Thoughts on Life and Education
What would an education system look like that maximized the potential of all students?
The 20th century model of life can be roughly encapsulated as being in three acts: in the first act, one is educated up to the limit of one’s mental capacity. Then, once full of knowledge, you are sent out into the world to work for as many years as you can. Finally at the end of your career you retire, have some fun, travel a bit, then die. We can call these stages: Learn, Work, Play and they are mostly accomplished serially. This worked acceptably well for a world in which the exercise of one’s craft at the end of life roughly resembled that at the beginning and in which retirement was likely short since life expectancies were only modestly longer than retirement age.
But in the 21st century, this model is breaking down. First, as we shift to more of a knowledge economy, the number of years required to obtain sufficient knowledge to be useful is continuing to grow. The percent of Americans attending college has increased, as has postgraduate education. Some don’t begin their working lives until their early thirties! This extended academic interval accompanied by the destruction of teenage jobs and apprenticeships mean that young people don’t get a chance to perform useful work until quite late in their lives. I hypothesize that this is a driver of disengagement from school — why spend hours laboring over an essay that will only ever be read by one person — skimmed by a TA to have a grade stamped on it — instead of composing a silly TikTok that could go to hundreds of thousands of people? Why is one “real” work and the other is “play”? Teenagers have the mental and creative capacities to be meaningful contributors to our society and culture; we should stop being surprised by this but instead seek to incorporate it into learning; to have their work Matter as early as possible and to use it as a teachable moment.
Secondly, the 21st century has jobs and fields that are evolving quickly. Many key disciplines today don’t have traditional college degrees that cleanly map to their job functions. And while many jobs purport to have “on the job training”, formal educational programs onsite are rare. At Google, where I had the pleasure of working for over four years as a senior product manager, there was not a single formal class for existing product managers to learn more about their craft and advance; and this is from one of the world’s leaders in product management, with a talented and well-funded corporate education department! Cultural expectations around “adult learning” are dismissive and remedial — community college and job retraining programs are often viewed as a rare and surprising move to change career tracks when one has hit a dead end instead of an expected and regular part of adulthood. Ongoing formal instruction should be embraced for all adults and expected of all knowledge workers. This should include periodic paid time off to “level up” — such investments in people’s capability will likely see returns in spades.
Finally, we can’t forget the “fun”. Knowledge work in particular shows rapidly diminishing returns for hours worked beyond 50 a week and several experiments reducing the workweek to four days (or even three) seem to be showing positive results. As “rote” deskwork is increasingly automated, the creative cognitive burden of the typical job is likely to increase — demanding inventiveness and problem-solving that require fresh thinking instead of mere “knowledge grinding” (as is typified by late 20th century work such as data entry). A working environment that is enjoyable is going to be more sustainable and can therefore retain employees longer, also allowing employees to continue meaningful work well past traditional retirement age. (Classic “retirement” is mostly a Bad Idea anyhow and leads to increased mortality and decreased satisfaction.)
Returning our focus to education: what is its point? Ultimately, it is to produce the citizens that we want: knowledgeable, wise, clever, creative, coöperative, resilient, and hard-working. People who are able to perceive problems, frame them usefully against past efforts, hypothesize meaningful solutions, test their hypotheses critically, work across a team to organize and accomplish required tasks, and evaluate outcomes. We want to maximize the personal potential of each student.
We then have to ask whether our current educational system is efficient and effective at achieving this goal and what might be already known about potential improvements to the same.
So let’s start with an overview on the learning experience of the typical American student:
- Fixed-duration classes: a class is defined as the teaching of a subject for a certain number of in-room sessions per week over a period of a number of weeks. At the end of the class, the instruction is deemed complete. Students have a final exam where their completeness and correctness of understanding is evaluated as a written test.
- Multiple classes per unit time: students are typically taking 3–6 different subjects, different in nature, contemporaneously.
- Group, lecture-based instruction: a qualified teacher orally presents material to a group of 20–30 students in a lecture hall or online, using multimedia aids such as a chalkboard, whiteboard, or prepared slides.
- Homework: students are assigned reading and exercises to perform on their own at home, typically several hours’ worth per day. These exercises are intended to solidify understanding from lecture as well as to grade progress. Little 1:1 instruction or assistance with homework is given (with the exception of TA sessions in college) — if students require extra help understanding or mastering the material they are expected to find such help on their own (from parents, tutors, etc).
- Instructor-driven grading: the instructor is also generally the person responsible for grading a student’s homework and exams. In subject matters where subjective scoring has a component, a teacher’s subjective impression of a student may influence grades given. Independent evaluators or examiners are rarely used; intervention by outside forces such as a principal, school board, or district, happen only in extreme, unusual, and Bad cases.
- Early start: instruction typically begins early in the morning, typically 7 or 8am.
We should feel almost embarrassed to write it out this way because almost every one of these has been shown to be a Bad Idea.
