Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

My sister Mimi and I are opposite in many ways. She was a straight A student and I was a solid B student. She seemed to be able to focus and get through her schoolwork easily where I struggled.

My sister ended up with her choice of any university she wanted to go to and ended up first at Harvard and then at Stanford and is now in the midst of an academic career.

I, on the other hand, was unable to get into any of my first choice universities and ended up dropping out after a few years. I was later convinced to go back to university again by a well known physicist I was working with and dropped out again after becoming disillusioned with formal education as well as my ability to pay attention and learn anything. (I also discovered the amazing community that was the Chicago nightlife scene of the late 80s.)

I think it's fair to say that the most important thing that I learned in my formal education was touch typing in junior high school and possibly the importance of camaraderie and athletics during high school wrestling.

Despite my completely dysfunctional relationship with formal learning, I've been able to learn enough to run companies, give talks and be allowed to go to some of the same conferences as my sister.

I was talking to my sister whose research focus is learning and digital media. We were discussing formal learning versus informal learning and how I probably survived because I had the privilege of having access to smart people and mentors, the support of an understanding mother, an interest driven obsessive personality and access to the Internet. I completely agree that improving formal education and lowering dropout rates is extremely important, but I wonder how many people have personalities or interests that aren't really that suited for formal education, at least in its current form.

I wonder how many people there are like me who can't engage well with formal education, but don't have the mentors or access to the Internet and end up dropping out despite having a good formal education available to them. Is there a way to support and acknowledge the importance of informal learning and allow those of us who work better in interest and self-motivated learning to do so without the social stigma and lack of support that is currently associated with dropping out of formal education?

Or... is the answer to make formal education more flexible and capable of supporting a wider spectrum of types of learning to enable people like me to "make it through the system"? Oddly, as my informal education has finally started to reach limits in certain areas, I find myself increasingly reaching out to formal education institutions for the rigor and depth that I need to explore my areas of interest.

My sister just posted her talk New Media and Its Superpowers: Learning, Post Pokemon which is highly relevant.


Dear Joi,

I feel that the way for formal learning institutions is going to be the same as for newspapers. Learning is going to be very different, very soon. I was blogging about this just recently.

Best wishes,


It makes sense that you didn't excel in college, yet became very successful in the IT sector. Taken directly from Steve McConnell's Code Complete:

"If you haven’t had much formal training [in software construction], you’re in good company. About 50,000 new programmers enter the profession each year (BLS 2002), but only about 35,000 software-related degrees are awarded each year (NCES 2002). From these figures it’s a short hop to the conclusion that most programmers don’t receive a formal education in software development. Many self-taught programmers are found in the emerging group of professionals—engineers, accountants, teachers, scientists, and small-business owners—who program as part of their jobs but who do not necessarily view themselves as programmers."

While at high-school, I always got grades that ranged between adequate and excellent, at university I... well, I want to say I struggled, but really, I just didn't try; It seemed pointless, doing make-work or memorisation purely to meet the arbitrary requirements. In retrospect, I was in the wrong course for me, but I'm not entirely sure that there was a course that would have been a good fit - at least, not at an undergraduate level, and you can't get beyond that without going through it.

Right now, I'm finding that iTunes U is satiating a lot of my intellectual hunger - I can background learning as I work on other things, which works well with my perpetual task switching. My only real wish was that iTunes U courses updated more frequently (of course, if they did, I wouldn't have such a wide variety of subscriptions, which I also kinda like... but it makes it hard to binge on a subject if I come to it too early in the course).

Joi Ito,

Great post. Like you I have the same beliefs and I've followed the same path. It was hard in the beginning to understand it and assume this decision, but once I decided, everything started to work much better.


I think the answer is both, and more. As a collective we are increasingly seeing the value in diversity and access to the internet as standard, and that is pushing the boundaries for education in ways that don't scale if you assume a single 'teacher' model.

I just posted some thoughts on what I would keep in mind if I was starting university again, but looking over them they are still valid if you decide not to do more formal study. Focus, learn to teach yourself, share, connect and learn by doing.

The current education structure is being pushed to its limits - what happens next will show if the glass if half empty or half full :)

I completely understand! I also pursued formal education, especially since it's in my culture to do so! It's never worked out well for me!! Also, I was just in the best film school, and I dropped out May 2009, because they were so stiff and inflexible!! .. And that's film school!! SO imagine other schools!! I just can't fit in! I am different, and so are you, and so are the John Gages of the world. !! He too kept dropping out of stiff Schools!

Luckily, I went to Berkeley, which I felt like they were the least formal of the formal.. but I managed to graduate. But I'll admit, I struggled to fit in there as well. .. even Berkeley!

I've found that most of my learning has been from mentors and real world experience. It's never been from a one way lecture as is so common in modern schools! Hands on is the answer!

So, if we could reform the system, it would be to have it become a hands on tye of environment. That will engage people and their minds way more than books and lectures! The way the human mind learns best is thru experience..

BTW, I've started an entertainment company in Bangkok.. It's international with links to Hollywood. The 2nd phase is EDUCATION! We're gonna start a Film School and also trade schools for the arts.. Hopefully with support of AFI, UCLA, and George Lucas...

I'll be sure to consult with you before hand! We've got to make sure it's the NEW PRACTICAL LEARNING EXPERIENCE!
take care Joi!

You're not the only one like this. There are many other students, some teachers (John Taylor Gatto is one example) and institutions ( exploring a world without the formal education we expect. For many students that don't fit within the 'rules' of education, they fall off or are kicked out. That includes if you're too intelligent, not intelligent enough, hate maths but love to draw, can't sit still or anything else outside the expected rules.

From my own experience there is nothing you can't learn as well or better informally when compared to formal. The difference is mainly not having the 'expert' guidance of the institution (the lecturers, tutors, student peers and textbooks combination) that comes with formal education. You can overcome that lack, but it takes dedication and desire because there isn't an external motivator.


You are far from alone. Academia is severely overrated. Most of what one learns in school is forgotten before it can be applied. The same is true in business, where training accounts for less than 20% of what's learned for the job. I've been blogging, writing, and speaking on this for the last decade; some of the corporations are now waking up. I've got a couple of books on Informal Learning if you're interested; years of web postings as well. Generally informal learning has more impact than school because you're self-motivated, you choose what's relevant, and you reinforce what you know by applying it immediately afterward.


What Michael said, and more.

Last summer you attended the wedding of a man who was home-schooled (unschooled, free-range schooled) up to college, found a college that suited his mode of learning, and did well and learned a lot there. And we can very easily pick out examples (beginning with Mimi) of very brilliant people who thrived in formal learning settings, who’ve shown that their formal learning served them well. At the same time, you exemplify a different way (as does Si, though he did well at the loosely-organized college he attended).

Especially under financial pressure, funding agencies and anxious academic administrators are amplifying their investment in the “formal” side of education; by controlling variables and specifying outcomes, it’s easier to measure results and prove that your institution is working. If everyone were Mimi, this might work — but not everyone is as smart as Mimi, and even more so, not everyone learns most effectively in a formal, controlled-variable setting.

Add to this the several distinct functions that schools are expected to serve: credentialing (“This person is generically well-prepared for adulthood in general and responsible participation in [Field X] in particular”); actually inculcating gobbets of information (“The Battle of Waterloo happened in 1066 when Columbus discovered India”); character formation (all those “diversity” and “citizenship” emphases in education); intellectual formation (“Vladimir doesn’t always know the answer right away, but he understands the shape of a problem and knows how to go about investigating it”) — only a very few of which are plausibly measurable, especially immediately upon completing a program. Imagine if the success of surgeries were based solely on whether a patient died on the table; that’s what measuring the success of an academic program at the end of the semester (or on awarding the degree) is like.

One size emphatically does not fit all, but there are damn few alternatives for informal learners to flourish in non-assembly-line learning environments, and even fewer for educators to flourish by fostering informal, indirect learning.

