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.

Conclusion

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?

Categories: Philosophy

4 Comments

Pradeep Menon · June 9, 2011 at 1:17 AM

Perhaps you were allowed to miss the history class because it was not interesting to you. If you had attended it, you would have learnt that the modern education system was built to suit the needs of the industrial revolution. The overwhelming thrust of the system is to produce drones for the industrial complexes ie. the employer. The corporate funding of so many universities ensures that the corporate interests (ie. the churning out of employable canditates) are considered by academia, though not always under public gaze.
I disagree with your basic premise, especially when you apply that premise to elementary and high school education. When you and I started in school, life was all UNK UNK (unknown unknowns). The purpose of education is to give you basic knowledge of life skills such as math, the physical sciences, languages, social sciences among others as well as the common mores of community living. If you had chosen to skip English grammar classes because you thought that it was “a waste of time” or “unusable and uninteresting”, we would have missed your penmanship. That it was forced upon you by the “failed education system” has in hindsight worked out in your benefit.
Your view that the education system should be solely for the purpose of helping its grads find employment is silly. It may apply to a vocational school but general education is more than that. General education is the well-rounded acquisition of knowledge, skills and character that gives you a thirst for life-long learning in a wide variety of subjects. Project-based learning is already being used in schools all over North America and nobody disagrees with that. I think your beef is that students are being forced to learn things which they feel are uninteresting. I have worked for corporations for 32 years and I have seen employees with the same attitude. They don’t last too long there either. Nerds with a unique subset of expertise are okay if your employment is that of a brain surgeon but today’s corporations demand a much broader pallette of knowledge and skills from a potential employee.

S P Hannifin · June 9, 2011 at 2:14 AM

Thanks for your comment!

You wrote: “I think your beef is that students are being forced to learn things which they feel are uninteresting.”

I don’t think you quite understood my premise. It’s not just that some things are uninteresting, but that some things are indeed useless. Do your corporations require all employees to have a high-school level understanding of calculus? Chemistry? Physics? Earth science? Charles Dickens? The feudal system? Etc, etc? Humans just don’t need that much information to be happy functional members of society. If they did, all (or at least most) working adults would be able to pass all high school exams at any given time. Are you claiming that they would?

You wrote: “When you and I started in school, life was all UNK UNK (unknown unknowns).”

I’m not exactly sure what you mean by this. It’s not as if school is the only place to learn things. Much learning takes place at home with the parents and playing with friends, such as learning to walk and speak. A child can learn a tremendous amount about how the world works from a rich home life and interactive parents, without the stress and trouble of paper tests, activity books, or formal lessons. I don’t think life was at all UNK UNK before I started school.

You wrote: “If you had chosen to skip English grammar classes because you thought that it was “a waste of time” or “unusable and uninteresting”, we would have missed your penmanship. That it was forced upon you by the “failed education system” has in hindsight worked out in your benefit.”

I’ve seen your argument here quite a bit.

Firstly, you’re assuming that my penmanship came from English grammar classes rather than my own interest in communicating a subject I find important. Since I was forced to take English grammar classes, I can’t claim they didn’t have any effect, but I will claim that there are other ways to penmanship besides forced English grammar classes, as evidenced by the number of homeschoolers and historic figures who achieved equal (if not greater) penmanship without any such enforcement.

Secondly, the end doesn’t justify the means. If I was whipped and tortured into learning to play the piano at a young age, and later became filthy rich from the talent, that doesn’t mean the child abuse was good because it eventually led to wealth.

You wrote: “Your view that the education system should be solely for the purpose of helping its grads find employment is silly.”

That is not my view. In my original post, I had written: “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. … 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.”

You wrote: “General education is the well-rounded acquisition of knowledge, skills and character that gives you a thirst for life-long learning in a wide variety of subjects.”

Who gets to decide what that means? Who gets to decide what the difference is between “well-rounded” and “not well-rounded”? That is where my main issue lies. Why is a thirst for life-long learning important if not to achieve some end that the learner is ultimately interested in?

Kushal · June 26, 2011 at 8:44 PM

Hey there very interesting post and very interesting blog on the whole. I have to say it is really refreshing to hear some of the ideas discussed in your posts as they resonate a lot with ideas and insights i have had very recently. With regards to education i think your observation is spot on ( why are we learning material that is irrelevant and ultimately useless to us). Logistically changing such a massive and well established system is of course going to be difficult and have its own problems but to make any sort of progress first we have to question and challenge the validity of the current system. I was sold the whole work hard in school pass your exams and get a good degree, work like dog for big corporation and make lots of money so you can buy big house nice car and be someone story and have been told this my entire life. 2 years ago I got into the London School of Economics one of the best universities in the country ( blah blah blah) and fulfilled my parents and my own dream at the time. And yet what is so tragic is that I have learnt more about life and myself in a year reading self development books and autobiographies from extraordinary people (Gandhi , Nelson Mandela etc) than I have in 18 years of schooling and that is no exaggeration. In addition to points you have already made I think there are some areas of focus that are just not addressed in school or university.
Teaching students how to THINK FOR THEMSELVES. I got into LSE by memorizing textbooks ( mostly pointless material that I don’t even remember anymore) and passing tests ( basically I am skilled at passing exams – exam technique). Yet this is one of the most prestigious universities in the country! Getting a degree from here makes me in the top 2% in the country and apparently equipped to get a really high paid job. BASED ON WHAT? Ability to memorize books and pass exams, HOW ON EARTH DOES THIS EQUIP US TO DEAL WITH THE CHALLENGES OF LIFE AND WORK? How does this help me contribute to society and help other human beings? The essence of my argument here is that 18+ years of education leaves most people (even those who end up in top universities) ill equipped to think or live effectively. As a result we have a society of people who have been conditioned to do what they are told (sheep) and accept whatever role society has assigned them. What other explanation is there for people who work doing mundane administrative jobs (I am generalizing here I know) from 20 – 65 doing the same damn thing day in day out. The person is pretty much the same at 65 as they were at 20 (statistics say people read on average less than 4 books a year and 25% read 0 books a year!). Is this the pinnacle of human potential? What a waste!
One of the reasons is that people haven’t been taught to think for themselves, to question the rules and presumptions of society, to discipline themselves and use the immense power we all have to change anything ( I’m sorry if I sound like a self help guru but it is true!) This is in my opinion the fault of the education system. They should teach about Life Management, Human Potential , Identity, Communication, Influence and Contribution, having standards and principles not pointless material about sine and cosine functions.
This comment is too long so I cannot continue but I hope the message is clear. I feel like I have “ freed my mind” just like in the Matrix but unfortunately in this world just as in the matrix there are millions who have yet to be freed and so they plod along like donkeys doing what everyone has told them to do unable to see outside there limited paradigm. If anything I would contend that conventional education is destructive ( it sells us the illusion that once we get our degree we are finished learning). Learning is a lifelong process and when you really appreciate this your entire world changes .

Kushal Raja

S P Hannifin · June 28, 2011 at 2:52 PM

Thanks for the comment! My thoughts exactly! I definitely agree with your points!

I especially agree about the importance of students (and all people in general) needing to be able to think for themselves. I think teaching it is tricky, though. I don’t think you can teach it in the way everything else in school is currently taught. I think people naturally know how to think for themselves, and they just need that part of them to be guided and encouraged and allowed to grow, whereas in regular schooling, and even in much of society, it is often squashed by teachers who want unquestioning complacent students, employers who reward unquestioning complacent employees, and people who care too much about what other people think of them. It would be nice if the education system was a force working against this “sheep-ifying” instead of just supporting it all the more.

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