In the comments section of this post I made a while back, someone asked the following:
Your criticism of the Khan Academy, as well as the current public educational systems, all the way from elementary schools up to college is not entirely without merit. I agree with your major premise. However, it’s always easy to criticize, but much harder to solve a problem in a constructive manner. So, with that idea in mind, what would these systems look like, if you were the God of Education, and could tailor-make them exactly to your own whim? How would they be so different from what we already have?
So here is my ideal education system…
Firstly, this answer is based on the belief that it is a waste of time for a student to be forced to study material that is unusable and uninteresting to him. This is a completely foreign concept to most people working in education, because they tend to just take the actual content for granted. Anyway, if you do not agree with this premise, I don’t expect you to agree with my thoughts that follow.
Secondly, I know there are a lot of details that would need to be figured out. One person is not going to have the complete set of solutions for how to run such a large system. There are many factors that would need tweaking. Such a complex system is not going to be perfect right out of the bag.
Thirdly, in addition to the issue of “what would the ideal education system look like?” there’s the issue of “what practical steps do we take to get there?” This post is not about figuring out those practical steps. I don’t think we could make them anyway until more people agreed with the basic premise that “it is a waste of time for a student to be forced to study material that is unusable and uninteresting to him.” Acceptance or denial of this premise should not be dependent on the practicality of implications. (Abolishing slavery had some huge economic implications, but that didn’t justify slavery.) You start with the premises, and work from there.
Fourthly, my ideal education system has more to do with abolishing and remodeling the education system as it applies to the upper-grades, as that is where I think the greatest problems lie. Remodeling kindergarten and such can come later.
Break the degree system
The ideal education institutions would talk to employers. If people are struggling to get good grades in high school so they can go to college, and if they’re going to college so they can get degrees, and if they’re getting degrees so they can get a job, why the heck are employers hardly involved in this process?
We need employers to tell schools what exact skills they want potential employees to have. Vague qualities like “creativity, agreeability, dedication, independence” obviously don’t help. What do workers actually do? There seems to have been so little communication between employers and schools that schools just teach whatever the heck they feel like, or design these weird hodge-podge curriculums that lack focus. The student ends up learning very little about whatever they might end up dedicating their life to outside of school.
From the employers’ perspective, they want to make money. Taking the time to recruit new hires is a necessary cost as old workers retire, but taking the time to actually train new workers is much more expensive, and possibly less rewarding, so why bother?
That’s why it needs to be up to the education system to teach the more basic skills that are used in a job. They’re going to have to pay employers to take some time out of their day and just talk about what exactly workers do in their company. After seeing what workers actually do, the education systems can break down how they do those things, and then teach them (I’ll get to how they should teach them in a minute).
(It’s possible that there’s an education conspiracy out there. Maybe employers do not want very many people to have high level skills so that they can have more non-independently thinking slaves who will just do what they’re told, and only a small set of elite workers can keep those higher level, higher paying jobs. If this is the case, oh well. I don’t think there’s anything practical that can be done about it. We can’t force employers to reveal all information about their inner-workings. But they’d certainly get some tougher competition with a better education system.)
Now, all that said, I’m not trying to imply that education has to be completely paycheck oriented, as if education was just some fancy training program. But it should be at least that. (After all, even in our current system, that’s what degrees are for! Unfortunately degrees have become very vague impractical ways of going about it, because of the disconnect between employers and educators.) The hope is that students would be pursuing areas that interest them, and they won’t have to have their time wasted by being forced to study things that don’t. If I want to program computer games, I shouldn’t need a long course in statistics, or how RAM works, etc. With the extra time that will give me, I can pursue other areas that interest me.
How to learn / How to teach
So, the preceding section describes where educational institutions should get their content from, the material for their curriculums; it’s guided by what employees out there actually do. (Keep in mind that university research institutions and such are also employers.)
I think just having curriculums designed that way would improve education immensely, but we can and should go further.
Keep in mind our original premise, that the student should not be forced to study information he does not need or has no interest in. How does a student get a job after school? He must demonstrate that he has the skills the employer is seeking, and perhaps has even more skills than the employer is seeking. Schools need to realize that a student getting hired is ultimately completely up to the student. Therefore, schools shouldn’t force students to learn anything. If students choose to learn nothing, or try to skip necessary skills, they won’t get employed and they’ll have to go back and get those skills. There’s no reason for the education institution to have pre-requisites or credit requirements.
But we need to go further still. The current learning fashion involves a teacher standing in front of a class, blathering about his subject of expertise, giving out exercises and tests to students, and then grading them. This is a pathetic and archaic way to learn.
Firstly, the relationship between the teacher and student needs to be more open. Lectures make sense if the teacher needs to talk to a bunch of students at once (and such lectures can always be recorded or written in book form; it’s a waste of time for teachers to keep giving the same lectures over and over). Class time should be conversation time between the teacher and the student, an opportunity for a student to interact with someone who knows the field the student is interested in.
Furthermore, teachers do not need to be in the business of assigning exercises or tests or quizzes or keeping grades. A student might request an exercise if he’s having trouble understanding something, but it’s not up to the teacher to command it. After all, the education institution is for the student. (This will probably be a new paradigm for most teachers, and they might not want to relinquish so much control. If so, tough! They have to! If they are snobs who think they are imparting grand life-changing truths upon their students, they’ll just have to get over themselves. No man should become a teacher out of love of control.) Grades are unneeded because the only true assessment that matters is whether or not the student can get a job afterwards. (If employers are using grades as a gatekeeper to determine potential employers, they’ll just have to change their ways; too many flaws in the current system. And if hardly any schools are giving out grades and degrees, employers won’t have a choice. It’s not up to them.)
Since after school students will need to be able to demonstrate their skills to potential employers, I suggest students learn skills by applying them to self-directed (but teacher-guided) projects. For example, if I want to learn programming, I would involve myself in a programming project of some sort; probably something small at first. A teacher would give advice and answer questions that come up while I am working on the project. If I want to study calculus, I might do a project detailing how an extra planet in the solar system might orbit the sun or something. Or maybe I’d write a book detailing how to calculate the journey of the Voyager. The point would be to create something (not just read books and watch lectures; those don’t necessarily require synthesis) that demonstrates skill and conceptual understanding. Because the projects would be student-directed, the student’s interest is implied.
So, in the end, this is project-based learning, with an emphasis on employer-based skills. In place of homework, students work on projects that interest them. In place of grades and degrees, students produce projects which can be shown to potential employers. In place of weekly lectures, students talk to teachers about their projects.
You might say: “hmmm, some students will not be smart enough to do this.” Well then they can go die. Um, no, I didn’t mean it! But they certainly shouldn’t spoil it for everyone else. They can go to some special program where someone else tells them what to do and what to think, etc. Give them a magic eight ball or something. They can decide their fates with a shake shake shake. They don’t need to be going to school.
I know there would still be plenty of finer details to figure out and problems to solve with this education system, but that’s the overview of my ideal.
Also, there’s of course plenty of room for students who want to employ themselves and start their own businesses; I’m not trying to imply that all students will want to work for someone else after school. Wouldn’t a project done during school time while you’re still learning be the best time to start building the foundations of a new business?