How We Get Schools Wrong

Public education in America has long been the subject of hand-wringing and now, after over 100 years of the same model, it’s time we finally recognize what has worked and what has failed. Education is, in a sense, a kind of technology, and it’s time to ready its next version.

I’ve recently been asked to participate in some discussions about innovation in education; my mother co-founded a primary school in 1980 and I’ve had a chance to consider these topics as a student and a thinker. Here’s precisely where I believe we have failed and what we might do to invent the next generation of education.

Failure to recognize the importance of networks

What makes a successful student? Being around other successful students. We are the average of those around us. This simple fact is what has animated desegregation as well as programs like KIPP, Head Start, charter schools, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and private schools. If we really want to create social mobility and social justice, we need to change people’s position within the social graph to expose them to self-actualized learners and educated people. This suggests one imperative only and it has nothing to do with schools, per se: If we want children to learn, we must ensure that they are surrounded by people who value learning.

Overconfidence in Curriculum, Testing, and the Educational Machine

If a child’s success is determined primarily by their position within the social fabric, it cannot also follow that the machinery of education has very much impact. Consider that a single child surrounded by a diverse, thoughtful, inquisitive support network of adults and other children will undoubtedly flourish (assuming a base level of socioeconomic security). It is therefore incorrect to assume that the modern educational machine is necessary to produce a successful adult. We should recognize that successful learning can happen in many different ways, and not just through schools.

Confusion about what “school” actually is

The popular conception of “school” is that it is a place where we send our children to learn and be systematically exposed to an orderly program of ideas, culminating in a baseline level of performance that will prepare them for employment. In fact, school provides only a) a basic social safety-net within which children can be placed into a social fabric, b) state-sponsored childcare, c) minimal insurance of the breadth of instruction (via a curriculum), d) minimal insurance of the length of instruction (usually at least 13 years of 180 days each).  School enables some parents to participate in the workforce while insuring a basic safety net for students who would otherwise lack a supporting social fabric.

Confusion and guilt about the role of teachers

Many people intuitively understand the value of a good teacher. But look back on your own school experience and ask honestly how many truly excellent teachers you can recall. Most people will name three or four. Some might name five or six. This suggests that the best experiences in our educational system happen by accident. We all want to value teachers and the work that they do, but when performance varies so widely, it’s difficult to develop metrics that reward those who are making the most difference. Additionally, when others have demonstrated that self-directed learning is possible when children are working within a supportive social fabric, it’s not clear that the model of “teacher as the driver of learning” is sane. The child is the driver of learning, and the teacher is only an informed and enthusiastic member of the child’s social network. Children, not teachers, are the true drivers of learning; teachers are just one part of the child’s social support fabric.

Politicization of education

We have damaged both public education and social justice by conflating the two. Well-intentioned activists on the left identified public education as a civil rights issue. And certainly education is a matter of social justice. But education is a matter of one’s position within the social fabric, and we have been forced to try to use our public school system as the only available tool to manipulate peoples’ placement within it. Well-meaning bureaucrats and school boards make countless decisions that affect people’s placement within social networks – everything from what schools they can attend to what set of classes they can access. People on the right have mistaken left-wing proponents of public education as the enemy, when in fact the enemy is only the many layers of ineffectiveness that plague our system. We can only improve education when we understand the importance of social fabrics and stop fighting each other.

Historic co-opting of education alternatives by both the right and the left

Many on both the far right and left have historically chosen to opt out of public education in favor of religious education, private schools, home-schooling, or unschooling. Because they have been associated with extreme political affiliations, or with the moneyed (and oft-maligned) “elite,” many Americans have found them distasteful. Many intuitively believe that if they pull their child out of public education, they affect the social fabric of the schools they leave behind. However, many also fear that this alone is not a sufficient reason to participate in an underperforming school environment. You hear people say, “I believe in public education; that’s why I’ve got my kid in this school. I hope I’m doing the right thing.” People should put their children in schools only if they provide functional social networks for learning.

