Educations does not need a fix… It needs a reboot!

Photo by Alistair MacRobert on Unsplash

I wasn’t always the best student. Mainly because my desire to learn was foremost driven by curiosity rather than rewards coupled to an extrinsic curriculum. This meant that I did not always follow the provided material in school, but rather used my free time to explore different domains (e.g. programming). Naturally this led to a lot of friction with my teachers and highlighted the lack of flexibility in our education system to me. Before you interrupt me, there are indeed some silver linings on the horizon. In particular I had two teachers, who were very engaged and channeled the curiosity of students into projects of their choosing.

Still this exposed a broader set of problems: On the one hand, these teachers were outliers and not all students are lucky enough to encounter one of them. On the other hand, as extra-curricula activities in information technology increased, I had to rely on books to guide my learning since my school did not have computer science teachers. This mainly stems from an asymmetry, where the economy and science move to ever faster innovation cycles, while teachers and curricula in schools often last multiple generations.

Those are problems that I started to outline in my previous article (some of them are also quite elegantly described by Ken Robinson in his book Creative Schools*). In this article I want to take a closer look at potential solutions towards better education. (Note that this will build on the definitions and sources I have outlined in previous articles). These solutions indicate, as I will show, the benefit for the reboot of the entire education system. It is worth noting that in my opinion the education system is not just limited to schools but should be viewed more holistically. This includes informal education environments, such as teaching through parents or non-formal learning networks. To keep the sentences short, I will refer to all these diverse environments under the term “education system” in this article.

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.

The scale of the problem

What exactly is the job of education? In economics and in entrepreneurship the Jobs-to-be-done theory (described by Clayton M. Christensen in his book Competing against Luck*) can be used to define the purpose of a product. It looks at the job a potential customer wants to fulfill and which products he “hires” to get the job done. In the case of education, there are multiple customers with different jobs we should look at:

  • society: Create basic understanding of the values & culture of our and other societies in order to become a mature citizen and productive member of society
  • economy: Create well-trained new entrants to the workforce. A bonus would be entrepreneurial spirit and critical thinking to improve existing structures
  • students: Create foundation for later life and skills to navigate society (i.e. ability to learn and solve problems). Bonus would be to keep childish curiosity alive and allow exploration of passions.
  • parents: Support in the education of their child.

Note that this is just a coarse definition of the jobs, which can most definitely be described more detailed and nuanced.

We have one more actor involved in the process, which are teachers. However, from this perspective they take the role of entrepreneurs (together with the state, which is the “company” they are working in), that try to understand the needs and improve the product.

For this to work, a feedback loop is required that allows the entrepreneurs to connect with consumers of their products and make changes according to customer needs. In the case of parents and students this works well on the teacher level, however the hierarchies imposed on the educational system make it almost impossible for this valuable feedback to reach the top and affect changes in policies. Even worse, economy and schools are mostly disconnected with no real feedback loop, requiring employers to build their own educational measures (e.g. in the form of seminars). This also surfaces a larger scale problem in the motivation of students. Since there is no real connection between schools and industry (I outlined the problems of a single-scale grade system in my previous article), the current system lacks transparency as to where the knowledge learned in schools can be applied. Typical reasons mentioned to students include “You will see later on” or “It is relevant for the test”…

Those are just the problems stemming from schools. Education reaches far beyond that, which sadly is almost entirely neglected by the current systems. This includes the support of parents in the education of their children (after all, why should every new parent learn everything from scratch?), fostering of curiosity and knowledge exploration in informal environments (an area, where the maker movement has made tremendous progress in recent years) and more.

To sum up: While there are feedback loops on a school level those tend to get stifled by hierarchy and at most have a regional impact. This in turn prohibits an efficient iterative improvement of schools and more fundamentally, denying the people at the top of the hierarchies an unbiased look at the current state of the educational system. This leads to decisions that are more based on “common sense”, then on actual facts and feedback. To use an old metaphor: Most of the time, it feels like the current way of education is seen as a hammer and all problems that arise are simply seen as nails, that can be fixed if there are just enough hammers. In my humble opinion education should be more like a multi-tool, able to adjust to different environments and individual needs.

What I want to propose is the rethinking of the entire educational system.

Why is a fix not enough?

I will borrow these definitions from the development of software projects, where a fix is a small (sometimes dirty) part of code that addresses a specific problem. A reboot is the redesign of the system from scratch often incorporating the lessons learned from previous versions. This can have multiple causes. First, it might be a fundamental flaw or systematic error in the design of the system. Second, and somehow related, the outside requirements might have changed rendering the current architectural choices obsolete. And lastly it might be that the software has had so many dirty fixes that the maintenance costs far outweigh the costs of rebooting the system.

