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Google[x] as a model for education

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Two weeks ago, Google[x] was profiled in Fast Company.  It was notable not because of how fascinating a read it made, but because it was the first such profile the notoriously secretive Google[x] has ever allowed of itself.  Google[x], of course, is the ultra-secretive lab at Google dedicated to creating “moonshots.”  To date, it’s been responsible for giving the world Google Glass and Project Loon; other rumored projects still in works include incredible inventions like a ladder to the moon and connecting every appliance (and non-appliance) in your house to the internet, i.e., advancing the “internet of things.”

The [x] in its name initially represented a stand-in until people could figure out what to call the division; it now represents Google[x]’s desire to have 10x the impact of traditional product improvements.  They’re looking for impacting billions, ideally, though a few hundred million is acceptable.  Everything about Google[x] is remarkable.  It’s a skunkworks group, with a level of corporate support that every scientist would kill for.  Its ambitions are so great as to trivialize the “skunkworks” label for every other such division out there.  And it’s peopled by exaggerated versions of the smartest, most ADD kids you knew in school.  All of which combine to give it such a collegial mindset, you can’t help but wonder how to apply it to schools.

Define the Google[x] ethos

Here’s what I’ve gathered as the defining characteristics of Google[x]:

1) It is focused on outside-the-box thinking.  It’s not that practical thinking is shunned, but rather that practicality is never a limitation for idea generation.  While feasibility becomes a limiting factor as ideas are further refined, at least at the idea gen stage, you’d have better qualifications as a devoted comic book and sci-fi nerd than as an engineer of any sort.  Admittedly, the range of overlap between those two populations is quite large and Google[x] benefits from this happy coincidence.

2) Failure is embraced.  You’re happy to fail creatively, because it represents a chance to pursue a new, better idea.  Or, as the article shares, “Google X head Astro Teller embraces failure. Sometimes literally: In group meetings, he has been known to give hugs to people who admit mistakes or defeat.”

3) A complete lack of respect for traditional disciplinary boundaries.  Google[x] employees include Oscar-winning visual effects designers who happened to have been theoretical physicists as well.  The common theme is people who struggled with confining themselves to one or two majors in college.

4) Yet for all that, its employees are still hyper-competent.  In other words, it’s not just about the creative mindset and the strategic thinking; the lab demands hard engineering skills as well.   For example, the video profiles a discussion around energy transfer.  It’s not just expected that you can throw around some creative ideas and brainstorm, you’re expected to be able to build a thermoacoustic engine at beck-and-call.  Vice versa, too: the most structured engineers in the world would do nothing at Google[x] without having a creative bad-boy streak within them.

5) Unstructured projects.  You think up ideas, then go out to the hardware store, buy materials, and then try to mock up parts of it.  None of this is really scheduled, it appears.  Projects proceed and recede organically.  Watch FastCo’s video profile to get a real sense for this.

At the end of the day, Google[x] takes in remarkable people and Soylent Green’s their ideas into super powers for humanity.  It’s employees are able to A) generate crazy ideas, B) shoot them down on (somewhat) pragmatic bases, C) break down those ideas into testable components, and finally, D) build functioning prototypes using the latest shop floor technology that money (i.e., Google) can buy.

Note how as you progress from steps A -> D, the technical requirements of Google[x]ers become more intensive.  One way to read that is that the lab is a vertically integration of the “mental supply chain” – from idea generation to realization.  It is the source for raw materials (ideas); it processes them; and then produces outputs for consumption (testing). Another way to read the A -> D progression is that Google[x] is a Thoreauvian ideal of self-sufficiency for the technological age.  (Fun fact: the word “Thoreauvian” has all five vowels in it).

Google[x] and Thoreauvian education

That Thoreauvian notion of self-sufficiency got me thinking about Google[x] as a model for education.  It’s such an appealing idea because it promises to create problem solvers in this world.  Google[x]ers are, at their core, innovators and Google[x] is set up to hone that skill on what is ultimately an unprecedented scale of practicality – impact on billions of individuals.  Many classes today talk about problem solving, but the solutions to the problems they pose are typically just checkable against an answer key going from Step 1 through Step 10.  Chem Lab’s classwork, for example, asks you to “find the concentration ratio of a solution;” but the titration equipment provided as well as last night’s reading outline clearly the steps you need to take.  That can teach you some valuable skills, but it’s not quite creative problem solving.

