Embedding Agility into Education | Business Agility Series

Jason Gaulden is the Vice President of Partnerships at America Succeeds and co-author of the groundbreaking report, “The Age of Agility: Education Pathways for the Future of Work.” In his work, Gaulden strives to embed agility into the learning process, both in terms of the technical skillset and the lifelong learning mindset that students need “to succeed in the global economy but contribute to their local community.”

The need for this paradigm shift in education is epitomized in the rapid decline of the value of a college degree, which used to serve as a good proxy for proving that you had the knowledge to get ahead. Going forward, we need to address three major obstacles:

  1. Students do not enter the workforce of today with all of the technical skillsets and Agile mindset they need to succeed.
  2. Teachers cannot “relay knowledge they don’t have themselves.”
  3. The education system needs to be more customized to different learning paths and learning journeys.

These problems are reflected in America Succeeds’ three tenets – Agile students, Agile teachers and Agile education systems.

Accenture | SolutionsIQ’s Leslie Morse hosts at the Business Agility Conference in New York City.

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LESLIE MORSE: Welcome to another edition of Agile Amped. I’m your host, Leslie Morse. We’re podcasting from the Business Agility Conference in New York City. Today my guest is Jason Gaulden. He is the Vice President of Partnerships at America Succeeds, which is a national network of nonpartisan business led policy and advocacy organizations committed to improving public education. He draws upon 15 years of professional experience in various roles including executive leadership, philanthropy, marketing, fund development, and nonprofit management and governance. Jason, thank you so much for being here today.

JASON GAULDEN: No. Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

LESLIE MORSE: Good. I’m really excited about this. Learning that this is really the infusion of Agile into education. I was, this is gonna get me on a soapbox. I’ve got passion around some of these things. It’s kind of hard to figure out where to start. You were mentioning in our prep conversation today, this research paper that you wrote, The Age of Agility.

JASON GAULDEN: Sure.

LESLIE MORSE: Let’s just kind of set context there on how this was the launching point for bringing in Agile into the education work you’re doing.

JASON GAULDEN: Sure. Let me back up from that and say our constituency is the business community. America Succeeds exists to make sure that business is at the table every time an education policy decision is being made because frankly business is the end user of the education system. The more and more we started to talk to our constituency, the business community, we learned that they all had a universal shared problem … challenge that they were trying to solve. That’s the talent pipeline. We started talking to them and ultimately kind of the idea just arose to kind of try to capture this in a way that was really digestible to not just business leaders, also educational leaders, also policy leaders.

What came from that is this report. It’s called The Age of Agility: Education Pathways for the Future of Work. We kind of take an assessment about the misalignment between what the educational system produces and what the workforce actually needs. We dive into trying to find solutions to bridge the skills gap in this country.

LESLIE MORSE: Which … You being someone that feels like she’s in a career that my education really did nothing to set me up for. That gap is real.

JASON GAULDEN: It’s real.

LESLIE MORSE: What you learn in school and what you’re actually applying in the workforce. There are some transferable skills. The jobs that are going to exist when kids graduate from high school don’t exist today for kindergartners and first graders. They aren’t even invented yet. How do we even know what to educate them on?

JASON GAULDEN: Another question is how do you define and measure what skills are needed? It used to be that a college degree was a pretty decent proxy for anything that you might need or might encounter in your career. To say you have a college degree means you’re going to figure out a way to navigate that stuff. That’s not the case anymore. This is a skills based economy, not a knowledge based economy. You have to have both the skillset and the Agile mindset in order to be successful. If you need that in business, if we expect students and workers to have these agility attributes, we’ll then the same holds true for the education system that prepares them. They’ve got some evolving to do.

LESLIE MORSE: I love that you use the word mindset because mindset is so much of it. Why not invest in that heavily in the formative years when kids are getting started?

JASON GAULDEN: Actually I have to make a confession. I wrote this report. I co-authored this report along with my good friend, Alan Gottlieb. I did so without even knowing that this agility market existed.