I think our education system fulfills not one, but all of these criteria:

  • systematic error: We optimize for the wrong goals. And we don’t even consider the entire “value chain”, to borrow the economic expression, of education (e.g. private/informal learning environments)
  • requirements: The basic ideas for our education system stem from an area of industrial revolution, where one generation worked in one job — this is simply not true anymore and our economy and requirements are accelerating. The rise of digital information compared to the number of teachers that use digital media and are proficient in the work with computers shows that quite clearly.
  • maintenance costs: There have been many reforms in recent years to increase the conformity of the education system (e.g. Abitur after 12 years in Germany, No Child Left Behind in the US). Most of them have increased the burden on schools and had minimal bottom line impact for students of industry, raising the costs for private education as well as further education of employees.

So the goal I want to describe here is to re-design the education system from scratch, maybe in an entrepreneurial manner, specifically to enable freedom of experimentation to figure out what works and what does not. It should also be iterative in order to adapt to future changes, as I discussed in my first article the technological disruption cycles are likely to increase during this century. And, last but not least, incorporate a more holistic approach (e.g. teaching parents how they can teach their kids).

We live in an economy that has an increasing drive toward specialization (as more and more parts of a product can be bought as XaaS). This makes sense, as deep specialization can produce better results for a small part of the value chain. Why then do we still throw each pair of new parents in the cold water and let them learn everything about child education from scratch? Why not provide state-sponsored resources to support new parents?

If we stick with the entrepreneurial perspective, we have to acknowledge the fact that, for real change to happen, we have to embrace disruption of the status quo. After all if Henry Ford had listened to consumers, he would have been in the business of training horses to run faster instead of transforming the transportation industry. Education can do the same for our society, unlocking potential we are not even thinking about today. So the real question is, how can we achieve a 10x improvement?

What are lessons learned?

In order to think about a reboot, the first step is to look at current approaches and figure out what actually did work.

Feedback Loops

There have been ideas to work around the hierarchical bias, by starting grassroots revolutions which allow transformations single schools as well as private enterprises in the educational space (e.g. Khan Academy or Udacity). While these approaches can have great effect and some of the knowledge gained is transferred through networks along teachers and principals, they are still very much outliers from the norm and not really supported by the official system.

Industry

There are some approaches to integrate a sense of entrepreneurship into schools, e.g. through student companies that manufacture and sell small scale goods. Sometimes in tandem with a real company or a maker space.

However the question remains if the aspects of practical learning, as used in apprenticeships, should not be stronger integrated into the curricula. This would not only improve the learning process, but can also be a driver for motivation as it provides more transparency how theoretical concepts can be applied in practice.

Toolset for teaching

Since the rise of digital tools and the internet, the toolset that is available to teachers and students has grown dramatically. It ranges from simulations of experiments, global cooperation of student groups and learning networks up to recording of lectures, so the time in school can be used for more direct interactions. One implementation of this are flipped classrooms, where students learn at home at their own speed, with material provided, while the time in the classroom is used for exercises and peer-to-peer learning.

Furthermore, there are also some long-known practices that can improve the learning experience. One example is the use of story-telling to teach morals and ethical values, which is used extensively be the Inuit.

Beyond the sheepskin effect

The current education suffers from sheepskin effects, which basically states that greater income is not directly associated by knowledge, but by the degree earned. Therefore a student that has a equal education, e.g. through informal or practical experiences, will earn a lower income as long as he does not have a similar degree as a student, who learned the same skills in university (and completed the degree). While it is useful to have a metric that serves as a gateway to the industry, the coarse bucketing of subjects and usage of a single-grade measure introduce abstraction layers that make degrees almost useless for industry. Therefore many companies only use degrees as a pre-filter and let potential hires complete assessment centers to identify their true skills.

However, in the education system grades are still used in many cases as the most important hiring criteria. Notably, german schools are bound to employ only teachers, which reach a certain grade scale compared to the best applicant. This constraints make it hard for principals to select on other criteria, such as actual teaching quality.

Nevertheless, there are ideas to move to a more fine-granular validation of single skills. LinkedIn and Udacity both move in that direction by verifying certain skills their users have (e.g. through nano-degrees) and allow them to make these transparent to employers. This is still very much an uphill battle, as they need to enforce trust and quality control on these programs for them to be widely accepted. There have been attempts to assess student abilities based on a more nuanced and multi-dimensional scale (e.g. through the Learning Record), yet these approaches lack the support of the official system, preventing their wider usage.

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

How would a reboot look like?

This is a question that should incorporate people across the entire education spectrum, from teachers, parents, students from diverse backgrounds up to the industry. Nevertheless, to provide a starting point for discussion and iteration, I would suggest the following four principles:

  • A more holistic approach, incorporating more aspects of the learning chain
  • A more networked structure, to account for innovation, peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and informal learning environments in a networked age
  • More flexibility in the structure of the education system to account for life-long learning and changing requirements in the economy
  • Decentralized decision making to allow for the exploration of new ideas, adaption to regional and personal needs and to open the door for rapid innovation in the educational sector

Please note that the ideas in this section are based on my own opinion and are very much up for discussion.

