Think Like Franklin: How Technology Will Improve Our Schools

Think Like Franklin: How Technology Will Improve Our Schools


On a warm, breezy day in the summer of 1758, Benjamin Franklin took off a dry shirt and put on a wet one. He was testing a hypothesis: would he feel cooler wearing a wet shirt in a breeze? As it turned out, he did.

So Franklin applied his experiment to mercury.  He wet the end of a mercury thermometer with ether and blew on it.  He did it again and again. The thermometer dropped down to 7°F while the room temperature remained at 65 °F. “One may see the possibility,” Franklin later wrote, “of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day.” Franklin had figured out cooling by evaporation, one of the necessary principles of refrigeration.

Of course, Benjamin Franklin is well-known for having figured out all sorts of things. Among his many inventions were the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, and bifocal glasses. It’s easy to look back at Franklin and his contemporaries like Joseph Priestley, who discovered that plants produced oxygen, and Thomas Jefferson, who improved the printing press and the plow, and marvel. How did they come up with so many new discoveries?

According to Steven Johnson, author of the book The Invention of Air,  the answer is process. They lived at a time when there was suddenly an easy-to-use method for discovery: the scientific method. Hypothesize, test, learn, repeat.

And the method was accessible to anyone. Put on a wet shirt and stand in the breeze and you too might discover something interesting. “The soil of scientific discovery was very shallow,” writes Johnson. “You didn’t have to dig very far to get something interesting.”

In the 20th century, engineer W. Edward Deming realized that the soil for organizational learning was also shallow. Companies were full of inefficiencies waiting to be revealed and addressed. In his famous 1950 lecture series in Japan, Deming encouraged manufacturing companies to apply the scientific method to production.

All employees should think like Franklin. They should look for problems and apply the scientific method to solve them. As Toyota soon proved, when organizations supported employees in carrying out this process, they could significantly improve production over time. Soon, continual improvement, or “Kaizen,” as the Japanese called it, was being implemented throughout Japanese businesses.

The methodology was later adopted in the U.S. by Xerox and Ford. Now, it’s a staple methodology among internet companies. A quick search on LinkedIn reveals that Amazon is hiring dozens of Process Improvement Managers, a role whose responsibility is “to study, learn, and diagnose operational processes, identify root causes and improvement opportunities and guide the improvement effort.”

The internet, it turns out, makes kaizen easier. Eric Ries explains why in The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, which has become a sacred text among internet entrepreneurs.

“Progress in manufacturing is measured by the production of high quality physical goods,” writes Ries. “The Lean Startup uses a different unit of progress, called validated learning.” Instead of making complex plans based on unproven assumptions, employees of internet companies should focus on learning from user generated feedback. Hypothesis, measure, learn, repeat. Think like Franklin.

Unfortunately, the structure of schools has traditionally made continuous improvement impossible. Print textbooks aren’t designed to help teachers respond to student learning feedback. Instead, they provide one universal plan, suggesting that all students should learn the same thing on the same day in the same sequence.  But any teacher or parent knows this isn’t the case. Kids are idiosyncratic; they make connections in different ways and learn at different paces. Ironically, our organizations of learning aren’t instrumented to be learning organizations.

Technology makes it easier for our organizations of learning to become learning organizations. But to date, much of the excitement about education technology has focused on entertainment. The thinking goes: because kids are easily entertained by technology,, schools should use technology to engage them. But the real power of education technology doesn’t lie in entertainment.  It will be learning.

As more technology makes its way into classrooms, for the first time teachers have tools that enable them to respond more easily to student feedback. They aren’t limited to a one-size-fits-all print textbook. They can use smaller, modifiable, digital content to respond to the needs they uncover during a class.

A lesson becomes a hypothesis; one that can be tested and modified in each class. As teachers get better at responding to what their students need in particular, they get stronger at understanding what works in general. In other words, they begin to think like Benjamin Franklin. 

This article was written by Eric Westendorf from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.