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The Source Thesis

Mr. Bednarchuk, with his grey beard, he told us all, “See this rock? See this dent in it?” Over his head like a trophy, he held up a slab of granite.

Then he stepped up to the little goody-goody kid in the front row and softly pressed the rock across this kid’s face, over his eyes. The dent fit the bridge of his nose perfectly.

“If you’re late to my class, I won’t let you in. Unless you’re willing to accept this punishment.”

I was that goody-goody kid in the front row. I picked up the rock with two hands, and pushed it’s coldness against my eyes. Then I looked up to lock eyes with Mr. Grey Beard, smiling back at me.

Mr Bednarchuk was wise, and a little dangerous, like the Hell’s Angels we heard rumbling past our house every day.

That year, we discussed how the ANC was toppling apartheid, we learned about Vancouver’s urban planning. The Social Studies 11 curriculum was about Canada’s political history. We covered that in last month before the provincial exams.

“The government wants you to know dates. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you all the dates you need to know and you’ll do fine on your exams. I think you’ll need more than dates to succeed in life. You have to understand how the world works.”

Wise Grey Beard would break the rules. He would fight the system. He was determined and definite.

That rock never moved from his desk. Nobody was late.

Mr. Bednardchuk has long since retired, and yet, significant advances in education are yet to happen.

At the Source Institute, we posit that in spite of technological and pedagogical development over the past two decades, we’re still limited by prior paradigms.

Let’s start with a basic question: does educating primarily mean teaching?

Traditional Pedagogy

The benefits of traditional pedagogy

The benefits of traditional education are immense. Students are gathered in a room to focus and learn from a teacher with whom they have a personal relationship. These student-teacher relationships are deep and powerful, as are the in-person communication techniques used in these settings. Teaching techniques have evolved over thousands of years. We still use the Socratic Method today.

The weakness of traditional pedagogy

But, in terms of logistics, distribution of knowledge, the speed at which knowledge is transferred, and the correlated irrelevance of out-of-date content, traditional teaching is weak. Teaching—our default method—is one of the slowest options. It takes time for a teacher to master the subject, and effective teaching is limited to a small number of students. Students in turn themselves become teachers, and knowledge slowly trickles through humanity. But it has limited reach and usually doesn’t get very far.

The promise of education technology

Online education has been our most recent source of hope for addressing these issues. It promises:

  • education for all
  • highly responsive content that is delivered as the learner needs it
  • adaptive systems that adjust to the learners teaching style

The assumptions that limit us

These technical capabilities have existed for almost a decade. The results promised to us are relatively non-existent, limited by assumptions we’ve inherited from the past:

  • that learners learn from teachers
  • that learning is a distinct activity from doing
  • that progress is measured through testing

One of the most obvious criticisms of current online education is because we’re mainly seeing worst-of-both-worlds implementations. All the limits of our previous assumptions forced through the limitations of current technology and methodology.

Knowledge Dilution

Industrialised teaching is a type of intermediation. It refines knowledge first, so that it can spread more effectively from one teacher to many students. A good diagram that generalises a principle, or a thinking tool that captures the excitement of students, accelerates that spread—but usually by diluting the knowledge itself.

We’ve seen this in the start-up world.

Let’s look at the definition of a key concept in technology start-ups: the Minimum Viable Product (MVP):

MVP, defined by Frank Robinson in 2001: That unique product that maximizes return on risk for both the vendor and the customer.

Eric Ries in 2009: That version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers (the thing customers want and will pay for) with the least effort.

Venture Hacks in 2009: The product with just the necessary features to get money and feedback from early adopters.

Ash Maurya in 2011: A Minimum Viable Product is the smallest thing you can build that delivers customer value (and as a bonus captures some of that value back).

Harvard Business Review in 2013: In creating a minimum viable product, entrepreneurs choose between experiments that can validate or invalidate their assumptions about a business model.

Steve Blank in 2014: Instead of building a complete finished product we’re actually going to get out of the building and test pieces of the product incrementally and iteratively.

TNW in 2015: The first version of a product is often referred to as a Minimum Viable Product (or MVP) and it usually has just the core features that make it work.

Over time, through a process of refinement, MVP has lost its original definition, purpose and principles. It has shifted to and from being an actual product that customers buy to experiments that quickly test some aspect of a proposed business model. Some of these steps have been progressive, but in the end we’re left with “focus only on the core features of your product in it’s first version.” Minimum Viable Product has shifted its definition in favor of one that that’s more broadly understandable, but one that also misses the core educational goal.