LESLIE MORSE: Oh Wow.

JASON GAULDEN: I was just using definition number one: flexibility, agility, adaptation. I didn’t know that this was a whole developed business practice and principle. This is a new world to me. I didn’t even know that there was a business agility market to come talk to.

LESLIE MORSE: Oh, that so exciting. Oh. Wow. That’s a whole nother conversation almost. You wrote the research paper. We’ve gotten a nonprofit going. I guess, what are some of the key tenets for how you’re seeing this stuff show up and change the way education is approached?

JASON GAULDEN: First of all, I want to make clear that I’m not making a case that the education system exists simply to churn out workers for the workforce. Of course, education in this country has a higher calling than that. We’re producing well rounded citizens.

LESLIE MORSE: We’re gonna produce good human beings.

JASON GAULDEN: Good human beings, right? But guess what? For the most part, each of those good human beings are gonna need a job, right? The educational experience should be aligned with the fact that they’re going to need a job. Guess what? The jobs of today and tomorrow are nothing like the jobs of the past. There’s gotta be some adjustment. We’ve got to pivot to make sure that the education system is actually producing the kind of knowledge, skills, abilities, behaviors, experiences that are going to propel students and workers to success in the future workplace. That’s what we aimed to tackle with this report. If I may, one of the things I’m most proud of in this report is that it really did inject a new language, a new way to talk about this.

People get into their divisive camps of charter schools versus district or education reform versus the status quo. We want to elevate above all of that. We want to have an inclusive big tent conversation about modernizing the education system.

LESLIE MORSE: I was gonna say, I imagined that ability for the education system to sense and respond to this ever evolving great societal and business needs, is a key part of that. Is that a … Am I making a correct assumption?

JASON GAULDEN: That’s exactly it. But business has a role to play in that, too. It can’t just sit back and expect the educational system to produce the kinds of knowledge, skills and abilities that it needs. No. It has an active role to play. It has an active role to play in both informing the education system of what reality is in the business world. What kinds of agility attributes must be embedded in the educational process.

It also has an obligation to help teachers learn, right? So that teachers can stay on the forefront. We can’t expect teachers to be relaying the information to students if they don’t have it. Business has an obligation to offer more learning opportunities for the teachers.

LESLIE MORSE: Really preserving a growth mindset for the teachers as well. Just ’cause I’ve taught reading this way for the last 20 years doesn’t mean that’s how I still need to teach reading.

JASON GAULDEN: I can’t say it any better than you just did. That’s exactly it.

LESLIE MORSE: It’s interesting ’cause one of the Agile principles like those that build the software, right? If we think about the traditional, IT roots of Agile, right? Those that build the software and those that want the software. The business people and the developers need to work together daily. Is that the level of collaboration you’re really looking for between education and business?

JASON GAULDEN: In the one sense, yes. But it’s going to be a process to get there. First of all we have to get decision makers to themselves have a more Agile mindset, right? This whole being wed to traditionalism, this is the worst place in the world for that. Education is where we have to be bold, courageous, innovative-

LESLIE MORSE: Disruptors.

JASON GAULDEN: Disruptors, indeed because frankly I don’t know who can argue. This system needs to be disrupted. We’re still working on a model that was built for one particular purpose in a more … It was built more along the lines of a factory model of one size fits all. That is what the economy and the society called for at that time. But 100, 150 years down the road-

LESLIE MORSE: In the age of the knowledge worker.

JASON GAULDEN: Time for some adjustments.

LESLIE MORSE: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. How much of that sort of … the next sort of thing I think about is self directed learning paths.

JASON GAULDEN: Sure.

LESLIE MORSE: ‘Cause the same learning path isn’t going to serve every child and every learner all the way up through higher education. Does that idea kind of self directed learning kind of flow into some of your principles?

