Why is Education So Hard To Revolutionize?
I would like to talk about the challenges faced by those who want to revolutionize education.
This post was motivated by what I think is the most exciting education related news in recent history: The XQ Super School Project.
If you haven’t heard already, XQ is a 50 million dollar challenge in pursuit of a better American high school. Why is the 50 Million dollars figure important? Well, it means it’s the single biggest and most influential education related contest in history. It’s big news.
I want so badly for the XQ and for other learning-related incentive competitions to succeed in their mission to make schooling relevant so I’ve put together a set of ideas that I hope every team who tries to fix school will get to explore.
For meaningful and effective education reform to happen, we’ve got to get past hurdles that no one has yet.
See, people all over the world are rethinking the classroom system, the physical schoolhouse, the student-teacher paradigm, the bell and class system, the silo’d topics of education, the way students are introduced to problems and encouraged to learn. There are MOOC’s, youtube education channels, gamification, concepts like “flipping the classroom,” talk of the “growth mindset” and more! If you don’t know what any of that is, that’s okay. The idea is this:
People are using the word “innovation” more than ever. It’s become easily the most popular buzzword in all of education. And that is great! These are things that need to happen! Education needs to be rethought from every one of these angles, and I’m glad people who care are doing the research and redesigning it from the ground up to make learning better.
But there are 3 things I think almost every effort to reform education is missing.
For the last year or so, I’ve been involved with the Global Learning XPrize. I’ve watched and read as research gets passed around and discussion about what to design has gone on. I’ve been surprised watching these conversations in the world of education innovation. My experience with education incentive competitions and education reform led me to write this post so that we don’t all keep making the same mistakes.
The surprising fact of the matter is that everyone who has set out to revolutionize education in the last hundred years has failed. And don’t get me wrong, brilliant people have tried their hand at this.
There have been some incredible insights, some awesome discoveries, and some crazy new systems intended to replace what we currently have – much like the ones I listed a minute ago – but none of them have worked. We’ve tried to fix it for an entire century, but education remains broken.
If you’d like you can watch this video by one of my favorite youtube teachers to explore some of the reasons why no one has ever successfully revolutionized education.
As in my previous post about education, I’ve narrowed a list down to the three most common hidden assumptions that nearly everyone in the world has made about human learning. These assumptions keep education stuck where it is. But before we talk about those…
First, a bit about me. As I mentioned, brilliant people have worked on the problem of education, and I am perhaps less qualified than any of them. I want to share my perspective because I think it is a particularly unique one, and understanding the experiences from which I speak will help you couch the points I make below.
In case you don’t know my story: Hi! I’m Steve Moraco. I’m 23 now. I graduated with my four year degree in photography in 2013. I studied abroad twice while I was in school and since then I’ve written and self-published a book (now an online course) to help students study abroad.
It was used as a textbook at the University of Colorado in 2014, and then I set out to take the curriculum I designed for that class to other colleges and universities – partly because I was super naive and had no clue how hard that would be, or how stupid and irrelevant that goal would sound to most people. I haven’t given up, but I have changed tactics as I’ve learned more about what will and won’t work. Sometimes meaningful progress is slow, and that’s okay. You can read more about my pivoting process on another post here on my blog (coming soon)
The motivating force behind my work is that I believe that students would learn and grow more if they got to travel the world instead of sitting in lecture halls and going into debt. Traveling in school is not a luxury. It’s one of the most efficient and affordable ways to get a real sense of wonder for and perspective on the awesome world we live in and become an active, engaged, loving, and accepting world citizen. There’s no good reason under 10% of college students should get that opportunity when 80% of them want it.
Anyway, my experience in a variety of education spheres over the course of the last 15 years combined with my experience as an engaged online learner through Khan Academy, Lynda.com, and more, in addition to the last year I’ve spent interacting with university chancellors, professors, campus faculty, national associations, and more for my online course has given me insights into the problem at hand that are (as far as I can tell) pretty rare for someone who’s basically still college-age.
So with that said, let’s dive in.
