Educating Silicon Valley

Ben Williamson

Jurvetson silicon city
Image credit: Steve Jurvetson

A reality TV show in the UK has documented what school life is like in different geographical parts of the country. Starting in 2011 with Educating Essex, the format has since included Educating Yorkshire, Educating the East End, and Educating Cardiff. The idea of exploring educational experiences in different geographical and socio-demographic zones is an interesting one, and, for me, raises questions about educational experiences in other distinctive places and spaces. Some of my recent research has focused on ‘Educating the Smart City,’ for example.

In this piece I explore the idea of ‘Educating Silicon Valley.’ Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies, startups and culture of venture capital are, as Alistair Duff has argued in a new article, ‘the centre of a techno-economic revolution’ that is ‘now spreading outwards across the world, with major societal effects and implications.’ Surprisingly little research has been conducted on the Silicon Valley workers whose labour and learning contributes to this revolution. Here I try to piece together some sense of how education is being organized in Silicon Valley as an initial attempt to answer the question: how are the forms of knowledge, skills, practices and ways of thinking that contribute to a techno-economic revolution taught and learnt? And how does Silicon Valley seek to shape education to reproduce its centrality to the techno-economic revolution?

Investing in education
Silicon Valley has significant interests in education. On one level, its interests simply reflect market opportunities and business plans—education is a big market, and certain Silicon Valley educational technology products like ClassDojo have quickly spread worldwide. Its interests in education are also, though, more political than simply commercial.

In his recent study of the political outlook of Silicon Valley’s technology elite, Greg Ferenstein has identified key features of a ‘Silicon Valley ideology’:

The Silicon Valley ideology thinks about government as an investor rather than as a protector, arguing that the government’s role is to invest in making people as awesome as possible. Silicon Valley wants to make people in general educated and entrepreneurial.

Notably, the Silicon Valley ideology sees education as the solution to major social, political and technological problems. As Ferenstein notes in his e-book The Age of Optimists, many Silicon Valley startup founders ‘believe that the solution to nearly every problem is more innovation, conversation or education,’ and therefore ‘believe in massive investments in education because they see it as a panacea for nearly all problems in society.’ They particularly like performance-based funding systems like charter schools as educational alternatives that can operate free of centralized government regulation and teachers’ unions.

A particular politics therefore underpins Silicon Valley’s approach to education, on which emphasizes the centrality of education to innovation and to the creation of ‘awesome,’ entrepreneurial individuals. The ways in which it seeks to achieve such aims include, surprisingly, homeschooling.

High-tech homeschooling
A recent article in Wired has shown that many Silicon Valley coders, hackers and makers are now choosing to educate their own children at home. It profiles a new breed of homeschoolers—the techie parents who see public or state education as fundamentally broken, and have chosen instead to educate their children themselves. The Silicon Valley homeschooler is not the fundamentalist activist of liberal stereotyping. Instead, the high-tech homeschooler sees makerspaces and hackerspaces as ideal kinds of educational institutions, where children can learn directly through tinkering, hacking, coding and making, rather than through the prescriptive, standardized model of state schooling.

These new Silicon Valley homeschoolers blend the approach of hackerspaces with a much longer lineage of progressivist education that includes such important ‘deschooling’ figures as Ivan Illich and ‘unschoolers’ such as John Holt. The deschooling and unschooling movements fundamentally saw schools as overly constrictive, and advocated instead for learners to engage in more self-directed education in real-life settings and social networks. This is an irresistible invitation for those with Silicon Valley ideology when it comes to rethinking education.

Through the convergence of Silicon Valley politics and progressivist thinking, the new hacker-homeschoolers represent a new breed of neo-unschoolers. As the Wired article explains:

They don’t prefer homeschooling simply because they find most schools too test-obsessed or underfunded or otherwise ineffective. They believe that the very philosophical underpinnings of modern education are flawed. Unschoolers believe that children are natural learners; with a little support, they will explore and experiment and learn about the world in a way that is appropriate to their abilities and interests. Problems arise, the thinking goes, when kids are pushed into an educational model that treats everyone the same—gives them the same lessons and homework, sets the same expectations, and covers the same subjects.