Penalties on creativity and self-direction

Even with the focus on creating independent thinkers, the dry classroom environment—often causing anxiety in students—and pre-determined curricula, directly oppose independence and creativity. Lessons must progress inexorably through a set of topics, turning pro-actively exploring students into liabilities. Teachers are incentivised to dissuade self-direction and focus on what’s deemed testable.

This approach penalises those learners who are the most self-directed.


In so many contexts, there’s great value in localised knowledge. But to constrain that knowledge to be spread through an expert-cum-teacher, then to be passed on to a limited number of students, who themselves slowly become experts, is extremely ineffective. In the case of technology entrepreneurship, this slowness leads to irrelevance. By the time you learn something, it’s out of date.

Lag time

In an increasing number of cases, that intermediation takes too much time.

Consider what facts you know about the number of planets in the solar system, or the smallest unit of matter, the importance of diary in your diet. Chances are you’re operating on “facts” taught to you that have since been disproved.

In business, this phenomenon occurs at a much faster rate.

For example, marketing methods shift quickly. By the time they’re learned by most teachers, new marketing methods have ceased to be a competitive advantage. The lag time created by intermediation makes the content itself irrelevant. Look at most university curricula, which is updated in 5- and 10-year cycles. This defines our expectation of university students as those who are smart, know how to think, but have no relevant skills for the job market.

As Mr. Bednarchuk knew, it’s possible to deliver more up-to-date curricula, but we’re forced to adapt back to prior requirements by the end of each semester.

The balance between relevant knowledge transfer and shaping a thinker has fallen to one extreme.

Online courses amplify the weaknesses

In theory, this can be sped up through online channels. However, this leads to the other extreme, and an obvious criticism: a professor is reduced to a pre-recorded, robotic talking head on a computer screen, not reaching out without her personal charisma, relationships or interaction skills, instead, talking through a weak speaker to a student who is distracted by friends on Facebook in a neighbouring window.

Most online education attempts to take the best teachers and force them through media which filters out their strengths. The ability to forge remote relationships online are overlooked for the simplistic promise of higher student numbers. This is a major reason why online education succeeds only in educating the educated.

Education is about learners, not teachers

Industrialised education put an emphasis on the teacher. In order to teach more people, the student replaced the apprentice, and the classroom became a multiplying factor in spreading knowledge. The classroom is a knowledge factory. The same teacher can teach more and more people.

##Education is about learners, not students
A curious shift in thinking followed—the act of being a student was separated from the act of applying the knowledge. All of us have grown up as students, with the deeply inherent assumption that you need to learn before you actually do.

You might have a home improvement project waiting to start. Or a feeling of wanting to express yourself through art. Or a work project that will advance you. Maybe an idea for your own business. And it’s very likely that you haven’t started because you know you need to learn a new skill to do it. In all these cases, the first step to gaining that skill is to just start. The questions and failures that arise will direct your learning. And yet, we never actually start because we place an unnecessary, fictitious and cumbersome barrier in front of us—becoming a student. The concept of being a student first is extremely limiting since it stops us even before we start.

The first true step in learning is doing.

And learning by doing has huge benefits. It empowers the learner to self-direct. An obstacle helps you focus. It gives the learner new ideas from the feedback of trying. As you try, you realise new things. This all creates forward momentum.

Doing is learning.

Education is about relationship, not content commodification

Equally important to developing the individual is the individual’s relationship with the source.

Mr. Bednarchuk made a dent because he had personal relationships with his students.

That year, I had trouble at home and left. I never told my teachers.

“Salim Virani, you have a visitor in the office,” came over the school’s loudspeaker.

My friends and I exchanged glances before I shrugged and left the computer lab.

There, in the administration office, was my dad.

And a surprise to me, by the door, was Mr. Bednarchuk and a few other teachers.

My dad said, “I’m here to bring you home.”

I stood there silently, paralysed.

Mr. Bednarchuk offered, “Do you want to go home?”

That allowed me to frame the decision.

The power of student-teacher relationships didn’t hit me until a few years ago, when I started teaching teenagers myself. Our Village Accelerator programme teaches Roma kids how to programme and make money with technology.

My initial focus on this programme was how to make it scalable. Of course, this started with a pilot programme, six 15-year-old computer nerds I met in a Roma school in Sofia.

