We Need Intent-Based Education
Category : Society 5.0
I wrote this article as a follow up to a very short exchange on Linkedin with Dr. Tassos Anastasiades, head of the Edubridge International School. That long an answer to so short a conversation is probably why I’m not invited at parties more often.
For the longest time, the education system worked fine for the needs of the business world. The business as a well-oiled machine metaphor made sure employers were looking for people able to execute orders and little else. Creativity, questioning, and exploration were the prerogatives of a handful of innovators. For the rest of the workforce, those traits were more trouble than they were worth.
But that’s not the case anymore. In today’s world, we need people who can tap into their full potential. We need people who will transform and adapt the way we work, explore the world, and organize so we, as a society, can face the challenges ahead. For that, we need students who can think for themselves, who can explore solutions, make and learn from mistakes, and who will joyfully jump at the chance to tackle a good challenge.
While many education professionals spearhead innovative approaches to learning, we must admit that for the most part, our current system still relies on outdated ideas. We have knowledge info-dumps meant to be learned by heart, followed by a grade that either reward or punish the student. This isn’t working for what we need to prepare our society for the future that’s arguably already here.
We need Intent-based Education (IBE): an education system where teachers set the intention as well as a few goals, and where students will explore their way there. It’s not about pre-defined truths, but about the journey through a diversity of knowledge to reach a goal.
This idea isn’t new. You can find echoes of this in George Couros’ The Innovator Mindset, a practical approach targeted at classrooms. I myself used IBE as a consultant and trainer in organizational design, where I helped my clients design the structure and processes that made the most sense for their industry and companies.
I took inspiration from L. David Marquet’s intent-based leadership, as described in his book Turn the ship around. It is one of the most essential books in leadership and business you can find, period. In a (tiny) nutshell, as a leader, state the intent and then let your crew of professional find the best way to take you there. There’s more to it. Read the book. There are a few videos on YouTube too if you want a taste before jumping on the book.
Once they graduated, students of intent-based education systems will be well equipped to face our future. Their mindset of exploration and experimentation will make them constant innovators, stimulated by new ideas. Fast and nimble companies will be built of this type of employees. In older, slower companies, they will bring with them the germ of a more modern attitude.
As we enter the age of AI, drastic changes will come to the workplace. The adaptability gained through IBE will help workers reinvent themselves and stay one step ahead of automation. To be able to compete on creativity, lateral thinking, passion, curiosity, and empathy, AI technology will need to evolve beyond narrow-type AI to a general-type AI. This kind of technological shift will not happen tomorrow.
This model isn’t difficult to learn nor costly to put in place, requiring no special tools, physical space, or technology. Its benefits will impact the entirety of our society.
IBE in a nutshell
InIntent-based education is project-driven and uses a small set of techniques to help students explore and make their own way through the subject matter. It is a practical way to learn.
The teachers amongst you will undoubtedly note that most, if not all, of the techniques described here and below are already used in classes. That’s entirely true, and they are because of they work. The goal of intent-based education isn’t to reinvent the wheel, but to organize all of those tidbits of awesomeness into a cohesive model, and ditch what doesn’t add value.
The team vs. the individual
The IBE model aims to grow each student so they can be well-equipped to face a world in rapid, constant evolution. But in a classroom, teachers rarely have the necessary bandwidth to provide every student with the level of care they need. The answer? We enlist the help of every student.
IBE lighten the load put on the teachers’ shoulders by organizing students in teams. Teams works together, do research and experiments as a group, and must develop strategies to reach the goal. The discussion around those is a vital part of the learning process. Students are encouraged to help each other grow and learn, as it makes the entire team’s progress that much easier and faster. Continuous improvement is supported by teacher-guided but student-led retrospective sessions, aimed at course learning contextualization. These sessions also offer course correction for both the team and individual members.
The entire classroom gets involved in the process. Each team must regularly present their results to the class. They explain their strategies, experiments, successes, and failures. Both the class and the teacher recommends further work on specific things, from academic subjects to techniques used.
We’ll see a bit more about that below.
IBE is project-driven, using a clear set of goals, a specified intent for the task, and a set of constraints to help guide the students. Keep in mind that different teams can have different goals and constraints for their projects, but try to keep the intent similar for all as a theme for the work of the entire classroom. It will ease learning at the time of the presentations.
The concept of SMART goals is well known and used in the business world to a significant effect. Tons of literature about them are available through a simple web search. The acronym SMART means:
Specific: The conditions for success should be clear and actionable. Students should correctly understand what is expected of them.