If a student with a poor understanding of one subject A (say, a ‘C+’ grade) goes on to take a further course B with A as a pre-requisite, they will likely struggle with B and similarly perform poorly. This leads to a chain of failures very difficult to remedy that frequently leads to loss of confidence and joy of learning; the student self-identifies as being a poor learner. Conversely, if the student is allowed to remain with the material until it has been mastered, then all students taking course B can be confident that they are ready and have mastered its prerequisites. Mastery learning has been shown to improve educational outcomes and learner confidence. Similarly, if a student happens to find a given course straightforward, allowing them to advance at a pace matching their understanding keeps them challenged and engaged. This is not an argument for “tracking” of “good” versus “bad” students; one subject may be easy for a given student but its successor challenging — and vice versa. Allowing each student to progress at their own pace can have the opposite effect from tracking by enabling those who took longer with earlier material to “catch up”, whereas almost no such opportunities exist in a tracked environment.
Intensive periods of focused learning about a single subject lead to much more rapid advance in understanding of that subject than interweaving many different subjects. This is because there is substantial cognitive burden in performing a “context switch” from, say, Descartes to Asian History to Spanish to Calculus. While to some a blend of many different intellectually stimulating inputs coming contemporaneously can sound exciting, our system of instruction should be focused on that which is effective. In several domains outside the educational system we can directly observe the difference in learning rate between focused learning and interwoven learning — in aviation there are accelerated flight schools that a pilot can use to achieve their instrument or commercial license in two weeks (flying 6–8 hours a day) as opposed to six months of interwoven instruction (flying 4–6 hours a week). The military notably also uses such intensive training bootcamps to rapidly provide effective education.
To have long-term retention and recall of critical knowledge, we know that regular use of the material is required; specifically using “spaced repetition” to return to material. Current curriculum design does not incorporate spaced repetition, instead focusing the learner on “cramming” for a final exam — this loads a tremendous amount of information into short-term memory for test-taking purposes to immediately subsequently discard it. If the purpose of taking a class is to have the material continue to be retained and accessible by the learner, it will be required to provide accommodation for periodic review and refreshing of the material over an extended period of time, such as a year.
Teach to Know
In many disciplines, a student is not considered to have an adequately rich understanding of a subject until they can teach it proficiently and answer questions from other students about the matter. For instance, the level of knowledge and clarity of explanation expected out of a certified flight instructor (CFI) by the FAA is much higher than that expected of a private pilot or even a commercial pilot. Somehow this obvious insight is mostly ignored in education; beyond some graduate students acting as teaching assistants, most students are not expected to or offered the opportunity to instruct. An expectation of instructing on material after mastering it presents both an opportunity for further mastery and a natural supply of tutors. Furthermore, the ability to teach — to share knowledge and observations with others — is a critical component of a knowledge economy. Therefore the fundamentals of instruction and pedagogy should be required for all graduates, not just those specializing in education. Many universities tout themselves as a place to “learn how to learn” but almost none provide a foundation in pedagogy to all their students.
One of the most shocking outputs for me in reading Bloom’s seminal 2 Sigma Problem paper from 1984 was the core finding that tutoring instead of classroom instruction caused a two-sigma effect; students that were tutored performed in the 98th percentile. This dramatic effect throws into question the whole premise and framing of traditional classroom instruction as being wildly ineffective. (Don’t blame the teachers! The medium itself just doesn’t work well.) While Bloom’s take on the paper was to assume that such instruction couldn’t be scaled and consequently to try and explore methods of ameliorating the downsides of classroom instruction, Bloom overlooked the obvious solution of turning students into teachers to scale tutelage.
If tutelage is this dramatically effective at instruction, less overall time may be needed in order to achieve the same educational outcomes. Conversely, outcomes may be advanced substantially in the same fixed period of time achievable by traditional instruction. Similarly, tutelage of a range of students at varying levels below an instructor naturally provides the spaced repetition called for above. In flight instruction, a CFI may find themselves one day offering a demonstration flight to a person who has never taken the controls of an aircraft and the next day helping a pilot with 1,000 hours achieve their Multi-Engine Instructor license. This variety keeps things interesting and exercises a CFI’s working recall of subject matter basic and expert alike.
Age-Appropriate Instructional Hours
The evidence against early morning instruction for teenagers is crystal clear: it’s a bad idea [Kelley et al 2013]. Consensus extending up to the CDC & Department of Education is that instruction should begin around 10am to allow teens enough time to sleep and be ready to receive instruction. As we continue to learn more about the interplay between biology and capability we should adapt environments to maximize learning rates. Examinations and evaluations should similarly be given later in the day to accurately measure peak performance of the learner.
A written test alone is not sufficient to establish depth of knowledge and ability to apply knowledge to practical problems. A combination of a written exam followed by an oral and practical exam (similar to what is done by the FAA) can allow an examiner (a separate individual from the instructor) to dive deep into the areas a student got wrong on a written test and establish whether or not mastery has been obtained. Figuring that a competent examiner could perform about 15 oral examinations a week in a given subject matter, one examiner could oversee mastery verification for north of 500 students a year, allowing the position to be highly leveraged and appropriately compensated. Instructors would “sign off” a student as having mastered material before their written and oral instruction, and a low pass rate by an examiner would reflect poorly on the instructors who had signed such pupils up for examination. The final goal of a student in a given discipline, then, should be to assist with instruction of other students who go on to have a high pass rate in their evaluations. These oral exams could be recorded to be randomly spot-checked by a district administrator to ensure consistent and fair practices and evaluation between students.
