How I Found a Bug in Education
Thoughts on education — PART 1
Something I found really revealing just happened and I wanted to share my thoughts with you.
It is already 8pm, October 9 2014, in a Computer Science Graduate class in Shanghai. I am sitting in a classroom with ~25 other students. By now, we have been listening for 2 hours — or at least, trying to listen — to the teacher talking, talking and talking again.
Some of us have already given up. They are dreaming, thinking about what they will do when they finally have some free time… They are just letting time pass by. Unfortunately, time passes really slowly when you are wasting it. So they are trying not to fall asleep, in order to pretend they are being good students… While, in fact, they are just like zombies and most probably losing the little bit of youthful energy and idealism they had left.
I have to plead guilty, I am one of them. Even worse, I gave up on the first minute of class, knowing it will be as usual, i.e. having this passive attitude of accepting knowledge.
This is when it happened. Right here, it happened. The amusement the whole class was waiting for showed up, as a Messiah. A huge bug appeared on the screen on which the power point presentation was projected. It was moving around, provoking in us a mix of fear and excitement. It was maybe a spider, or even a beetle. But the only thing that really mattered was that it triggered our brains back on. I almost instantly looked at my classmate at the table next to me: “Hey man! Look at the bug on the screen! Hahaha!”. It felt good. I finally had something to do. Something to share with my peers.
The excitement spread over the classroom until the teacher noticed something was going wrong. He quickly understood why his students were suddenly so active — instead of passively listening to the preconceived knowledge he was sharing. He instantly took his conductor’s baton with which he was nervously pointing at the screen just a while before. CLAP! He killed the bug with a severe and determined blow. Done. A bug was missing from the surface of Earth. Along with our one and only stimulation of the evening. I was shocked. But, the action itself was not what I found the most revealing…
A short silence followed. The first one since a long time. It was unexpectedly enjoyable. Silence. It sounded like a note of freedom even if it lasted for barely a second. It felt like time had stopped to contemplate this revealing moment. It didn’t take long for the professor to share his thoughts on it though. His saying still resonates in my mind like an echo on how inadequate our current education system is:
I really don’t understand why you are so interested in this bug and not my class… You have grown up. You are adults now. You should be able to concentrate!
Oh. My. God. I don’t even know where to start. So he was asking WHY we are not interested when we are at school?
Well… Maybe, he doesn’t know that he has been the only active person in the room since the past 2 hours. Maybe, he doesn’t know that the most interesting part of my day was actually when I was not in class and found time to look at this video of Sir Ken Robinson on how to approach education in a better way.
Maybe, he doesn’t know that I took his class only to have enough credits to obtain my university degree. But wait… I got it now! You actually need to have a good degree, otherwise, you won’t succeed in life. Right?
Maybe, he doesn’t know that I would actually love to take some psychology classes instead, in order to be able, perhaps, to help building a better education. But wait… I got it now! At the end, it is probably better that I just let time pass by, wasting the only brain I have. At least, I will have a degree with that! Right?
Maybe, he doesn’t realize that our distraction is most certainly a sign of a much deeper problem than just us being bad students. But wait… I got it now! I should definitely feel bad of being a human, i.e. being bored when I feel I don’t use my mind as I should. Right?
Maybe, he simply sees being adulthood as being serious, following the path that others have traced and fit into this one-for-all box that education impose. But wait… I got it now! After all, maybe it isn’t worth it being curious, challenging knowledge, following dreams that really drive and motivate us… Right?
Maybe, he thinks it’s crucial that we learn now because we will suddenly stop learning right when we go out of school. But wait… I got it now! We won’t need to learn ever again after University, it will simply be time to work then. Right?
Maybe, I should stop writing my thoughts passionately on this paper and listen back to this serious and important knowledge the professor is trying to share…
No. I will not do that. Sorry for those who expected I would be an “élève modèle”. It has been a while since I started realizing that there is something wrong in the way we approach education. Sure, it — kind of — works. But I deeply believe we can do better. Much much better.
Our education model has been designed ages ago, with a biased vision of cognition and a very limited set of tools. The foundations themselves are outdated and yet, it didn’t stop us of doing it pretty much same way since the origin. A professor, on his stage, talking. Students, sitting in front of the stage, obediently listening to the professor. Then, there is standardized tests. The raw results are used as the undeniable source of truth, dictating whether a student is successful or not, whether a school is failing or not... With no room for different ways of thinking…
When was the last time we made a significant change in the mainstream Education? Can’t we use the great discoveries we have made on how the brain works, on how we learn — from birth to death? Can’t we use the new possibilities that technologies brought in the past decades to drive a new Education? Other approaches are possible, but it is still exceptions to the rule.
I think we can, and we should rethink mainstream education from scratch. What was unthinkable before is now possible, thanks to all these new tools and knowledges. If we continue trying to patch the actual system, it will never make sense. We should stop being afraid of starting with a blank paper. We need to question the very basics and come back to the roots, to make sure we start on more coherent foundations.
Foundations that allow us to leverage these new opportunities instead of trying to find room for them where there is none. Foundations that would embrace our differences instead of forcing students through a one-fit-all way of learning. Foundations that will drive student’s interest and ownership instead of killing their creativity. Foundations that will allow individuals to find themselves and make actions that has a better impact in the world we live in. Foundations that would also care about Social and Emotional Intelligence, Sustainability, Arts and Sports. Foundations that would hold learning as a constant and time as a variable, instead of the opposite.
Teachers, psychologists, cognitive scientists, programmers, designers, geeks, students, parents, kids, adults… Let’s get together and design a new education from scratch! Let’s share our thoughts, knowledge and experience to design and iterate on an education system that fits humanity as we conceive it now, not as we did centuries ago.
We really need to help humanity build a better path for Education. A path that would stimulate our children instead of killing their creativity and their capacity for critical thoughts. A path that would help them understand how good it feels to use our brains. ☺
I don’t know exactly what this new education will look like, neither how long it will take to build it... But I know there already are a lot of projects going on, from Khan Academy to Duolingo, via code.org, Coursera and even Montessori schools or Alt School.
Unfortunately, it is not soon to replace or revolutionize the standard system. Many have tried this revolution, but the inertia and motivations of the actual education system eventually made their work impossible. The solutions we were presented to “modernize” education just patched the actual system without shaking any of its foundations. As for every disruption, the deepest change will arise from an area where the actual system gives no solutions.
Thoughts on education — Part 1
This is the first part of a series of thoughts on Education.
The goal of this article is to drive motivation on deeply changing education to leverage nowadays knowledges and possibilities to finally enable individuals, independently of their backgrounds or social environment.
Other articles will follow about possible solutions. It is a life-long project, stay tuned! If you have any interesting thoughts or ressources on the topic, please reach out. I hope we’ll be able to revolutionize education, for real. (: