Earlier in March, TEDxPurdueU explored the theme of ‘Daring Greatly’. One of the speakers ‘Daring’ to shake up education was Associate Professor of Learning Design and Technology, Bill Watson. As the director of the Purdue Center for Serious Games and Learning in Virtual Environments, Bill conducts research on and provides support for implementing, designing and developing educational video games and virtual environments for learning.

With this background and a vision for the future of education, his talk is not only daring, but a fascinating, inspiring and achievable concept.

Square pegs for round holes - why education reforms fail: Bill Watson at TEDxPurdueU 2014

There are a number of very complex reasons why education reform is difficult. It’s never going to be easy most would say. But the model that Bill Watson and many others (including education and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson) continue to question, is the school’s fundamental organization along factory lines:

So why are all our educational reforms failing? They’re failing because we’re trying to slap wings on a car in order to fly. You don’t try to drive a square peg in a round hole, you design around peg.

It’s not an accident that many of our most gifted students struggle in this system, they are bored out of their minds. It’s also not an accident that our disadvantaged students feel like the system is stacked against them. Because it is.

But what’s a school really going to be looking like if we don’t have classes, if we don’t have grade levels? That’s a radical vision, so different from what we have been doing before. Well, students are going to be working on projects now. Projects that are connected to requirements that are in their personalized learning plans. Teachers are going to be freed up from having to focus on delivering content to actually being able to focus on teaching, facilitating learning.

Children are passionate about their learning if you allow them to use their passions to learn.


In a real example from his own research, Bill explains how a ‘brilliant’ teacher struggling to engage his class in a lecture format is able to achieve unparalleled  engagement using video games:

We observed him before he used a video game and he was great. He was up at the front of the class. He was telling jokes. He was telling stories. He was firing of questions, calling on students, putting forth so much energy and effort to keep them engaged while they sat there and stared at him. And by the end of the period a lot of them were struggling not to fall asleep. And he was a great teacher. We observed him using the video game in class and it was a totally different environment. Students are engaged. They’re collaborating with each other. It’s really loud in there.

Education reform is not simple, but Bill stresses that the solution is not one for a single person, group or organization. It requires everyone to be ‘daring’:

In order to actually make this change we have to be audacious. We have to build support. Broad support across the entire community. That means we can’t put all the responsibility on the schools and teachers anymore. Parents have to be involved. Businesses have to be involved. Community members and yes the government. And everyone has to have a shared vision for where we need to be.

How would you feel about teaching in a school without grades or classes? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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