Dear Joy,

The most important factor you mentioned was for me too an understanding mother, who taught me to read and write at age three and started my life alternating four languages in a 24 hour a day Short Wave Radio background.
She already knew about Aaron Stern's method and applied it; I could never thank her and the countless leaders in science and art who accepted my friendship instead of insulting my intelligence ( I have met plenty of those too...).

I must mention the next two main motivating influences in my life: the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Shneerson, and immediately after in time but much more intensely, Reb Shlomo Carlebach ZTz"L whose work I continue now through AMEN as my main activity, doing also a little business at survival level.

There are more and more of us self-learners coming out of the closet and realizing not only that we have nothing to lose by doing so, but a lot to express, and except for a vanishing part of the academic establishment, generally physicians, lawyers and economists, the second worst ones being social workers, because they have a lot of competition from well prepared informally schooled amateurs who give them jobs in the nonprofit organizations they founded exactly because they get tired of being stonewalled by the establishment those unsocial workers come from and through.

Let's not leave out the bankers, who are really guilty of destroying countless projects, marriages and lives by unjustly discriminating in the granting of credit, and now the damage they have wrought on the whole economic system this way has turned back on tem as they are being laid ofby the hundreds of thousands.

This is why I have founded AMEN, Association to Empower the Needy, which is creating in Jerusalem a Business GERMINATOR, near Me'Or Modiim a country community to produce Organic Wine and Olive Oil, and Motion Pictures/TV Programs, eventually enough material for a whole satellite TV channel, in Metsuke Dragot by the Dead Sea YAEL Yeshiva (Academy in Hebrew) for Art, Ecology and Light studies, and is now opening a branch in Milano to test the same Business Germinator model in a place where credit is more easily available, and to create sinergies by participating in fairs and events.

Last thing worth mentioning is that as I and the Late Baruch Bendetz did since 1979 in Jerusalem when we founded the Skills Exchange, there will be at the germinator master level courses without participation qualifications to be combined with university ones given by participating institutions via teleconferencing and field work for academic credit by registered students of such courses, a little bit like the social integration only the Army reserves an so far offer.

I will not burden this blog with more details, but invite those interested to contact me directly at - Skype/Twitter: pizzarebbe after first searching Google for my name and/or pizzarebbe.


Dear Mr. Itō,

This is a little long winded, so hold on to your hat

Formal education is based on the transfer of knowledge through communication
Informal education is based on the acquiring of knowledge through self-motivated experience

The drawback of the first is that it relies on the mode of transfer, ie. The educator, the books and material, and the push of information into the mind of the learner. Seeing as how human beings actually listen to a small amount of what they hear, and understand an even smaller amount of what they listen to: It is only natural that a formal education only works when a student does their homework and exerts personal effort into learning whatever they were taught. It is because of my
mundane Math teachers in school that I hated Math up till college, where I was fortunate enough to learn under the guidance of a better educator

Informal education, on the other hand, depends solely on the motivation of the learner. That is to say: As far as the subject matter is concerned, no problem is left unsolved, no page is left unread, and no question is left unasked (Motivation permitting of course). The drawback to this is that guidance is minimalized, mistakes remain undiscovered until a meticulous trace of all the previous steps is made, and various stages of trial and error are required, in most cases, in order to reach any sustainable and repeatable results. Besides, you're not going to understand gravity on your own no matter how many apples fall on your head! You'll either get it from the first go, or get a concussion

Informal learning is like going through a maze in first-person view: In the worst case, you need to go down every single corridor before you get to the exit! But in the end, you'll know the maze like the back of your hand
Formal learning is like going through a maze in bird's eye view: In the worst case, you'll go down a few dead-end corridors, but you'll reach the end without having seen the corridors that lead nowhere! It's efficient and you get to capitalize on your guide's experience (be it the book author or the teacher). Just bare in mind that someone, at some point, had to go through the maze just like a mouse: And THAT person knows the maze far better than you!

I suppose what I'm saying is that: Like in all things, a balance is required. I most certainly enjoy learning in general and seek formal and informal education with every waking moment


Hi Joi,

I co-sign what Jay said.