JASON GAULDEN: Absolutely. It’s at the core, right? Because in every other aspect of our life, we get continuous improvement. We get individualization. We don’t get that in education, but it’s the place where it’s most needed. You can personalize my devices and my appliances and everything else. But we haven’t yet figured out … Well I don’t know that we haven’t figured it out. We haven’t yet applied the notion of hyper individualization to education. It’s still, for the most part, a one size fits all proposition which it shouldn’t be, right? We have the technology. We know how to do it. What we don’t have is right now the political will to change such an entrenched system.

LESLIE MORSE: I think if people really thought about it, one size fits all is actually one size fits none.

JASON GAULDEN: That’s right.

LESLIE MORSE: The one size fits all thing that may have worked, might’ve been the Snuggie.

JASON GAULDEN: Exactly.

LESLIE MORSE: Let’s think about your talk here at the conference. A couple of key themes. If people missed out on you being here at the conference, what would they have really come away with? Are there kind of a couple of tenets that are important for that talk?

JASON GAULDEN: Yeah. If I had to boil it all down, I’d say that … Let me back up again. We released the report. It was very well received. What happened is that it spurred a national tour. When we released the report, we weren’t so presumptuous to think that we had all the answers or knew how to fix everything.

What we did know is that there are business leaders and educators in every city in this country grappling with the same issues, right? What we did is we went on tour with Age of Agility Summits to have these localized conversations about the future of work and to convene business, education, and policy leaders in the same place at the same time to hash out these tough conversations. What emerged from that is an effort in crowdsourcing. We asked others how they were grappling with these issues and yeah, across the national tour, three themes emerged. If we are to have a modernized optimized education system, three tenets need to be in place: building Agile students, building Agile educators, and building Agile systems.

Let me get … For students … building Agile students. It means that every student arises out of their schooling experience. They graduate high school with the knowledge and skills and behaviors and experiences to succeed in the global economy, but contribute to their local community. That means coming out with both the technical skillset and an Agile mindset to be successful in the real world. For educators, it means that they’ll have to be good at two things. They’ll have to be really good at teaching students and they’ll have to be really good at being students, right? Because they’re not exempt. Teachers, too live in an evolving workforce. They, too have to continually up skill and retool in order to remain valuable and relevant.

LESLIE MORSE: All of a sudden, this light bulb’s coming on that as technology proliferates through every ounce of society and business in our world, the people that are teaching the next generation of workers aren’t trained in technology innovation.

JASON GAULDEN: Exactly.

LESLIE MORSE: How do people not trained in technology teach the next generation of technology builders? ‘Cause that’s essentially where we’re all becoming in some way, shape or form. I’ve never really thought about that before, but there’s a dynamic there that has got to play into this idea of teachers being students or educators being student.

JASON GAULDEN: Absolutely. You’ve hit the nail on the head. There’s a saying out there in business that every company is a tech company, right? That kind of translates to education, too, right? Every teacher is a-

LESLIE MORSE: Technology teacher.

JASON GAULDEN: Technology teacher.

LESLIE MORSE: They’re actually teaching technology or leveraging technology in the classroom.

JASON GAULDEN: Exactly.

LESLIE MORSE: I don’t want to get you off of these three tenets. What was … The third one was ..

JASON GAULDEN: The third one is building Agile systems themselves, right? It’s kinda like how do we create kind of permeability between the in school learning process and the hands on experiential learning that a student really should have before leaving high school? We’re all about intentionally blurring the lines. We want to see more workforce oriented aspects and curricula and content built into the K-12 system. More career exploration, more apprenticeships, more dual enrollment. Again back to the earlier point, more individualization, more customization to what the student’s strengths and interests are as opposed to, again, kind of this factory model of one size fits all.

LESLIE MORSE: That was really an invitation for me to get on my personal soapbox.

JASON GAULDEN: Go for it.

