Three Prescriptions for a Modern Education System

Emphasize ‘doing’ more than ‘knowing’. A modern education system should facilitate applied experience through self-directed inquiry and creativity. The current system is biased towards knowing content or acquiring propositional knowledge. Instead we should be emphasizing procedural knowledge — or the experience of creating products, art, services, and performances.

Academic study, by its nature, is focused on understanding the world. Yet, education is more than academics. In fact, academic understanding is only a means to an end. I am of the belief that the ultimate purpose of education is to get students to do things not just know things. That is, we want students to make art, conduct experiments, write persuasive articles, and perform. Of course, knowing and having the right information is essential to doing any one of those things effectively. There is an intimate relationship between knowing and doing. An artist is better when she understands color theory, brush technique, how to stretch a canvas, art history, and perspective. Yet, it is all in service of the creative act — the ‘doing’ is why artist is an artist. Similarly, if we want more engineers, let’s treat students like engineers.

As Ken Robinson and others have argued, there are historical reasons for our emphasis on academics. Briefly, our system is designed with Platonic values and for industrial purposes. One reason for this is that for most of human history, access to information has been extremely restricted and tied to institutions. But as many have noted, we are moving out of the Industrial Age and into the Information Age. The internet has opened the floodgates. For the purposes of education this is an incredible development. A student equipped with a laptop, a connection, and some research skills can access any and all of the relevant knowledge needed to do practically anything. A modern education system needs to leverage this abundance of information. The emergence of the flipped classroom model and sites like Khan Academy are examples of a new model based on the power of accessible information. However, Khan Academy and the internet in general are not silver-bullets; they present an opportunity that we must seize. As Khan Academy founder, Sal Khan put it, “The classroom should not be about direct instruction. None of us liked it, and none of us felt particularly engaged…Human beings should not be passive. When they get together, they should be interacting with each other. They should be solving problems, or they should be making things.” Emphasizing ‘doing’ means in-classroom instruction that focuses on the authentic application of knowledge through the creative process (eg., project based and design based learning).

Look to continually provide an authentic audience for student work. When the traditional model is not focused on delivering propositional knowledge to students, it does try to give them relevant procedural experience. Some examples include solving an equation, writing an essay, or conducting a science experiment. The problem is that the product of that work usually is only intended for one person — the teacher. Further, the teacher isn’t a very good audience since he is looking to assess, not necessarily enjoy the student product or inform himself. An authentic audience, then, is anyone who benefits from student work because it is informative, entertaining, and/or inspiring. The connection between the students work product and the intended audience gives the student purpose, accountability, and makes the work meaningful.

Luckily, students can act as both creators and audience members. We need an education system where students teach, entertain, and inspire each other. There needs to be an expectation to perform for others and the space to do it daily and organically. Yet, the audience base can extend well beyond the students and school administration. Community members, parents, and professionals should all be invited to consume, comment on, and praise student work. School, in this view, is a museum space and stage for student expression. The internet plays a role here as well. We must leverage the internet’s ability to connect students to a global audience. Digital portfolios should showcase student work and connect our neighborhoods and cities into one creative community (while taking privacy and safety issues into consideration).

Another benefit of authentic audiences is that they can provide authentic assessment. Sociolinguistic researcher James Paul Gee argues that assessment has its “natural home’’ in the policing and mentoring of social groups. He points to online Pro-Am communities (like the Sims, Second Life) where members design items or complete tasks which are then vetted by the community. Assessment in these “passion communities” is authentic. A good educational example of a similar group exists in high school journalism programs, like the one developed by Esther Wojcicki at Palo Alto High School. Students in the program are expected to publish for their school community. They have deadlines and are accountable to a editorial board of more senior students. In this type of environment, grades become irrelevant. The value of the work is lived.

Take architecture and interior design seriously. What are the influences that affect the quality of a learning environment? No one would argue against the importance of good teachers, curriculum, pedagogy, and policy. Yet, the physical environment, the one factor that has an immediate, constant, and pervasive influence on how the student feels and thinks is rarely, if ever, considered in the equation.

If we want students to be curious, inspired, self-directed, communicative, engaged, or what ever else the modern movement purports to value, then why stick them in 1000 sq. foot boxes, sitting in tight rows surrounded by generic clutter. Organizations, like The Third Teacher, acknowledge the power of well designed space — thinking intentionally about functional and aesthetic elements of a learning space can communicate information and inspiration in ways that support learning and productivity.

It will depend on the needs of the learners and the community, but the science behind optimal learning spaces is already well understood: a connection to light and nature, an ability to explore, discover, and play, and providing a range of environments from highly stimulating (productive spaces) to less so (reading spaces). Personally, I am a fan of large open spaces infused with light and vegetation, with furniture that is highly modular (to allow for flexibility and experimentation), with areas designed for quiet introspection, and areas designed for vibrant collaboration. Further, I don’t think this is out of scope or over budget. The real resistance, in my mind, is that the science of effective learning spaces runs contrary to a foundational assumption of the current system: that students need to be corralled and controlled. More on that here.

But, whether you disagree with my specific prescription of optimal learning spaces, what cannot be denied is the value of bringing a designer’s mindset to a student’s physical space. Schools of the future need to empower teachers, administrators, staff and students to be these designers.

TL;DR: A modern education system should emphasize the experience of creating things of value over the acquisition of knowledge, provide an authentic audience to bring purpose and accountability, and take the functional and aesthetic design of learning spaces seriously.