I succeeded in the traditional formal learning structures. I went to a top US university and law school. But this kind of "success" also cost me. It rewarded my instincts to please and affected my trust in my instincts for years. It's easy to confuse grades and academic achievement with self-worth and many people chase the equivalent check marks and grades a lot longer than their school year in order to feel they are worth something.

I actually believe this is the thing the American conservative movement is pointing to, however poorly, when they talk about "elites" and "Ivy League educations." I got a tremendous amount out of my Ivy League education but that mostly came down to people and my experiences. I made my decisions Focussing on winning approval and obedience is not the same thing as learning.

There are also different learning styles: kinesthetic, and more. Our status quo formal learning structures tend to are often set up to reward sequential linear thinking and auditory learning. They are also set up around what is easy to "objectively" evaluate. I am watching my wife go through a medical school education system that encourages and rewards traits that will not be in the best interests of patient care but they do make the evaluation process for the instructors simple.

This is a massive social and UX problem. Awesome experiences are important (I'm thinking especially of Kathy Sierra here). All the best professors I ever had were big on emotional engagement and/or experiential stuff.

I see the people who succeeded in these formal institutions cling to the hierarchies and institutions that also felt like safe "belonging" places here on the US East Coast (securities firms, law firms, publishing etc) feel rootless as hierarchies are challenged and work culture moves into the networked age.

I learned about engagement from all the things I actually did in college. And I learned more from a decade of performing than from 3 years of law school in terms of how to engage and move people. But school did inspire me to want to make it be different. In my next show I teach all of (my version of) law school with the "audience" in about an hour.

It's not an option to not continue learning in the marketplace anymore.
And attention isn't going to be earned by just standing at a podium anymore.
True learning is where all the fun is. And true worth isn't in peoples' affiliations, it's in them. Some have just forgotten.

Thanks for being part of shifting our global culture to it.


Dear Mr. Itō,

One thing I find distinctly lacking in all the comments I read here, enlightened and educated as they are, is the failure to mention communication and its connection to all forms of education

Education, be it formal or informal, is based on our antiquated communication system: One person talks or writes (communicates) and the other person listens or reads (receives). The major problem with this is that human beings can rarely speak or write their thoughts completely even when they're being brutally honest. As well as the other end, where human beings can rarely listen to or read someone else's thoughts and understand them completely. This means that there are two very high walls preventing understanding generally and education specifically

The way to alleviate this problem among adult professionals is to have another adult professional from the same field re-explain the idea the way they understood it, in an effort to express the same idea in a language that everyone of the same profession understands. Realistically, that means: If I wanted to explain the concept of radio transmissions to a biologist, an English teacher, an engineer, and a business person, then what I would say would be something along the lines of:
- Biologist: Its kind of like Whale sounds, where one whale vibrates their vocal chords which send out a wave of vibrations in the water around the whale until it reaches another whale and it responds
- English teacher: Its kind of like how the printing press spread the written word from one printer to every human being who got the book, then these human beings asked for more books
- Engineer: (Explaining radio transmissions to an engineer is redundant)
- Business person: Its kind of like building a factory for a thousand workers and paying their salaries, then selling them and their families products that they need

Or at least, I would start this way!

The problem with this is that it requires someone who already understands something very well, in order to explain it to someone else who has had the same focused education. This stems from the fact that a biologist can explain something complicated to another biologist much better than an English teacher could. If you've ever compared the rate of knowledge transfer at a conference for people of the same profession to the rate of knowledge transfer at a social gathering, I assume you should come to the same conclusion

In truth, if anything is to be completely understandable, then it would need to be explained from a multitude of different angles and perspectives in order to maximize the probability of understanding for all the receivers. Meaning: Explain the same thing in many different ways in order to allow as many people as possible to understand it in one or more of the ways

Therefore, in order to explain something to a child, then a child of relatively the same age is required to do the explaining. As long as we are sure that the teaching child understands the concept perfectly well. It is my opinion that this would work particularly well with formal education as it lowers the second barrier of understanding

All these are methods of working around the actual problem of communication, though

So I leave you with this:
When I say IT: What you think of is technology. But you're forgetting the other half of the acronym!


