Help Create The 12 Killer Questions To Innovate US Education

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I've been asked (more like challenged) to create a dozen or so killer questions that could be used by teachers, schools, districts, state education agencies, federal agencies, etc. to help  innovate the educational system in the US.  I took up the challenge as a “pay it forward” project to help the officials think differently about the problem they are facing.

Killer Questions that lead to breakthrough innovations

As a starting point, I've adjusted a few of the killer questions already in the killer question card deck such as …

Under what assumptions does my [classroom, school, district, state education agency, etc] operate?  Why?  How could we change each of the assumptions?

Using this question as an example, I brainstormed the following assumptions (keep in mind that I'm a technologist/innovator and not an expert in the education):

  • Students have to go to school a certain number of days per year
  • Teaching is done in classrooms of between 20 and 40 students
  • School hours are from 8:00am to 3:00pm Monday through Friday
  • Students are grouped in classes based on age
  • The percent of students who graduate from high school is “the” measure of a success for the educational system
  • etc.
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Here is the ask:

Killer Questions For Education

The killer questions would be asked during brainstorming/ideation sessions/workshops with the different participants of the educational system [students, parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, etc]

Here are some of suggestions for creating great killer questions:

  • A given question should cause the team to look beyond the obvious and challenge their assumptions.  A weak example: What are the metrics to encourage better teaching?  A better example question would be: What do [students, parents, teachers, principals, etc] not like about [learning, teaching, administrating, etc] ? Why?
  • Wording of a question should be clear and avoid any confusion or inherent assumptions.  An example of an ambiguous question: What could we do to improve [what does ‘improve' mean?] classroom learning [how do you define learning]?
  • Test your question.  Ask the question to someone (spouse, friend, co-worker, etc) and get their reaction.  If they aren't challenged to look at the problem differently, then keep working on it.
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How can you get involved?

  1. Submit a killer question (via the comments below) you think should be submitted as one of the 12.
  2. Review the questions proposed by others and make them better by suggesting improvements/enhancements (edit, challenge, etc).
  3. Vote for questions you like by replying to the comment.

I will choose 12 questions to forward on to the officials who made the request.  If your question is chosen, you will be added to the list of contributors.

Incentive:  If you are the first one to submit a question that I select, you will receive a free copy of the “Creating Killer Innovations” CD.  I will also award CD's to those individuals who contributed the best “improvements” of someone else's killer question.

Deadline:  Two to three weeks from the date of this post . . .

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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0 thoughts on “Help Create The 12 Killer Questions To Innovate US Education

  1. “How can the education system be fair to all students given varying amounts of interest and skill in the subjects they study?” Just to add some more background to the question: By fair, I mean that some students could absorb a year’s study of a subject in a month and others may take a few years given how much interest they have in the subject, yet there seems to be little flexibility to this. How can the system adapt to the student wanting so much more of a subject than others or some students wanting less of a subject?

    To rephrase the question in terms of time: How long do students have to study everything? In college and university, did you have take a course from every faculty or department? Probably not, yet in grade school this is done routinely.

    My other question that I’d like to put forth: At what age should a child be made aware of their learning style? By learning style, I mean do they learn better independently or within a group, through reading or verbal or visual? Are they better with numbers or words? I know that I never was told this yet I would think this should be at the heart of any education system: Tell us how we learn, please! Is that really so much to ask?

    Just a couple of thoughts to share and see what others think about those ideas.

  2. The goal of the education system is to, obviously, educate students. But educate students for what? Graduating is one thing, but what do we expect students to be able to do once they graduate?

  3. Why is the American education system (student’s performance) always compared to other students in the world? What is required to see a true representation of what students taught under FAPE can do vs. students in other parts of the world?

  4. @Mark Miller:

    *Is* the goal of the education system “to, obviously, educate students”?

    I think that’s a faulty assumption.

    What *is* the purpose of our education system?

  5. Is the education system willing and able to provide the policies and resources to support an integrative approach to learning across subjects that will foster the information synthesis skills needed by today’s workforce?

  6. The purpose of education is the teach people how to think. Focus on that objective and build the system from this fundamental position.

  7. “How can the current system be restructured to accomodate the strengths and learning styles of today’s students so that everyone has a good chance to be successful in life?”

    I don’t think it should be hard to see that different people learn in different ways and thus the question is what is being done to harness this reality rather than try to manage a way around it?

    “Are athletics overly valued by our education system?” – By athletics, I mean the various sports programs that seem to generate millions of dollars of TV revenue and get a lot of attention these days. The NCAA basketball championship and bowl games would be examples of this.

  8. @JB King:

    “How can the current system be restructured to accomodate the strengths and learning styles of today’s students so that everyone has a good chance to be successful in life?”

    That’s a very relevant question. At its most basic level, all learning is simply an exercise in association. I think that many of the academics who create learning material and curricula do not take into account the need for students to be able to associate the material they are attempting to learn with their everyday lives. The most effective methods for learning are the most personal… how can educational institutions better “personalize” learning?

  9. When planning what, how, when, where, and with whom a student will study, in which instances does the chronological age of a student matter, and in which instances does it not?