One way of educating Silicon Valley, then, is through high-tech homeschooling and hackerspaces. Of course, not all Silicon Valley workers are educated in this way; homeschooling is one part of an emerging consensus in the valley that state schooling is broken and that alternative practices and institutions are required.

Silicon startup schools
A notable educational development around Silicon Valley is the establishment of new ‘startup schools.’ The prominent example is AltSchool, set up in 2013 by Max Ventilla, a former tech entrepreneur and Google exec, which ‘prepares students for the future through personalized learning experiences within micro-school communities.’ Its stated aim is to ‘help reinvent education from the ground up.’

After establishing in four sites in San Francisco as a ‘collaborative community of micro-schools,’ AltSchool expanded in September 2015 to Brooklyn and Palo Alto, with further plans for new schools in 2016. It has since hired executives from Google and Uber plus other successful Silicon Valley startups.

The AltSchool chief technology officer, formerly the engineer in charge of the homepage and search results experience, has stated that ‘I am highly motivated to use my decade of Google experience to enable the AltSchool platform to grow and scale.’ Elsewhere on the AltSchool site, the AltSchool ‘platform’ is described as a new ‘central operating system for education,’ a scalable technical infrastructure that can be transported to new sites. Its platform primarily consists of a powerful software aggregation and data analytics tool which:

pulls in assessments from individual student work, projects, and 3rd party standards, forming a comprehensive view of a student’s progress in each area. An educator can quickly see where a student has demonstrated mastery and where they need to improve specific skills.

In support of this system, its website refers to ‘technology-enabled models’ that are disrupting other industries and institutions, such as Uber and Airbnb, and applies these ideals to education. As a tech platform, AltSchool is managed on analytical, technical and scientific lines, albeit laced with the progressivist discourse from which it draws its central philosophy.

Other startup schools include The Primary School, currently being set up by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and The Kahn Lab School, established by Salman Kahn of the Kahn Academy. The Kahn Lab School (which consciously echoes John Dewey’s experimental Lab School at the University of Chicago) specializes in math, literacy and computer programming—in line with its tech sector roots—but also emphasizes ‘real world’ projects, character development personalized learning, student-centred learning, and a strong commitment to building children’s ‘character’ and ‘wellness’ through, for example, ‘mindfulness’ meditation training. Like AltSchool, though, says Jason Tanz, its ‘touchy feely’ surface of character-centred learning is combined with analytics tools for ‘tracking data about every dimension of a student’s scholastic and social progress.’

Silicon Valley is actively involved in funding and investing in these new models of schooling. The venture philanthropic Silicon Schools Fund, for example, ‘provides seed funding for new blended learning schools that use innovative education models and technology to personalize learning.’ Its vision is:

  • Schools that give each student a highly-personalized education, by combining the best of traditional education with the transformative power of technology
  • Students gaining more control over the path and pace of their learning, creating better schools and better outcomes
  • Software and online courses that provide engaging curriculum, combined with real-time student data, giving teachers the information they need to support each student
  • Teachers developing flexibility to do what they do best — inspire, facilitate conversations, and encourage critical thinking

In 2015, Laurene Powell Jobs (the widow of Steve Jobs) granted a $50million philanthropic donation to a crowdsourced school redesign project. The XQ Super School Project is a competition to redesign the American high school, which it sees as a ‘dangerously broken’ social institution. Like the Silicon Schools Fund, the project is emblematic of Silicon Valley efforts to invest in education through venture philanthropic means and the role of wealthy tech-entrepreneurial individuals in the attempt to ‘fix’ schools. These programs provide a template for school reform that includes ‘transformative’ technology solutions, real-time data monitoring and measurement, and personalized learning supported by online courses.

