Institutional Education’s Shortcomings

I am very passionate about education. I come from a family of educators. My mother is a teacher and her mother was a teacher. In my opinion, it’s one of the most important topics, not just in America, but in the entire world. Most of the world’s challenging questions can be answered with education. By educating the population, you give everyone the best chance to solve the hardest problems.

The problem is that I have never liked school. From the time I first entered pre-school until I finally left college, school has always been something I was required to do but never liked it. Often I found school to be extremely boring. This was caused by a combination of things over the years, like bad teachers, boring subjects, and a deep hatred for being told what to do, which still exists to this very day. To be honest, probably the only reason I kept going to school for as long as I did was because I was required to[1] and to please my mother.

The really disappointing thing is that I love learning. I am the type of person who will go out of my way to learn something new if I am interested in it. Take for example my professional life, I am currently a software developer but I didn’t major in Computer Science in college. Nor did I take a single Computer Science course. Instead, through starting my own company, I realized how valuable programming skills were so I ended up teaching myself to program. I didn’t take any formal classes or one-on-one tutoring. Instead, I used resources that were readily available and almost entirely free.

There are loads of resources out there now to enable you to learn just about anything. There are Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs for short), lesson by lesson instructional websites like Khan Academy and Code Academy, iPad apps that can teach you anything from the ABCs to complex mathematics, and also non-technology resources like books. While each of these resources take their own approach to education, they all have something in common: anyone can use them at any time. This is vastly different from traditional institutional education, where everything is structure and in a particular order.

Institutional education has some good reasons to take a structured approach but they are mostly because of external requirements already put in place. Government mandated educational requirements and curriculums are set with the assumption that classrooms will be a room of students, all of the same age group, with one teacher to lead the lesson. We know intuitively that no one human being is exactly like another, yet we treat their education as if that was the case.

An opposite approach would be to treat every student differently. Cater their learning experiences specifically to their needs and abilities. That is the promise of these new forms of education. But it is also something that can be used to make the traditional classroom experience better.

In my own experience I can tell you that over 18 years in institutional education, I probably read a total of 10 books that were required of me to read. Compare that to now where I read on average 2 books per week. This should never be the case. School should not be the place where I read less, it should be where I read more.

There are a few factors that I think contribute to this. The first is that the books are required and assigned. There is no input from the students or even a choice. Yes, this is done in order to have lessons were every kid is reading the same thing so you can have discussions about the same book. It’s also true that the school and/or teacher probably know more ‘classic’ books than the students do or would choose. But what it is missing is the intention. Would you rather a student read nothing of a required book or read an entire book of something that might not fall into the NY Times best-seller list?

Another frustration of mine from my educational experience was the lack of a connection between subjects. One example of this was shop class. I really liked shop class. We got to use big, loud machines and actually got to make things! Yet the public opinion of the class was that it was a joke. It was the type of class that was required but didn’t teach you anything and you would never take it again unless you weren’t doing well in school.

This couldn’t have been further from the truth. The problem was no one was able to connect the dots for me. Teachers didn’t, other students didn’t, and I didn’t. It’s sad that this was true. It’s not a hard connection to make that math and shop class were very closely related. There were other classes too. Chemistry, physics, etc. all are involved in shop class just no one told me. And I did ask. This isn’t only true of shop class either. Many other ‘non-traditional’ classes that often excite and interest students are never explained or connected.

The amazing promise of the internet and the access to unlimited amounts of information is that we no longer are tied down by what people or schools tell us we should know or learn. It just takes a spark of curiosity to discover and learn anything you want in the world. This is what gets me really excited about things like the Global Learning XPrize. It’s also the reason I think we need to take a step back from the way things have always been done in education and rethink how we might approach it if we had to start from scratch with the tools of today.

What types of changes would you have wanted in your educational experience?

[1] This includes both legally (through the age of 16) and because I was pursuing a career in baseball which required me to be enrolled in class in college.

Originally published at on October 20, 2014.