LESLIE MORSE: Because you talk about having all that hands on application and ideas of apprenticeship. Some of my issues actually exist when we get into higher education. I guess we can call them kids. Still go off to college and get these four year degrees. But I’m halfway through it and I realize I’m actually not passionate about this. Now being in the workforce, there is nothing that is a greater gift in life than having a career you wake up for every day, for a reason. It makes you want to get up. Versus I happen to have a degree in something and I’m stuck in this career. It doesn’t put fire in my belly. It’s I’d love to see us get to a point where it’s not just K through 12, it’s K through 16 and built in apprenticeships programs. So that you go and experience all of this stuff. Then you can make a better educated choice about what you actually want to go get a higher education degree in.

JASON GAULDEN: I’m confused. Who’s the interviewer and who’s the interviewee?

LESLIE MORSE: This is just a great conversation, and that’s the best part!

JJASON GAULDEN: ‘Cause you’re saying everything that I wanted to say.

LESLIE MORSE: Awesome.

JASON GAULDEN: A couple of things. One, we really don’t have to reexamine the value proposition of higher education. It’s fading fast.

LESLIE MORSE: Especially when you think of all the student debt-

JASON GAULDEN: Exactly.

LESLIE MORSE: … aspects that come into it. It’s crazy.

JASON GAULDEN: Exactly. It’s not that education isn’t important. It is. I still believe in the old adage, learning is earning, right? You’re still more equipped to survive and less susceptible to automation, the more education that you have. That remains true. But there’s other ways to get relevant, attractive education, right? There’s bootcamp models, there’s communicate … the community college based certificate programs that offer real pathways to upward mobility. That’s one thing.

LESLIE MORSE: Well, now actually invite the fact that those styles of education programs, because they have smaller scope, can actually inspect and adapt faster-

JASON GAULDEN: Exactly.

LESLIE MORSE: … the needs of learners in more rapid ways than these giant things that have to go through state level learning objectives and approvals and all of these kinds of things.

JASON GAULDEN: I can’t keep going with this interview if you’re going to steal all my lines.

LESLIE MORSE: Sorry!

JASON GAULDEN: Seriously. The other point that I’d make is that the whole value and longevity proposition of a … The word you used was career, right? We need to rethink that word as well. Gone are the days where we can expect one skill or one degree or even one industry to carry us through a so called career. You’re going to have to … Every individual is going to have to get really comfortable with the idea of lifelong learning, continuous up skilling, continuous retooling in order to stay valuable and relevant in the workplace. It’s going to be a cyclical experience of always riding the wave of what you know and continually going back down to learn what you don’t.

LESLIE MORSE: In a … As opposed to offering more commentary, I’m going to ask as we embark on these journeys that are going to take us all these different places, what do you as sort of the grounding factor that a learner … we’ll call it a approaching adult learner, can sort of root themselves in to help make good choices?

JASON GAULDEN: Sure. That’s great. I think every … There again, there’s a skillset aspect and a mindset aspect to it all. Anytime we try to project kind of now and into the future, what a person’s going to need for the workforce or what the education needs to be to get them ready for that, we’re going to miss that target every time because the world is changing so fast. The whole point I’m trying to make is to embed agility into the learning process thoroughly.

There’s just certain things that happen at a certain stage in our developmental process. When you go to kindergarten, you get your immunization shots. When you turn 16 you can get your driver’s license. When you go to college, there’s a freshmen orientation. Certain things are just kind of embedded into our developmental process. We’ve got to figure out a way to embed agility. Again, I’m talking about both this technical skillset and the mindset. The lifelong learning mindset that’s going to make you Agile, adaptable, responsive, able to survive in this rapidly, dramatically changing world.

LESLIE MORSE: Let’s bring in, right, the technology, rapid changing.

JASON GAULDEN: Sure.

LESLIE MORSE: We kind of touched on it a minute before. How do you see the rapid advancement of technology, AI, machine learning, all of this stuff truly impacting the work that you’re doing?