So what does a Google[x]-inspired curriculum look like?  To start with, it would likely require implementation across an entire school system, rather than just one class.  Google[x] is a business model dramatically different from anything else in its corporate peerset; to replicate that difference would require a full scale educational commitment, not just 90 minutes a day.

Referring back to the five characteristics of Google[x], here’s some more ideas (with the cardinality switched around for narrative simplicity):

1) Unstructure.  This is the easiest concept to grasp but the hardest to effectively implement.  The school’s biggest challenge is that kids in school need to be taught basic knowledge like US History and Calculus.  That teaching will always require structure to some extent.  The compromise here is something like Mondays – Thursdays being run with lecture-based curricula.  All of Friday would be dedicated to Google[x]-like exercises.  (Coincidentally, this maps exactly to the Google 20% rule.)  In an elementary school environment, it might involve building siege weapons out of K’NEXs; in middle school, recreating narrative scenes from history or literature based purely on the verbal descriptions.  While step-based, there are numerous correct answers.

2) Outside-the-box thinking.  This might involve reading material weighted a little more towards science fiction or allowing special periods where students come in and teach small lessons themselves.  The creativity that many kids have is about as “outside-the-box” as it gets and you only encourage them by allowing them to assume a position of authority.

3) Failure is embraced.  This is fairly obvious.  I wouldn’t argue for a meaningful reduction in grading or standards, but find a way to replicate the ethos that failure is nothing more than a chance to improve.  Look no further than classes in the Orient.

4) Removal of traditional disciplinary boundaries.  This is another fairly obvious one, though it would require significant content creation to support.  You could still have bucketed subjects taught over the course of the day, but you would also exploit the opportunity to teach cross disciplines as well.  Leverage ballistics (or the physical sciences) to explore the doomed inefficiencies of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.  Think through the effects of the Black Plague not just from an historical or literary perspective, but the root biological causes.  I daresay our scientists would make better innovators, our liberal arts and artists similarly more potent, when thusly well-rounded.

5) Hyper-competent personnel.  This would emphasize real-world applications of scientific principles, e.g., calculating the volume of a basketball based on water volume displacement in a tub or ruler measurement.  This real-world bridge, especially with math, is typically missing in schools.  Even if there’s no practical purpose to measuring the volume of a basketball, it’s helpful to connect subjects to real world applications.  Students are slow to grasp just how saturated their lives are by quantifiable and qualifiable problems that they ought to be itching to solve.  A major reason is that schools, even when we do try to bring in the “real world” will do it just as a diagram of a basketball on a sheet with the measurements handily scrawled out on top of helpful arrows.


It’s hard to know what the outcomes of such a school might be; the idea is so revolutionary and long-ball oriented that until actually implemented, until we have time-series data on decades’ worth of graduating classes, the true impact is impossible to gauge.  Heck, it’s hard enough as it stands to know what the true impact of Google[x] is.  The very concept may in fact be defined by its unbeholdenness to a traditional conception of outcomes.

I’m desperate to see Google[x]’s human resource management process (FastCompany, unsurprisingly, has not reported on its employee evaluations).  How are the constituents of such an unorthodox program evaluated?  I’m guessing not on a 1 – 5 scale of work ethic or presentation skills.  Looking at this might provide the key to figuring out what “unstructure” in education ought to be accountable for on a periodic basis.  It may be that some minds are simply never meant to vertically integrate the full “mental supply chain” of idea generation to refinement to execution.  It may be that structure in education does in fact represent the best possible pedagogical basis – even if we fell backward into our current model.

I find it quite hard to internalize those two hypotheses, though.  Vertical integration is a Darwinian imperative – the earliest human beings needed it to survive.  And structure is merely societal confines.  It’s not so much that unstructure gets more information into one’s mind; it’s that unstructure forces people to learn how to use the existing information in more effective ways.  It, too, is, arguably, a Darwinian imperative.  (Pause for a sentence that begins with commas after each of its first four words.)

Let’s never forget that Google[x] exists to provide a revenue stream supplementary to Google’s dominant search product.  If it could produce toothpaste and achieve meaningful enough financial impact for Google, it would likely do that.   But the kind of ambition that Google[x]’s success requires is not to be taken lightly.  And for that reason alone, for brazen, bald-faced, unabashed ambition, it might serve as a great model for an educational approach.

Author: AJ

I'm an education enthusiast, growth equity investor, and MBA student at Wharton.

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