Today, our best and brightest are drawn to elite colleges like Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. As they attend these institutions they are surrounded by some of the most talented people in the world.

Yet, despite having all the cards aligned in their favor, and being presented with one huge opportunity after another, many of these people fail. They fail at their jobs, fail in their businesses, and fail to live up to their full potential.

So what if a new kind of proving ground were created, an anti-academic college of sorts, where graduation was predicated on success? Where success wasn’t defined as academic success, but as real-world accomplishments.

And what if this new institution not only attracted the best and the brightest, but also the most determined and driven? And what if this organization completely rewrote the rules of academia and created an entirely new rung on the ladder of success?

That is exactly what could happen with accomplishment-based education. Allow me to explain further.

Symbols of Achievement Vs. Actual Accomplishments

Writing a book, receiving a patent, or starting a business are all symbols of achievement in today’s world. But being the author of a book that sells 10,000 copies, or inventing a product that 100,000 people buy, or building a business that grosses over $1 million in annual sales are all significant accomplishments that are far more meaningful than their symbolic starting points.

Much of what happens in today’s colleges and universities is based on “symbols of achievement,” not actual accomplishments.

A student that enters a classroom will typically find themselves immersed in a academic competition, a competition that pits students against each other to produce results that best match the teacher’s expectations. Only rarely will the work product of a student in a classroom rise to any notable level of significance.

Completing a class is nothing more than a symbol of achievement. Similarly, completing many classes and receiving a diploma is noteworthy, but still only a symbol of achievement.

Rest assured, I’m not about to say that classroom training has no value. However, accomplishments in a classroom are at least one level of abstraction removed from a real-world application. Few employers would be willing to pay for the activities that take place in most classrooms.

Reading a book is far different than writing a book, and simply writing a book is far different than writing a book that sells over 10,000 copies.

So the question we should be asking is, “How can we transition college-based education from merely producing symbols of achievement to actual real-world accomplishments?”

Simulated Applications Vs. Real-World Applications

Since colleges are beginning to shift towards online education, we can find some interesting parallels between today’s gaming environments and real-world situations.

In much the same way a gamer can become very adept at fighting a simulated battle, it can only partially compare to a real-life battle. Even in a closely comparable situation where a gamer shifts from flying a simulated drone to a real-life drone in the military, many changes will occur. Suddenly the consequences of their action become something real and tangible, and what used to be simulated pain and suffering instantly becomes real pain and suffering.

The emotional context is something they begin to feel throughout their entire body.

US Major Bryan Callahan is an Air Force pilot flying remote controlled drones known as RPAs. His work involved flying RPA missions over Afghanistan. In a 2010 interview with Germany’s Spiegel, he described it this way:

“…It sounds strange but being far away and safe is kind of a bummer. The other guys are exposing themselves, and that to me is still quite an honorable thing to do. So I feel like I’m cheating them. I’m relatively safe. If I screw up or miss something, if I screw up a shot, I wish it was me down there, not them. Sometimes I feel like I left them behind.”

“…you can’t just roll your unmanned plane over and look out the window. I have to use all these very external cues, sometime we’re literally using a map with pins, on the computer. In an F-16 I can use my eyeballs, I can build what we call situational awareness in two seconds flat. I have the ability to strike a target quickly.”

“…Killing someone with an RPA is not any different than with an F-15. It’s easy to think that, to fall down that trap. We’re well aware that if you push that button somebody can go away. It’s not a video game. You take it very seriously. It’s by far nowhere near a video game.”

The Anatomy of and Accomplishment

The word “accomplishment” is a loosely defined term used to describe everything from a 4th grader’s piano recital to achieving peace between warring nations. For this reason it’s important to draw a distinction between a vague accomplishment and a real one.

What exactly constitutes a “real-life accomplishment” and how does it differ from what I labeled earlier as “symbols of achievement?”

An accomplishment-based education system is one where the output of every student has tangible, demonstrable value to others.

  • Writing a paper on the life and times of William Shakespeare is meaningless unless someone is willing to pay for that paper.
  • Creating architectural drawings for a house has little value unless someone wants to pay for those drawings and build the house.
  • Being a brilliant mathematician contributes nothing to society unless it can produce some value in a real-world application.
  • Producing an event has little value is no one wants to attend.

