Learning to stop reinventing the flat tire

by Christoph Derndorf, TechnikBasteln

Towards the end of her recent “Hitchhiking (towards) Education” post Stephanie wrote: “We all have the chance to pack our bags full of experiences and knowledge and explore and improve the education system every single one of us is living in. The magic formula is: Start now!

My first gut reaction was to think: “Yeah, let’s do it”. But then I remembered one of my favorite quotes which suggests that sometimes holding back a little with the doing isn’t the worst of ideas.

Let me set this up for you. Alan Kay is an influential early computer scientist who helped shape many of the most fundamental concepts and designs about  how we use computers today.


Aside of that he has also been working on many different efforts which are focused on improving education with the help of information and communication technologies (ICT). And he started doing that more than 40 years ago when computers were still the size of entire rooms and very expensive.

In mid-2010 he then wrote an e-mail in which he said: “I am worried that the big propensity today is that so many people in both computing and education are “reinventing the flat tire”.

Two years later he explained and generalized that notion in more detail in an interview: “I like to say that in the old days, if you reinvented the wheel, you would get your wrist slapped for not reading. But nowadays people are reinventing the flat tire. I’d personally be happy if they reinvented the wheel, because at least we’d be moving forward.”

Now I think it’s fair to say that very few people have a keen interest in reinventing the flat tire. Yet it continues to happen to many of us. And we’re in good company. After all, if education systems and people aiming to improve education actually did learn from past failures we would be much further than we are today. One thing we can consistently observe is that many great successes are built on learning from the failures of previous efforts. From the Romans learning from the Greeks to Google and Facebook learning from search engines (remember Altavista?) and social networks (MySpace anyone?) that came before them the pattern repeats itself over and over again.

The chance that you’re the first person / project / organization to do one thing or another on this planet is quite slim. Very likely others have tried – and failed – at what you’re trying to do. In the grand scheme of things I think it’s fair to say that many – if not most – good ideas in education have not succeeded (yet).

So, yes, let’s start. Like now!

But maybe let’s start with a little research (Google is your Friend) before launching into action right away. After all, at least in my mind, one of the best ways to really improve education is to find a better balance between what Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (supposedly) said: “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.

…and Hector Berlioz’s less well known: “Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.”

Let’s stop reinventing flat tires and learn to build great wheels for the current and future generations!

About the author: 

Aside of liking quotes maybe a little too much, Christoph Derndorfer is an Impact Hub Vienna member, a software engineering student, a co-founder and current head of the Vienna-based NGO OLPC (Austria), and co-founder of its TechnikBasteln initiative. He has been involved in the ICT for Education field since 2007.

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