We all know about the importance of knowledge and education. But while going through the education system, most of us got the feeling that something is off, that something doesn’t work quite right. In this article I want to take a deeper look at what education actually is, how we can define it and where these feelings come from.
We will structure this into multiple parts. We’ll first look at the definitions of learning and education from the perspectives of psychology and society. This will help us understand which jobs they should actually accomplish. Next we will look at the existing forms of education and how to categorize them. Finally, we use this categorization to look at the problems and shortcomings of the current education system.
This article will also at some points reference my last article, where I gave an outlook on the future of education and how its responsibilities might change.
Disclaimer: As always I try to use reliable data sources for every fact I use and try to highlight parts that are based on my opinion. Since those sources might not always be right I welcome every discussion. In addition to the data sources, I will provide links to books that I find relevant along the way. In general, these links will be affiliate links to amazon, which I will mark with *. If you do not want to use these, you are free to google the books yourself (though the prices should be the same). My articles also contain sections marked as “Detour”, which contain additional information not essential to the general line of reasoning.
Let’s get started!
What is education?
The terms learning and education are often used in close connection, but what is the actual difference between them? Let’s take a look at the text-book definitions:
“the activity of obtaining knowledge” — Cambridge
“the alteration of behaviour as a result of individual experience.” — Britannica
“the process of teaching or learning, especially in a school or college, or the knowledge that you get from this” — Cambridge
“discipline that is concerned with methods of teaching and learning in schools or school-like environments as opposed to various nonformal and informal means of socialization […] Education can be thought of as the transmission of the values and accumulated knowledge of a society.” — Britannica
What we can see from these definitions, is that learning is a quite atomic activity of acquiring knowledge, while education has a much broader scope that is focused to enable learning with the goal of transporting the knowledge and values of the society. As I argued in my last article, education is a way of preparing for the economy as well as transporting the ethical values of society.
Nonetheless, this definition of education is quite shallow. It does not allow us to distinguish between different types of education, nor does it provide a way to capture the nuances in which knowledge is transported through education.
We can eliminate some of these shortcomings by going deeper into the realms of psychology and pedagogy, which we will do in the next section.
Detour: small glossary of education
While talking about education, there are several key concepts that are worth defining.
Teaching: Process of transmitting or passing on knowledge.
Curriculum: The structure and content of the topics that should be learned.
Medium: The means by which knowledge is transferred (e.g. Books, Videos, Lectures, etc.).
Experiment: Act of practical learning and a way to validate theories.
Teacher/Mentor: Person who helps students in the acquisition of knowledge and potentially guides the curriculum.
Grade/Degree/Certificate: Socially & economical accepted confirmation of skills. Used as a gateway from education into the economy.
Skill Transfer/Transfer Learning: Process of mental fluidity to transfer solutions or skills between different domains.
Exposure: Process of being exposed to different world views and ideas that challenge one’s own views. Allows to build robustness in one’s ideas, as they are tested against various viewpoints.
Life-Long-Learning: Process of learning through the entire life-time. Strongly linked with the growth-mindset.
Pedagogy: the study of methods and activities of teaching. Often used in terms of the application of these methods.
Education in detail
In this section we will look at education from two perspectives:
- Psychological perspective — Which different types of learners are there and how is knowledge transported?
- Society Perspective — Where do we learn these skills and what are they used for?
Those perspectives allow us to create a more nuanced view on education, towards the goal of understanding different types and their shortcomings.
There is a vast space of concepts in psychology related to learning. Most of them focus on the act of learning rather than education, as it provides a more atomic element to study. (Even though there is also research on educational aspects, such as curriculum composition)
One of the still ongoing debates in psychology arises between the concepts of nature vs nurture. The nature standpoint argues that most of the intelligence and skills (and behavioral development for that matter) are passed through genes, i.e. defined by nature. From the nurture perspective the idea that our genome has a size of roughly 1.5 GB, while our brain with ~100 billion neurons could store more than 74 TB of information is a clear indication that most of our personality stems from the environment. (In that regard I can also recommend The Blank Slate* by Steven Pinker). As this debate is still unresolved, it manifests in different theories about learning. It is important to note that these theories are not directly dependent on or exclusive to each other, rather they provide different views on the same underlying phenomena.