I will be the first to admit that everyone needs time to learn their profession, and making mistakes will help them improve along the way. But the global marketplace is not looking for people who have learned how to be great students. It wants results.

Examples of Accomplishment-Based Education

When a student immerses himself or herself in a specific topic, they begin to learn the vocabulary, learn about significant pieces of research, and the foundational principals that make it important. In short, they begin to get an inkling of how people in that industry think, talk, and communicate.

But that’s not enough. They need to know what it feels like to produce something of tangible value.

An amazing transformation happens once you find someone willing to pay for what you produce. It becomes both an interpersonal transformation as well as a relational transformation. The change that happens within will also manifest itself in your relationship with others.

Here are three brief examples of how an accomplishment-based education system might be structured and the profound implications it would have on society.

1.) Master of Social Marketing & Sales – Many people have figured out how to create their own impressive social network with tens of thousands of friends and followers on sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This program is designed to leverage a person’s social influence and create measurable results.

Criteria for Graduation: To graduate, each student will need to demonstrate a social network that includes over 100,000 people around the world, have an online video that has gone viral with over 250,000 views, work with 10 products that each can be found within the top 10 search results on a major search engine, create an engaged user community with over 10,000 online product mentions and over $50,000 in product sales per month for six months in a row.

2.) Master of Entrepreneurship – Starting a business is easy, but turning it into a sustainable enterprise requires a combination of skills, processes, and talent capable of generating continuous revenue streams while still overcoming the challenges and adversities commonly inherent in this type of undertaking.

Criteria for Graduation: To graduate, each student will need to demonstrate a sustainable business operation with at least five unusual competitive advantages, 10 definable market differentiators, over 100 separate sales cycles, and over $1 million in annual sales over a 12 month period of time.

3.) Master of Free-Agency – Free Agents are freelancers who work on a variety of projects. To be successful, free agents need to position themselves as experts in a specific field and begin to form business relationships with key individuals who routinely hire outside talent.

Criteria for Graduation: To graduate, each student will need to demonstrate a definable market niche that closely aligns with their own personal expertise, work with at least five clients per month generating at minimum of $25,000 every month for 12 months straight.

Naturally, the examples I’m using here will need to be expanded, refined, and explained in far more detail. This type of master-level certification will have profound implications

Final Thoughts

Attending an Ivy League college is a significant status symbol for young people today. But what if there were an even better status symbol?

What if the students in this institution were surrounded and mentored by other highly accomplished people, each of whom had achieved their own Master-Level Certification? And what if this type of learning could be achieved in less than two years for a fraction of what today’s colleges cost?

Envision, if you will, a group of 20 students entering a classroom sometime in the future. After a brief orientation period and a little time spent getting to know each other, each student is given the option of choosing a project to complete from a list of ten possible projects. Each of these course-projects is designed around a mobile app that drives students towards a specific accomplishment.

Over a period of time, students will be tasked with completing the assignment they have chosen, and once their “accomplishment” has been completed, they can move on to their next course. Their interaction with other students would be on an informal basis, and teachers would serve more as coaches than traditional instructors.

Their accomplishments would range from online activities such as building a website with a specific feature set, to launching a blog site with a specified number of entries, to creating a database with designated properties for interaction.

All of these activities would be carefully orchestrated to drive students towards a specific end goal.

Is this type of institution a real possibility? My prediction is that it is not only feasible, but someone will attempt to create it within the next couple years.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything


14 Responses to “Accomplishment-Based Education”

Comments List

  1. Gina Sienia

    Mr. Frey, Bravo on such a fabulous idea. I'm in. I would love to be a part of a more effective way to get an education. I believe our society in indeed headed that way. As college graduates are more and more disillusioned, our country as a whole will begin to seek alternatives.
  2. Chris Burns

    Yes, this is what education should look like. There are small changes to this end in small areas of the community. I am currently in a program with some of the same ideas. I am in the Landmark Education Self Expression and Leadership program (Denver, Co). As a part of this program I am required to build a business, social project or other venture which is of service to those in the community. Throughout this process I have received coaching and guidance which I wish I had received 20 years ago. After 22 years in the military and having started a number of small businesses - I can say first-hand this leadership program is the best I have ever experienced.
  3. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Spherical Phil</a>

    Tom, As always, I enjoy your stimulating ideas. My question though with your proposal is where does Gutenburg fit? Great innovator and inventor with a vision that literally changed the world. But he was not successful in his business, he went bankrupt. He would fail in all your categories. Or how about the more recent example of Tim Berners- Lee? He single handedly conceptualized and built the Web but he would never have succeeded in one of your categories because the Web never generated any revenue for him or CERN. Spherical
    • admin

      Phil, You bring up some good points. Successful innovation of the past was very hit or miss because there were no good communication systems to connect like-minded thinkers. If Gutenberg was able to surround himself with talented people who thought like he did, he may have been able to attract more investment money and avoid bankruptcy. Ironically, Tim Berners-Lee needed a more mature version of the same Internet he invented to advise him on how to fund his work. Our educations systems need to take advantage of what technology has to offer. This is something they tend to be very bad at. So while this may not have worked well in the past, it has great potential for working now. Thanks again, Tom
  4. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Ten School Designs: “Eye-poppingly liberating to the pedagogical imagination.” | The Purpose of Education</a>

    [...] just received a newsletter from The Futurist Thomas Frey, one of the few original thinkers on education, who mentions a few near-term new designs for [...]
  5. Lee Curkendall

    Tom, As usual, you're really onto something here. And very timely: we see students with (basically useless) degrees in English, Sociology, etc. with few job prospects and huge student loans. What do they do? They blame the "corporations". So Walmart, the largest corporation in the world, results in low prices while college degrees are spiraling upward. Seems like their anger is misplaced. Your ideas are the beginning of a solution. Instead of wondering what they will do when they get out of school, students will have demonstrable skills and feel great about their tangible, marketable accomplishments.
  6. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Spherical Phil</a>

    Tom, Gutenberg did not have a funding problem. He had, what some thought was a sales/adoption problem. Years after the failure of his company someone figured out the trick, cut the church in and give relief from divine punishment in the form of religious indulgences when one buys a Bible. Tim on the other hand, correctly recognized early in his work that if he were in any way to attempt to exercise control, claim ownership, charge license fees or have patents the World Wide Web would die an instant and horrible death as did Gopher in 1993. Perhaps there is one or more additional 'groups' in your proposed Accomplishment-Based Education with criteria that would encompass, recognize and support people with visions and products as truly grand as Gutenberg, Berners-Lee and their ilk, but who do not get the financial rewards or recognition of an Andrew Mason of Groupon, who does fit in your categories. I believe you will enjoy my discussion of Tim Berners-Lee and the Web as a self-organizing system, its role as a model for future organizations and the implications of the success of this approach on the future - in our new book, It's Going to be OK (but not like we thought). Spherical
  7. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Lavinia Weissman</a>

    It's interesting Tim Berners-Lee inspired me to realize what I have conceived by way of notebook of accomplishment can guide a person to sustain their health, work and professional development. My daughter was a student in her early years, age 8 , in a Seymour Papert program at MIT Media Lab, it was so successful that when it came back to the current state of education her motivation took a noise dive and her talent was not nurtured and I did not have the money to buy the stuff you can buy when you are wealthy. Years later, I studied virtual team work for Accenture but through my lens of action research and I saw possibilities that could alter our entire collapse based on Naill Ferguson's recent article. I have to work that out now in my own mind and write it down. Nice to meet you here Tom and Phil. Lavinia Weissman
  8. Andrew Brown

    Tom, a wonderful vision to bring practicality into education and create a much more powerful engine for new businesses. Re the appetite for universities to go down this route - my experience with and stories I have heard from others re higher education is there is almost a wall of resistance to sullying the purity of theory and speciality. Many faculties, many professors have very strong emphasis on being experts in their particular field and it is rare to have an orientation towards business application. Indeed it is often shunned as selling out to Main St. So to be able to balance expertise with practical application may take a shift in consciousness or belief systems of those in power in educational institutions. Unless you start brand new institutions, or offer education outside of any form of institution.....perhaps more structured than that which already exists.
  9. TomFields

