Make School Wants To Build The Product University For The Masses

College has failed, or so many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs believe. Not only are tuition costs spiraling out of control, but students are leaving college without the ability to produce … anything. We are living in the era of code, and yet, college students are graduating barely able to read or write an essay – let alone make an app.

Make School hopes to change this sordid state of affairs. Through a rigorous and lengthy two-year curriculum, the school hopes to instill deeper critical thinking skills while also providing students engineering and product skills that will allow them to be highly productive at startups and large tech companies.

That’s a marked contrast to other coding boot camps on the market, which tend to be around 12 weeks in length. While boot camps are designed to quickly get students up to speed on coding so that they can quickly join a startup, Make School wants to create the critical thinking needed for students to become founders.

Critical Thinking In Silicon Valley

“Critical thinking” is one of those phrases bandied about discussions of education without anyone trying to actually provide a definition of what it means. Like the old Supreme Court line about pornography (“I’ll know it when I see it”), educators seem to know critical thinking when it shows up.

While defining it is challenging, it is clear that these skills are needed in the workforce. Many of us have worked with colleagues who lacked these skills, who constantly needed assistance with every decision because they just didn’t get a problem. If the best engineers are potentially dozens of times more productive, then critical thinking is the method to get them there.

Ashu Desai, a co-founder of Make School, believes that these values can be taught. “Purpose, autonomy, and mastery” are the three key elements today, he explained to me, and Make School’s mission it to bring these management principles to bear on education. “These ideas aren’t new, but people haven’t really done this yet in education.”

Make School teaches the requisite coding and product skills, but what makes the program unique is all the other skills that they have added into the curriculum. “The first half is spent on psychology, sales relationships, pitching, and writing and communication,” Desai explains, “the second half is more about society – what kind of socioeconomic issues and political issues” are important to the tech community?

The theory is that this additional coverage will create the critical thinking spark in each of Make School’s students. It’s too early to see the results yet – Make School launched its one-year pilot program just last year – but in true startup fashion the founders are ready to continue iterating until they find the right mix.

Why Do I Do Anything?

One of the other great challenges of modern universities is how many students are completely disengaged from the curriculum, which can at times seem designed for a pre-historic age. Take computer science. Algorithms and data structures are common in CS curriculua, and while they are an important skill, many other skills would seem to merit earlier and deeper discussion.

Ashu Desai sees that all the time. “Everywhere in the US, Austin, or New York or other cities, or outside the US like Japan and India, we are seeing the same fundamental problem, which is that the universities are not teaching the right things.”

Desai dropped out of UCLA’s CS curriculum after one year, finding the teaching hopelessly bogged down by theoretical minutia. “Everything I was learning was theoretical, and it would be useful if I wanted to go into research, but I wanted to build a product, and there was no education around that at all in school.”

That convinced him to drop out and apply with Jeremy Rossmann to YCombinator, where the two were accepted and built a startup called Make Games With Us, which eventually evolved into today’s Make School.

At the heart of the school’s approach is the belief that focusing on an actual project helps motivate students in ways that college never does. The company’s early focus on games was a result of that thinking. Desai said, “Gamification helps students be motivated by a purpose. For me, I always liked competing, and I was much more engaged when I had my own product that I wanted to bring out there.”

Make School’s entire curriculum is based around projects, with minimal lectures scattered about. “We avoid any lectures that can be done as an exercise or project,” Desai says. The goal of teachers at the school it to guide students rather than instruct them, a concept that the co-founders borrowed from the Montessori tradition of education.

The Rise of Product Universities?

We appear to be on the tip of a revolution in education. Educators are finally starting to understand that no one likes lectures and rote studying for final exams. New schools are popping up to take advantage of the large gap between traditional four-year universities and the potential for a 21st-century curriculum with the skills and thinking that students need in the marketplace.

Desai, despite his slightly disruptive view, doesn’t see universities disappearing anytime soon. “I think the university system will still be good for the research side of things.” But he thinks their power will diminish over time in the fast-paced tech world of 2015. “They spend 10 years solving a problem, and then it will be eventually turned into a product.”

Instead, “you will have a research university and a product university” and different types of students will be attracted to one or the other. For hundreds of thousands of students in the United States zoned out in their classes, these new universities might be just the motivation needed for these students to engage with their studies – and change the world.