If you want to fix school, there are three assumptions you need to make sure you re-think.
- The first is the grading system.
- The second is the recycled lecture format.
- And the third is something I call “the sandbox.”
These points are similar in theme to my previous post, but in a different order and with completely different content, in hopes that this post will further illuminate my point.
The Grading System
One of the most well-received voices in the world of education reform is Stanford Professor Carol Dweck. She’s the author of a book called “Mindset” and has personally overseen or facilitated years of research into which mindsets enable learning best.
Her book describes how the attitude students have about their own learning often predicts how well they actually learn.
Her insight was this: If you tell yourself “I suck at math” then you will. If you tell yourself “I suck at math for now, but I’m getting better” – then you do. It’s a simple change that goes a long way, and it shows just how easy solving some of the most intractable problems of education can be.
One might suggest that you could go even further by helping students enthusiastically embrace failure and incompetence, encouraging phrases like “Sucking at math is the first step to getting really good at math. I’m on track to master my calculus course!”
There’s a book on this topic that explores the ideas covered in “mindset” from a self development perspective – it’s called “What to say when you talk to yourself.” and I highly recommend it if you’re fascinated by the concept of mindsets.
Anyway, I got the chance to ask Dr. Dweck a question in person when she visited a local university recently.
Here’s how it went.
I said, “Dr. Dweck, the research you’ve done on how mindsets affect learning is fantastic, but have you done any research on how the structure of school affects mindset? For example, if mindset is so essential to learning, shouldn’t we be more aware of how grading students on an A-F scale affects their attitude about education, failure, and success?”
“Nope. We haven’t done any research on how grading affects student mindsets. Some classes have started making the growth mindset part of their grading system, but we haven’t researched grading specifically.”
There’s something obviously broken about the structure of grading in education and we all know it, but it’s outside the scope of Dr. Dweck’s research for now. My fear is that if we continue to overlook it, it will prove a permanent barrier to human learning.
I don’t have to walk you through an example of how demotivating getting a bad grade can be. We’ve all either gotten F’s or have spent our entire education careers working very hard to avoid them, only to forget nearly everything we got “A”s in.
We have A’s that don’t mean anything in the long term, and F’s that scare people out of actually learning.
The solution to this is not a mystery. It’s simple. Look at Call of Duty or any other popular video game. – And before you tune me out, I’m not about to suggest “flipping” or “gamifying” the classroom, so bear with me.
“Psh, video games!” you say? – Think about it with academic intent for a moment. Call of Duty has made a social performance evaluation system that does exactly what grading and standardized testing are supposed to do: It ranks participant performance in a global context. Call of Duty has global leaderboards, and people compete against their own high score and directly with other players. Grades exist precisely because all schools need a standardized way to compare student performance.
Now, where Call of Duty excels is that their performance evaluation system is so fun that instead of getting in the way of engagement with the game, it actually encourages it. Call of Duty and games like it are literally so fun that perfectly normal adults want to pay the equivalent of 7 hours of their own wages for the chance to sit in front of a screen and press buttons for hours on end.
There’s no extrinsic reward. There’s no degree or certification. There’s just the enjoyment they get from playing the game. That’s what people pay for. That’s why they spend their free time playing video games. No one is tricking them. These games have legitimately made pressing buttons in front of a screen fun.
I know you already knew video games were fun, but had you ever considered they accomplish the same thing grading does, but without causing dread or despair? Does that blow your mind? It blows my mind. If you really think about it, how could it not?
People say all the time that school can’t be as fun as a concert or a video game – but I have a hard time believing that it is harder to make learning about the world fun than it is to make pressing buttons alone on a couch in front of a TV.
We have unintentionally worked very hard to make school boring when learning about the world should be totally awesome.
Can you imagine if school was fun enough that parents had to actively limit kid’s “school time”? Now we’re talking.
Lest your eyes glaze over in anticipation of the usual “gamification” argument for education, let me be VERY clear.
