoes. Learning a language is a really valuable way to do that, to build empathy and cultural competence. The reason that that is important is that we’re facing not just technical problems, but adaptive problems, and these are problems that we’ve never faced before. And the first step in an adaptive problem, this is the first step of design thinking, is empathy, empathy research and beginning to understand what other people are experiencing. We’re really excited that more and more schools are adopting design thinking and embracing social and immersive learning. And we think learning a world language is really an important cousin to these growing trends because it does help to build empathy for other people.
Babbel: That’s interesting and it reminds me, earlier you mentioned being a global citizen and the fact that that’s important. And I’m curious, especially given your experience at the Gates Foundation, what does being a global citizen mean to you? What are you hoping to inspire in young people by giving them this sort of education and what do you hope that they do with that?
Tom Vander Ark: The most important lesson that I learned from Bill and Melinda is that all lives have equal value, and that was really the foundation of everything that we did at the Gates Foundation. And I think it’s a key tenet of global citizenship just recognizing that each of us has benefits living in a particular nation. But we increasingly, because our world is characterized by urbanization, and globalization, and automation, we’re living together in cities, but we’re connected together around the world. So being connected in this network of cities means that we just have a much higher level of interaction with people around the world. Being able to manage through those connections, having empathy for and valuing other people I think is key. And then just navigational competence of having at least a beginning understanding of how to conduct one’s self in and as part of a different culture I think is another important part of global competence. The last thing I would add is just stewardship, understanding that we share this planet with seven, soon to be eight billion other people and that we have a responsibility to those other people. We have a responsibility to our grandkids to take better care of the place that we live.
Babbel: What are you most excited about in the immediate future regarding learning and technology?
Tom Vander Ark: Well, we’re living through a period of exponential technology. I think we’ve actually in 2017 entered a new era, we left the information age and joined the automation age. When a code that learns, artificial intelligence, I think will prove to be the most important invention in human history. And so, understanding how to lead these augmented lives and work with smart tools as a new team member I think is the most important innovation out there, and that’s true in the world of work. It will become true in the world of learning as more and more of our learning apps become smarter and incorporate AI. That’s going to be combined with Blockchain, a distributed ledger, which is going to continue to decentralize services. It will eventually allow each of us to have a really comprehensive learner profile that we can manage ourselves, and then we’ll be able to grant permissions. When I sign on to Babbel I’ll be able to grant permission for my language competency, but I won’t have to grant permission, for example, for my math competency. And so I’ll be able to grant permissions to portions of my learner profile to new schools, and to new learning partners, and to new learning apps and that’ll run on Blockchain. So the combination of AI and Blockchain as the new internet of value transaction is really gonna mark the next 10, maybe 20 years.
Babbel: And, specifically, how do you think technology can help improve the language-learning experience?
Tom Vander Ark: Well technology now in the United States, we’ve come close to closing the digital divide — most schools are wired and have something close to one-to-one technology. And in fact, we’ve moved past one-to-one where most students in the United States have at least a three-screen day. They have a mobile device for consumption, they have a production device, a laptop or a Chromebook. And then they have a sharing device, a screen at school, a large TV, something that they can share out with. And soon they’ll start adding watches and Fitbits to that, so we’ll soon have a four screen day and be able to move seamlessly from screen to screen and from function to function, from consumption to collaboration to production across each of those screens. The interesting thing that I think we keep relearning is that, for most of us, learning is motivated by relationship. So I want to underscore how important sustained relationships are, that most of us are motivated by these relationships, most of us learn in community. And so even though we’re moving from screen to screen, it’s really the people around us, our advisors, our mentors, our teachers are going to be most important in helping us navigate this new environment and make good technology, literacy decisions.
Babbel: So just to recap so I understand, is it the integration of more seamless technology and then those relationships with mentors and teachers that help provide the motivation?
Tom Vander Ark: Yes. It’s interesting, we wrote a book two years ago called Smart Parents, and in that book argue that the new divide is no longer technology since just about everybody’s connected. It’s the guidance divide, you have adults, teachers, advisors, and mentors in your life that are helping you make good decisions about what to do next and what to learn next. As human beings, we often do the easy thing next, but if you want to be a lifelong learner the most important next step may actually be rather unpleasant, it may be difficult. And so having people in your life and eventually smart algorithms in your life, that help you do not necessarily the easy thing, but the most important thing next is really, really important. We’re big fans of advisories in the secondary level. We think when a student reaches middle and high school it’s more important than ever to have a sustained adult relationship that often happens in some kind of an advisory structure, an advisory period. So we think it’s important that one or two, preferably three adults are checking in with the student every day, monitoring their academic and social progress. Connecting them with the supports that they need to develop and succeed.
Babbel: Yeah, I think it’s important to highlight that. Even though you’re advocating for technology like AI and algorithms, human connection and advice is so important in making all of that happen, and making students successful.
Tom Vander Ark: Yeah, right. It may seem ironic, but the most important student learning outcomes today are not content knowledge, but the basics of reading, writing and math continue to be important. But what is most important is really social and emotional learning, the ability to manage yourself, to gauge social situations, to manage your social interactions, to be a productive member of a team. And in that context, really prioritizing social and emotional fits right in with the conversation we had about global competence. Being able to work on diverse teams with team members, some of which may be present with you, but some may be located around the world. And to make those diverse teams super productive and with people you know well and people you just met be able to sprint to public deliverables in team settings is super important. So young people that develop this global competence and comfort working with people that are different than themselves are going to have a huge leg up.
Babbel: What’s been the most valuable thing you’ve learned about learning while working in the education and innovation space?
Tom Vander Ark: I wrote a book about school networks that will come out in June. And what I learned writing about school networks is that technology has developed rather slowly and some of us are disappointed after 20 years of this that it hasn’t done more to dramatically improve learning. But it’s really how technology supports teachers and new learning models that’s key. So the real innovations in learning are not tools, but what tools allow us to do. So it’s the new learning environments that are being created and often scaled up as school networks like Summit Learning, New Tech Network, Labs, and at the higher ed level, Minerva. These are re-conceptualized learning experiences and environments that are enabled by new technology. But it’s really not the tools that are the breakthrough, it’s the educations that are designing new environments as a result of the new set of capabilities. So teachers are more important than ever, but today they are, as one of our favorite schools describes, teachers as “learning experience designers.” It’s a mouthful, but this new task of designing learning experiences and taking full advantage of all the technologies that exist, that really is the new challenge in front of us.