I learned about Roma culture through them, and I saw them grow up. I joke with them and hear about their girlfriends. They get taller every time I get back from a long trip.

And, I’m part of their world. I’m part of how they’re figuring our their place and their future.

Relationship is the conduit by which knowledge and skills are exchanged, and also how new knowledge is created and the old is challenged.

In contrast to this, growing student bodies, and receding education budgets create a system of education as transaction. The idea is that content and grades effortlessly fly through a static social system, but that system is destined to fossilize.

Knowledge is at the source

But our concept of education has removed direct access to the source of knowledge. We’re neither learning at the coal face, nor from people who spend their time there.

Almost all of our classical views on education involve the educators acting as intermediaries for knowledge. The educators need to learn, then rearticulate to their students.

When deep personal relationships are formed, it maximises the students’ rate of learning; the teacher will adapt techniques and content on the fly. They’ll find better ways to explain things. They’ll share those with other teachers.

While useful in many contexts, the intermediation of knowledge, and the inefficiencies that come with it, is overused. It’s the defacto standard, rather than an approach applied when appropriate.

The last few decades have seen a focus on multimedia, on curating and remixing content and technology that allows the largest number of students ever to interact with teachers and with each other. But, in almost every case, the knowledge itself has still been intermediated.

Perhaps, needlessly so.

New education technology doesn’t impose that limitation. With it, we can share the depth and nuanced information only available at the source. We can approach the impact of an experienced mentor standing over the shoulder of an apprentice.

This is where we come in.

The Source Thesis: Who we are

The Source Thesis lays the foundation for a type of online education that’s best-of-both-worlds. But this requires a fundamental shift in how we think about education.

We’re all educators with high-impact ambitions. Those of us who are well-travelled understand that what works here probably won’t work there.

This essay considers our role as educators—to disseminate knowledge to those who need it. We tackle entrepreneurship education as part of a growing and important set of topics where:

  • the relevance of context outweighs the benefits of standardised content
  • there is no “one true way”—standards fail because they are far from universally applicable
  • the subject matter is changing so fast that traditional educational approaches produce results that are constantly out-of-date

What’s wrong with our industry? What are the big, upcoming opportunities in education and in start-ups? What are the obvious course-corrections that need to be implemented?

This thesis reflects our answers to these questions, and is a compass that immediately enables us to take our first steps in the right direction. This is a living document, evolving continuously with input from our friends and fellows, and from our experiments and experiences. For those of you that might join us on this journey, I hope this starts you thinking long-term.

How do we want to shape the world?

Creating the founding documents of an institute requires us to think about our belief that this organisation could outlive us.

The Source Thesis lays the foundation for a type of online education that’s best-of-both-worlds. But this requires a fundamental shift in how we think about education

The Source Shift

From teachers to educators

We see a broad role and toolset for educators. They don’t have to be teachers. They don’t have to be knowledge intermediaries.

Let’s start by recognising teachers as expert educators who are forced to work through the constraints imposed on them in a teaching role.

I challenge you to find a teacher who doesn’t work long hours, often fighting through bureaucracy and dealing with time-consuming activities like grading papers.

Educating is a rare skill, and modern education approaches can multiply its impact, rather than hamstring it with busy work.

Broadening our view of educators, we start to recognise other skills: museum curators, conference organisers, community managers, film-makers, political leaders, even DJs—and as it does, the emphasis on education moves from the teacher to the learner.

Museum Curators

Museum curators are a good example. They create a self-driven learning experience, connecting different concepts and contexts through the selection of artifacts. Basically, they’re really good at choosing what to put in a room. So good that anyone who enters that room starts to explore and ask questions. The learners themselves are in charge of their own learning direction, but the curator is responsible for creating an environment that motivates and pulls the learners forward.

Documentary Film-makers

Documentary film-makers create a guided experience, connecting concepts and contexts through the selection of recordings. Unlike teachers, they don’t have the responsibility of learning and rearticulating every concept themselves, instead they rely on capturing the information at the source.

Conference organisers

Conferences have brought learners in direct contact with the original sources of knowledge.

There’s an honest truth to conferences though—that the value is in meeting people, not the talks. Again, the talks have suffered from a worst-of-both-worlds problem—that the original doers, the sources of knowledge, aren’t necessarily good at 60-minute on-stage presentations. However, meeting them and others with similar experience in the coffee break is tremendously valuable.