School does not need points, badges, and leaderboards to be fun. Nobody plays any video game because it has points, badges, or leaderboards. The PBL approach, as it is called, to gamification is just as broken as A-F grading. In fact, there’s a fantastic video here on what aspects of games are actually motivating and fun, and how to apply those to the real world.
The reason games are fun is because they are relevant, they are engaging, and making progress feels legitimately worthwhile. We have a word for things that are engaging, relevant, and worthwhile, and I’ve used it quite a bit already: “fun.”
No one has fun because they’re being tricked by a cleverly designed system. They have fun because what they’re doing is awesome.
Call of Duty is something you know you can get better at or maybe even win if you work hard (and it’s a blast during that entire process), but calculus not so much. If we want to make school that fun, we cannot employ the cheap tricks usually associated with gamification.
The essential takeaway about grading is this:
People want to learn. No child is born uninterested in the world around them. But to learn in such a way that they retain the knowledge and know how to apply it to the real world, students have to sometimes make mistakes.
Punishing them with bad grades when they fail is inherently discouraging.
When you set out to revolutionize education, be wary of designing a system of student evaluation that is fundamentally demotivating. Instead, find a way to track students’ progress in a way that encourages and enables naïveté and hands-on learning.
This applies to teachers, professors, and faculty, too!
If your school employs a quota-based 5-point grading system where the majority of people who come to work every day because they care deeply about students must get a 3-out-of-5 just because they’re in the majority, you’re killing your workforce. You’re destroying your employees’ souls and hurting your students’ only remaining hope. So beware of grading teachers and professors as well!
Everyone is born a learning machine. Everyone loves to tackle challenges and help each other do better. We’re all naturally curious. Students are fascinated by the world, and teachers love to learn, too.
No one fails to learn how to walk or talk because they get a C in it the first time they tried, but people fail to learn calculus for that exact reason all the time.
We must embrace the idea that anyone can learn anything if they’re willing to mess up enough. In fact, we have to design a system that encourages it.
We have accidentally implemented a school system that is so uninspiring that it literally beats students’ curiosity out of them through years of irrelevant, outdated tedium.
Amazingly, learning currently happens in spite of this broken system. There are heart-warming stories of teachers and professors who dedicated their lives to their students. They work unreasonable hours to bring life back to learning and make student discovery fun. Every single one of us can remember a teacher who made learning feel like it should. We can do so much better designing systems for learning. Every class should inspire curiosity.
The first thing we have to do is make a grading system that doesn’t scare students or beat the willingness to take risks out of them one C+ at a time.
Making mistakes is synonymous with learning, not evidence that you haven’t. If our system of student evaluation doesn’t reflect the necessity of risk taking and failure, we will still have a broken learning system.
Okay, next. Let’s talk about…
The Recycled Lecture Format
One of the most broken assumptions modern education makes is that lectures, semesters, and annual resets are a necessary format for learning.
The attitude that a course curriculum can be made once and then copy-and-pasted all over and taught by multiple teachers to several silo’d classes of students one semester after another without those classes interacting with each other or ever changing or improving on the content of the course is an old, broken, and awful assumption. If the business world worked this way nothing would ever get done!
And don’t even get me started on lectures.
I’m aware that I’m lecturing you right now. My point is not that lectures are useless. My point is that lectures about every topic need a way to stay relevant in a world that is changing more and more rapidly.
For example, I am writing to you about this topic now because I am a 20-something who has a rare perspective on the world of education. One that I’ve never heard before, and one that I hope is new to you as well. I assume that you’re reading because what I have to say is relevant and interesting. Maybe you feel like you’ve picked up a few new distinctions, and hopefully you’ve developed several new ways of looking at an old problem by reading this far. These little personal discoveries are the meat of a good lecture.
However, the difficulty students have (especially in the last 10 years or so) is that they are often in the predicament of being lectured by someone who knows less than them about the topic at hand, is giving the same speech for the 12th time, and/or is delivering it in a slow, boring monologue based on deeply outdated information that is not relevant to any of the student’s interests, much less the constantly-changing world around them.
