Should Future Education Experiments Start from Public Schools or Alternative Education Initiatives?

Today, I stopped by a “2045 Education Grand Design Symposium” hosted by “Digital Textbook and Teaching (DiTT)” Consortium, a group formed by college professors, digital textbook related vendors, and others.

Having worked in internet space for the past 20 years, obviously, the theme on kids’ education in digital age is of my great interest. Over the past 4 years, I have been wondering whether having school Wi-Fi or one per child Tablet/Laptop could have fostered improved my children’s learning, or it would have been nice bells and whistles. So far, my kids are digitally savvy at home, but they have almost no screen time at school besides digital blackboards (i.e. giant TV like interactive projector). Their Japanese schools only have once a week “computer class” from 4th grade, and my elder uses power point once in a while for a project presentation. So there is very limited use of internet as a learning medium, but he seems to be performing fine academically. And he is not crying for use of more computer at school at this moment. Rather, if anything, I would like to see the school give more time for kids to discuss and think, instead of using iPad to do more quizz or watch lectures.

Oh the other hand, in Singapore or at international schools in Tokyo, I have seen schools promoting “iPad/Laptop per child” as one of the value propositions or requirements. Yes, it is a very easy tagline, which sounds to equal “cutting edge education” for many parents. But at the same time, there are some reports around “paper books foster better memory than e-books”. Or I have read an article that over use of power point type of tools can be distracting kids from real learning.

I have a relevant experience while working at Amazon. When I was a product manager, we were banned to use power point to make a point on what we wanted to pitch. Why? Powerpoint visual based communication can be misleading when discussing important business decisions and producing beautiful slides can be a big time sink.

Right now, for better or worse, there is only one desktop or laptop per 6.8 children in Japan. So, one of the symposium’s key propositions was to promote 1 tablet per child ownership by increasing national budget and amending some regulations. The sentiment I got was that, although this is coming out of great intent, this “means to the end” type of movement can be dangerous, as people can debate about number of iPad per child forever rather than what initiative can lead to effective nurturing of 21st century kids. (and discussion on what 21century kids should learn)

Sure, it seems to make a lot of sense that Japan is finally catching up to the world with this type initiative by certain key metric, like tablet per student ratio. But I could not help but to feel a bit awkward about lack of discussion on what is the better education environment for future children. I hope that this is purely my lack of ignorance, as just like public spending, infrastructure driven initiatives can often lead to beautiful things not being used effectively.

One additional important thing I learned today was that even this seemingly simple, internet access issue alone is a difficult one to solve, due to privacy issues, costs, and decision making power (and budget) in hands of each municipality at ward or city level. So, I would imagine that there will be a long, painstaking coordination and persuasion that need to happen for each municipality.

If enabling internet access to schools and providing tablets are very tough to roll out, why not encouraging more alternative learning environments like homeschools or alternative schools and collect data? Similar to startups stimulating open innovation for big companies, these small clusters can move much faster and provide useful data for projects that need to happen at much bigger scale, like giving away tablet per child using tax money.

In Japan, all the textbooks need to be approved by Ministry of Education, so access issue combined with textbook revision could take many years. And all the private schools also need to use these nationally approved text books. Kids are taught and trained over years that everyone learns about the same thing at the same pace. For international or alternative schools that provide different styles of education, there is absolutely no tax money support from local governments. Thus, it is out of reach for most parents due to costs and lack of availability. But is approach to revise public education first by solving access and device issues really the optimal way to promote more diversity and adapt to every changing world of 21st century? Would it be more effective to officially support more alternative ways of learning such as home schooling or alternative schools?

I recently learned that home-schooling population is growing in the US as the parents think homeschooling can provide better education, and many countries approve homeschooling as a way for educating children. And there are many micro-scools like Acton Schools popping up in many cities. In Japan, alternative schools tend to be looked at as the last resort for kids that were bullied or did not want to go to kids for being different. If Japan will catch up with the rest of the world on digital infrastructure with an aim to provide future education, why not enabling more alternative ways for education?

Celebrating more diverse learning options will certainly foster more diverse thinking and unique talents. In fact, in seeking more alternative learnings, we spend a lot of money and time on extracurricular activities even for the areas related to core curriculum. Kumon is one notable example, and there are many others. Due to lack of diversity in primary years’ education system, a lot of private institutions are profitable in supplementing with extra work.

I believe that it is time for people who have authority over public education to start allowing more leeways for families and schools than strictly defining what kids should learn by when. Kids are too busy nowadays, as the government approved curriculum is too rigid with limited ability to customize per child. There is too much supplemental work that happen outside of the schools, which make them busy even further. If we really want kids to acquire all these new 21st century skills like creativity while covering literacy, math, science, and history, it is time for us to think out of the box about kids’s learning environments more heuristically. They need time to explore, experiment, and think. Giving internet access and an iPad should be a part of the 21st learning discussion, but I think more important topic is to figure out how to free up kids’ time and redirect more time to kids-led initiatives, communications, and critical thinking.

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