New Faces: Two-way Classroom Learning With Sam Kerse
At the age of just 20, Sam Kerse is following his passion of shifting the way we approach classroom learning.
Sam created Notifr, a tool that allows teachers to become more effective by making student feedback truly effortless, in the hopes that feedback mindsets will become the norm in education. He shares his thoughts here on the role of entrepreneurship, the changing nature of education and the futures that we need to prepare our young people for.
Was there an original aha moment, or a spark of an idea for Notifr?
I grew up with a sister who has cerebral palsy, and I've seen the difference the teachers make who take the time to understand how she learns. Our first “why” is to make sure every teacher feels confident that they can adapt to every students needs to create a better education.
From a solutions perspective, we started with web-based push notifications to make it effortless for teachers to regularly ask for feedback throughout the year, and moved to a micro-survey linked to teaching calendars. As we've grown we're now moving from a student-centric approach towards it being a personal assistant for every teacher that helps them be more effective.
We've got a problem in New Zealand, that there is a growing tail of students slipping through the cracks. In fact New Zealand has the largest gap between low achieving students and high achieving students than any other OECD nation. There’s obviously something wrong here, especially when we talk about preparing students equally for the real world. Clearly we're not.
Where do you see the future of education going?
I think in the short term, we're going to see the technology that we're using within classroom environments become smarter and able to adapt to how teachers are using it. For Notifr, this means removing administration and repetitive tasks for teachers, to make it a more invisible technology.
In the longer run I think we’ll see some fundamental changes, like the metrics for success moving to something more intrinsic. Maybe something that is a little more intangible to measure right now - but eventually we'll get our minds into that space.
I want to play a part in that movement with Notifr. I want more people to enter the world with a growth mindset, where its ok to try and make mistakes, where its ok to not have all the answers, and where more people are making a difference. We want to do this by developing the teacher as the ideal role model. This is our second big “why” at Notifr.
Given the scope for two-way learning with Notifr, what do you think teachers can learn from their students?
I would reframe that question as, what happens if we don't encourage two-way communication? What if we don't listen to our students? What sort of mindset is that providing to our students, that everything is supposed to be directed, that we're supposed to stick to the hierarchies that are presented to us in society?
Holocratic organisations are far more effective at adapting and empowering people than hierarchies. We're in the early days of exploring how organisations and roles can be completely fluid. That a person and their job description are two separate things, and that they can change around. If we can instill that on our young people today, I think that is what will fuel the next generation of management culture.
Perhaps the biggest surprise I had before I even started Notifr was finding out how crucial it is to teach confidence. Two-way learning should be the link that leads to more confident learners and teachers.
What unique perspectives do you think young people can bring to solving the world’s biggest challenges?
I don't think young people necessarily bring a new perspective as much as new energy into the space. Young people have a lot of energy, and ultimately it's about trying something new. But you need to answer the “why?” first, rather than changing things for the sake of changing things.
Young people also don’t have the pressure of generating cash as quickly, and can often forgo that in favour of building more meaningful relationships with the people that can become their support network. In theory, this should mean young people can spend more time truly understanding the problem they are tackling.
I believe the entrepreneurial spirit is something that is innate inside all of us, and it's one of those things that we need to figure out how to activate. My contribution to this is just to try new ideas, and let people know what I’ve found that works, and what doesn't, so they can iterate on top of my iterations.
Do you think the nature of entrepreneurship is changing?
What I think what we're seeing is an encouragement to talk about what you're doing. The open source movement has helped to fuel that, and we're seeing more and more IP being released to the world for free. Even recently Y Combinator's research division has opened up and said, “Look, we'll give away whatever we create. We just want to better the world.”
I’ve found that its becoming more acceptable to pursue entrepreneurship for purposes outside of “making money”. I see entrepreneurship as being the way to solve problems that real people have and scale the solution, and in that perspective, every true entrepreneur is a social entrepreneur. There seems to be better understanding that successful entrepreneurs care about the problem.
What does success look like to you?
I think that people mistake success for being successful, and those are two quite different concepts. “Being successful”, we look to what society and media represent it as, as opposed to success being quite a personal and intrinsic motivation.
I tend to go with the definition of success as learning. As long as you've learnt something you've had some success. So when we talk about the fear of failure in the startup ecosystem, we should be talking about the fear of not learning.
How relevant was your formal education to your abilities to succeed?
Throughout my education, I’ve been fortunate to have a number of teachers who have given me the freedom to develop my mindset. This isn’t a luxury that all students get.
Formal higher-education has its place in preparing people for certain careers. There’s a recognition that we need to prepare our students for jobs that don't exist yet, but the universities aren’t doing enough about it. We still have three or four year degrees, that aren't preparing people for future roles.
You have to ask, is there more value in a four year computer science degree, or a three month Dev Academy course?
How can we better help or support young people who are drawn towards entrepreneurship?
As much as I love how incubators and accelerators bring people together into one space, a problem I see with these sorts of models is they often push people through a certain funnel that doesn't always fit for everyone. Saying that, the number of people that we met in the Venture Up programme, and the number of people that are still helping us today, has been incredible. We've found some of our best partner organisations thanks to the mentors that we've had through that programme.
I think some of the most valuable incubators have actually been co-working spaces like BizDojo where you randomly have conversation with someone that walks past you, and it will lead to a great new idea. I love Xero's head office design, where they’ve used up a whole heap of space on a giant staircase that goes through the centre of their building. It’s there to allow people to have those casual conversations as they walk past. Where traditionally in corporate environments chatting is discouraged, Xero takes a different approach where discussing new ideas and informal little groups is a valuable use of time.
Who have been some of the most influential or inspiring people you have come across?
The cool thing about New Zealand is we have got a lot of inspiring people at different levels. We have people like Sir Ray Avery and Dr Michelle Dickinson, who are incredibly passionate about using science to solve social problems. We have people like Vaughan Rowsell and Rod Drury who have shown you can actually build billion dollar tech companies in New Zealand.
I love Vaughan’s approach. When he was getting started he just told the Vend story to as many people who would listen, and it’s something I've tried to pick up with Notifr as well.
If you could provide one piece of advice to another young person who wants to be an entrepreneur, what would that be?
You have to love what you're doing. It has to be that thing that gets you out of bed on the hard days. With Notifr, I'm driven by the purpose of changing mindsets towards feedback in education. If you're true to that social purpose that drives you to the problem that you're trying to solve, then I think you'll naturally attract people that will think the same way.