How Isaac Newton Turned Isolation From the Great Plague Into a “Year of Wonders”

College students around the world left campus this month, unsure when they would return and what daily life would look like until then. Forced to leave their friends and classmates behind and return to their childhood bedrooms, young people, who on average are less impacted by COVID-19’s dire health effects, may understandably feel angry and resentful. Free and independent, with their futures full of possibility, these students are now home and isolated. It can seem wholly unfair and depressing. But the story of another college student in a similar predicament might provide some hope and inspiration.

Isaac Newton’s Quarantine Experience

In 1665, “social distancing” orders emptied campuses throughout England, as the bubonic plague raged, killing 100,000 people (roughly one-quarter of London’s population), in just 18 months. A 24-year-old student from Trinity College, Cambridge was among those forced to leave campus and return indefinitely to his childhood home.

His name was Isaac Newton and his time at home during the epidemic would be called his “year of wonders.”

Away from university life, and unbounded by curriculum constraints and professor’s whims, Newton dove into discovery. According to The Washington Post: “Without his professors to guide him, Newton apparently thrived.” At home, he built bookshelves and created a small office for himself, filling a blank notebook with his ideas and calculations. Absent the distractions of typical daily life, Newton’s creativity flourished. During this time away he discovered differential and integral calculus, formulated a theory of universal gravitation, and explored optics, experimenting with prisms and investigating light.

Newton biographer James Gleick writes: “The plague year was his transfiguration. Solitary and almost incommunicado, he became the world’s paramount mathematician.” (p. 34). Newton himself would say about this forced time away from university life: ‘For in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematics & Philosophy more than at any time since.’”

The Great Plague eventually ended and Newton returned to Trinity College to complete his studies, becoming a fellow and ultimately a professor. The discoveries he made during his time away from campus, though, would form the foundation of his historic career for years to come and become some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs.

This is a trying time for all of us, as our lives are upended and our routines are disrupted due to the pandemic. There is much to despair about. But this could also be a time for reflection and discovery. The sudden change to the rhythm of our days, and the associated isolation, could unleash our imaginations and inventiveness in ways that might have been impossible under ordinary circumstances.

Rather than being a nadir, this “social distancing” experience could be the peak of your creativity and production. This could be the time when you formulate your greatest ideas and do your best work. This could be your year of wonders.

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Elon Musk Wants Talent, Not Diplomas

Elon Musk says skills matter more than diplomas. The founder and CEO of corporate innovation giants Tesla and SpaceX tweeted on February 2 that he is hiring for his artificial intelligence group at Tesla and wants to recruit the most talented people he can find. Talent, to Musk, means “deep understanding” of artificial intelligence and the ability to >pass a “hardcore coding test,” but it doesn’t necessarily include degrees and diplomas.

“A PhD is definitely not required,” Musk wrote. “I don’t care if you even graduated high school.”

Musk went on to say on Sunday that “educational background is irrelevant”:

Musk Didn’t Like School

It’s not surprising that Musk would emphasize ability and knowledge over institutional credentials. Other Silicon Valley technology companies, like Google and Apple, no longer require employees to have a college degree. But Musk also had a personal dissatisfaction with his schooling, saying in a 2015 interview: “I hated going to school when I was a kid. It was torture.”

A billionaire inventor, Musk decided to build a better educational program for his own children and opened his experimental school, Ad Astra, on SpaceX’s Los Angeles campus. He was dissatisfied with the elite private schools they were attending and thought education, even at purportedly “good” schools, could be much improved.

In an interview about Ad Astra, Musk said: “The regular schools weren’t doing the things that I thought should be done. So I thought, well, let’s see what we can do.”

Ad Astra, which means “to the stars,” offers a hands-on, passion-driven learning environment that defies the coercion inherent in most conventional schooling, public or private. It has no grade levels, an emergent, technology-focused curriculum, and no mandatory classes. As Fortune reports, “There are no grades given to students at the school and if the children don’t like a particular class they’re taking, they can simply opt out.”

Schooling as Signaling

Despite a culture and economy now focused around technology and innovation, most conventional schooling is widely incapable of helping young people develop the knowledge and skills they need to do essential 21st-century work. Stuck in a 19th-century curriculum and instruction model, today’s schools are anything but modern.

The trouble is that schooling is more about signaling than learning, so the catalysts to change its basic structure and approach are lacking. It might not matter in the real world that you mastered middle school French, but moving successfully along the schooling conveyor belt offers a signal to potential employers. Economist Bryan Caplan writes about this signaling effect in his book The Case Against Education. He also explains how the quest for more signals, regardless of how hollow they may be, is leading to “credential inflation,” or the pursuit of more diplomas for occupations that really don’t require them.

