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The School I Wish I Went To

An idea for education reform that empowers students to follow their curiosity.

Today Hank Green (founder of Crash Course, a company that makes really awesome educational videos) wrote an article called “You Can’t Fix Education.”

His argument was basically that there is no silver bullet to fix education, because it is very complicated, and different schools have different problems. He thinks the internet won’t revolutionize education, because ultimately you still need tons of teachers.

Here’s a passage that does a great job illustrating his fundamentally conservative point of view:

I once asked a teacher of mine why trees never evolved the ability to walk. Now, her reply was maybe not the most scientifically accurate one…but it is a very good one: “Why would a tree need to walk?” she asked in return.

Education in America has innovated over the last 150 years. Yes, teachers are doing really interesting stuff right now. But there’s a reason why it hasn’t changed as much as your phone, and that’s because classrooms don’t need to grow legs and start jogging around and doing tricks.

Classrooms are not sexy, but they work. The glassy look rich people get in their eyes when I tell them that Crash Course is used in tens of thousands of schools is actually marvelous arrogance. It’s that look of a person who thinks that, if only they were in charge, they could fix this mess. Because, of course, the people who are currently in charge don’t know anything about the problem. They’re too entrenched, too old-school, they can’t think in terms of disruption.

I’m not arrogant enough to think I have all the solutions and know better than the people who control the education system, but I’m extremely interested in new educational methods that are based on the assumption that the internet exists. I can imagine few things that are more worth working towards.

Here’s my main disagreement with Hank: I believe it’s important to recognize that the internet does fundamentally change what is possible, and that there’s a non-zero probability that some new model may be out there that is substantially better for students than the traditional classroom model.

Maybe the best metaphor for the classroom isn’t trees, which never needed to evolve the ability to walk, but the monarchy, which was a useful way to organize society for a period of time, but ended up getting replaced by the exponentially superior model of democratic capitalism.

So, what’s my idea for a future model that might be a better way to educate students? In a nutshell: empower students to follow their curiosity.

Speaking from my own experience as someone who loves learning (but hated school), I would love to see someone try an education model that works something like this:

  • First, you choose a question you want to answer, with the help of a mentor. For example, “What is fire made of?” or “Where does the moon come from?” or “What is the history of human plans to go to Mars?” You can pick anything you want.
  • Then, you go do research: searching the internet, reading books, perhaps even interviewing experts. There is a due date, and your only job between now and then is to learn this thing.
  • Once you have a good grasp on the question, you write a paper or create some other artifact (like a video, podcast, software application, hardware project, etc) that explains the answer to the question and demonstrates what you’ve learned.
  • Then you present what you’ve learned to your mentor and peers, who grill you with questions (because now they’re learning this thing too, from you!) You need to be able to handle questions fluently and intelligently.
  • On the flip side, you get to learn from your peers and ask them questions on their work, too. Some of your peers might be physically near you, others you could connect with over the internet, due to similar interests.
  • When you’re done, you do a post-mortem with your mentor and get feedback on your performance. Then you choose the next question you want to answer, and the cycle repeats itself.
  • There are no courses or curriculum. You just spend all your time doing self-directed research. Sometimes you have to work in teams, and maybe there are requirements that you tackle a diversity of questions in different fields of knowledge, but there is no set path you have to go down. You just get to follow your curiosity.

That’s it!

I would have loved to go to this school. Loved it.

Why? Because it harnesses the inherent motivation generated by your personal curiosity, and gives you the structure and permission to go where it leads you.

If we’re being honest, the reason school is ineffective is because most students find it boring. The main motivation to do anything is fear of the consequences that come from having bad grades. If you’re not afraid of that, there’s really no reason to jump through the meaningless hoops that are put in front of you. And that’s exactly what many students choose to do: nothing.

But with the system I’m imagining, you’d swaps the current motivation for doing schoolwork (fear of punishment for getting bad grades) with an infinitely more robust source of fuel (natural, inherent curiosity) which I believe will power a lot of people to go much further, faster. It’s like trading a steam engine for a rocket engine. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw high-schoolers in this system regularly learning at a grad-school level.

Here’s another reason I would love this form of schooling: the more you learn to act out of your own curiosity, the stronger your curiosity gets, the better you get at learning on your own, and the more confident you get that you can learn anything, if you work hard enough. The current structure of “classes” and “curriculum” teaches you to submit to the will of the system, and silences your inner drive to learn the things that are personally interesting to you. The system I’m imagining would do the opposite.

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

— Einstein

Of course, I could be wrong. I don’t want to pretend that I have the answers to all the problems that vex the education system. I have no clue how you could even test this (would any state give you a license to operate a charter school like this?).

But I think it’s important to try, because I believe a better model is out there.

Don’t you?

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