JASON GAULDEN: Oh, just everything. That’s all. We live in a world of big data analytics, customization and the seismic shifts that … and disruptions that advanced technology is causing in so many industries. It’s a technology issue. But more to the point it’s a people issue. Here’s what I mean. Autonomous vehicles … This is not a matter of a human teaching a car how to drive. This is a matter of a human teaching a car how to learn and think and the car teaching itself how to drive. That’s the level of complex-

LESLIE MORSE: I’ve never thought about it that way.

JASON GAULDEN: … problem solving that we’re into. We have to educate people in a way to think totally differently. Another example I use is ports. Kind of old, rusty, boring kind of scenario until you look at what’s happening.

LESLIE MORSE: When you say port you mean cargo port, ships coming up.

JASON GAULDEN: Cargo ports. Yeah. Shipping ports. They’ve kicked humans out of the operation at this point.

LESLIE MORSE: It’s all robot driven-

JASON GAULDEN: The cranes, the lifts, the transport vehicles, the storage retrieval systems, it is all controlled by a digital brain that is better at logistics than any human can ever be. You have to have humans trained in those kinds of technical complexities to orchestrate the thing, right?

LESLIE MORSE: The systems thinking has got to be a huge skill that we’re looking at how to teach kids today.

JASON GAULDEN: Design thinking, skills thinking. Let me offer up one example. It’s in our report and it’s called One Stone School in Boise, Idaho. This is a high school of students who designed the school and designed their learning model. They implemented a design thinking themed high school.

LESLIE MORSE: Oh. Wow.

JASON GAULDEN: Guess what? It is embedded throughout all of their curricula. So every subject … It’s just a multidisciplinary, mash of all of the relevant skills and learnings that they need. But here’s the interesting thing. The school actually offers it’s consulting services to corporations.

LESLIE MORSE: Oh. Nice.

JASON GAULDEN: Corporations buy facilitated sessions in design thinking led by the students. Guess what? They are awesome.

LESLIE MORSE: I bet they are.

JASON GAULDEN: They are awesome. They help solve some of the nation’s most complex business problems by facilitating these design thinking sessions with corporate leaders. It’s fascinating.

LESLIE MORSE: That’s amazing. That’s so cool. Then thinking about actual skull application, are you familiar with the Agile Schools Movement that John Miller’s involved with?

JASON GAULDEN: Actually, no. I need to know more about that.

LESLIE MORSE: I’ll make sure you get an introduction to John. Some of the stuff that he helps schools do is very in that self directed learning sort of way. Kind of similar to a little bit of a design thinking where there’s a learning backlog. Students self organize on how to learn a topic, and then they demo to the teacher, their acquisition of the knowledge as opposed to doing traditional testing sort of stuff. To the teacher, here’s how we’re going to prove to you we’ve learned these topics. It really makes them invested in it.

JASON GAULDEN: Let me offer you a painful example of how desperately that’s needed and how far we are from it. Along the Age of Agility tour we’re talking to, again, we have a mixed crowd, business leaders, policy leaders, education leaders. At one point, the point was being made about how much business needs workers who are able to think critically. The business leader prompts the education leader and says, we need you to build critical thinking into the educational experience. The education leader says, look, I’m sorry, we just don’t have enough time in the day to add an additional critical thinking class.

LESLIE MORSE: When is the last time you took something away so that you can improve?

JASON GAULDEN: More to the point, why do you think that it has to be a class?

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah.

JASON GAULDEN: It’s not a class.

LESLIE MORSE: That’s a good point.

JASON GAULDEN: It’s something you embed into all that you do.

LESLIE MORSE: It’s a way of doing.

JASON GAULDEN: There is no reason you can’t embed the notion and principles of critical thinking into math, into science, into history. That’s … To give you an example, that’s the mindset that we’re trying to change.

LESLIE MORSE: You used the word principles right there. I think about core Agile, right? We have our manifesto. We have the 12 principles that really … if anything, Agile is a values based way of working. There’s a million ways to be Agile. But they’re all in alignment with these same core values and principles. Have you gotten to the point where you’ve got kind of a set of core values and principles around this idea of agility and education?