    Imparting information without the know-how to put it to good use is like walking into and out of a bakery without eating or carrying anything away. Smells great, looks better, tastes - oh well, the experience was fun.
  10. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Dr. Melissa D. Denardo</a>

    Interesting that someone brought in great...great...great Grandfather owned the papermill that produced the paper for the Gutenburg Bible. Yes, he did have vision. Over the past month, I have been on a quest for knowledge about the community college. Three weeks ago, I attended the Washington Institute where leaders in Obama's administration, including Biden's economic advisor, talked about the status of education in American economy and government. Last week, I attended the Executive Leadership Institute of the League for Innovation in Community Colleges. This week I am at the Middlestates Accreditation Conference in Washington, DC. At last week's institute, top players in Community College system were in attendance and made presentations to the participants, who are all situationed to become Presidents. Presenters included Kay McClenney, Achieving the Dream and CCSSE innovator, Walter Bumphus, President of the American Association of Community Colleges, and others. I am telling you this because I want you to know that I am in the 'boiling pot' to say, of community college education in the United States. While attending an Ivy League college in the United States may provide status in society, a person empowered through knowledge and applied skills can certainly rise to the same level of status. The community college system in the United States is our 'applied' system. For example, we train Air Traffic Controllers at our college and we are known as the number 1 college in the nation in this specialty. Over and over and over again our students practice in a simulated environment, then they practice in a real, working tower at the Beaver County Airport. I agree with you that we need to implement more 'real world' problems within education today. We have many great examples of that happening right now. At the Colorado School of Mines, students in Engineering work in teams on two-year projects such as one where students worked with NASA engineers to determine how to send back data to Earth. I want to say that the rules and regulations of the United States government is holding back progression toward accomplishment-based education. Today's evaluation of colleges is based on degree completion rates. While there is movement toward competency-based education, without massive intervention, collapse of our system, or change in the way the government and accreditation agencies rate education in our nation, this change will be very, very slow. I, for one, wholeheartedly agree that the change is needed.
    • admin

      Thanks Melissa, Community Colleges are really the unsung heros in the remaking of America. And they're doing it without lots of tax dollars, un-repayable student loans, or taking people out of production for long periods of time. That said, the timeframes for learning are about to get even shorter. As an example, Code Academy in Chicago is teaching people how to become Ruby on Rails programmers in only 3 months, setting them up for high paying jobs for $6,000. Government regulations are definitely holding us back. Almost every top-down system that is incapable of adjusting quickly with the times becomes problematic. Best of luck on your work in Pennsylvania. 2012 will be a turbulent year for many of us. But keep fighting the good fight. Tom
  11. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Garth Schmalenberg</a>

    Their is always a need for improving educational systems and this is certainly one way and applicable for a few individuals. Improving our ability to serve others is essential and there are many forms of valuable service that have little to do with making money. The one thing I would be concerned about using this kind of measurement is in discounting the value of critical thinking and research based skills by focusing too much on output. Consumerism is already rampant. You are also predicting many fewer jobs in the future as a result of productivity enhancements like 3D manufacturing, driverless vehicles, and I agree with you. Even higher education services like medicine and journalism are being affected. For example, diagnostics will be partly replaced by technological advancements like Watson (soon Watson on a wristwatch). Making money or successful businesses, in my mind, is not the best criteria when considering a world that needs to be more integrated. Working on collective rather than individual success is really where we need to demonstrate improvement. For example, how does creating a business that earns $1,000,000 make the world any more sustainable? A better criteria might be measuring a class room of students that work together to optimize community governance and set a community on a path to sustainability. We need to move in the direction where the outcome of our learning is the ability to learn and to apply that learning to facilitation and research in all fields of endeavor, where we are able to balance global systems, and where we are able to work more effectively with other people and other nations to ensure the success of everyone. We have become far too isolated in our thinking.
  12. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>EducationWorld</a>

    Very interesting topic.. It's such an effective way to get an education. Schools in Chennai

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