Holistic Approach

We require a far more holistic approach to incorporate different types and forms of education along the entire learning chain and diverse learning environments, as mentioned in the last article. In particular this includes:

  • More practical learning environments (e.g. through systematic cooperation with the industry or maker clubs). This should also include a more intermingled approach to apprenticeship and school education.
  • Supports for parents in child education directly through the education system (e.g. in form of networks or providing of specialized (digital) resources).

Furthermore, we should not limit the classical education system to the first section of life, but create a fluid education structure. This gives people options to retain their curiosity and go back to school in later points of life (i.e. it supports life-long learning). This could also lead to a shortening of the first block of school, allowing students to gather experience in the market earlier, leading to multiple benefits. First, it would generate transparency as students see how theoretical knowledge can be applied. Second, it creates a feedback loop, as students will come back to school with different requirements and questions underlined by their practical experiences. Third, this might be an option for students to explore different industrial areas, helping them to finding their real passion.

One way to realize this, is to build options for companies and engaged parents to cooperate with the schools through local networks.

Networks

In most countries the education system is structured very hierarchical (from a ministry to sections for different regions to principles to teachers to students). This imposes strong constraints on the structure of schools and curricula. On the other hand, networks allow for ideas and information to spread faster through weak links and are drivers for innovation (as outlined by Niall Ferguson in his brilliant book The square and the tower*). I would therefore pledge to integrate the power of networks directly into a new education system. The idea of the flipped classroom provides a first glimpse at the possibilities. One could imagine student exchanges, cross-country engineering projects, student companies spanning the globe, intercultural exchange and much more happening through the power of weak-links.

But it would also be helpful to provide systematic tools to establish these networks, e.g. through digital platforms for teacher-to-teacher or school-to-industry exchanges. These information is generated digitally and can also provide a more directly link to the top of the hierarchy, in order to systematically provide front-line information to the decision makers. To recapture the entrepreneurial analogy used in the beginning it would allow them to listen to their employees as well as their “customers” (i.e. industry, students, parents) to make informed decisions on how to change the “product” of education.

Flexibility

A reboot has to take into account that we are currently in a time that is defined by rapid innovation with multiple potential disruptions (e.g. AI or intelligent design) looming on the horizon. That means a new system would have to be:

  • Flexible to changing requirements in terms of curricula and integration of new technologies
  • Adoption of learning efforts towards the individual
  • Robust against hijacking (e.g. usage for indoctrination through extremist governments)

The first point requires a constant learning on the side of the teachers, which rises the requirements for the job. This in turn means the job has to be more attractive in terms of salary, work environment and options for personal development. Something that is long overdue!

However, it is not enough to merely change the general curriculum, but we have to pay attention to students as individuals. This can be achieved through a variety of actions, e.g. building a feedback loop from student to teacher and according democratic processes directly into the system, providing a range of projects and subjects from which students can choose and provide options from them to own them or foster the integration of the regional community in order to create a broader sense of belonging and increase the teaching force, making it easier to pay attention to each student individually.

Robustness can partly be ensured through decentralization and a culture of improvement (i.e. winning of the best ideas) rather than top-down dictation of goals and approaches.

Decentralized

Mainly breaks down to give individual schools or educational institutions (after all, why not incorporate maker spaces or sport clubs into the educational network) more freedom to explore new ideas. All the while creating a larger infrastructure (probably strongly digital) to allow sharing of experiences and leveraging of state-wide resources to implement ideas that have been proven to work.

This especially includes the way teachers are hired and educated, which I think is an area that has ample room for improvement.

As mentioned above these networks have to integrate a certain amount of resiliency and probably supervision in order to avoid corruption of the entire network through a single node. An example would be one school testing a new approach that works great, however is strongly dependent on the region. If the last fact is unknown, the network has to avoid adopting this strategy for every node only to see a critical network failure. This is a relevant challenge, as it can take a long time to validate educational approaches.

Conclusion

I wanted to outline my opinion on the current state of the education system in this article. The measures I propose are by no means perfect, but I hope they can be a spark for discussion and provide a first baseline for further iterations. Education is a widely diverse field and I think that every useful approach requires a discourse that not only includes one partition, but rather opinions from all positions in the educational spectrum.

As always I am grateful for feedback and looking forward to further discussions that move us closer towards a holistic education system.

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Data Scientist with a research background in AI. I read a lot and like knowledge-exchange. I write about education and technology. Always looking for ideas.

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Felix Geilert

Felix Geilert

Data Scientist with a research background in AI. I read a lot and like knowledge-exchange. I write about education and technology. Always looking for ideas.

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