In this essay I am going to outline my dream school and some of the ideas about why I think it would work well. I admit that the following school would probably be impractically expensive but at least it would give us something to aim for.
WE HAVE SEEN THE ENEMY AND IT IS GENERALITY
What is the point of education? I think ultimately it’s to create successful people, specifically world-class experts and high-skilled professionals. Of course given the make-up of today’s economy most jobs are neither of the two but hopefully with time our economies will develop such that low-skilled roles are automated. It is possible that the job market is fundamentally demand constrained where even if supply increases quantity does not but for now I am going to assume away in the long run the zero sum nature of the job market. For an analysis of this please see my essay about the ‘trade-off between technology and employment.’
Given that context, what then is the fundamental problem with education today? In a word generality. and to elaborate, generality at the cost of expertise. Underlying all that follows is an assumption about the marginal benefits of learning, particularly that after an initial upspike when you first learn the basics of a subject and how it can you teach you to think about the world the marginal benefit is very low until you reach a point of expertise. There is no better example of this than languages where after the initial taste of a new culture the language has virtually no value until you can break through to the point where you can have day to day interactions. Then beyond that, the marginal benefit is again relatively small until you approach real fluency.
Too often in education we get trapped in one of the two valleys. How common is it to hear students say why am I learning this? Or I spent all that time studying and I got good grades but I’ve now forgotten everything I learnt.
My ideal school is built around avoiding the valleys and aiming for the peaks. Theresa Amabile, Harvard Management Professor did a ground breaking study where she asked the question was is the key to having productive and happy employees? Interestingly, it wasn’t compensation, it wasn’t titles or the status of the firm. It wasn’t having a ping pong table in the office or even doing your dream job. What mattered was the employees felt like they were making a little bit of progress in something that was important everyday. Contrast that with most students experience of school which is not making progress in something that seems really unimportant: when am I ever going to use trigonometry in my lifef? And uniquely as a consumer experience, education is the one place where if as a customer you have a bad result it’s your fault! No wonder so many students leave school never wanting to learn another thing again! So the second problem I think with generality in gaining a well-rounded education you lose the sense of progress.
SAMPLE CLASS TIMETABLE – CORE SUBJECTS: MATHS, HISTORY, ENGLISH & FOREIGN LANGUAGE
First think to note is my ideal class timetable is both long and infringes on the weekend. School on Saturday I think is no problem because I had that since I was eight and I think as a child as long as all your friends are in the same boat it does not really matter. In writing this I imagined a boarding school hence making the late night lessons and private study sessions feasible but even if students went home I see no reason it should be any earlier than 7pm. Not only does it buy more time for the school day it also I think makes it more convenient for the parents as many parents now work. I should emphasise that homework would be fairly minimal with most traditional homework being done in class time with the teacher on hand to help if there are any problems. Lectures would largely be outsourced to education companies that focus on creating compelling learning materials. Salman Khan’s Khan Academy is a good first step in this direction.
So now time to walk through the class schedule. The first section to notice is the blue blocks which consist of the traditional academic subjects: Maths, History, English and Chinese. I believe these subjects are not only valuable for the fact they can teach you a way to think about things but also because the knowledge is intrinsically valuable.
With the higher number of hours studying Maths and with better teaching all students would not only learn to an A-Level competency in general Maths but beyond that in Statistics where the focus would be on a practical understanding of statistical programs and manipulation of data. This would give students a valuable job market skill that would be useful in most roles in most industries. Some would argue that it is not possible for all students to attain such a high level in Mathematics and Statistics. I would disagree because I feel that in the ideas discussed below it is possible to teach in a significantly more effective way.
History would be learnt not only with the view of learning about the past and the opportunity to expose oneself to different influences but also as a way to learn how to write and dare I say it how to think. One downside to learning history I think is that many of the major debates such as the causes of the First World War feel very stale and as a student it can feel like there is a right answer. Wouldn’t it be cool therefore if some time was spent studying conspiracy theories and having vibrant debates about why they are or are not true? This is not only an important life skill but also a valuable asset on the job market.
Chinese and English would be studied to build competancy in those two languages, although of course Chinese here is only used as an example and could be swapped for a language of the students choosing. I have in my time studied Chinese, French, Russian, Latin and Ancient Greek and despite doing well in exams am unable to speak any of them! A classic case of being trapped in the first valley. I am a firm believer that you cannot improve in anything if you spend less than five hours a week at it especially something cumulative like a language. In addition to throwing more hours at it I also think learning languages could be done more efficiently. Firstly less than that you spend most of your time trying to not to forget what you’ve learnt rather than actually learn new things. Secondly irstly the two highest leverage activities to learn a language are one vocab learning and two have real life conversation practice. More specfically two students would stand in front of the class with one student orally translating English sentences into Chinese with the other translating them back into English. And thirdly I think in language learning there is too much emphasise on correct grammar and pronunciation, as a beginner this is not important. Instead the aim should be for students to be able to speak without inhibitions such that they can understand and be understood, this is very different from speaking accurately. It is amazing how many students I have met at Tsinghua whose exam English is very good but when it comes to having a conversation they are too terrified to say anything. Finally learning another language in addition to your mother tongue is of course another valuable asset in the workplace as well as a window into another culture.
