Tom Vander Ark has seen many sides of the U.S. education system—as a district superintendent, the executive director of education for the Gates Foundation, an education entrepreneur, an investor in education companies, and an evangelist for transforming today’s education system into a student-centric one fit for the 21st century. He’s seen his share of successes, failures, and frustrations in all of these arenas, which is what makes his debut as a book author with his volume Getting Smart so intriguing.

In a whirlwind tour of 200 very readable pages, Vander Ark paints an audacious and bold vision for what education could—and he predicts will—be like in the next 10 years. For those familiar with Vander Ark’s daily blog, little in the book will be new, save for how he organizes the sheer volume of his thoughts and on what he chooses to focus and highlight. But for those who don’t follow his writings, Vander Ark’s predictions, which are sprinkled throughout the book every few pages in an entertaining fashion, will likely come as quite a shock—from his prediction that in five years “low-cost blended-learning private schools will serve close to 200 million students in India, China, and Africa” to his declaration that in 10 years, “second-generation recommendation engines will drive tutoring applications that are more effective than one-on-one sessions with a live tutor.”

Other fun—and even more audacious ones perhaps—are his predictions that in five years “science will confirm the obvious about how most boys learn and active learning models will be developed in response using expeditions, playlists, and projects” and “fifty of the largest one hundred districts will, on a regular basis, close struggling schools and replace them with blended charter or contract schools, expand access to online courses, and embrace school networks.”

Bold indeed. Others might call it brash, but it’s certainly direct and in keeping with Vander Ark’s personal style. I suspect many will struggle with this directness, as Vander Ark does not peel back the thinking behind many of his predictions and give some transparency or broader theories as to why he thinks things will unfold in the way that he predicts, as he prefers instead to assert and overwhelm with a lot of stories and data points to lead the reader directionally toward his vision—which is a compelling one (and that shared vision is a critical reason why I work with him to transform our education system regularly).

Readers turned off by this style of forward assertions and tempted to dismiss the book, however, would be wise to press on lest they miss several subtleties and precious insights along the way in the book.

Vander Ark’s observations on the most radical disruptive innovations in education starting from outside the system—and indeed often in developing countries—is in line with the theory that disruptive innovations get their start by targeting areas of nonconsumption, where the alternative is nothing at all.

His distilling of an argument in Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology in a simple chart of the shift from Agricultural to Industrial to Idea Economy Education seems to be a prescient one, as it reflects the larger shifts in an economy once dominated by solution-shop businesses to one dominated by value-adding process businesses to today’s economy that is increasingly being driven by facilitated network businesses. Education seems to have always reflected these broader societal shifts and organizational patterns, even if the transition took some time and vestiges of the old remained. This sets up one of his broader arguments that schools should ultimately refashion themselves into “school-as-a-service” models, a point with which I agree.

And Vander Ark sprinkles in some important rebuttals to so-called technophobes, as well as some critical points on the necessity of understanding motivation—what he calls the “holy grail of education.” As he says, “In the nascent field of cognitive sciences, hypotheses about learning styles have drawn a good deal of attention from researchers and educators, leaving more fundamental questions of motivation underexplored.” This distinction seems spot on—and a critical blind spot in today’s research from cognitive and neuroscientists, who say they can tell what the ideal way to learn is and expose myths about learning, but fail to answer whether students will actually succeed in these so-called ideal paths by applying themselves to work hard, “persist through discomfort and distraction,” and ultimately learn and progress.

And of course, Vander Ark’s knowledge of the policy landscape and the insights he sprinkles throughout are worth paying attention to, including my favorite one of Vander Ark’s thought experiments—that with “sixty days’ notice, it would be logistically possible for a half dozen organizations (private companies and nonprofit groups) to make available to every student in the United States quality online high school math and science courses supported by effective instructions; they could also throw in twenty foreign languages—no problem,” and yet that the only thing standing in the way of that is—simply put, ourselves and today’s policies.

Quite a possibility, and quite a frustrating impediment, too, all of which makes Getting Smart worth the read on the road to Vander Ark’s ultimate passion: making students and our society just a heckuva lot smarter.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.