JASON GAULDEN: Yeah. Frankly, those are the guiding principles of our organization. So the … America Succeeds is a national network of business leaders and organizations. We work state by state. All of our affiliates in each state have to sign onto our five core principles. We believe that the same core principles that make socially responsible businesses successful, actually do apply to education. That is customer first. We believe that the customer is ultimately the student.

LESLIE MORSE: In this instance, our Agile corresponding theme would be our highest priority is to satisfy the customer-

JASON GAULDEN: There you go.

LESLIE MORSE: … through the early and continuous delivery of valuable software. In this case, in the early and continuous delivery of relevant education and knowledge.

JASON GAULDEN: That’s exactly right. That’s … Our first principle is customer focused. Then there’s transparency, accountability, return on investment, and choice and innovation. Those five principles that make businesses thrive, yeah, they have a place in education. We’re guided by those principles. It’s the lens through which we view the world. It is the filter through which we make all of our decisions. Do these policies make sense for students in these ways?

LESLIE MORSE: That’s so great. I want to bring us back to this idea of actual business working in partnership with education.

JASON GAULDEN: Sure.

LESLIE MORSE: Practically, so many of our listeners are kind of in those business roles. If they’re inspired and they want to get involved, what are a handful of the things that they should be thinking about in order to start making a difference?

JASON GAULDEN: Okay. Tough, tough subject for me. I’ll tell you why. Because businesses are generally oriented towards those kinds of immediate gratification ways of engagement. Businesses are quick to do an adopt a school program or back to school supplies or sponsoring an event when really we need business leaders engaged at the advocacy and policy level-

LESLIE MORSE: It’s a higher purpose, higher calling.

JASON GAULDEN: That’s what we are trying to accomplish. We’ve done a great job. But we can always use more because we, America Succeeds, we want to speak with the strength of a unified business voice nationally. At every state level and across the country, we want as many businesses engaged as possible. For the report, we had the benefit of talking to Boeing and Google and Walmart and Cummins and Subaru and Toyota. We got some great companies to engage in this report. But now we need a sustained movement. We formed just recently The Agility Alliance. We’ve drafted what is essentially a declaration of support to embedding agility into the education system. I’m right now knocking on doors everywhere I can go to get businesses to sign on. It doesn’t cost anything. It just means you pledging your support for this movement to embed agility into the education system. That’s what I hope businesses will do.

LESLIE MORSE: Then I’m guessing the America Succeeds website is a great place to go learn about this.

JASON GAULDEN: Absolutely.

LESLIE MORSE: What are other places people can go learn?

JASON GAULDEN: More specifically, we have a site called the Age of Agility, called ageofagility.org. That’s ageofagility.org. Download the report for free. Learn about some of our resources, opportunities for engagement, and take a look at the success of our national tour.

LESLIE MORSE: Jason, this is so cool and I think so important to society and in the quality of life of humans in general. This is great. I’m so glad that we’ve been able to make this connection today. Any final thoughts for our listeners?

JASON GAULDEN: Oh, first I just want to thank you for having me. This was my first ever podcast. This is … You’ve made it super fun.

LESLIE MORSE: Good! Good.

JASON GAULDEN: What I would say is that there is a role for business. Every time an education policy decision is being made, business should want to be there because like my friend Tim Taylor our founding CEO says, if you rely on either customers or employees as a business, you need to care about education.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. No, I completely … Yes, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. Well, listen, Jason, for a first timer you’re absolutely a natural. This is a great conversation to have. Thank you again for being here.

JASON GAULDEN: Thank you for having me.

LESLIE MORSE: Thank you guys for listening to this episode of Agile Amped. If you learn something new, please tell a friend, coworker, or client, and now we can say even educator, about this podcast. Subscribe online and hear more inspiring conversations. Thanks for listening.