  10. @James King:

    I tended to break up learning into knowledge, comprehension and application buckets depending on the subject. Something like Mathematics is generally going to be more application than knowledge as thinking of what is next after x does require some thinking and understanding that next implies an increment and this yields x+1 usually.

    The question is more about whether students learn better individually or in a group, by reading or orally being told the material, and other various ways that for some can work wonderfully to get someone to pick something up as for some people reading a book just is not an effective way for them to gain knowledge. Some students may have a natural curiousity that should be encouraged to help them learn various subjects while others may want a strict schedule to achieve whatever the objectives are for a given grade and subject.

    Another question that I think is worth asking: “What are the different paths through the education system for different professions and how well is any new system really set up to accomodate that?” For example, there should be paths for doctors and lawyers obviously but what about carpenters and plumbers? What about those that want to keep their options open, how long is it reasonable to have that be the case?

  11. Imagine a Venn diagram with three circles, each of which represents the services provided by these entities: School, Library, and Prison.

    Which School services do not intersect with the other entities’ services?

  12. A set of related questions:

    1. In what specific situations is the notion “Graduate from High School” useful?

    2. What does the phrase “Graduate from High School” clearly and unambiguously communicate to listeners or readers across states and decades?

    3. How would the educational system(s) look if the phrase “Graduate from High School” were entirely replaced by phrases such as “Is proficient in Subjects P and Q at the Intermediate Level” and “Is Competent in Skills X, Y & Z at the Advanced Level?”

  13. When should a person who teaches a student be the same person who creates, administers, and scores an assessment of the student’s understanding and skills? When should different people serve in the roles of teacher and assessor/examiner?

  14. In the absence of intrinsic interest and extrinsic reward or punishment, what motivates a student to attend to their studies?

  15. What are the commonalities between 21st century skills and 19th century skills?

    Which skill set would better serve a person in the 30th percentile of aptitude in processing symbols? In the 50th percentile? The 70th? The 90th?

  16. Is it more or less efficient and effective for a single institution to be responsible for both instruction and credentialing?

    Is education wasted on the young? Should work and learning intermingle throughout a lifetime and should we do away with artificial demarcations like “graduation?”

  17. Following on from the ‘what is education for’ or ‘what do students/teachers/parents want to get out of education’, we should ask:
    How are success and failure measured?
    Why are they measured in this way?
    Are there better/alternative ways of measuring?
    Should different measurement systems apply where stakeholders have differing goals and/or expectations?

  18. How should information be presented to students,e.g. do textbooks work?

    How should educators view sites like Google and Wikipedia in the current world when it comes to students being able to look up knowledge quicker than ever before?

    How could social networks be used to revolutionize communication in a classroom?

  19. A few more questions to add to the discussion:

    What roles can the community around a school,i.e. the neighbours, businesses and others outside of the students and staff of the school, do to support a school and help achieve successful outcomes? Do the neighbours have a duty to visit the school so the students understand what is in the neighbourhood?

    What are the modern subjects that should be taught to schools? For example, which of these would be useful subjects “Google Fu 101,” Understanding Information from the Internet, social media’s uses and best practices? Should schools be able to specialize so that kids could have a few different periods that are part of Physical Education,e.g. courses about ball team sports, individual sports and winter sports, or similar for having multiple arts courses at once like visual arts, music and drama?

  20. Brick and mortar schools are often justified based on the need for “socialization.” But how much socialization per week or year is sufficient? Is it the same quantity for every student? How much physical proximity do modern knowledge workers have to one another and should schools attempt to mirror this ratio?

  21. Imagine you are in a life raft by yourself in the middle of the pacific ocean more than a thousand miles from the nearest land without phone, water and food? What education do you wish you had to help save your life from death and starvation? Think about it? What do you wish you should have known? How could we learn faster to acquire more knowledge and skills that we do not know we need until we need it?

  22. What are you doing this lesson/today to move away from the push model of teaching.


    Most education is push (due to history) so expert at front and pushing information to large number of students. How can you turn around that so that students are pulling information as they need fostering independent learning and thought.


  23. Why do parents prefer certain schools (particular private schools vs. public & other private schools)?

  24. If we started over (no buildings, no teachers, no staff, no curriculum), what would we no longer do?

    • What do students need to create a new society as well as educate the students of that new society?

  25. Is there a better way to organize a class than to use a sequence of lessons?

    How well are various testing methods validated to know that the tests are the proper kind of test and not something that shows someone is a failure when really they do know the material well enough to pass if the test was given in a different format, e.g. verbally instead of multiple choice or short-answer instead of multiple choice?

  26. Phil, what do you think of these questions presented so far? It may help to have a little feedback on what is here already as there seem to be a lot of questions that could be used.

  27. Embracing the learning process is the key – across all ages (pre-school to adult and beyond), so many people have had bad “learning” experiences, mostly from classrooms – what environments are most conducive to learning, not a lot of thought goes into that side of the education system globally – how have classrooms and curriculums evolved to embrace technology, different individual learning styles, how can we as parents make better decisions on how our kids best “acquire” knowledge, and align their learning style to get the best outcome?

