Sometimes we need to seek out our purpose and mission; other times it comes to us as an obvious problem in need of a solution. But what if the problem turns out to be a huge paradigm shift in something fundamental to western society? Some people could turn away and say, “The issue is just too large, let someone else work on it.” But then there are people like Andrew Perry who, at an age when perhaps his parents were considering slowing down and pulling back, has taken on the quest to imagine and bring to the world a far better and more effective educational system than we currently have.
This is a heavy lift, as it affects a huge legacy industry that may not be especially enamored of being disrupted. It also requires the ability to think about the actual outcome we would want for our children, not the outcome that was perhaps best for when we were in school. Then one has to actualize the ideas, raise the money, convince the stakeholders, and create the solution. It requires courage, grit, vision and a belief that there is a better way forward than what we have been doing for the last 200 years. Horses seemed like an excellent mobility solution back then too. The solution that Andrew has created is called Sunlark, a completely new way of learning that takes advantage of what kids do best: investigate and solve problems on their own.
“I believe every student today has to learn how to learn, curate new information, and communicate and collaborate effectively”
What is your ambition for Sunlark?
It started with me scratching my own itch, as it were, and looking for the best educational opportunities for my three-year-old son. As I began to talk to people, I realized there was an opportunity for a much more significant impact.
We are working on a platform that could help all kids help each other to develop foundational skills. I believe every student today has to learn how to learn, curate new information, and communicate and collaborate effectively around creating innovative and practical solutions to pressing problems. I envision a world where kids would join their peers from all over the globe to share experiences, open up new perspectives, and become better humans with the help of the Sunlark platform.
What is broken about the educational system in use today?
The educational system we have today was developed for a very different world. Mainstream education is still very much rooted in the needs of an industrial society. Before the information age, we needed people to operate in a command-and-control structure and perform standardized operations in a standardized way. And for that purpose, it worked.
Today, the world has changed. I don’t think anyone would disagree on this point. The rate of change is increasing exponentially. New technologies make things possible that were pure science fiction a generation ago. We need to explicitly focus on helping our kids prepare for the world they will grow into — and we don’t know what that world will look like. And in that, I believe, there is a beautiful opportunity. If we don’t impose a rigid structure defined by the past and instead help kids use their imagination to create freely from first principles, they will surprise us with solutions we haven’t even conceived of yet.
“I had trouble understanding why I had to solve a problem as I was told in school if I could find a more elegant solution with less effort”
How did you discover that kids learn better without adults around?
This is what Peter Tiel would call an important truth about which most other people disagree with me. For me, it started from my own experiences growing up. I had trouble understanding why I had to solve a problem as I was told in school if I could find a more elegant solution with less effort.
For the longest time, I thought it was just me being weird, you know. But as I started digging in deeper to give my son a better experience than what I grew up with, I came across the work of Sugata Mitra. Prof. Mitra became known for what he initially called “hole in the wall experiment.” In 1999, he installed an internet-connected computer through a literal hole in the wall in a slum in New Delhi. It was low enough that children would have easy access to it. No adults were around to instruct kids in using the strange device they had never seen before.
To his astonishment, kids quickly worked out how to operate the computer, surf the web, and download games and music. They taught themselves and were teaching each other to perform sophisticated actions and remained engaged and motivated to continue their exploration for a long time. Mind you, this was before experiences on the internet were purposefully engineered to maximize engagement. The complexity and amount of effort required to do even relatively simple things were significant. There have been two decades of research in this space since then in various environments, socio-economic conditions, and subjects. So I am deeply convinced that self-directed, minimally invasive education works.
“I am deeply convinced that self-directed, minimally invasive education works”
Do you feel the Sunlark system would work well with adults?
Look, there is a kid in every adult if they let themselves acknowledge and embrace that. Ultimately, we humans learn best by evaluating a situation, creating a hypothesis about how best to get to the result we want, trying it out, re-evaluating results, and then repeating the process.
In fighter pilot training, it’s the OODA loop. In software development, they call it agile. We use this approach to train AI with generative adversarial networks. This is also how my kid learned to walk and talk. This wouldn’t work for an adult who takes themselves too seriously or is afraid of failure. Adults who want to keep up with the times and stay relevant may want to embrace something like what we are working on. Most adults today may expect to have multiple careers during their lifetime, so the ability to learn effectively is no longer optional, in my opinion. That said, we are working on a platform for 8- to 13-year-olds first.
“Sunlark is designing a game to create engagement”
What would the gamification of learning look like?
Gamification is a term that everyone seems to interpret in a slightly different way. Sunlark is designing a game to create engagement. We embed problems into gameplay which require players to find parts of the solution in a body of knowledge we make available to them. I feel it is more productive to think of this in terms of designing the right incentives into the system.
Every child, every person, is different. For some, it is about collecting points. For others, peer recognition is the driving factor. Kids progress through developmental levels at their own pace, and their personalities are their own. We need to learn how to tailor the learning experience to every individual while imparting shared human values and creating guard rails to prevent the process from spinning out in the wrong direction.
Have you tried the system out on kids?
We are still in early development. I have feedback from kids regarding what works for them and what doesn’t in their other educational pursuits. I also look at how the principles we put in the foundation of our platform work elsewhere. Almost all pieces of what we do have been discovered by others and tried elsewhere. It’s just that no one has yet put them all together just right.
Is the intention to teach facts, or to teach the process of learning?
Einstein is someone I admire deeply and find fascinating. He is quoted as saying, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of minds to think.” Pretty much any fact today is a couple of Google searches away — if you know how to ask good questions. Sure, having fundamental facts in working memory helps to arrive at some answers faster. It can spur ideas and save us from going down the wrong rabbit hole.
I would argue, though, that facts we need repeatedly and deem important we will commit to memory without explicitly trying. For everything else, there is Google and collective memory of the group we communicate and collaborate with. Recall practice and memory palaces are excellent tools, but they are a means to an end. Besides, some facts are only facts until they aren’t. For example, 500 years ago, everyone knew for a fact the Earth was flat.
Why did you, at the age of 52, decide to start a company?
Because I believe it needs to exist. Age for me wasn’t a factor in this decision.
What are the challenges you are finding with being an entrepreneur?
What I am working on is a hard and complex problem. I found myself in need of learning to communicate differently. I need to present ideas to a much broader and much more varied audience than ever before in my career in a highly competitive and noisy environment. I am learning to deal with short attention spans, and the predominantly short-term focus people and businesses appear to have these days. I believe that helping the next generation learn to think better is too important to sacrifice in the name of next quarter’s results.
What were you doing before Sunlark?
I came up through the U.S. Department of State and then ran technology for a $400M national program in Washington DC. I got burned out and left in late 2015. I took time to travel, spent a month in the Peruvian jungle, and focused on my family for a while. I was incredibly fortunate to spend a lot of time with my kid, who is turning four soon. It was he who re-lit the fire in me to build something meaningful for him and for all kids out there.
What is your timeline for the next steps looking like?
I’m actively raising funds to complete a field-testable prototype in the first quarter of 2022. We will test and refine it and plan to have four-week-long sprints loaded with multi-disciplinary material ready for deployment in time for the 2022-23 school year. From there, we will get this in the hands of as many homeschooling parents, learning pods, micro-schools, and after-school programs as we can. In 2024, we will tackle material in languages other than English and international distribution. And if humanity builds the first city on Mars in 2050, we will provide the platform to build the first school there.