This is the latest in a series of Q&As exploring the areas of focus and goals of people and organizations with K-12 philanthropic interests. Check out the previous installment, featuring the Philadelphia Eagles' Zach Ertz, here.
Some 28 years ago, at a Marin County, California, location not so far away, the George Lucas Educational Foundation — yes, that George Lucas — set out on a mission to celebrate and encourage K-12 innovation. Co-founded by the "Star Wars" creator and film director alongside Polaris Ventures Co-Founder and Partner Emeritus Steve Arnold, then the vice president and general manager of LucasArts Games, the foundation grew from a mutual passion for education.
"My educational background is in developmental psych, and I thought I might actually be spending my career doing work in education, innovation and related things," Arnold told Education Dive recently. "And [Lucas] had a passion for it based on his own background and his own frustration with school."
Through time spent poring over 8th-grade textbooks to brainstorm what could be engaging and useful, as well as early collaborations with organizations like Apple, the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution and the Audubon Society to look at early experiments with interactive storytelling, the foundation's work ultimately blossomed into what is now Edutopia, as well as a research arm.
"George said a thing one time that stuck with me as a kind of a resonant phrase about what we were doing: 'A lot of people know education ought to be different, but they don't know in what way.'" Arnold said. "And so as we evolved the foundation, we began to think about how we could show the ways in which it could and should be different."
Arnold recently spoke with us about how the foundation's work has evolved, how it avoids being prescriptive and what opportunities he sees on the horizon.
Editor's Note: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
EDUCATION DIVE: I've always thought Edutopia is really interesting as the more public-facing arm of what the foundation does. When did that become a fully fleshed-out part of the vision, and in what ways do you feel that it helps support the work of the research arm?
STEVE ARNOLD: Well, Edutopia as a product of some kind has been around since almost the beginning of the foundation. It started out as a little newsletter we released. And then, for a while, we published a slick, glossy magazine called Edutopia. About 10 years ago, we phased out the print magazine and converted the whole thing online, and Edutopia became the web presence it is today.
During the magazine period, we probably were doing some stuff that was slightly more consumer feature-y kinds of things — still targeting educators, but imagining we could talk about things other than just hardcore, what-happens-in-the-classroom kinds of things. But the vision for trying to show what works and how to inspire and inform people about ways to try new things or be confident about it has been with us since pretty early on.
In the last 10 years, Edutopia has evolved into a pretty strong web presence. You may know we have about 13 million visitors a month now across all platforms — social media and email and web. There's a lot going on there.
George has always had really good instincts about the evolution of technology, and I think he had the insight — that's an area I had spent time, as well, looking at innovations in technology. We really did feel that eventually the internet would be a great delivery environment for what we were doing early on. You couldn't do it that way [at the time].
You couldn't send video online. So we produced videos and CD-ROMs. We had a whole era in the middle where what you see now as video production on the web was packaged into physical media and shipped out, as a way to get the stories out. As a filmmaker, of course, he was always thinking that showing and telling in an authentic and cinematic way was a great way to get people to understand what we mean. So we've always had that video arm, the kind of documentary film piece of what we're doing.
The research group is newer, but it is a second division of the organization. The research division is now doing multiple research projects that look at the differences and the capacities for a rigorous project-based learning approach to instruction. We've got several projects in elementary school, middle school and high school underway.
When you look at our core strategies, you can see that we've been advocating for project-based learning, integrated studies, social-emotional learning, effective use of technology, teacher development and a few other things for a long time. But particularly in the area of project-based learning, we felt it was worthwhile to ask hard research questions and try to look at that more carefully to figure out what rigorous project-based learning might look like and how it might be implemented in a way that was beneficial for kids.
Educators can sometimes be a little wary of the potential for philanthropic interests in education to lead to an outsized influence on things like curriculum or accountability. How do you feel foundations can better communicate their goals to educators to avoid those sorts of controversies?
ARNOLD: That's a great question. I think our approach has always been to not tell people what to do so much as to show them what works. Our approach to Edutopia and to the work we do has been to really look carefully and lift up examples that are in the field and ways that [educators], by seeing other people's innovations, can be willing to move in the direction of something that is working.
I know some other foundations have been, let's say, a little more prescriptive or a little more top-down. Obviously a lot of people get a little bit frustrated by the notion that somebody is going to tell them what to do. I think, in their heart, they're all well-meaning. I don't think anybody's intending to disenfranchise or make life difficult for educators. I think all the people that are doing this work philanthropically, as far as I know, have sincere goals.
But working with people, I think, is an effective strategy. Again, we've also always looked at this as a very long-term process. So it's a generational thing in terms of trying to help provide examples and tools and ways for people to think about the evolution [of education], but starting with the people who have to do the work and trying to be attentive to who teachers are and what motivates them to do what they do.
What sort of opportunities do you see for the foundation's work on the horizon? Is there any potential role that the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, for example, might end up playing in your all's work?
ARNOLD: Well, the museum will have an important educational component. I can't say we won't [collaborate], but there's no explicit plan to collaborate. It's still in the formative stages, so who knows how that might evolve over time.
We have a kind of mandate internally to stay focused on what we're doing. Right now, you know that's Edutopia. The growth at Edutopia is pretty powerful. We recently published a video series called "How Learning Happens," which was 23 short videos on the neuroscience of learning, and it had 7.5 million views across the whole collection. There's a fair amount of value still being delivered by what we're doing, and I think the continuation of that is something we imagine will both increase our reach and also impact. One of the things we try to measure very carefully is whether we're delivering things that help people change what they're doing in a way that makes them happy and makes them successful.
We recently did a survey among our readers, for example, where of the people that responded, about 80% said that they had tried something they had seen on Edutopia. And it runs the gamut from the simple things like greeting kids at the door to the more complex things like trying project-based learning. To the extent that we are able to continue to refine our storytelling and our selection of stories in order to continue to provide impact for educators, that's the vision we have going forward.
On the research side, we have a fair number of irons in the fire with our current projects, but I imagine that as we come to the end of the cycle on some of the research, we would likely begin to look at some of our other core strategies as domains for additional research. We do believe that focusing on the evidence base and carefully asking hard research questions about what works and trying to figure out what the models are for making innovations useful and sustainable is a reasonable goal for the evolution of the research side of things, as well.