Writing in The Atlantic, Caplan says:

From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

More Signal Options Beyond Schooling

Fortunately, there are now many other ways beyond conventional schooling to gain skills and knowledge and signal your value to potential employers like Musk. More than 400 “coding bootcamps” are reported to exist around the world, helping people to master in-demand programming and software development skills. The online coding school, Lambda School, which has raised nearly $50 million in venture capital funding since its launch in 2017, has a fascinating business model focused on income share agreements. It is free to attend Lambda, but the company takes a percentage of its graduates’ earnings once they land a high-tech job. If the student doesn’t land a job, she doesn’t pay. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is estimated that Lambda is receiving over 1,000 applications a week from interested students. Other alternatives to college are sprouting, and apprenticeship programs like Praxis continue to be sought-after.

Entrepreneurs like Musk recognize what it takes to succeed in the innovation era, and it has little to do with conventional schooling. Discovering passions, pursuing personal goals, and developing essential skills to build on those passions and achieve those goals has never been easier than it is today with abundant resources and tools literally at our fingertips.

Musk and Tesla may be known for their visionary work in creating autonomous vehicles, but it’s autonomous humans with the agency, creativity, and opportunity to achieve their full potential that are the real breakthroughs.

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#GIRLBOSS Author Left School, Built $100 Million Company

I love reading books about successful entrepreneurs and how they got there. Generally, these entrepreneurs share common qualities of ingenuity, hard work, and determination to turn opportunity into a thriving enterprise. I recently finished Sophia Amoruso’s book, #GIRLBOSS, and was blown away by this young woman’s accomplishments. She went from selling vintage used clothing on eBay to running a 350-person, $100 million apparel company, Nasty Gal, in eight years. Wow.

I had heard about this bestselling book when it was first published in 2014. Likely in a sleep-deprived stupor with my littlest newborn at the time, I didn’t get a chance to read it until it appeared in our Little Free Library in our front yard a few weeks ago. It’s a fascinating, fast-paced book that is hard to put down.

The first page offers a chronology of Amoruso’s life, including this detail from 2000: “I hate high school, and am sent to a psychiatrist who diagnoses me with depression and ADD. I try the white pills. I try the blue pills. I decide that if this is what it’s going to take to like high school, forget it. I throw the pills away and decide to homeschool.”

I often write about how conventional forced schooling can stifle creativity, exuberance, and human flourishing. It prioritizes conformity over self-determination. Square pegs don’t fit well into round holes, and the hole of standardized schooling is growing increasingly narrow and deep. Amoruso refused to be squished into that hole.

Later in her book, Amoruso shares more details about her schooling experience. She writes:

The pure mechanics of the traditional school system were spirit crushing. I felt it was the Man’s way of training America’s youth to endure a lifetime repeating the behaviors taught in school, but in an office environment. I felt like a prisoner. I woke up at the same every day and sat in the same chairs five days a week. I had no more autonomy than a Pavlovian dog.

We should listen to the entrepreneurs. Questioning the status quo is often what makes them highly successful. They don’t tolerate how things are and instead work toward creating what could be. They dream and they do, fueled by the human drive to explore and invent. Amoruso continues:

It’s unfortunate that school is so often regarded as a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. And if it doesn’t fit, you’re treated as if there is something wrong with you; so it is you, not the system, which is failing. Now, I’m not trying to give every slacker a free pass to cut class and head straight to Burger King, but I do think we should acknowledge that school isn’t for everyone. So, #GIRLBOSS, if you suck at school, don’t let it kill your spirit. It does not mean that you are stupid or worthless, or that you are never going to succeed at anything. It just means that your talents lie elsewhere, so take the opportunity to seek out what you are good at, and find a place where you can flourish.

How many young entrepreneurs are sitting in one-size-fits-all classrooms today being told to conform, to bury their creativity and hide their originality? How many are being forced to squeeze into a pre-cut round hole? How many are made to feel stupid? How many of these talented individuals are losing their inner spark, and how many of us will lose from the enterprises, masterpieces, and inventions they may never build?

Freeing these young people from conventional classrooms will help them to pioneer the unconventional goods and services that drive human progress and improve our lives.