Over-reliance on causal thinking

We largely believe the myth that if you graduate as valedictorian and go to the best college that you’ll have a rich and successful life. That may appear true on the surface, but it’s arguable that more opportunities come from the social fabric that results from those experiences than from the credentials themselves. And even optimizing for “rich and successful” doesn’t necessarily translate to “happy and fulfilling.” We all know the old saw that “your degree doesn’t matter; what matters is that you have a degree.” That’s more true today than ever (at least outside of academia itself). The reason for this has more to do with our position within the social fabric than anything else. We need to start giving kids the skills they need to become life-long learners and stop trying to win some imagined game of education.

Vestigial artifacts

We educate children in an industrial model to prepare them to work in industrial environments, as if they were so many machine parts. We take off three months per year so kids can help with farm tasks. These are both obviously ridiculous notions today. So much of the system is the way it is because it has always been that way, and the system begets the system. We must break free. Learning should happen continuously and year-round, individually and in groups, and should be coupled with plenty of play and breaks.

How we might move forward

Buckminster Fuller famously said, “You never change things by fighting the existing model. Instead, make a new model that makes the old model obsolete.” This is happening right now.

First, new instructional tools are emerging. The phenomenal and free Khan Academy website provides deep instruction on hundreds of topics that kids can ingest at their own pace – and as supported by their network of peers and mentors.

Second, social tools like Facebook and Twitter enable people to self-organize face-to-face peer-driven instruction for their children. This will evolve into an effective, mainstream and apolitical home-schooling movement, and it will be a juggernaut.

People will opt out of public education because they will have found something that works better.

If we want to save the mission of public education, we urgently need to get smart about the nature of school, what it is and is not, and figure out a way to offer an effective social safety net for everyone that recognizes this new reality.

The old model simply doesn’t know it’s obsolete.

Learning By Accident

I recently wrote an essay about how our educational system is an artifact of the industrial revolution, designed to produce cogs for a machine that no longer exists.

It received wide circulation and a lot of people weighed in with their own ideas about what’s working in education. My mother started a school when I was young, and I’ve also been in the process in the last year of evaluating school choices for my kids (who are entering middle school) so I’ve had a good deal more recent first-hand exposure to the question. And it’s got me thinking.

Play and Exploration

People learn by interacting with the world around them and by following the ideas they are curious about. Think back on your school career and try to name three teachers or three projects that really inspired you and got you excited. You can probably do that, but if I asked you to name four or more, you’d probably be at a loss.

Real learning doesn’t occur through mindless rote tasks or in any context where one is teaching to a test, and it almost certainly can’t occur in huge classes.

Kids grow when they are inspired to inquire into a subject themselves; sometimes that happens by way of a teacher, parent, or role-model, and sometimes it happens through reading or another kind of exposure to an idea. I won’t claim it’s causal, but there is a correlation between the number of books in a home and later success in life. While it is equally probable that the kinds of families that value books are also the same homes most likely to properly nurture a child, there is something wonderful about being surrounded by books and being able to select just the right book at just the right time.

Learning, at its best, should be a kind of just-in-time delivery system for knowledge and discovery.

There has been some debate as to whether schools should make any pretense of having a curriculum at all, or just focus on a kind of resource-rich play. The New York Times recently wrote a piece about how play is at the center of learning. A friend told me about the Sudbury School which has no curriculum and lets kids make up the rules. And if you read the literature, Sudbury “graduates” are as successful as anyone else.

Learning In Spite of the System

If you study the evidence, it becomes clear that the only real learning that happens in our traditional school environment happens by accident — as a side effect of our system, not as a primary result of our system. If this is true, our system is mostly wasted energy – noise and light – and not actually designed to solve the problem it purports to solve.

What do I mean by “learning by accident?” If you can count on one hand the number of teachers you had that inspired you, then your learning was by accident. If you can remember maybe just two projects from your school years that meant something to you, you were learning by accident.

The tragedy is that in our worst schools, those accidents never occur. Students slog zombie-like day after day through halls that threaten their safety, misdirect their higher calling into self-defense and trivial pursuits of one-upmanship, and generally burn them out on life and its possibilities. It’s no wonder that the survivors of this system (it’s hard to use the word “graduates” when many do not, and the process is more a trial than a system) tend towards cynicism and a zero-sum view of the world. There is no time or place for higher thinking when safety is in question.