SAMPLE CLASS TIMETABLE – PROGRESS LESSONS – CREATIVE, PHYSICAL & WILDCARD
Our enemy remember is generality and so students would pick one creative discipline, one physical discipline and one wildcard (the red blocks) to spend at least five hours a week working at. Although of course it is possible that the disciplines they choose may evolve into passions or even careers the real focus is on learning how to learn and experiencing the process of setting goals, making progress and becoming more of an individual. Students when they are younger would be free to switch disciplines every six or even three months and sample lots of different activities but as they got older they would be expected to settle down into one or two disciplines for years at a time. Students would with their teachers choose their goals and agree how they will be evaluated against their goals. Students would learn to compete against themselves rather than defining themselves compared to other people. Students will take responsibility of their own learning with the safety net of the core academic subjects would have the freedom to genuinelly choose areas that interest them.
Teachers and schools would become enablers. Say a student wants to learn how to paint teachers could help arrange visits to art museums or for local artists to come and visit. If a student wanted to learn how to play football teachers could help organise a trip to see a football game or an opportunity to trial at a local football club. I heard a story that #1 chess player in the world Magnus Carlsen when he was 12 or 13 would alongside a few other grandmasters spend hours just talking through various situations. That’s the kind of tailored learning experiences that students want and need. Many people complain that they have no opportunity to contribute so imagine if schools ran mentoring programmes where local people have regular contact with students structured around a discipline they are interested in. How awesome would that be?
One problem of course would be designing curriculum for all these diverse topics thus having outsource companies that you could buy at the very least teaching materials from would be very useful.
Too often I think as an educational system we are afraid of specialization too early because what if the child misses out on other opportunities? What we forget is specialization too late also means missing out on the opportunity to really develop one area and know it intimately and be excellent at it. After all, in a specialized economy where excellence often requires starting early and working hard many children are not afforded the opportunity to try and go pro at something because they didn’t put enough hours in at a young enough age. As Confucius said ‘the man who chases two rabbits catches none.’ We should be more afraid of students catching no rabbits then catching one rabbit but not two.
SAMPLE CLASS TIMETABLE – SAMPLE LESSONS
Despite my criticisms of a general education there is absolutely a lot of value in being open minded and having lots of influences. However, I feel that this process does not have to be an academic one wrapt in the frankly energy sapping process of preparing for and taking exams.
The short sample lessons would be a chance to gain exposure to lots of different influences. Each one and a half hour lesson would vary from listening to Korean pop music, studying tectonic plate theory to learning about the life of Steve Jobs. The longer sample session would be a chance to delve deeper into one subject; particularly for example big ideas in science like the Big Bang Theory and Evolution. Again to help a tutor with the sheer number of diverse subjects that would have to be prepared schools course outsource teaching materials and lesson plans to education companies. They could also be used to build skills like public-speaking or touch typing. Each semester students might be asked to create presentations or write essays about a few of the topics they learnt or to research topics of their own but again the focus would be not be on exams but rather exposing the students to lots of interesting influences and helping the kids to be curious about the world and open-minded to its possibilities.
SAMPLE CLASS TIMETABLE – PRIVATE STUDY
With the sheer number of class hours spent on the core subjects outside of big projects and preparing for exams I think homework should be kept to a minimum. If there was scope for private study though it might be to help students who are struggling. Teachers would tutor one-on-one to help students with problem areas. This would also benefit teachers to help them understand where students are struggling better. Too often teachers are not aware that students are falling behind until the end of year exams. In our ideal school of unlimited resources this is not acceptable.
The academic year would be long but I think students would be more willing to endure because school would be more enjoyable. Also to achieve excellence at the end of the day takes a lot of hours, 10,000 of them if Malcolm Gladwell is to be believed. Having said, that the academic year can be structured to take advantage of the ebs and flows of motivation and focus. What if each year you had two week Maths camps or two weeks in Washington actually learning American history first hand? The focus on one subject would not only help students break through plateaus but also break the monotony of the academic year. It might also be a good way to add academic variety to the curriculum ,what if after summer examinations you had a month of studying different subjects? Swapping out maths, english, history and chinese for physics, computer science, economics and design. This might also be a good way to introduce an academic taster to students so that they can in the last ¾ years of high school choose additional academic subjects to study on top of their diet of maths and history. Imagine if students studying Italian spent as a 14 year old a year in Italy? Not only would this help them with their language study but would expose them to a new culture at a young age when they are still open minded. Also I think it would be extremely challenging. One downside to our modern culture is we coddle our children too much. We forget that many of our ancient cultures had challenging rituals for children to go through as a passage into adulthood. Much like Sparta’s (extreme!) habit of having their sons spend a night out in the wild with just a spear to protect themselves we should not be afraid of throwing our children into the proverbial deep end lest we be left with thirty year old children!