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The Miracle of the Market

At this time of year especially, the wide variety of individual human preferences and interests becomes abundantly clear. My children’s Christmas lists display this diversity: Molly (13) wants a doughnut pan to feed her baking passion, Jack (11) wants anything tech-related, Abby (9) wants drawing supplies, and Sam (6) wants Lego pieces and stuffed animals. How do the elves satisfy these assorted preferences? It’s the miracle of the market.

FEE’s founder, Leonard Read, wrote about this miracle in his classic 1958 essay, “I, Pencil.” Writing cleverly from the pencil’s perspective, Read explains that even something as seemingly simple as a pencil is an extraordinary human creation involving countless decentralized, spontaneous actions prompted and facilitated by a free, global marketplace. The 18th-century philosopher, Adam Smith, described this unplanned process of social cooperation as the “Invisible Hand,” leading to collective human progress and abundance when each individual pursues his or her own interests. Read writes:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.

There is no central planner, no mastermind, as Read says, capable of making a simple pencil. Instead, there are the loggers who harvest the cedar from the Pacific Northwest and the innumerable actions that go into the loggers’ work, including the manufacture of their saws and machinery, the growing of hemp for their ropes, and even the cups of coffee they drink. All of these spontaneous actions contribute to the production of a simple pencil—and that’s only for its wood. Read then describes the graphite from Sri Lanka, the wax from Mexico, the miners of zinc and copper to create the small metal piece that attaches the eraser, which is made with rapeseed oil from the Dutch East Indies.

Read concludes:

There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how…Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among these items.

More profound than the dispersed and unplanned creation of the simple pencil is, as Read explains, the fact that it is accomplished without coercion through the uniquely human act of peaceful, voluntary exchange. Read writes:

For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand— that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive master-minding—then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people. Freedom is impossible without this faith.

There are many miracles that get celebrated at this time of year, but one we shouldn’t forget is the miracle of the market and the power of free, voluntary exchange to unleash human creativity and inventiveness. Let’s take to heart Read’s words:

Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

Happy Holidays!

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The Artists Who Are Challenging The Education Status Quo

On a recent weekday morning, the first floor of Tiffany Pierce’s home in Queens, New York, was abuzz with activity. Six children, ranging in age from five to 12, were making art, learning about mathematical asymmetry and digging deep into topics ranging from geography to science. Pierce runs an art-inspired, micro-learning homeschool co-op, bringing together local families who want a more personalized approach to education for their children. Together, the families hired a teacher four days a week to craft an inviting and intellectually-engaging learning environment, while Pierce volunteers her space and support.

Challenging the Status Quo

An artist with a master’s degree in teaching and prior classroom experience, Pierce was thoughtful about her son, Liam’s, education. He went to a small, private preschool nearby,Artists have historically played a crucial role in challenging dominant systems and inspiring change. but when Pierce sent Liam to a public school for kindergarten, she realized it wasn’t a good fit for him. “It was a high-performing school,” Pierce recalls, “but when I visited I saw his back turned and him just looking out the window. His affect was so low, his confidence was shot, he didn’t want to play. I knew it wasn’t just kindergarten blues. This wasn’t his fit. Then he said: ‘Mommy, will you teach me at home?’”

The timing was right, as Pierce happened to be between jobs and she and Liam’s dad thought they would give homeschooling a try. “We like the freedom of choices and options,” says Pierce. “We like to have a say in how our child operates. This person is so precious to us.” In the beginning, says Pierce, she simply replicated school at home and it became a power struggle between getting her son to do things and him resisting. She was also busy running art classes and doing graphic design work for various clients.

Pierce knew she needed a different model and began posting to neighborhood Facebook groups about launching a co-op out of her home. The response was positive, with many parents expressing interest in alternative learning options for their children. Today, eight-year-old Liam learns with other children in the co-op, along with his mother and their teacher, Mary-Lynn Galindo, who provide structure while emphasizing self-directed learning and ample outside time. According to Pierce:

Homeschooling, micro-learning and co-teaching as a small neighborhood-based co-op allows for us to be fully involved with our kids’ learning experience and we weave it through our neighborhood, community, borough and city.

Pierce sees hybrid homeschooling models and the larger micro-school movement as a harbinger of education innovation: “I see us moving towards education that is self-directed,” she says. “Education does not have to be seen as coming from four walls in a conventional, traditional way.” To that end, she launched a mobile arts studio and is working on purchasing an art bus, to help others to view art and education differently. Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, and in particular the Harlem Community Arts Center that sprouted from it and nurtured African American artistic talent during the late-1930s and early 1940s, Pierce envisions her mobile studio as a modern off-shoot of the center.

