I woke this morning in a very bad mood, and I was all set to write a rant on how we have gone from putting men on the moon six days after I was born to living in William Gibson’s Neuromancer dystopia where corporations rule the world.
I decided to flip this completely on its head. I mostly talk about incremental changes and compromises, because people don’t like or can’t cope with systemic change. Many good big ideas fail because people like things the way they are–or at least, they think they like things the way they are.
When I had first changed majors from aerospace engineering to international relations, I quickly learned that most of my classmates–and professors–didn’t think like engineers. This gave me an advantage, and I exploited it. I could look at data and find connections that they couldn’t. My “Eureka!” moment came when I was reading the 1990 World Development Report, which focused on poverty. I did some data crunching and found one very interesting result: The single most important factor in determining the poverty level of a country was the education level of women. Educated women have fewer children, because they understand where babies come from. (I wish I was joking about that, but that is the reality in much of the world.) Fewer children means that more resources are available for everyone, so instead of being in survival mode societies can move toward improvement. As a result, most of my charitable giving goes toward organizations that have primary education as a principal objective. Most of my political positions lead back to this, just like clicking on the first link on a Wikipedia page will eventually lead to Philosophy.
What would my perfect education system look like? Short answer: Completely different, because there are many big picture structural problems in the way.
- Students are grouped by age, not by need.
- Teachers only have ten months with students, giving barely enough time to really know the students.
- Students are taught subjects for a fixed period, instead of for how long they need.
- Students are taught using a specific method, instead of by the method that works best for them.
- Teachers don’t have good baseline data on where their students stand.
I’m going to disregard the necessity for good preschool for all children and paint a picture starting at age five. When the child is ready for school, we start with an entrance interview/test to figure out what they already know. Do they read, do they know the alphabet, are they just now starting to speak in sentences? How high can they count? Can they work well with others? How well can they solve problems? Do they require constant supervision? In other words, we give the teachers good baseline data.
Once we measure the kids, education looks different. The average class size for primary school in the U.S. is twenty. I would change this…to sixty, but each class would consist of five-, six-, and seven-year-old kids and three teachers plus student teacher assistants. The real world isn’t divided by age, so exposing kids to older and younger students will help them deal with people later. The teachers would spend three years with their students, and, ideally, they would be phased in and out a few at a time–children start when they turn five, not the following autumn. Sometimes a five-year-old would come in reading very well, so she may be grouped with a group of older students, but sometimes a seven-year-old might have difficulties with math, so he may have some five-year-olds in his group. A student who moved here from Syria might be great in math but have limited English skills, so allowing her to be in an advanced math group and a remedial reading group would be a trivial matter. We would teach students to their abilities, instead of where their ages say they should be. By having three teachers per group, teachers could specialize in different methods, so if one teacher couldn’t “get through” to a particular student, switch methods and teachers and try again.
Classrooms should be more open and fluid, with frequent trips outside the school. Connect classroom learning to the outside world as often as possible, because most students do better if they understand how what they learn applies to the world. I like Normal Park’s approach as far as it goes, with frequent trips to museums, but I’d also like to see practical trips as well, taking small groups to businesses, community organizations, and government facilities. Does a teacher have a group of basketball-crazed kids who are slipping in math? Take them to a college basketball practice, where they can meet the coaching staff and see how much math they use to condition and prepare.
When the students approach age eight, I’d like to see them take a standardized test, but it would be an open-ended computerized test. By open-ended, I mean that the test would test to the highest ability levels. If an eight-year-old knows how to solve differential equations, the test would show that. If designed properly, the test should be able to pinpoint where the student is in a couple of dozen sub-subjects (wow, that’s ugly) in a few hours of testing. The student would retake the test annually to allow for recalibration, but we’d keep the groups in three-year divisions: five to seven, eight to ten, eleven to thirteen, fourteen to sixteen. Depending on the size of the school district, at each stage after the first parents, students, and teachers should be able to direct education toward a particular track. Some kids should go to college, some shouldn’t, and we should tailor their educations accordingly. We’ve lost vocational education in the U.S., and that’s unfortunate.
What I don’t want to see is a tracking based on overall ability, but rather based on a comparison of strengths and weaknesses across the board. For example, a student rated in the 95th percentile in math and the 75th percentile in music might be grouped in the same track as a student in the 40th percentile in math and the 20th percentile in music, because, despite the overall difference in ability level, they still have the same strength. We don’t need a system where kids lose faith in themselves because they get dropped into a slow track at an early age. We should have a system that builds strengths while reducing weaknesses.
Of course, the problem with all of this is that our system is built on summer vacations, grade levels, promotion largely based on age, and teaching everyone the same thing regardless of aptitude. The system is entrenched to the point that the very structures we use for education resist change. The result is mediocrity. I think that most people are outliers in something as children, but we lose most of them through neglect. We need a system that can identify them early and nurture them, so that they can help themselves–and society–with their particular form of genius.
We have the ability to create geniuses. We just have to try.