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Book Review of "Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future" by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

Wednesday, November 1, 2017  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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Reviewed by Dr. Rick West, Head of Lower School, Franklin Road Academy, Nashville, TN

As with most independent schools, there is an expectation that school leaders and teachers participate in a summer reading exercise at Franklin Road Academy. This past summer, our head tasked the leadership team with reading Joi Ito’s and Jeff Howe’s futurist book Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future. He gave us advance notice that this was not your typical educational leadership book filled with standard edu-jargon and recipes for school improvement or morale boosting techniques. Instead, this literary piece has been written for anyone paying attention to the lightning-fast changes happening in our world, mainly brought on by the advent and explosion of the Internet and other technological advances.

Ito and Howe lay the groundwork for the reader to be taken on a fast-paced journey through their nine principles to best be organized and prepared for this unknown future that is at our doorstep. Without going into all nine principles, there are certainly several that have a more direct correlation and impact on the field of education.

One such principle is the idea of “compass, not maps.” Ito and Howe stress the value of having a general heading/direction (such as a compass) rather than a singular route to get to then intended endpoint (map). As a former geography teacher – and never a Boy Scout – I admit that I love maps a lot more than a compass, so I really had to provide some open-minded thinking on this principle. As an independent school leader, I certainly was able to make the connection that our schools are able to fully utilize the “compass” method because we embrace the freedom to change paths when necessary or appropriate – unlike many of our counterparts in the public sector (full disclosure – I spent 19 years working in public schools) who must stick to the prescribed map route at all times. However, it is imperative that we still find ways to hold ourselves accountable to our stakeholders through true bearings on the compass.

Another principle espoused by Ito and Howe is the idea of “practice over theory.” The authors posit that we live in a time where the cost of innovation has been decreased dramatically – not just the actual cost of innovation, but the cost of failure has also decreased. So rather than spend too much time discussing all of the possible pitfalls and potential liabilities of trying something new (theory), schools and organizations can more quickly try something (practice), rapidly evaluate the results, and make any necessary course corrections with less opportunity cost than ever before.

Ito and Howe provide multiple case studies from across the organizational and institutional spectrum to support their propositions and findings. Many of their examples come from work done at the MIT Media Lab (where Ito is the Director) such as the work done by the Scratch Foundation – creators of the coding program Scratch. The authors believe strongly that innovation teaches people to think – and programming with Scratch is a perfect example of students being allowed to think creatively.

While referring to the Work of the Scratch Foundation, the following paragraph made me take notice of the opportunity we have for real innovation in our independent schools:

Private schools have begun to enthusiastically implement robotics and other innovative programs that will only reinforce the achievement gap that already exists in our schools. Public schools often teach to the tests ... private schools will teach innovation, problem solving, and skills required to produce new knowledge ... those students will make out very well in the global system.


This type of dichotomy was recently experienced through a summer partnership FRA had with the Metro Nashville Public School system whereby several dozen MNPS students were part of a Summer Innovation Institute on our campus (and detailed in the inaugural SAIS Fall 2017 Magazine). FRA’s Innovation Lab was opened last year as an extension of a successful robotics program that had been launched just two years before. As a condition of receiving foundational grant money, the school agreed to partner with MNPS to provide some of their middle school students the opportunity to experience cutting-edge technology and innovation firsthand. This partnership will continue for at least two more summers, enabling more MNPS students to experience innovation with their own hands.

For those looking for another viewpoint of futurist thinking, Whiplash is well worth the read and has several principles that can be directly applied to our work in independent schools.  As I read the book it prodded me into thinking about examples of innovation in the lower school at FRA as well as to reach out to colleagues at other schools to inquire about their innovative ideas and practices. The principles will challenge your thinking and should provoke you into examining your own beliefs and practices, and hopefully encourage you to embrace the current wave of a rapidly arriving “faster future.”






Dr. Rick West is head of lower school at Franklin Road Academy in Nashville, TN. Follow him on Twitter @FRAHEADofLS

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