While the U.S. educational system doesn’t make pervasive use of oral examinations (with a notable exception for the PhD defense), its use is the primary method used to assess employability; the job interview is itself an oral examination of a candidate’s preparedness for a role. Such disparity between corporate and educational evaluation should be concerning, as students often come to their first interviews underprepared for such an encounter, having never had such an interaction in their years of schooling.
Putting all of this together, this suggests a system whereby even from a young age, we make materials available to students for mentored/tutored studying where most of their teaching assistants are older and more advanced students themselves. Seasoned instructors can supervise the tutelage and offer guidance to both the students and the teaching assistants alike. Students progress at their own pace and “complete” a course to the first order when they passed an oral examination and to a second order when they can consistently teach other students to master the material. Grades are not given; students are judged instead by the quantity of material they have demonstrably mastered and competently instructed on.
Traditional instruction requires the student to accept on faith that the subject matter being taught will ultimately be useful to them after school — either directly or as fundamental for understanding later practical material. For those for whom the material is itself exciting that is sufficient, but many learners require context: “why is this helpful to know?” that is missing from instruction and curriculum design outside of trade schools. One approach akin to that used in Montessori school is to embrace that depth in one area within the context of existing in the world ultimately ends up relating a multitude of subjects; to visualize it, going very deep leads eventually to a broadening that encompasses everything — when you dig deep enough and come back around to your starting point from multiple directions that is the topology of a torus and consequently I call this model “toroidal learning”.
Let’s suppose that a student is interested in horse racing; not generally a subject taught in most schools. Going deep on horse racing can end up meaning coming to biology (the breeding of horses), physics (the mechanics and motion of horses), advertising & marketing (making people aware of your venue), sales and statistics (how you price odds and entry fees), government (where you can zone and develop new racetracks, permitting), construction, law, economics, and more. Since all subjects exist in the world, understanding the interplay between a subject and the world requires an understanding of the world to understand a subject.
Consequently, a self-driven curriculum design suggests a “tech tree” of interdependent modules of knowledge that may be smaller than traditional courses, allowing us to jettison the notion of fixed-length classes (something already mostly required from embracing mastery-based learning) and couple knowledge with a practical working area of interest to the student.
This model would require a mentor to assess a student’s interests and knowledge and assist them in mapping modules of knowledge applied to their interest. Output could be assessed by a metric appropriate to subject domain and could include apprenticeship and other real-world exposures.
The Real World
A student’s work should matter — ideally this happens naturally because the coursework they are performing has interesting and useful application outside of the classroom. A good example of “real world instruction” is the Facebook bootcamp, a six-week program for incoming technical hires that combines practical classroom instruction about the architecture of Facebook coupled with hands-on tasks resolving actual bugs with various portions of the Facebook codebase. The ability for a new hire to within a week or two submit changes to production for a few billion people confers a sense of agency in the company that can be exhilarating. Freedom to exhibit mastery in a subject should ideally be permitted to take different forms; a funny TikTok with a hundred views about a review of a classic book could be an appropriate submission, for instance. A poem or a wood carving of a key scene in a book could allow students with mastery of other areas to bring a creative take to the subject.
For youth, education could be interspersed with internships and apprenticeships at an earlier age, to give them exposure to real working environments and conditions. While acknowledging the complexity of introducing minors into a professional work environment, the upside potential of motivating students to achieve and giving them context for their learning could be outweighed by the risks and burden of mentorship and oversight. As large tech companies have discovered, an internship program not only allows for useful work to get done but also provides for a regular influx of qualified talent ready to hit the ground running at graduation. This results in larger starting salaries for graduates, well into the six figures for technical offers.
For adults, incorporating regular structured learning (not just informal learn-by-osmosis “on the job” training) and instruction into job roles should be considered as a core part of knowledge era employment. Carving out short windows, perhaps two weeks long, to engage in focused and intensive instruction could enable employees to “level-up” in key skills. Expecting senior contributors to periodically teach their craft could help provoke interest from qualified applicants.
Our current educational system is highly inefficient and ineffective; we’ve had the data to show this for decades. What we know about how people learn and how instruction can be effective has been systematically underapplied. But we can’t afford to squander people’s potential. What we need is a system to systematically apply an understanding of pedagogical research by making learning intense, personal, relevant, and lasting to maximize the excitement and impact of learning, and to continue this process throughout everyone’s life and career.
Thoughts? Comments? Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. As a disclaimer, I’m underqualified to write this piece as I am not an educational researcher nor do I have the academic background to firmly ground my opinions in peer-reviewed research. Consequently, studies and data that either support or refute my hypotheses are warmly welcomed and will be incorporated into the piece.