The most terrible thing about this is that in these situations the lecturer often feels the same exact way the students do: bored to tears. There’s nothing fascinating or engaging about giving the same lecture 100 times.
I just recently had a conversation with my grandmother about her decades-long career in education. She said that at one point she met someone who had taught the same class for 41 years. She put it this way: “this lady had really only taught for 1 year, she’d just done it 41 times.” – that’s the danger.
Here’s an idea: let’s use students to refresh course content. We can free up professors to moderate and guide class discussion. This isn’t a new idea, but it’s rarely implemented well at scale.
As a student, when I finally wrap my head around a new concept, I’m suddenly the most qualified person on earth to critique how that concept is taught, and I should be encouraged to try my hand at re-teaching it in a more understandable way to the rest of the world.
Instead of doing the same useless practice problem over and over again, I want to apply new knowledge directly to the actual problems around me. I want to teach my friends and redesign how that concept is taught in schools around the world!
If sites like Reddit, Youtube, and Khan Academy exist, there’s no reason learning like this should be impossible.
Students of all ages finally have a global voice thanks to the Internet. One of the most common mistakes modern online courses make is relying on a single lecturer. Having a single teacher isn’t necessary anymore, and furthermore a recently-learned student is sometimes the most qualified and creative teacher, and so re-teaching should become the norm.
The best professors in the world know that they are students, too. In order for the rest of the class to learn, the best professors are willing to go first. They are willing to experiment, make mistakes, discover new ways of approaching the problem at hand, and make ways for those discoveries to be applicable and fun when the students come across them.
That’s what learning is all about: collaboratively iterating on a fascinating, relevant problem. The best professors in the world invite students into the problem at hand, and challenge them to come up with a better solution. Suddenly, the students are really learning.
Students then become the most qualified teachers of new material because they just learned it! Don’t waste this resource by ending the semester only to never hear from them again. A new type of school that solves what I’m calling the reset problem should at least invite students back to share what they learned and how they learned it with the next class. There’s no reason that a semester-by-semester reset should keep students from collaboratively learning from each other.
The separation of school years and chopped-up learning style in schools is slowing down the entire world, so let’s stop it as soon as possible.
Finally, The Sandbox
Part of what makes grades, lectures, and the rest of the school year so painful is that there’s a nagging feeling for all parties that none of it really matters.
If we’re honest, the most important advances in human society (especially in the last 50 years) have been made by people who should have been doing their homework. Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and Google were all founded by college students who insisted on procrastinating by building something that mattered to them at the time instead of working on what they were assigned.
Young, naive minds aren’t a problem. Students are not sponges that are provided by the state to soak up your ideology. They are an incredible, timely, unique resource that humanity is actively squandering by insisting on “educating” them.
Knowing nothing about the limitations of a problem enables (nay, forces) you to solve it with ground-up fundamental reasoning. The same sort of assumption-destroying reasoning Elon Musk talks about in his TED talk comes naturally to students, whereas adults (who have developed an intuition about ‘how the world works’) have a hard time even imagining how to solve a problem except by analogy.
The reason education has never been successfully revolutionized is because everyone who has tried was raised by the same broken system.
We’ve got to give students permission to change the world, because they’re the only ones creative enough to do so.
If you disagree, read 2 Billion Under 20 by Stacey Ferreira and Jared Kleinert. There you will find the stories of teenager after teenager who has proven that young people are not incapable and inexperienced.
They don’t deserve the sandboxes we put them in called “schools.” In fact, they are just about the only people in the world qualified to redesign the systems we already have.
Let’s Overthrow Education
If we really want to “revolutionize” education, we’ve got to throw it out. It’s not about education anymore. It’s about learning. Let’s overthrow education and take up the cause of learning.
Experience- or goal-based learning makes the process relevant, applicable, and real. If you offer students the chance to change the world, they will jump at it.
If we can develop a system to team inventive students with experienced professionals in a way that helps students foresee possible downfalls and helps business leaders think creatively, then we’ll be onto something big.