Behaviorism builds on the idea that all behaviors are a result of stimuli from the environment. These stimuli can be inducted in multiple ways. One of them is conditioning, which was first publicized by Ivan Pavlov and outlines learning through association. This means if certain events correlate to each other in the environment (e.g. a bell and receiving food), then these correlations are learned by the brain and can cause a certain behavior. B.F. Skinner expanded on this idea in a theory called operant conditioning, which shows that correlation of events in the environment combined with a stimulus (e.g. reinforcement or punishment) can learn a behavior toward this event. This behavior can then be triggered, even without a stimulus (e.g. train your dog with food to perform tricks. He might then be able to do it even if you do not provide treats for him).
On top of that, humans are also able to learn by examples or role-models. Something, which Albert Bandura termed observational learning and belongs to a larger class of learning approaches for social learning. This type of learning usually requires an authority structure to provide a certain binding to the role-model to copy the behavior (i.e. classify it as desirable).
Constructivism outlines the basic idea that humans construct knowledge through experiences and reflection upon them. That is, once we are exposed to a new experience we try to align it with our previous world-view and knowledge. This can either transform our subjective experience on the world or change/expand our current knowledge. In learning this usually means applying reasoning based on our previous knowledge to understand the evolution of an experience during the reflection period.
In general, there are two main sub-types of constructivism. Social Constructivism postulates that most knowledge is achieved through social interactions and communities. That means for example, that social values are learned through interaction with other members of the community and reflecting on their responses to our behavior. Cognitive Constructivism on the other hand states, that knowledge is constructed by the learner, constrained through development of the brain. It outlines that certain knowledge can only become available at certain ages (once the brain is further developed). However, through active experiences (e.g. practicing a certain skill), the brain evolves faster in the respective areas.
Both theories provide a different view of learning. Behaviorism requires constant repetition paired with rewards or punishments to learn behavior and therefore act on knowledge. Constructivism on the other hand, is focused on providing a learning curriculum and experiences tailored to the current cognitive abilities and exposure to knowledgeable communities for reflection.
The actual theories and branches of psychology are far deeper regarding these topics, but they would be out of scope here. Psychology also provides the idea of different learning styles (i.e. preferences from the learner on how to consume knowledge). However, studies have shown that these styles only have a marginal effect on education.
From the lens of society, education is categorized by the influence of society on the learning process. One of the most common definitions contains these categories:
- Formal —Executed through institutions usually oriented in a hierarchical nature. Structured by different subjects with a predefined curriculum. Provides a degree to provide a gateway to economy.
- Informal — Education outside of a structured curriculum. It is driven by exploration and more practical oriented learning approaches.
- Non Formal — Provides an addition to formal education to provide an extension of skills usually after the end of formal education (e.g. through seminars or workshops)
We can see that the formal education is almost completely controlled by society (esp. the state) through institutions like schools or universities. (Depending on the country these institutions have a varying degree of freedom to shape the curriculum). Informal education on the other hand is mostly driven by personal curiosity and explorational learning (even though these can result from formal education). This is overlapping with non formal education, which also provides an extension of learning from the formal education but is usually more aligned with a curriculum.
Towards a nuanced definition of education
Now that we have taken a look at the existing definitions, we can use these different perspectives to come closer to the core problem of education. As stated in the beginning of this article, our goal is to create a definition that takes the context, means of knowledge transportation as well as the social aspects into account. While the psychological perspective focuses on the learning experience of an individual, the social perspective is mostly focused on the context of learning in the society.
What I want to do next is to create a more nuanced definition of education that allows us to understand the finer differences in learning as well as to classify the existing approaches (e.g. schools or online courses). As I mentioned in my previous article, learning should be seen as a faceted topic. It should be viewed not as a singular activity, but as an adaptive tool that changes, based on the way we use it through education. Coming from a machine learning background, I see the problem of education lying in a multidimensional problem space. In the following section we will explore these different dimensions (see the visualizations in the classification chapter below).
If we look at learning throughout life, we can see that the context changes based on environmental conditions and social constraints (see figure below). In the first years of our life learning is usually driven by curiosity and through exploration of our environment. There might be a loose curriculum and educational structure enforced by the parents, but it is usually not until the entrance into the formal education system (i.e. elementary school) that a strict learning curriculum is applied to the child. Once the general education is completed the education path tends to be fuzzier, ranging from an additional job specific education over learning practical skills on the job and re-skilling up to continuous curiosity driven learning (i.e. life-long learning).
