The Secret History Of Education

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In Academia…

Everyone realizes that education is horribly broken, and nobody seems to know why.

As a result, we see people trying the same things over and over again in fancier ways, and then we complain that nothing seems to be working. Why aren’t students more engaged? Why are our retention rates embarrassing and our success rates unspeakable? What’s the issue?

The issue is that no one is having fun. Nobody knows why they’re “getting an education” other than some vague sense of societal obligation and an even-more-vague hope that a huge four-year time commitment is the key to a brighter future.

So let’s fix that real quick. What the heck is “education,” and why is it a thing? I’ve done the digging so you don’t have to, because I know you have homework.

Even if you fancy yourself a bit of a pedagogical expert, I’ll bet there’s quite a bit of your own history you weren’t aware of.

First of all, let’s ask an obvious question in order to frame the rest of this article:

What is education?

You know what education is, so I’ll opt for a bit of an unusual description to make you think:

Education is what human societies have used as a solution when some people know something and others don’t. When a group with a particular strategic advantage (age, structural power, so on) wants to inform the thinking of a less powerful group, they educate them. Usually, education is for the benefit of the individuals being educated (it helps to know more) and for the society as a whole.

It’s a way for people who know things to guide other people toward knowing those things.

Now, that definition leaves me with a bunch of unrelated questions like: “But what if the ignorant group doesn’t want to be educated?” or “What happens if the group that is educating people is actually wrong?” – those are questions for another time.

What I want to focus on this time are the three most harmful assumptions of education as we know it.

There are three systems of really crazy unvalidated practices that are foundational to almost all systems of education. I’d like to explore the history of those, and then propose that we throw them out because they’re impractical and sometimes harmful. In short, they suck.

What are they? They’re parts that irk you about school: Lectures, grades, and the impractical nature of it all.

First, let’s talk about lectures:

For all of written history (and possibly before), there have been systems of “education” – as you might imagine, much of written history is actually a product of those systems.

The simplest form of education is “story time” – it’s the most obvious and still one of the most effective ways to get your point across. We all tell stories because sharing life from our own perspective feels like a natural way to relate to each other.

As written language developed, “story time” changed a little. Those who could read and write landed a new gig: telling stories about stuff they had either read or written. This is essentially the university model at its earliest conception. Churches are based on this model, too. The lecture format has reigned for millennia. Hilariously, it remains basically unchanged. Why mess with what works, right?

Except it doesn’t work. See, “story time” is usually predicated on someone asking you to tell a story. If no one asks for a story, one usually finds that a two-way discussion is far more enjoyable for both parties.

Instead, many “educators” (who meaning well, and who do so out of necessity) rely on repeatedly lecturing recycled material. This works, but it doesn’t work well. It’s dangerously boring for the teacher to teach the same material over and over again, and students pick up on boredom very easily.

Everyone who does any public speaking knows: If you’re not fascinated by your own story, no one else will be. If you want the audience to really feel something, you have to go first.

So lectures don’t work because teachers fail to go first. You cannot be an engaged learner if you are giving the same talk over and over again for a decade. If you want to inspire engaged learners, you yourself must be the most engaged and ready-to-learn of anyone in the room.

So why do we have the tradition of lectures we have today? Because when most of the classroom was not literate, it was up to a single individual to translate the inscribed information into meaningful, relatable stories. This type of translation is a form of learning in itself, and this talent is what makes good preachers, teachers, and politicians so fascinating to listen to.

However, nearly everyone can read now. Literacy rates are outstandingly different from when the university model was seemingly set in stone about a thousand years ago. Today we have a culture where everyone can be an engaged, curious, and active learner, not just the lecturer.

To fix the “lecture” aspect of education, we must give up on the paradigm of “teachers and students.” – There are only learners. Some learners are there to catalyze discoveries and help to point other less experienced learners in the direction they are seeking. That is the role of a professor in today’s schools.

Anyone who has a had a truly great educational experience will describe their mentor as someone who was more like a tour guide than a preacher.

When it comes to teachers and professors, we need more tour guides and fewer preachers.

On to grading:

The history of grading is boring and tiresome, much like grading itself.

Large groups of humans are hard to compare, so early universities (notably Yale) developed standardized systems. Levels of achievement were assigned based on how closely the students were able to duplicate their professors’ results.