Hi Joi,

Funny have just been reading/thinking about the same thing. Please check out this book by Dr Ken Robinson who writes about exactly what you just wrote about and is actively trying to change things. TED Speaker - you would like him.



I knew formal education wasn't for me when I was in high school, as soon as I found out there was a senior year internship program where I could skip most of my last year I went for it, got to skip my last year doing work I was already doing as my regular after school job.

When it came time for college I just went to my local school (Queens College) but after a year I knew this was just a paid form of high school... the requirements seemed arbitrary, the students seemed to just be on a road that they had never been on but already knew what was coming up, it was pre-planed, safe, it was what was expected.

I couldn't do it, once I realized that everyone was here because "thats just the way things work" I was done, after one and a half years I dropped out, started a web development firm and now I have been running my own business developing websites and web applications for major companies for about 10 years, and I am on my way to releasing my first major software product.

I am glad I never had "The College Experience", like you, my "interest driven obsessive personality and access to the Internet" gave me all I needed to be in control of my career without formal schooling.

It has been said:

Students who earn A's work for those that earned B's.

Students who earn C's run the company.

Students who earn D's have buildings named after them.

I also was not particularly good with school, although professors would occassionally call me brilliant and beg for focus. My upbringing was likely a problem as well as it was less than supportive for the most part.

I’d like to say that this problem is about measurment and will change drastically in the not too distant future as will most economic activities. Your current role has a measurement of success. In school that measure is arbitrary, often at odds with the real world, and typically not atuned to interests or learning styles.

Having developed educational content for decades, I fianlly had enough in 2005. I just finished Pearson’s reading program and was simply horrified with the process and found the near future to be less than appealing financially. My current efforts in this space are to look at the points you raise as being a differentiator in your experience — social learning.

I wonder, have you read Jeff Schmidt's Disciplined Minds?

Joi, this is exactly why I hope you will please support -- we need to enable self-study quizzes so that informal self-directed learners can have the same opportunity to be questioned and challenged as the original Academy arose as an institution to provide.

To all, brilliant observations.

My wife and I serve lunch once a month at a local homeless shelter, where she also provides literacy training. Originally the objective was to help provide support for attaining their high school equivalence, yet it has become quickly evident the likelihood for GED success is remote.

For me, this learning experience has been eye-opening as I see the many wasted talents created by the rigidity of our formal learning systems. If each person could simply focus on their talent, I believe we'd achieve greater success.

The hope is that one day we all may pursue our passions and utilize our talents as God intends. As I remember my economics courses, such a labor division generates a far more optimal result. And, I suspect greater happiness.

My daughter wrote her thesis on charter vs. public schools and here's a direct quote:

"For Paulo Freire, a philosopher of education, freedom requires people to value “autonomy and responsibility. Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift.” He argues that the oppressed can only break through the divide between the oppressors and themselves if they take responsibility for their actions and educational careers. "

For myself, I was very successful in formal education, both scholastically and professionally. Found the formal process often fed pursuit of the informal, yet the formal institutions didn't always appreciate the extension possibilities found in the informal - "the old, wasn't invented here philosophy". Now that the formal system is behind, the costs of maintaining it are high (professional dues, continuing education, etc.), yet the value that can be brought to society continues to be the pursuit of the informal.

I think that the formal education system lacks tremdously, and your giving a clear example of it. I think that the possible solutions are clear, but the magnitude of the required changes make them hard to implement

I know this is an old post but I just have to chime in on this as it relates to me 100%.

I would say I am a pretty smart guy for the most part, school has never been a problem for me, but boy do I hate it.

I can't help but see formal education as ineffective for me. I hated learning spanish in school, I passed the class with an A without knowing anything but 4 years after the class I took it up on my own and learned it.

I don't know what it is about me but I just hate sitting there all day and listening to the teacher babble. I can't walk around, I can't even go to the bathroom when I want to.

BTW.. I am still a pokemon fan so I love the fact your sister decided to add it in her article.