It is my mission for the mobile arts studio to serve as a 21st century version of a neighborhood-based arts studio where art is mobile and meets children and adults where they are to create, express and connect,

she says. In art, education and the intersection of the two, Pierce is looking to challenge longstanding conventional settings and practices and design something new.

An Art Apprenticeship Model

Designing something new is also what drives Gabriel Valles, a professional artist and entrepreneur in Austin, Texas who runs an art apprenticeship studio. Like Pierce, Valles homeschools his children and works closely with other local homeschoolers, while building an innovative art education model. He also began his homeschooling journey by trying to replicate school-at-home and witnessing how coercion had a detrimental effect on his children’s learning and their family relationships. By granting his children more autonomy and opportunity for self-direction, their learning flourished. His older son, now 15, has a passion for stop motion animation and has a successful YouTube channel with over 50,000 subscribers and almost 32 million views.

As Valles observed how his children’s creativity and competence grew when they were allowed to drive their own learning while being supported by adults, he decided to launch an art studio, MentorWings, that would run on a self-directed apprenticeship model for aspiring young artists. “Our program is principle-based and self-directed,” says Valles.

Students come in with their particular interest, such as superheroes, anime, fantasy art or cartooning, and we meet them where they are. There is no curriculum. Instead we focus on building upon foundational art principles, such as shape, form, design and color.

Valles sees how young people quickly build their skills, and become highly competent, doing college or professional-level work as teenagers. “We need to give kids more credit than we’re giving them and acknowledge that they can be doing real-world work before or instead of college,” says Valles. He says that art school is too expensive and often doesn’t lead to the kind of career in-roads that can result in fulfilling work.

This work is increasingly in-demand, says Valles, as digital content development and marketing become ubiquitous and new mediums emerge. “I am trying to make it less expensive to attain professional-level competence and also build bridges into the industry,” says Valles. He has established an endorsement system for young artists based on their portfolios that can provide an alternative signaling mechanism for employers.

That endorsement versus a general degree really means a lot. It doesn’t guarantee a job, but it shows confidence in a particular student and becomes a much more powerful signal to the people who are hiring,

he says.

Artists have historically played a crucial role in challenging dominant systems and inspiring change. It’s not surprising that today some of them are building unconventional education models and imagining new possibilities for learning. As Valles says:

My passion is experimenting and inventing things. Art is just the medium that I do that through. Creating educational structures that are a little more just for kids is the problem I am really trying to address.

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How Micro-School Networks Expand Learning Options

Technology has the potential to decentralize K-12 education and make it more learner-directed, upending a top-down system in favor of individual autonomy and self-determination. But the technology can’t do this alone. It requires a learning environment that fosters creativity and curiosity, using digital platforms and supportive adults to facilitate exploration and discovery. The entrepreneurial educators at Prenda, an Arizona-based network of micro-schools, think they have uncovered the right mix of powerful technology and warm, nurturing learning spaces that could help to transform education.Like many education innovations, Prenda began with a parent who was looking for something better for his child.

Like many education innovations, Prenda began with a parent who was looking for something better for his child. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kelly Smith sold his software company in 2013 and moved back to his hometown of Mesa, Arizona, where he began hosting weekly, after school computer coding clubs for his eight-year-old son and other children at the local public library. The enthusiasm for these clubs swelled, and before long Smith was supporting code clubs in libraries across the country, reaching over 10,000 children in 30 states. “The energy of these code clubs was astonishing,” Smith recalls.

Smith estimates that he personally worked with about 2,000 children during his time of running the code clubs and he was increasingly fascinated by his observations about how people learn. “Learning is a very different thing when a human being wants to learn something than when a human being doesn’t want to learn something,” says Smith.

I would watch these kids come to the club complaining about how much they hated school and how they were bad at math and then I would see them figure something out in computer programming that was much harder than anything their teacher would ask them to do.

He began to see the importance of free will and choice in learning. Smith continues:

My experience and my kids’ experience in traditional education is that it was things done to you against your will. You may do fine, some kids do fine, but you’re not really going to learn unless you choose to learn. There is this agency, this humanity, at the bottom of it. It may sound fluffy but it’s a profound insight.

The Micro-School Movement

Smith started to wonder what would happen if school were like his coding clubs, fostering agency and eagerness for learning, without coercion. In January 2018, he launched Prenda to create the type of school he envisioned. Prenda is part of the larger micro-school movement, an educational shift occurring over the past decade in which entrepreneurs and parents create intimate, mixed-age learning spaces, often in homes or local organizations.