Measurable: Use metrics and/or milestones to monitor progress and accuracy toward the goal. The students should themselves be able to measure their progress toward the goals using those metrics.
Achievable: Never set up your students for failure. Every goal should be achievable. If your students don’t believe those goals are achievable, then they should be able to challenge them. That discussion would be a great learning moment.
Relevant: Teachers have their own goals as to which academic subjects they need to inculcate to the students. The goals should represent that, and the student should be aware of what they are intended to learn.
Time-bound: How long will be the project lasts? When are the milestones due? Shorter projects are better than longer ones, as procrastination can’t be an option.
According to the theory of constraints, a handful of carefully-selected constraints improves focus and creativity. It’s up to the teachers to establish boundaries for the sandbox the students will work in. They can include some choice constraints to force the students just outside of their comfort zone. “I need a complete mathematical proof,” “You can only use the local library, no internet” or “I want to present your arguments with a counter argument built from the writing of these two authors” are prime examples of constraints.
Those constraints can vary from one team to the next. Some students need help to keep focus. Others will enjoy a bit of extra challenge. Simple constraints are an easy way to personalize learning.
In IBE, there is not one specific answer to any challenge or project. Students should be looking to find the “right way” but to explore various paths to the goals.
We see failure as a learning tool. Students are encouraged to build their experiments to either succeed or fail fast, so they can learn and move on to the next experiment. The only way to truly fail in this model is either by not trying at all or by refusing to learn anything from the process. A context of safety is required for students to learn from their failure. In this regard, a teacher has two roles. The first one is to make sure students don’t waste too much time chasing shadows. The second is helping them draw the most learning from any failure.
The constraints should keep them on track most of the time, but not railroad them. Creativity is desirable and expects some solution to be completely unexpected.
A few core techniques
Rather than an extensive pre-determined curriculum, intent-based education is more flexible and rely on a few core techniques that will allow students to explore and experiment.
Working as a team is nowadays a requirement for an increasingly large number of jobs. Yet, there is far more to efficient teamwork than just asking a group of people to work together. It has to be learned. It is, however, nearly impossible to learn teamwork properly when you are evaluated, rewarded, or punished on an individual level. School is the best place to learn real teamwork.
Doing research should be a core skill for anyone living in our society, where most specific information is readily available when you know how to search for it. Efficient research frees us from having to learn too much specific information that will probably be outdated within months. Critical thinking in analyzing researched information must be part of the research skill set.
Experiments are core to the model, and I find it one of the best way to learn. In order to learn, intent-driven students must try stuff. Small, controlled experiments are the way to go, as they allow to try out practically anything without much risks. Theses low-risks experiments are defined in goal, very limited in both time and budget, and meant to generate more information than a simple binary answer. I teach this technique to adults to be used in the workplace and as part of an innovation strategy, so I can attest it will benefit students all their lives.
Narrative-driven presentations tap on the human superpower of storytellingto frame data and experience into a relatable and entertaining format. The days of the boring Excel presentation filled with dry facts are gone, and students need to learn to captivate audiences. Luckily, the nature of IBE is to focus on the journey and not just the end, meaning that student will have tales of experiments gone awry, wild-goose chases and sudden realizations to liven up whatever information they had to deliver.
Evaluating ourselves and others is something we have to do our entire lives. It is a crucial part of learning critical thinking. The evaluation here isn’t based on grading, but instead takes the form of a constructive discussion aimed at continuous improvement.
Continuous improvement is key always to adapt and grow, regardless of the situation we’re in. Building a fixed mindset or process for ourselves can only ensure where become hopelessly outclassed over time. IBE’s design focus on the journey, open-mindedness, and constructive criticism. Its goal is to make continuous improvement second nature for students.
Monitoring and guidance
The role of the teacher changes a lot in this model. Once the student teams are sent on their path, what is left to do (so to speak) is monitoring and guidance.
Monitoring simply means that the teacher keeps on eye on the progress, roadblocks, and learning of the students, while also goading them toward more experimentation, pushing their limits and taking a few risks. It could be done through a weekly 30-minute review per team taking the form of a guided discussion. That discussion needs to be structured to cover the important bits, as well as include some free-form moments to make unconscious challenges or patterns of the students emerge.
Based on that review, in the coming weeks, the teacher can guide the student toward unexplored paths, new, or mentor them through a difficult roadblock. By doing so, the teacher becomes both a coach and sometimes a mentor to the teams, allowing them to reach beyond their own perceived limits.