Startup schools might be seen as alternative shadow schools that challenge the supposed bureaucratic standardization of state education. These schools have mobilized the opportunity presented by US charter schools policies to create new institutions that lie outside of state regulation and control, and are committed to the rigorous scientific monitoring of their performance through techniques of data collection and analysis. Through establishing such schools, Silicon Valley is seeking to create institutions that might be appropriate to the production of the entrepreneurial individuals who will inhabit the next wave of the techno-economic revolution.

Stanford psychology
Many Silicon Valley employees studied at Stanford University, one of the world’s leading research and teaching universities and itself situated in the heart of the valley. Beyond geographical proximity, there has long been a revolving door between Stanford University and Silicon Valley. As Rithika Trikha explains:

It’s not only witnessed, but also notoriously housed, some of the most celebrated innovations in Silicon Valley. … In return, its entrepreneurial alumni offer among the most generous endowments to the university, breaking the record as the first university to add more than $1 billion in a single year. Stanford shares a relationship with Silicon Valley unlike any other university on the planet, chartering a self-perpetuating cycle of innovation.

These tremendous endowments certainly confirm that Silicon Valley founders are committed to massive investment in education and innovation as a way of addressing social problems.

One of the most significant Stanford departments in the education of Silicon Valley workers is the Persuasive Technology Lab. The lab aims to apply persuasive technologies to ‘bring about positive changes in many domains, including health, business, safety, and education,’ and ‘creates insight into how computing products—from websites to mobile phone software—can be designed to change what people believe and what they do.’

According to Jacob Weisberg, some of Silicon Valley’s most successful startup founders and app designers are alumni of the lab. They subscribe to its insights about designing technologies to create ‘habit-forming products’—the title of a book by one of the lab’s key researchers is Hooked: How to build habit-forming products—otherwise known as ‘persistent routines’ or ‘behavioral loops.’

Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook and Instagram, says Weisberg, have mastered the creation of habit forming products by basing their design on insights into human behaviour from behavioural economics and consumer psychology:

Designers can hook users through the application of psychological phenomena such as investment bias—once you’ve put time into personalizing a tool, you’re more likely to use it. … Another tool is rationalization, the feeling that if one is spending a lot of time doing something, it must be valuable.

Through study at the Persuasive Technology Lab, young Silicon Valley designers are educated into the behavioural and psychological tricks of nudging, influencing and persuading people to change their behaviours, in ways which hook users to their products.

Teen technorati
While higher education institutions such as Stanford clearly have a powerful role in educating Silicon Valley, other emerging organizations from within the valley itself are beginning to challenge this status quo—indeed, many Stanford students don’t even finish their degrees, preferring to establish their own startups instead.

The Thiel Fellowship program, established by PayPal founder Peter Thiel, for example, proposes that educational institutions are entirely redundant when it comes to the meaningful education of young technology entrepreneurs. Each year, selected fellows of the program receive:

a grant of $100,000 to focus on their work, their research, and their self-education while outside of university. Fellows are mentored by our community of visionary thinkers, investors, scientists, and entrepreneurs, who provide guidance and business connections that can’t be replicated in any classroom.

Recipients of the fellowships are all aged 22 or under, and all possess highly impressive track records in entrepreneurship and technical innovation. A key demand of the program is that its awarded fellow ‘skip or stop out’ of higher education, or even school, and engage in self-directed technical research. Five years after being established in 2011, the program claims that Thiel Fellows have started over 60 companies that are together worth $1.1billion. Recipients of the fellowship have been profiled in an online video series called Teen Technorati hosted by, which looks like a hybrid of The Apprentice and the satirical Silicon Valley series.

The Thiel Fellowship also supports its fellows to approach technology incubator and accelerator programs like Y Combinator. Incubators help new startups to test and validate ideas, while accelerators turn products into scalable businesses, often through direct equity investment, and provide legal, technical and financial services along with mentorship, working space and access to educators, entrepreneurs, business partners and potential investors. These incubator and accelerator programs are themselves educational in the sense that they provide on-the-job mentoring as a kind of apprenticeship into the cultural, technical and economic practices of Silicon Valley.