The rise of the unconference, or open space, has built on that. Participants get together in large numbers (20 to 300 usually) but there’s no explicit definition of teacher and students, experts and learners. Everyone shares what they know with those that are interested. Similar peer to peer approaches have been successful with coaching too. The key difference here is that a conference curator unilaterally selects topics, risking irrelevance to the audience whereas an unconference curator selects communities, and creates an environment where the learners select the most relevant topics for themselves.

These models have been proven, but haven’t found their way online as platforms for education.

In this light, we can reassess the use of technology in education (in education, not teaching).

From Control to Curation

Another deep-rooted assumption from industrialised education is the emphasis on control and process. In so many contexts, self-driven learning is better. And with the technology available to us, control is even less necessary.

As we change our role as educators from control to curation, we’ll change the nature of the environments we create.

Michel Thomas, the renowned language teacher, found that industrialised teaching paradigms created stress in students, which blocked their ability to learn. By removing the triggers for this stress—tests, chalkboards, paper, pens—learners could relax. He then devised teaching methods that were completely conversational.

Thomas believed that the responsibility for the student learning was completely on the teacher, and a big part of that lied in creating a positive learning environment.

His method generally allows his students to achieve functional fluency in a language in a week or less, rather than taking years.

Peer to peer media

Michel Thomas was an iconoclast in his era. His work extended into politics, and he used the technology of the time and created audiobook lessons. (An aside: his work also faced dilution as it spread—witness the learn languages in your sleep audiobooks which copied the medium but not the principles.)

Let’s look at the Source principles described above as applied to contemporary media.

The strengths of video

Video instruction has a unique strength—it allows educators to curate and is faster for knowledge dissemination than the slower process of learning and teaching.

Video has other strengths too.

Jerry Mander, a recognised name in the TV advertising world, a successful advertising exec and author of the book Four Arguments Against Television revealed how the medium’s strengths were being misused by the marketing industry.

A particular cognitive weakness is known in the TV ad game. Over time, our memories of what was seen on TV are indistiguishable from actual experiences. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “who did I meet that also had that problem?” and then realised it was an interview you watched, or even a TV character, that was this effect.

This effect can be used benevolently in education.

Story Telling

Steve Denning, the first head of knowledge management for the World Bank, after years of spending World Bank-sized budgets on knowledge management technology, concluded that the important part wasn’t storing the knowledge, but finding a way for people to remember to look it up when it was relevant. When a highway project in Pakistan comes up to a gravel problem that was already solved in Peru, that person needs to know to look up the relevant answer.

Denning’s solution: story-telling.

Hearing stories from people with the experience we’re seeking helps us remember not only their approach, but also remember the story when we need it.

Our memories hook into stories, so a culture of story-telling helps people to remember that someone else in their circle has dealt with this before.

Based on Mander’s observation of video’s effects on our memory, we can extend “our circle” to include others. As educators, our job is to seek out those others and capture their stories. While curating these interviews we must ensure that the lessons are current and relevant, and they’re conveyed in a way where learners remember them when they’re needed.

Will this work? We’ll know by trying.

The first step

The first Source Institute projects have already begun.

The Sources is an online course, for African tech founders, by African tech founders. We curate the important topics through research, but the teaching takes place from experience.

We’ve modified the Africa Prize to include much stronger peer-support elements, and that’s propagating to our other in person programmes.

We’ve also developed Source Summits, inter-disciplanary conferences where the topics are set by the particpants on the day - and successfully run them in Nairobi and Hanoi.

We have a lot to learn. This is only a start.

Setting a new example for the future of education

There’s a deeper root to the Source Thesis—that major advances in education lie ahead by focusing on learning as an integrated aspect of living and doing.

Regardless of some of the drawbacks of online video, we must cash in on the fact that online channels offer new pedagogical approaches that, if unencumbered by prior assumptions about education, open up brand new paths for learners.

Like Mr. Bednarchuk, we’re practical and focused on people. We see education not as silos of knowledge to be harvested, but rather conduits and networks to be developed. We see education as people helping people when they need it.

This type of practicality is the lifeblood of innovation.

Note: I changed it to the latest version, which takes into account:

  • comments from Bart and Bob on Hackpad
  • the edit from Sohoni
  • includes a bit of story-telling as a hook, and a way to bring the high-level talk to a practical level