Starbucks Musings

Good morning. I offer 3 points for your consideration today. I happened to stumble upon the first 2 last week when I attended the National Association of Independent Schools conference, a gathering of 4,000 teachers and administrators from the US, Canada, and around the globe.

Point One: I have many character flaws and among them is an addiction to overpriced coffee. There is probably a 12-step program I should join to help me come to terms with this problem.

Anyway, much to my chagrin, there was no coffee store within walking distance of the conference centre, but they did have a contraption, and it was unlike any I had seen before. It was a Starbucks machine. Now, I’d come across coffee machines in the past, but they tend to be a lot like soda machines that don’t quite work; the coffee sits in tin box for months at a time, and after you pay your money, a warming element spits out a tepid brew that has the bouquet of a carburetor.

But this Starbucks machine was different. After you swiped your credit card, you could see the gizmo actually grinding the coffee beans before it brewed a perfect cup of coffee. It wasn’t fast; it took about 2 minutes, so there was a long line of my caffeine addicted brethren, but this actually gave us all the time to ponder questions such as, “What won’t the machines of the future be able to do? And if an IBM computer can win on “Jeopardy” as it did last week, how long will it be until someone comes up with a ‘Principal’s Machine’?”

(I can see it now. All you do is swipe your credit card, and out pops a cliché-riddled rant, perfectly appropriate for just  about any Monday morning assembly!)

Yesterday, I happened to tell the barista at the Village Starbucks about this new fangled device, and I could tell right away that she wasn’t as enthusiastic as I was. She almost snapped at me as she said, “They don’t have these machines in Canada, and they probably wouldn’t allow them in.” I can understand her perfectly human response. I feel   the same way, whenever I think about that “Principal’s Machine.” But I also remember that in 1988, when I  first became an administrator at a small boarding school, I brought my desktop computer from home and put it in my office. When my administrative assistant saw the spiffy Apple 2 C sitting on my desk, she became upset and immediately asked me to take it home. She was convinced that, if I learned how to use that machine, then she would be out of a job…

If you buy Daniel Pink’s argument about left and right brain differences, then you believe that most of the linear, analytical, and sequential work of today will either be done overseas or done by a machine of some sort. Think of “Turbo Tax” or “Dragon Dictation” just for starters. And it’s not just that technology is changing the way we live and work. It is that the rate of that change is exploding before our eyes — even as we are trying to figure out what it will all mean. In the meantime, though, if you are interested in developing a UCC application –I’m serious about this — please let me know. Can’t you just hear someone say, “UCC, yeah, we’ve got an app for that!”

Point Two: The best speaker I heard at the conference was a young guy named Sal Khan. I’ll show you a clip on him in a minute. The back-story is that Sal started to tutor his cousins in Math a few years ago, and because Sal lives in California and his cousins live in New Orleans, he did this tutoring on line. Sal’s cousins soon invited others to join the tutoring session, and eventually, because they had a hard time juggling schedules, Sal started to put some of his lessons on You Tube.

Here’s where things get interesting: What surprised Sal was that soon his cousins and the other tutees told him that they actually preferred “YouTube Sal” to the real Sal. While it was a bit deflating for Sal, he quickly understood why: his students could stop, review, and redo part of the lectures whenever they wanted– and they never felt stupid.

(That last point is important because “feeling stupid” can undermine learning in general and risk-taking in particular. Especially given all that we know about the importance of creativity and its link with risk, we need to figure out a way to address this fear.)

As a result, Sal ended up putting more and more of his lessons on YouTube. Eventually Bill Gates found out about his work, and the result is that Sal is now building an on-line academy where anyone can learn anything at anytime for free. (If you thought I was worried about the “Principal’s Machine,” Sal’s “Khan Academy” takes my fear factor to a whole new level!)

Take a look:

A final note on this: Sal Khan thinks that his academy and others like it may cause us to “flip the paradigm” of teaching.  Some math teachers, for example, are assigning Khan Academy videos for homework, and this allows them to spend class time doing what we traditionally think of as homework. The advantage is that you, again, can watch the You Tube as often as you want to gain a deep understanding of the concepts, and then you have the chance to apply those concepts when you are working in class, either by yourself or with other students. It also gives teachers the opportunity to do more academic coaching.

Point 3: I know you are all very, very busy these days, but if there is one story from the outside world that you need to be aware of it’s what is going on in North Africa and in the Middle East.  What is absolutely mind-boggling is that this amazing, and frightening and world-changing movement, one that has swept through Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya and Bahrain, all started with one man, Mohamed Bouazizi.


Tunisia is a country plagued by massive government corruption, and one day last December – just 2 months ago – Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit-seller, decided he wouldn’t put up with it any more.  (By the way, you can tell from the photo-shopped poster, that Mohamed is already being glamorized. I’m convinced that Hollywood will Westernize all of this somehow, and Harrison Ford or Justin Biever will play Mohamed in the movie.)

The true story is that, after being abused one too many times by a government official, Mohamed literally set himself on fire as a means of protest, and this fire has sparked cataclysmic change — not just in Tunisia but in the entire Arab world. Part of this is again, a result of technology. The authoritarian governments have tried to shut down the Internet, but smart people have found ways to work around this, and pictures and videos of protesters have swept from one disgruntled country to another.

Part of this historic change is a result 9/11. (Warning: the next section gets a little political.) In the past, the US would support just about any regime, as long as they maintained stability kept the flow of oil constant. So if the rulers of a country didn’t allow people to vote, if they didn’t allow women to drive a car, if they kept their populations illiterate, we in the West turned a blind eye because we wanted cheap fuel. On 9/11 we learned that we would pay a heavy price for these transgressions. Those who were disenfranchised became radicalized, and they focused their fury on those who supported their oppressors. As a result, today the US is much less enthusiastic about supporting rulers who do not have the support of their own people.

It’s been said that the fax machine contributed to the Berlin Wall’s coming down in 1989. In much the same way, Facebook and other social media tools are making ours a more transparent world, a world where people in one country can see what happens in another. We can’t hide things from one another – for better or worse – and repressive regimes are paying the price.

So my three points from today:

  1. Think about that Starbucks machine and what it means about the future – not just the future of coffee — but also about what this kind of technology will mean for how we live and work
  2. Take a look at Khan Academy’s web site. It could be a great resource and perhaps even a game changer for you.
  3. Keep your eye on North Africa and the Middle East, and ask yourself about the role that technology plays in this and in the other social changes that are heading our way. Every time you see a new gizmo, ask yourself what it may mean — beyond just the immediate convenience. And remember the simple truth that first, man shapes tools, and then tools shape man.  Thank you.

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