Self-help Valley
Once any successful teen technorati or Stanford graduates have made it as far as a job in the valley, the learning does not stop. For a start, many of the technical roles in Silicon Valley companies and startups require a formidable amount of learning as new programming languages, software packages and so on have to be mastered. The kind of self-education promoted by the Thiel Fellowship is a way of enculturing young people to these pressures.

With its relentless demands for innovation, Silicon Valley is also a place where individuals are under pressure to innovate on themselves—to make themselves as awesome as possible to paraphrase Greg Ferenstein once more. As a consequence, the self-help industry in Silicon Valley is booming.

Jennifer Kahn has documented the range of emerging self-help courses that have spread around the valley campuses. Many of these training curricula, Kahn argues, are based on insights from the field of behavioural economics, and emphasize how ‘bad mental habits,’ ‘cognitive errors’ and ‘hidden failures’ (such as procrastination, making poor investments, wasting time, fumbling important decisions, and avoiding problems) can be overcome through rationalist self-analysis. Such programs, says Kahn, have generated ‘interest among data-driven tech people and entrepreneurs who see personal development as just another optimization problem.’ Silicon Valley’s self-help programs promise to enable users to be more intellectually dynamic and nimble’ and to ‘fix personal problems.’

Popular Silicon Valley self-help initiatives translate psychological and behavioural economics insights into training curricula that are aimed at personal optimization. These training curricula encourage valley workers to see themselves in rationalist terms as a programming problem—as a pattern of behaviours and rules in a complex system that, if analyzed hard enough, can be tweaked and modified to perform optimally. As Kahn describes it, they view ‘the brain as a kind of second-rate computer, jammed full of old legacy software but possible to reprogram if you can master the code.’

Self-programmable Silicon Valley
Education in Silicon Valley is driven by several key ways of thinking:

  • Distrust of state education, and a belief that state schooling is broken, bureaucratic and philosophically flawed
  • Confidence in the power of reformed education to drive innovation and thus lead to the solution to major social problems
  • Emphasis on real-world problems, hands-on technical experience and practical learning
  • Commitment to measurement and metrics in the assessment and evaluation of the performance of institutions
  • Belief that philanthropy and venture capital investment (and hybrid combinations of philanthrocapital) can provide the means to fix educational institutions
  • Subscription to the idea that humans are sub-optimal computing machines that can be analyzed for their psychological bugs and fixed through training and rational self-analysis

Several intellectual lines of thought can be detected here: the lingering progressivist commitment to experiential learning; the emphasis of behavioural economics on humans’ ‘mental errors’; and the technocratic assumption that problems can be fixed better with technology than government intervention.

The task of educating Silicon Valley is one that involves varied institutions, pedagogic practices and curricula. These diverse practices and resources provide a kind of loose educative network of educational opportunities, or an infrastructure of learning, that are intended to shape the knowledge, skills, cultural practices and ways of thinking of Silicon Valley people. Indeed, Silicon Valley’s current enthusiasm for investing in and reforming education could be understood as a way in which it is seeking to reproduce its own culture and values. It’s creating new institutions and practices to educate and produce awesome and entrepreneurial innovators–like the self-programmable workers influentially described by Manuel Castells:

Self-programmable labour is equipped with the ability to retrain itself, and adapt to new tasks, new processes and new sources of information, as technology, demand, and management speed up their rate of change.

Ultimately, the task of educating Silicon Valley correlates with the reproduction of self-programmable labour that can retrain itself.

Critical educational sociology has long dealt with how the knowledge and culture of powerful social groups are transmitted through educational institutions, and how this process works to reproduce their social and cultural power. Through its infrastructure of high-tech homeschooling, startup schools, higher education partnerships, teen technorati fellowships and rationalist self-help programs, Silicon Valley is educating itself in order to reproduce its powerful centrality in the current techno-economic revolution.

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