This system of grades makes for great short term memorizers and fact-checkers, but very poor learners. In fact, if you tell a student to develop a new skill, discover a new distinction, or work out a complex understanding of something technical, they will happily do so.

Humans enjoy mastering just about any challenge you put in front of them.

However, if you incentivize a student to memorize and fact check at the same time that you’re asking them to develop a mastery (which we do, with grades A through F), all you do is limit their learning and make them fear failure.

Learning is a form of failure. We can’t punish students for failing because failure is part of the process of learning. Failure is what students should set out to do, instead we punish them for it.

When students fail to already know what they signed up to learn (what a surprise!), we punish them. This is dumb. It’s a poorly designed system, and it hurts society more than just about any other standardized structure. Teaching young people that mistakes are irrevocable stains that will limit their opportunities in life is simply lying to them.

Mistakes and failures are the wake of greatness. No one has ever flawlessly become great. No one ever will. No one who is great remains great without making errors in judgement and learning from them.

Failure is learning. Learning is failure. Without failure you become irrelevant and boring.

So let’s ditch grades. We have the tools and technology now to judge individual success with much finer detail, and follow the journey of success or failure (and of learned material application) much longer after-the-fact than we could before the Internet.

Perhaps one should only get grades at the end of one’s life, when all is said and done. Imagine you did not understand any of the topics you studied at school, but you used your newfound ignorance to  motivate you to ask questions, and end up developing, say, sustainable agriculture for the entire planet. Maybe when Harvard goes back and sees that even though you “failed” your classes in college, they can decide instead to reward you with an A for all those classes, because did you really fail? No. You realized what you didn’t know and you learned it.

Now, it is not only failure that catalyzes learning. Communication, reviewing one’s progress, and other techniques are essential to maximizing wins and minimizing losses.

But we must not try to minimize losses before we maximize gains, because if you don’t risk messing up first, you will never have the chance to get it right.

Education is impractical

The third issue is the impracticality of it all. School is impractical. We are using a sinking ships to train our children.

I’ve seen it first hand. I’ve sat in school presidents’ offices as they discussed spending more by fundraising more, without a single mention of students. Even with insane tuitions, schools are spending more on marketing and non-teaching faculty year by year.

If we want our children to learn about the world, we must give them the chance to contribute to it. Everyone I know wants to badly to help, but often they get stepped on, shut out, and told they are being unrealistic at each and every point along the way.

The fact of the matter is that helping those in need is not unrealistic. It is bold, brave, and incredibly altruistic. It is also worthwhile. The biggest nations and businesses in the world were built on solving problems and helping people. It is a beautiful notion, and if we would just acknowledge that it’s okay to want to save the world we’d be surrounded by superheroes.

Ask your friends what their dream job is, and help them ask better questions and make a plan. That’s often all we need.

The game plan doesn’t have to be spot on. It doesn’t even have to seem “doable.” It just has to be somewhere to start. Most of us just need to know how to start working toward our dreams.

As for education specifically, I’m sickened by the mere notion that four years of the most passionate period of each human life is currently wasted doing practice problems. If we applied those four years toward the problems we truly care about, we’d have solved world hunger, world peace, and cured many more diseases decades ago.

Let’s stop doing practice problems until we solve the real problems that still exist. We live in a world where a single individual of any age can have a global impact (see the magnificent book “2 Billion Under 20” by Stacey Ferreira, Jared Kleinert, and Blake Masters). Let’s stop pretending that we have time to waste on practice problems. Let’s start making mistakes that matter instead of worrying about passing tests in subjects we don’t care about anyway. Real, actual people are suffering all around the world, and almost everyone else wants to help. Let’s make it easy for us to help each other.

Let’s fix education by throwing it out. Let’s embrace our best selves as engaged learners, and get rid of the idea of “teaching” now that everyone has the same capacity to teach and learn. Let’s empower teachers who care to be meaningful guides in the learning process. Everyone has something to learn, especially those of us who think we have it all figured out.

And that is the Secret History of Education. What will you do now that you know?

Further Reading & Sources

1. Bell system and multiple class periods a day: Prussia, 1912

One World School House by Sal Khan

2. Grading system: Goes back to Yale in the 18th Century. Purpose was to compare student averages to each other on a unified scale.

3. Lecture model: from churches, early European universities with few literate people.

4. Seth Godin’s treatise on the problems with school.

Stop Stealing Dreams



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