  28. Can we create an educational system based on self-disipline? [ie one not based on authority and discipline]

    If we are following child-centred learning, who is the second most important person in the classroom? [most say teacher, and this isn’t right on closer inspection…]

  29. Here are a couple of potential killer-questions, may need some further work on the wording:

    – what relevant skills are children not learning in the class room today? What can we do about it? (relevant for society, personal development, higher education, professional careers etc.).

    – For what reasons do (some) people with the talent to become great teachers choose different careers?

    – What are the assumptions about how children learn, on which our educational system is based? What if the opposite were true?

    Here is an interesting link on the Finnish school system:

    “Finland’s schools score consistently at the top of world rankings, yet the pupils have the fewest number of class hours in the developed world.”

    • I’ll take a shot at rewording some of those questions:

      What are the top 5 skills the students of today will need in tomorrow’s world? What do we do to ensure they have sufficient proficiency in those skills?

      Why do some people decide not to become teachers? What motivation should teachers have for what they do?

      At least that is my attempt at clarifying the first couple of points.

  30. Today is 3 weeks from the date of the post, so we should be at the deadline by now. What is the results from this?

    That could almost be a killer question on its own, hhhmm. What are the desired results from the educational system,e.g. world peace, students know everything Google knows, or something else?

  31. How can society enable parents to take greater ownership of their child(ren)’s success? The parents are every child’s first teacher and are one of the few constant teachers that child will have throughout his/her childhood.

  32. How will the educational system balance the needs of students versus the resources available? Or, in other words, poverty is the single greatest influence on student achievement. How can the educational system level the playing field for all students?

    Also, parental involvement has a massive effect on student achievement. How can schools and teachers work effectively to counteract the effects of parental neglect on student learning?

  33. By the time your students are scheduled to leave high school, what skills have they spent 10,000 hours developing? When they practice these skills, is it done mindfully (with reflection) or is it simply repetition? Does this reflect the priorities of your desired outcome?

    Experts such as Daniel Coyle (“The Talent Code”) have articulated a very simple principle: deep practice x 10000 hours = world-class skill. Conventional schools are more likely to create world-class talents when they get out of the way of students and allow them to excel via deep practice in wherever their hearts take them. The question for school officials is, are you helping them or wasting their time?

    • John Erickson, great point. Lots of time-wasting in school. Not much understanding by educators of what “deep practice” looks like, even in their own subject areas.

  34. What if we rewarded eductators for their results achieved, rather than on years of tenure and level of education? What if we fired the bottom 10% of teachers every year? What if we kept the salary pool constant, but increased the standard deviation in pay between the best and the worst? What if we paid administrators and principals less than teachers?

  35. Great question/project.

    Like all businesses and services, public education has been asked to do more with less. The US has the highest literacy rate in the world. If we were to think about education as a business, the rising costs are clear, but should minimum literacy stay a satisfactory deliverable?

    Should grades, SAT scores, best colleges measure one’s future? History has shown little correlation between truly great contributions and academic scores (ie think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Carnegie, Einstein)

    I personally think that the biggest issue is changing the image of learning – from geek to cool. Rather than questioning the system, how can we influence the public image so that everyone at all ages, don’t fear learning and want to learn more?

  36. This question relates to driving forces, perhaps “the driving force” shaping lives over next generations… engagement with the Post Carbon Institute, Post Peak Living, and learning from The Living Principles collaborative among others will inform thought leadership for this idea…

    Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard project for New York’s p.s. 216 is currently being built as one expression of this lens through which to view emerging challenges and possibilities…

    Q: How will our school system better prepare students for the collaborative skills and leadership needed in a world, country, city and community adjusting to the new life of localized economies, food and energy priority shifts, and coping mechanisms required by the transition? Culture. Technology. Neighborhood. Connectivity.

  37. My wife is a teacher for the visually impaired and was looking at Ipads as a possible tool for her blind students. With the upcoming palmpad could the programming be adapted to make it the Pad to have if your visually handicapped? With voice commands much like the braillenote (which is VERY exspensive) for a school district to provide? Thank you for the forum.

  38. My wife is a teacher for the visually impaired and was looking at Ipads as a possible tool for her blind students. With the upcoming palmpad could the programming be adapted to make it the Pad to have if your visually handicapped?
    Voice commands to open apps and speech to interract with the student which I believe would make learning fun which I think is a huge key to the success of a student.
    thank you for this forum although I might be alittle late

  39. Why are we using technology in the classroom as if it were the old methods, we use computers to write reports, make powerpoints instead of slides, etc. Why aren’t we using computers to fit simple experimental data to a function (linear) and generate a relation between two variables for use?

  40. Hi Phil,
    On a related note, a person who has much to say about innovation in education is Alan Kay. Alan has been working in these fields for some time and I think he would make a great interview subject for your Killer Innovations podcast.


  41. Why, in post-agrarian USA, do we school on a 9 month calendar? How much of the school year is wasted remediating what was forgotten over the summer?