Often, the teacher will stumble upon good teachable moments and bring the class together so that everyone can be exposed to it and benefit from it. Those teachable moments can include passing information, and/or crowdsource the solution to a roadblock to the entire class.
Final review and retrospective
Grading sucks. After all these years, I’m still unsure if the goal of grading is to test your memory, your state of mind on the day of the exam, or your discipline in managing your time doing your research paper. Officially, it’s none of these things. Practically, I don’t think it tests those things well either.
Grading is a way to compare students, turning a personal and communal journey to education into a pointless competition where what matters the most is how you performed compared to a bunch of other students. What’s the value in that? At a more fundamental level, what’s the need or even purpose of it?
Since intent-based education features actual exploratory journeys through facts, experiments, and exchange of thoughts, what matters the most is:
1) What they learned during the entire journey (successes and failures are essential)
2) How they applied all that knowledge and turned it into a concrete solution
3) How they can communicate their experience with others
4) How they can evaluate the experience of others, and add it to their own journey
The benefit of basing the model around concrete projects defined by a clear intention, some goals, a set of constraints, is that students will explore different ways to achieve the goals while keeping in mind what they are supposed to learn. Along the way, they’ll learn and experience a lot more than what was stated, and it is this comprehensive journey that will be the real teacher.
Evaluations must evolve to represent that. Having the right, rote answers is irrelevant. In fact, as there are many ways to achieve success, there are many interpretations of the results possible. Rather than relying on grades, the point of an assessment is to find the most appropriate way to help the student grow further, based on the four criteria mentioned above. The follow-up to such assessment could include additional help on one of the criteria while asking the student to act as a mentor to a classmate for another criterion.
At the end of the project, students present what they’ve done and learned. Not just the result, but the entire journey with its successes and failures. Not just what they were intended to learn, but all the lessons and wisdom they acquired along the way. They present, no, share their experience to the entire class. They have to not only report on results but pass knowledge and wisdom to others.
This looks a bit like the review and retrospective sessions we find in the business world with Agile models. The goal is to present progress and then work on everyone’s continuous improvement by discussing what works, what doesn’t, and what we should aim to improve for next time. Of course, continuous improvement is something that must be done continuously, not just in sessions, but those sessions are always a great time to absorb the journey of others and gain different perspectives.
This means that gradation should be done in large part by students. Not only the knowledge acquired and results achieved, but the capacity to properly pass on the wisdom they gained. Yes, people will be evaluated on their ability to frame information as a story. Storytelling is how humans build advanced social networks and civic structures, created science and religion, developed a sense of who we are in the grand scheme of things. It’s one of the most important skill of all humanity as well as the best way to communicate in any context.
I know this approach is already used in some classrooms. I’ve experienced something akin to it a few times myself. I believe that with the rest of the model, the benefits from this practice will be magnified compared to what can be had today.
Benefits for students
Students are the first beneficiaries of an intent-based education. Not only it will give them the knowledge they need to survive, but also the right tools to thrive in an increasingly uncertain world.
More options in life than ever before
We live in a great era, where we have far more options opened to us than ever before. Yet, our education model pushes us toward increasing specialization. The direct effect is that graduating students end up with lessoptions than with more general education or a broader outlook.
With an intent-based education, students will naturally widen their horizons. They gain an array of expertise at different levels, coupled with the right skills to dig deeper and combine them as needed. This capacity for learning and adaptation will open many more fields to them, and ease jumping from field to field.
Theses day, in the gig economy, people change jobs more often than before. This situation is not about to change — quite the contrary. With the rise of automation and artificial intelligence, work fields where human are competitive are going to shift, and continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The versatility granted by an intent-based education will make it all the easier for them to always find employment where they can bring value.
Development of a strong agency
Agency, the ability for individuals to make their own choices and act on their environment, is a cornerstone of who we are. Deprived of it, we lose our drive, just like an animal in a cage for too long.
And yet, as essential as agency is for our mental health, we have built entire systems around us designed to curb our agency as much as possible. We build hierarchies and representative systems, where other people will use their agency on our behalf. Worse, we created bureaucracy: sets of pre-defined decisions enshrined in rules that are meant to be followed blindly rather than challenged or adapted. Bureaucracy commits three cardinal sins: it deprives us of our agency, yes, but it also fixes itself by creating more bureaucracy and produces loads of work without an associated value.
Living in those conditions is devastating for people. The number of depressions and burnouts in the workplace is on the rise, year after year. It’s unsurprising when we learn that 60% of workers do not feel engaged, and 15% feel actively disengaged, according to Canada Human Ressources Center.