In short, it’s about challenging students to solve the world’s biggest problems, and then giving them the tools, experience, and support to make it happen. Not practice problems.
That’s all three: Grades, recycled lectures, and sandboxes.
An Example Of The School Of The Future
Let me give you a concrete example of the school of the future to wrap things up.
Let’s imagine that students in a class somewhere in Estonia wanted to watch recently posted video lesson, but no one had translated it into Russian or Estonian yet. Unlike Americans, they probably speak three languages, but that’s not my point.
The way the technology works right now is limited by a set of assumptions that the people who built it couldn’t see past. But the kids who want to see these videos in their native language were born in 1999, so they aren’t burdened by assumptions about how television works, how transcription is usually done, or how difficult translation often is.
Because they’re not sandboxed into practice problems and this is a relevant, meaningful way to learn about modern web technologies, they take this as a challenge. As a class they come up with a fantastic solution to their problem of translation: Each time a YouTube video is paused, what if it invites you to type the last sentence you heard before you paused it in whatever other languages you speak?
With this new feature in place, Google might use its own translation engine to compare where the video was paused against already existing English transcriptions (which would have been created the same way within the first 5 minutes of a popular video being posted) against the new translation, and place the caption in the proper place in the video.
This way, as bi- and tri-lingual people all over the world pause hundreds of thousands of videos in random places every day, the entire online catalogue of videos eventually gets translated via effortless crowdsourcing, and no one ever has to sit down and do the tedious job of translating a complete YouTube video into any of the 6,500 or so actively spoken languages around the world.
Of course, if a class in Europe were to come up with that solution today there would be little or no hope of getting class credit for it, much less getting it implemented over at YouTube Headquarters. It would take several years and significant luck to get such a project put in place. So while it’s an interesting exercise, the classroom remains frustratingly sandboxed and irrelevant. Let’s fix it.
How can we create a system that connects Estonian school children to do user testing and feature-suggestion for an online video platform? How can we create a system that encourages local high-schoolers to leverage their social media savvy to help local businesses market themselves? How can we engage the world’s most creative and unburdened minds as consultants on real world problems, while giving them the tools, experience, and support they need to learn along the way?
If instead of setting out to redesign education, you find a way to empower the young, enthusiastic minds of the world to fix the injustices, tune the inefficiencies, and experiment with creative solutions for the real world, you stand a good chance of making school way more fun than Call of Duty.
So we’ve talked briefly about the three most dangerous assumptions that come packaged with the commonly accepted idea of “education” – Grading, useless repetition, and sandboxing.
“These are extraordinary times, and we face an extraordinary challenge.”
Please keep in mind that while my suggestions in this post require a certain amount of naïveté, I do actually realize how established existing systems are. I’ve been interacting directly with university faculty about making a new curriculum for the last year or so, and I was raised by a college professor. I know that all federal funding and worldwide decision making with regard to education currently relies on standardized testing. It’s not going to be an easy system to change. But we all know how broken grading and standardized testing are, and so we must do something.
In addition to that, I get that swapping or integrating the roles of students and teachers will take time, understanding, and some trial and error. Fixing the constantly repeating lecture-based school system we have to make education a constantly evolving, renewable system will be hard. Enabling students to teach each other in constructive ways all over the world certainly won’t happen without effort.
Last, I’m also aware of the fact that connecting school, government, and business to solve the sandbox is a big ask, but I know that we live in a world of people who want to help each other flourish, and so even though it may be a bureaucratic nightmare, it is a struggle that will pay off in the long run.
As was said before when we decided to go to the moon, “it’s worth doing not because it’s easy, but because it is hard.”
“…because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
And lest I descend too deeply into cliche by quoting Kennedy’s speeches about the race to the moon, let me also note that if there is anything we have to learn from the fact that we have not been back to the moon in nearly half a century, it’s that we can only have progress if we are willing to continually aim high and then work hard toward a future we would love to live in. That is why I am so excited about the announcement of the XQ prize, and I hope you are, too.
I wish you way more than luck.
Thanks for reading.