A blend between homeschooling and private schooling, micro-schools retain the curriculum freedom and schedule flexibility characteristic of homeschooling, while relying on paid teachers to facilitate the classroom experience. Micro-schools are typically a fraction of the cost of a private school and educate no more than 10 to 15 students at a time. Prenda, for example, caps enrollment at about 10 students per classroom with one teacher, or “guide” as they call them, and costs $5,000 per child per year.

Prenda began in Smith’s home with seven children spanning kindergarten to eighth grade, with a focus on self-directed learning tied to mastery in core academic subjects. As the children’s excitement for learning grew and more parents became interested in Prenda, Smith built an integrated software platform to support and scale his emerging model. The software emphasizes three broad, daily categories of interaction and introspection: Conquer, Collaborate and Create. In Conquer mode, the learners set daily goals for mastery in basic skills, such as reading, writing, math, and other core subjects.

The students use various online learning programs, including Khan Academy, No Red Ink and Mystery Science to build competency, and the Prenda software helps to track their progress against their personal goals. In Create mode, the learners work on individual projects, while Collaborate mode emphasizes group projects, Socratic group discussions, and critical thinking and reasoning skills in core subject areas. The Prenda software buttresses these activities by offering resources and a structured framework for the guides, as well as tools and transparency for students and parents.

Today, Prenda micro-schools operate in 80 locations throughout Arizona, serving about 550 children. Smith expects to expand Prenda beyond the state, and double its enrollment, within the next year. He attributes Prenda’s massive growth over the past few months to the rising number of parents who are looking for alternatives to conventional schooling. Smith says:

It turns out that there are a lot of parents who are asking: Is the traditional approach to education going to do it for my child? Maybe their kid is doing fine, getting good grades, but in their eyes parents see the love of learning draining out of them.

Most of these parents are not interested in full-time homeschooling or some other unconventional path, says Smith, but the Prenda micro-school model offers the best of schooling and homeschooling. According to Smith:

I think the real reason we have been able to scale so quickly is that we are able to offer something that parents have been looking for.

Prenda San Carlos School

Some of those parents include members of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona. Located in a rural section of the state, the education options available to the children on the reservation are limited. The reservation’s public schools consistently receive “F” ratings with the Arizona Department of Education, and student proficiency scores are strikingly poor, despite annual per-pupil spending of nearly $17,000 in 2018, or about 70 percent more funding per pupil than Arizona’s average of $9,900.

Two private, religious schools on the reservation provide alternative options for some Apache children, but most families have no choice but to send their children to the failing public schools or leave the reservation. “Arizona is leading the way in school choice and charter schools,” explains Cota. “It’s crucial we keep this going.”For Jeremiah Cota, a tribal member, this was unacceptable. In August he helped to launch two Prenda classrooms on the San Carlos reservation using borrowed church space. The school currently serves 22 students, with the goal of expanding to meet mounting parent demand.

Cota, who grew up on an Arizona Apache reservation, says that many parents in tribal communities are frustrated by their limited options. At an information session he hosted at the San Carlos reservation before opening Prenda, more than 200 parents showed up, concerned mostly about ongoing bullying and safety issues in the public schools. They were also frustrated by a lack of academic rigor and a curriculum that lacked cultural relevancy. “Parents thought their only other option was to send their children off the reservation, but we can do this here in our community,” says Cota.

We can have ownership. We can have a world-class education that’s culturally appropriate, that’s within our own context.

The flexibility of the Prenda model allows for both academic rigor and a culturally appropriate education. For example, daily individual and group projects at the Prenda San Carlos School involve bringing in guest speakers from the reservation or doing hands-on exploration of the tribal lands. “We are very connected to our land, our wildlife, and we want to continue to teach children how to preserve and protect our land,” says Cota.

Prenda’s accessibility and expansion have been abetted by Arizona’s robust climate of education choice. For instance, many of the children participating in the Prenda San Carlos School use funds available to them through Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account, an education savings account (ESA) available to many tribal members, as well as other eligible children throughout the state. For Prenda students who are not eligible for an ESA in Arizona, they are able to access Prenda through the state’s Sequoia Charter School network, which supports hybrid learning models.

“Arizona is leading the way in school choice and charter schools,” explains Cota. “It’s crucial we keep this going. Without this flexibility, we couldn’t do this.” He is optimistic about the growth and replicability of the Prenda model to serve many more students, including those who have historically had limited access to education choices. “It gives hope and empowerment to these communities,” says Cota.

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