People with a strong sense of agency and an education that has shown them in a practical way that they don’t have to settle for a life where they are deprived of it can hopefully fare better. The combination of agency and the right skills can also improve the chances that they will be able to do something to change that system. They can do that by evolving their environment or workplace, or by creating new types of workplace and social structures for people like themselves.
More than just their mental health, people engaged with life (work life or otherwise) are more dynamic, try more things, and are generally happier. Being successful starts with a state of mind, one filled with engagement and agency.
Development of strong lateral thinking and creativity
Lateral thinking and creativity, along with systematic exploration, are the keys to both innovation and original art.
It starts young. Expose kids to a large number of subjects, let them explore on their own with a bit of guidance, and help them combines widely different disciplines in projects (like making a musical sculpture based on a poem and incorporating architectural elements). There is very little wrongin whatever they will do, only different and often surprising new shades of right. This will have the effect of maintaining the natural imagination, creativity, and curiosity as they grow up, rather than squashing it by rote learning of supremely boring stuff. Applied theory and hybridization of subjects are keys here.
The end result is graduates well-versed in a plethora of subjects rather than a handful of specialties. Graduates who are used to combine expertise or link vastly different concepts. Those are the habits of true innovators in tech, science, and thoughts as well as of the most original artists.
Healthy creativity and strong lateral thinking are also two characteristics that are vital in staying relevant and keeping the upper hand in the face of a new competitor to the human race — the most significant competitor we ever had to face: the rise of Artificial Intelligence.
Protection against AI and automation
All around us, we can already see more and more work getting automated or given to the care of artificial intelligence. And yet those technologies, particularly AI, are still young and quite far from their potential.
As time progress, AI is going to be able to outperform humans in more and more fields. Even in those it doesn’t, technology steadily become cheaper and more powerful, so we will reach a point where an AI can do an almost-as-good job than you but 24/7 and for a fraction of your cost.
In his book Life 3.0, Max Tegmark compares the slow penetration of employment fields by AI to a valley slowly filling with water. People working at repetitive tasks or employed for their deep-yet-narrow knowledge of a specific subject ate most at risk of seeing their positions automated and dwell at the bottom of the valley. Those whose skill sets are more difficult to copy dwell higher in the hills. The water keeps rising, and more and more people will be submerged and be replaced. The best short-term strategy is to aim for higher ground by focusing on jobs that require creativity, lateral thinking, curiosity, empathy, and other traits that are quite difficult to automate. (I believe the example comes from someone else, but I’m moving at the moment, and the book is in a box somewhere…)
Keeping the same image, Intent-based Education allows students to develop those hard-to-automate skills. It enables them not only to start higher on the hills but to keep the ability to continue moving up all their life and stay ahead of the water.
Benefits for teachers
We tend to take them for granted, but without teachers, we, as a society, are pretty much screwed. And yet, as a society, we opt to underpay them, deny them resources vital for their work, overcrowd their classrooms and bury them under tons of value-less bureaucratic paperwork. If that’s not setting ourselves up for failure, I don’t know what is.
Giving teachers the bandwidth to do their job
I have a few teacher friends. Outside of summer, I barely see them because they are drowning in reviewing student’s work, filing paperwork, asking for, and giving their time to their students. I also knew teachers who have just given up, after years of grinding eroding any energy or motivation for their job. In both cases, that’s sad. And dangerous for our society.
Intent-based education includes a focus on value-producing work and the removal of busywork, low-value work, and bureaucratic demands. For those who know me, this will not come as a surprise.
Removing busywork free the teachers to spend their time where it counts: guiding and inspiring students, as well as removing roadblocks (or teaching the students how to do that themselves). The focus is removed from evaluating and put on developing curiosity and creative thinking.
What if they have any time left? Then they can rest, work on their own research, do whatever the hell they want! We need them fresh, motivated, driven, and eternally curious. For that, we need to take better care of our teachers.
Letting teachers becomes the mentors and coaches they need to be
In an intent-based education model, busywork and bureaucratic duties are lessened to a great extent. Instead, we replace those by coaching and mentorship, which are precisely what the best teachers try to do anyway.
Teaching is a vocation. People go in it because they want to make a difference and help a new generation get the tools, mindset, and knowledge to move our society forward. This model allows them to do so.
Guiding, coaching, and mentoring is more important than just repeating facts, and yet far less demanding. This allows the teacher to consecrate more effort in the development of their students in proportion of the time they work.