In essence, the context in which learning is happening has a high importance for the type of education and will form our first dimension. I will distinguish between three different types:
- Curiosity Driven →Learning based on sheer interest and understanding of the topics. Fueled by exploration and usually undirected and without a formal structure.
- Curriculum Driven →Fixed goals and structures that are enforced during the learning process. Usually provided by an external authority (e.g. mentor or teacher).
- Skill Driven — Learning with a clear goal to acquire a specific skill
It is important to note that these are not absolute dimensions. There are indeed ways to foster curiosity inside a curriculum driven learning approach. However, this will weaken the structure of the curriculum as it allows students to move away from the predefined course of the learning process.
The next dimension defines how the knowledge is actually acquired. These would also be three different types:
- Through Experimentation →Running experiments to rediscover certain knowledge and reflect on the process (aligned with the idea of constructivism).
- Through Theory →Learning from predefined sets of knowledge as well as logical deduction and alignment with existing knowledge.
- Through Practice →Learning certain skills through repetition (e.g. shooting hoops).
There is probably a case for creating a deeper set of categories (e.g. which type of learning is happening in theory? Through Lectures? Through Books? etc.). However, I will leave that for later articles to discuss.
The last dimension is given by the environment of the learning process.
- Formal Institution → Usually given by a certain social structure (e.g. class) and a goal toward a degree (i.e. alignment with economy).
- Work Environment → Driven by practical needs to generate skills for economic success. The social structure is usually more peer to peer.
- Private Environment → Can be driven more by curiosity to explore certain subjects with the goal of self-enhancement. Social structure can vary from isolation to mentor or small learning groups.
I do think that this dimension can be more refined, as I think it covers some latent dimensions (such as the goal for the learning process or the social structure in which the learning process is embedded). I would be happy for any suggestions!
These dimensions give us a basic way to classify existing education approaches.
Classify types of education
Now that we have a more nuanced theory for education, let’s try to use it in order to classify the existing approaches to education and outline potential flaws.
Schools are the prime example of curriculum driven learning in a formal institution. In general they provide theoretical knowledge, however there are schools that integrate experiments into the learning experience. That being said, schools have a high degree of variability due to different methods and strong influence of individual teachers.
This is usually a mix of experimental and theoretical learning with a fixed curriculum in a formal setting. However, Universities provide a certain freedom towards curiosity driven learning (especially through research) that allows students to deepen their knowledge.
This way of education is very much defined through practical knowledge, with smaller chunks of theory. The learning usually happens inside a work-environment guided by a mentor.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)
These courses tend to have a fixed curriculum similar to universities, however with less freedom for curiosity (as there seldom are direct contacts that can act as mentors to guide curiosity). The setting is organized in classes, with some platforms even offering social exchange, placing it between private and formal settings. Also similar to universities the learning is mostly theoretical with interlaced of experiments (e.g. through assignments).
This can be driven either by curiosity or by requirements from a curriculum. However, reading usually happens in a private environment and provides theoretical knowledge.
Learning by doing
This is a very broad element, as it can include learning on the job as well as in private environments. However, the general concept stays the same, as it is mostly driven by repetition of certain tasks to master a specific skill (i.e. practical knowledge).
Learning by exploring
This is different from learning by doing, as it is more focused on exploring the knowledge domain, than it is on mastering a specific skill through repetition. This anchors it more in the realm of curiosity and theoretical learning, which usually happens in a private environment.
Seminars & Workshops
These also tend to have a fixed curriculum (however not as extensive as schools) and happen in a non-formal setting (however usually class-room like). The content is mostly theoretical, even though there might be practical learning as well.
These approaches are not the only available ways to gather education (e.g. there are also schools specialized on a specific area such as technology), but they encompass the most common one in our society. The figure below shows all the classifications at a glance.
Problems with education
We will use this classification as the foundation to talk about the actual problems in education. From my point of view these are:
While most formal education approaches are strongly driven by a curriculum, they only provide a general knowledge in certain fields. Most knowledge workers today (as well as people switching between industries and fields) acquire their deeper skills through curiosity. In my opinion formal institutions should have a stronger focus on not only providing plain knowledge, but also foster curiosity and experimentation to account for deeper exploration in private learning environments. This would also help to build a more fluid workforce, as these skills allow people to learn new abilities and switch between industries.
Adaptability of Curriculum
The knowledge we have tends to get updated and changed at an ever faster pace. This means that new knowledge becomes available and should be integrated into the curriculum. However, these changes tend to be slow in universities and a magnitude slower in schools, leaving it to the curiosity of the students to search for updated information. (Reinforcing the previous point).