Our very best schools – the schools in higher income areas, or our private schools – simply are rigged to increase the odds of “good accidents” occurring at a higher rate. These schools typically do not fundamentally alter the design, though, they just increase the odds that something good might happen inside their walls — through parent involvement, better teachers, and a community that is generally more able to support a learning environment.

So even our best schools are only, perhaps, 30% as efficient as they could be. The rest is all noise and heat and light. How can we unleash that untapped 70% of energy that we lose to the inefficient design we currently call school?

Homeschooling or the Sudbury method offer potential answers. However many alternative approaches carry baggage from the culture wars that make them unpalatable to the population at large, or include biases that make them less than effective.

Ideology and Indoctrination

Thanks to Hitler, it is still today illegal to home-school children in Germany. Indoctrination was such an important part of his new totalitarian state that he dared not leave it to chance. We have something similar going on in our country today. Our school system is a kind of indoctrination. We need to ask serious questions about whether we believe in the values it imparts, or whether it is something more sinister.

The extreme left and right get it wrong. This is not about warmed over hippie ideology, and it’s not about right-wing religious nuts opting out to preserve a cult-like bubble around their children. It’s also not about non-religious right-wing people rebelling against the abuses of teacher unions or big government. Education is too often co-opted by these sects and it’s counterproductive.

The real challenge is how to design an approach — which may not look at all like public education as we know it now, so stop reflexively bashing it — that scales up and works for moderates. And by “works” I mean delivers an level of efficiency closer to 90% rather than 30%, and is divorced from ideology.

Design is an opportunity to incorporate, or not to incorporate, ideology. Would you design a right-wing fork? Or a liberal toaster? Is it possible for us to design an educational approach that is simply functional, and light on ideology? We owe it to our kids to do so.

HOWTO: Learn Stuff Efficiently

I enjoy learning new skills and technologies on my own, and it occurs to me that there isn’t a lot written on the subject.

I’ve been developing this approach for about 20 years and here’s a brief summary of what I find works for me.  It may not work for you, and that’s OK.  But give this a try, refine your own technique, and share what works!

  1. Choose a topic/technology outside your comfort zone.  This is self-evident; you can’t expect to learn anything new if you’re working in a sandbox you’ve already mastered.
  2. Make time for yourself.  Lots of it.  You can’t expect to dig into a topic deeply if you’re distracted by email, phones, tax deadlines, bills, dinner, family, friends, and bathing.  Seriously, these things have to take a backseat, you’ll come across as a recluse, and people will hate you.  Accept it.
  3. Set a goal.  It might be as simple as a “Hello World” or something more complex.  However, it should be something you think you can attain and which will make you happy to see completed.  So, choose something reasonable and within reach.
  4. Code until you get stuck.  Keep pushing small, obtainable goals until you get to a point where you are baffled or sleepy.  This is the time to take a nap.
  5. Before you take a nap, read something.  Your brain runs threads in the background while you’re sleeping.  Don’t waste that CPU power thinking about Angelina Jolie.  Instead, search for guidance on the thing that’s got you stuck (either with a colleague or online), or read (or re-read) a chapter in a coding book that’s relevant.
  6. Sleep until you wake up.  This might be 3 hours, 6 hours or 8 hours; your brain will sleep for as long as it needs to process the information you’re trying to absorb.  NOTE: At this point the thought of having a regular sleep schedule should make you giggle.  You should sleep and code when you feel like it, which likely will not be on any particular schedule.
  7. As you fall asleep, meditate on the questions you’re trying to answer.  The intense concentration available to you as you are nearing sleep will enable you to define and isolate the problems at hand, and this will provide a kind of “normalized grist” for your brain as it prepares to do your heavy lifting for you.
  8. When you wake up, you will have some answers.  You may not have all the answers yet, but you should have some fresh insights that will enable you to blast past your last impasse (wow).  This should give you some encouragement and allow you to repeat the cycle (3-8) again.

I’m presently employing this technique to learn Objective C and Cocoa Touch for the iPhone, and it’s working great.  This is the sort of thing that society will not allow you to do continuously (unless you’ve evolved a significant number of support mechanisms) but you should be able to get away with it at least some of the time.  It delivers great results for me.

And for those of you to whom I owe emails, bear with me; I will get back to you shortly.