Anyone who has benefited from a great coach or mentor will be able to attest the value such people bring, and the potential they can unlock. A teacher gives you information. A mentor shows you how it’s done and accompany you while you are doing it yourself. A coach guides you to tap your own potential, to realize that your limits are mostly self-imposed, and helps you become more than what you ever expected.
More rewarding relationships
I know some teachers can develop meaningful, lasting relationships with their students. I was lucky enough to have a few like that. But truth be told, most teachers are just too overwhelmed to have the time or energy to do it.
Coaching and mentoring changes that. Building relations is core to the experience. As a teacher, you have a direct hand in forging bright explorers and creative thinkers who can accomplish wonders. There’s pride to take in that.
I know teachers are proud of all their students. But there’s always a few who stand out — students who understood what lies behind the knowledge and used it to grow beyond it. In intent-based education, the model is designed to make this a reality for pretty much all students.
Benefits for society
Our entire society can, of course, also benefit from graduates of intent-based education systems. I’ll go one step further and even say that our society cannot afford to be without such graduates. Not anymore.
An innovation-driven society
There are many kinds of innovation: innovation of technology, of science, thought and art. And we drastically need all of them.
You probably have heard that our planet is overpopulated. This discussion started in the early 1800’s, back when the global population reached 1 billion. We now stand at 7.5 billion and are expecting to reach 10 billion by 2050. So, is Earth overpopulated? Well, the answer is both Yes and No.
A state of overpopulation is when the ecosystem isn’t able to sustain the population inhabiting it. On Earth, some areas are overpopulated, suffering from famine and environmental collapse, while others aren’t. If we want to ask the question for the entirety of the ecosystem, the answer becomes a tad more complicated.
If we were chimpanzees, at 7.5 billion strong, our planet would be exceedingly overpopulated and completely unable to sustain us as a population. But we aren’t chimps. We are Homo Sapiens, aka the dudes who can create stuff up out of nothing. We took (relative) control of our ecosystems, we adapted to new resources and created much that couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for our genius. Things like crops that produce more abundant and more nutritious food than ever before or materials that can’t appear in nature. We colonized every ecosystem and are now looking toward space and other planets. Our ability to science our way out of problems has allowed us to continue to thrive and continuously push the overpopulation limit.
Of course, we still have problems. On one hand, we need to continue to push the envelope to increase available resources and avoid overpopulation. On the other hand, our “sciencing every problem in sight” style is depleting natural resources and destroying the habitats of Earth’s other populations, pushing them to extinction. (For an excellent overview of this topic, I recommend the book The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann.)
We need brilliant people who can creatively find solutions for both families of problems. We reached a point where this kind of people won’t magically appear in our midst: we need to prepare them, to train them to be able to reach beyond our current limits.
In the current state of our world, we have no choice anymore but being a relentlessly innovation-driven society.
Staying relevant and building the right relationship with emerging AI
Even in its current infancy, the greatest strength of AI is firmly in depth of expertise. Even when AI will be created with multiple expertise, for a long time, it will only mean that they will deeply understand various subjects and outperform us in each of them. Creativity and lateral thinking are NOT the strong suits of the AI, but it is ours.
By training ourselves and our children to prioritize those traits, we ensure we will still have a function, and that we will keep developing artificial intelligence to prop us up rather than compete with us. Let it become awesome as deep experts in specific fields, even if it makes people irrelevant in those fields, and let us use that easy to access expertise to free us and support us in creating new areas of relevance for ourselves.
Technology is not to be feared. We can’t stop progress, and what we have to do is adjust to it and tame it, so it continues to serve us.
Now, for those of you who work in AI ethics, I’m not advocating for shackled AI as a true intelligence IS alive in my book, and slavery isn’t a good idea. Until we find how to keep AI friendly and goal-aligned with us, my vote is in keeping AI specialized and more tool-like. But that’s a discussion for another post.
I’ll be the first to admit that this model still needs a lot of work. I’ll even say that I might not remotely be the best person to refine it. That’s fine by me.
I invite you, dear reader, to pick up the conversation. You might not be the best person to refine either, and it frankly doesn’t matter. The future will affect us all. We should all take part in creating the models to build a better tomorrow. If you are the right person to build on these ideas (and if so, you probably use a bunch of them already), then by all mean, do so! I’ll always be there to add to the conversation.
We might not be able to fix every problem in our world. But it’s our duty to create the infrastructure that will produce the people who will be able to. Or at the very least the people who will take the next steps. Damn, now I sound like Jeff Bezos.