Factoring into this problem is the fact that we cannot update the knowledge of the teachers through a generation change, as teachers usually teach for 40+ years. Therefore, we not only have to update the curriculum but need to provide teachers with the tools and curiosity to enhance their knowledge as well.
Acquisition of practical skills
Another crucial question is which information should actually be included into the curriculum. If the goal of education is (at least partly) to prepare students for jobs in the industry, we should look at the requirements of the industry. One of the most pressing concerns is the fact that high-school and college students usually have a strong theoretical knowledge without the practical skills to back it up. This rises the questions if the orientation of school towards theoretical knowledge (see chart above) should be rethought. One could think about a more interlaced approach (like in an apprenticeship), but for elementary schools to provide practical skills while also shrinking the size of the curriculum. (As there are many topics in general education that are not aligned with a goal of preparing students for life).
Apart from these problems, there are also some general problems that we started to outline the last article. These include:
Availability & Costs
Apart from the actual content and method of education there is also the question of how to scale education in terms of quality and costs. The cost of education has been discussed often enough (e.g. here, here and here). I will therefore focus more on the quality aspect. This is especially severe for rural regions where good teachers are harder to come by and students do not have a choice between multiple schools. While online services like MOOC allow for a more general availability of certain courses, they do not provide the same level of personal connection. In my opinion they also have a harder time of fostering curiosity and excite students for certain subjects (I think it is more the other way around: excited students using MOOCs to deepen their knowledge). On top of that they do not provide the same level of degrees as the more formal institutions do, leading to a disconnection from the stated goal of education for society.
Gateway to industry
Degrees are a weak solution to another problem in education. How can we create a gateway between education and economy to allow market selection for the best skills and therefore self-regulation in the behavior of the students (and institutions). Current degrees are a too one dimensional measure to solve this problem (i.e. a single grade tells the universal applicability of a student to any industry) and work more in terms of signaling and sheepskin effects than actual selection on fitness. (This also partly explains the disproportionate influence of ivy league colleges).
There are many possible outcomes for students in our education system (e.g. research, industry, government positions). Each requiring different skills and we cannot measure them all by one yard stick. This aligns with the point of acquisition of practical skills above, as it should force us to rethink the educational system not in term of single chunks of formal education but in a more dynamic and adaptable manner. The goal should be to identify more distinct ways and metrics to link economy and society into the educational system and allow self-regulation (accompanied with reasonable government constraints) to carry education into the future.
Another important aspect to foster more engagement from students is transparency. This has been adopted by companies for decades (e.g. through OKRs) and should be applied to education as well. The problem here stems partly from the previous point. As degrees do not directly relate to economic benefit they do not provide a direct feedback that is relevant for the future of the student. The usual lack of practical application of theoretical knowledge adds to this climate of intransparency. The result is the often cited question: “What do I need this for in my later life?”.
How can you use this?
In my opinion it is important to have a good understanding of the state of education in order to work around the shortcomings. This allows you to adjust your learning goals to be more aligned with your actual life goals.
A few tips that I find useful:
- Build ways to improve your own curiosity → Make a habit of questioning legacy knowledge (in that regard I can strongly recommend the biography of Leonardo da Vinci* by Walter Isaacson, who embodied this trait like no other)
- Try to combine multiple approaches of education (such as book learning, experimentation and learning by doing) to get the best of all worlds
- Do not let your educational path be too strongly defined by degrees, as they provide an incomplete gateway into the industry and might lead to a focus on the wrong skills (e.g. learning prose and poetry to go into computer science)
- Be relentless in your learning!
In this article I tried to give a short overview on how we can better classify existing educational approaches through a multiple dimensions, including environment of learning, medium of knowledge transportation and context. From there we used this approach to identify the shortcomings and problems of existing approaches. This leads to a series of questions on how we can provide better education at scale, including:
- Is a single chunk of formal education during childhood without direct practice still useful?
- How can we build a better gateway between industry and education?
- How can we improve the engagement and curiosity of students?
There are already some ideas on how these problems can be solved. One example is the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, which tries to change the way STEM fields are taught. Another example is the employment of storytelling into the educational process (an approach also used by the inuit). There are many more ideas and we might explore them in future articles.
Feel free to leave questions and suggestions.
Edit: The next article looks at potential solutions for a more holistic education system.
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