Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Changing Education: Thinking Big

Posted by Michael Dickens on November 27, 2010

Making education work, and I mean really work, is a difficult problem. Plenty of people complain about the state of education, and they certainly are justified in doing so — there’s a lot to complain about. But how do we actually improve it?


Probably the reason there is so much talk about problems and so little about solutions is that before we can improve education, we have to identify what exactly is wrong with it. That’s what a lot of people have been doing for the past few decades. But it’s time to move on. Let’s stop talking about what’s wrong with education and instead talk about what to do differently.

The goal of formal education is to prepare its students for the world. This is a widely accepted concept. However, I propose that it has — or at least should have — a second, implicit purpose: to be fun. If you do something for seven hours a day for thirteen years (and even longer if you go to college or graduate school), you had better be enjoying at least most of that time. That’s way too long to spend on something you don’t enjoy. Preparing students for the future world seems much more difficult than having them enjoy their educations, but the latter purpose is still present and we would be wise not to forget it.

The future is going to look quite different from the present. Even so, let’s assume for a moment that it will look exactly the same. Education is still a difficult puzzle for many reasons, starting with the fact that no one is simultaneously being prepared for something and doing the thing that they’re being prepared for. Even college students who work regular jobs are not in the jobs that they’re being prepared for. It is not logically possible to be simultaneously successfully accomplishing a task and learning how to accomplish that task — you have to learn how to do it before you can do it.

This poses a problem because it means that no one can know for sure if her education was effective. Someone in school doesn’t know what his future will be, and someone with a career doesn’t perfectly remember school or know if school really worked. Still, one can get an idea. Someone who has graduated still remembers the essence of her education, and someone still in school has an idea of what his future world will look like. Looking forward is more difficult when we realize that the future will not be the same as the present. Our best idea of whether education is working is only in retrospect, and even then it is far from perfect.

Given that we can’t predict the future, what’s the best we can do? (1) We can teach people certain skill sets that historically have been useful. (2) We can teach people to be creative. (3) We can teach people to learn.

Education as it exists today tries to teach skills that historically have been useful. The main school subjects are math, science, English, and social studies. These subjects were fairly lucrative back when public education was first introduced, but not anymore. These four primary subjects are not necessarily the most beneficial in today’s world. They do cover a somewhat broad range, but the range certainly could be broader. Teaching based on what was useful in the past has limited efficacy when the future is changing as rapidly as it is. Better than teaching what was historically useful is to teach what we think will be useful; the problem with this, though, is that it is so difficult to predict what particular skills will be useful for tomorrow’s generation. It doesn’t help that the educational system has so much inertia — it’s very difficult to change, and changing it takes a very long time.

The second thing a good education can do is teach creativity. A creative person will be better able to fill whatever role he wants. Every career involves finding solutions to problems, and creativity at the lowest level is the ability to just that. As a person gets closer to a career she can specialize in a particular type of thinking, but early on the best we can do is teach creativity in a general sense.

Creativity is very obviously important, but the other side of the coin is not to be neglected. This other side is critical thinking. If creativity is the process of finding solutions, then critical thinking is the process of deciding which solutions will and will not work. We need critical thinkers as much as we need creative thinkers; too many solutions is just as bad as none at all, and critical thinkers know how to narrow them down.

The third element is teaching people to learn. Someone who is good at learning can adapt to any path. Children naturally love to learn, and a good education should foster this love and broaden it.

Current schools do all three of these things at least some of the time, but tend to focus too much on the first one. An ideal school would focus primarily on the third thing: teaching people to learn. Someone who knows how to learn and even loves to learn will be able to prepare himself for anything. When the world changes, he will be able to learn the necessary skills to thrive in the changing world.

How do we teach people to love learning? Changing someone’s mindset is much more difficult than bombarding him with facts. Once this question is answered, education will be able to move forward dramatically.

As explained in Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, the very process of having fun involves learning. The reason that video games are fun is because they continually challenge you and keep you right on the edge of your abilities. Once you master a game, it’s not fun anymore because you aren’t learning anything.

This isn’t to say that learning always means you’re having fun, but that having fun always means you’re learning. Most people already do love learning, but only specific types of learning. You may love learning how to beat that next boss in your video game, for example, but you don’t love learning your multiplication tables.

Everyone is interested in something. (Most people, in fact, are interested in multiple things.) Ideally, an education can help people learn about the particular subject or subjects that they’re interested in. This becomes more and more true as you move more and more up the educational ladder: in elementary school you do precisely what everyone else does; in middle and high school you can take a few electives along with your core classes; in college you have a much wider variety of classes to choose from; and in graduate school you can pursue virtually anything.

Why is it structured this way? Well, for one, graduate schools have a heck of a lot more money. They can afford a much higher teacher-to-student ratio than elementary schools can, and this means they can offer more classes. Universities also tend to have a lot more people. Most high schools can’t offer a course in the structure of functional programming languages because there wouldn’t be enough students who would want to take it. This example brings up another important point: variety often only comes with expertise. High schoolers might take an introductory programming course, but there are very few students at the high school level who would have the background necessary for a class as specific as the structure of functional programming languages.

Earlier, I talked about the three most important things that education can do. It is now worth mentioning a fourth thing: so that people can have greater academic freedom later in life, (4) they should be taught the subjects that will be most beneficial to their later studies. To an extent, we cannot trust young people to know what they will want to do or study. They often do, but young people are flexible and their thinking isn’t yet set in stone. Their interests could change dramatically, and will almost definitely change in some subtle ways. Pre-college education should therefore be as broad as possible, both to prepare people for many potential paths of study and to help them discover their interests. This is why, for instance, statistics should be the pinnacle of high school education rather than calculus (I could write an entire essay about this subject). Calculus is only really useful if you are going into physics or engineering; even most pure mathematicians would rather learn something else, and non-mathematicians get virtually no benefit at all out of calculus. Statistics on the other hand is not only useful for mathematicians, it’s also useful for scientists, psychologists, sociologists, pretty much anyone who does things with groups — and it’s even useful in everyday life.

Making education as good as it can possibly be requires considering its true purpose — preparing people for the world — and working up from there. We can’t know what skills any individual person will need. We can’t even know what sorts of skills will be useful in the future. But what we can do is teach people to be creative, teach subjects that are likely to be beneficial for students’ later studies, and most importantly, teach students to learn.


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