What does The Right Question Institute have in common with WhatsApp?
Well, it’s not $16 billion of Facebook’s money. But, here are a few parallels that occurred to me:
I. VISION: Reach lots of people
WhatsApp: Jan Koum, one of the co-founders of WhatsApp “expects five billion people to be using smartphones within the next decade, and he wants to serve every one.”
The Right Question Institute (RQI): There are more than 100,000 public schools across the country and each one of them should and could be teaching students how to become better thinkers by learning to produce their own questions, improve their questions and strategize on how to use them.
II. CLEAR GOAL: Provide a product that has great value
WhatsApp wants to help people communicate quickly and easily. A simple idea about the fundamental need to communicate, and put into practice via a simple app using very sophisticated technology.
The Right Question Institute wants to help students be more engaged in their learning and actually learn more and think better. A straightforward, but often elusive goal, that can actually be accomplished when students learn the foundational skill of question formulation that is rarely deliberately taught.
III. INNOVATION AND DESIGN: Make it simple
WhatsApp tried different versions and kept moving and reducing the app to its simplest form possible. “Mr. Koum and Mr. Acton, 42, are obsessively focused on just one thing: offering a simple, private, nearly free way for people to share text, photo and video messages with the people they care about.” Stripped down of lots and bells and whistles that only complicate the most important task – communicating – the app found a willing audience.
RQI began with a 32 hour curriculum to teach low-income parents how to ask better questions related to their children’s education and then spent years refining and stripping it down to its absolute essence and created the Question Formulation Technique, a simple strategy that can be taught, learned and applied in minutes and is embraced by educators who discover it and see immediate and long lasting changes in their students.
IV. UNIVERSALITY: Make sure that everyone can use it
WhatsApp had to make sure that its app worked not only across borders, but also across all platforms. “Its founders were also determined to make the app work everywhere: They started on the iPhone, but quickly created versions for Android, BlackBerry, Symbian and Windows Phone. This gave WhatsApp a leg up over proprietary messaging systems…”
RQI worked for years to make it possible to teach the very sophisticated skill of question formulation to all people, no matter their level of income or literacy. Professor Howard Gardner, of Harvard, has observed that the strategy laid out in Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions can bring about “a Copernican revolution in the atmosphere of the classroom and the dynamics of learning.” And, it’s happening across all kinds of classrooms, from schools serving first generation immigrant children in Texas to students at Sidwell Friends School which counts the Obama daughters among its student population and to advanced biology students at Brandeis University.
V. THE BIG PICTURE: Change the world by focusing on fundamentals
WhatsApp’s Jan Koum knows what it is like when power is abused as his family experienced first hand in the former Soviet Union and the newly independent Ukraine. He also knows what it is like to be an immigrant and to be poor amidst plenty in Mountain View, CA and rely on food stamps. Did those experiences have any influence on creating a simple, low-cost technology that put a tool directlly in the hands of hundreds of millions of people?
RQI’s Co-Director, Luz Santana, who is co-author of Make Just One Change, knows what it is like to try to support a family with a meager welfare allocation and then with income from a job on a factory floor. Those experiences influence her work, and the work of the entire organization and keeps the focus on developing the simplest, most powerful strategy to help all students learn sophisticated thinking skills and to help all people have a voice in key decisions that affect them, on any level of democracy; from the welfare office to Congress.
VI. NEXT STEPS: We’ll see…
WhatsApp’s 50 employees will be figuring that out with Facebook and its legions of developers, marketing gurus and more…
RQI’s five full time employees want to share the Question Formulation Technique with all students, but especially with those in low-income communities who stand to gain the most by acquiring and using a sophisticated thinking skill usually reserved for those with access to an elite education.
Who wants to help?
Who wants to invest in disseminating a deceptively simple strategy that costs nothing extra and yet can transform education in all classrooms ?