(I’m revising, updating and reposting some articles I wrote when I first started this blog four years ago. They seem much more relevant to the time we now live than when I first wrote them. Here’s the first in a series to come.)
Elon Musk used to make headlines every day with his spaceships and solar panels and gigafactories and colonies on mars and secret tunnels and AI labs and self driving cars. However, none of those may have as large an impact as a movement happening in education that he hoped onto. For him it began because he didn’t like the way his kids were being educated, so he pulled them out of their fancy private school and started his own.
The school’s name is Ad Astra, meaning ‘to the stars’, and seems to be based around Musk’s belief that schools should “teach to the problem, not to the tools.” “Let’s say you’re trying to teach people how engines work. A traditional approach would be to give you courses on screwdrivers and wrenches. A much better way would be, here is an engine, now how are we going to take it apart? Well you need a screwdriver. And then a very important thing happens, the relevance of the tool becomes apparent.”
Musk’s decision strikes at the most important question we may face in a post pandemic world. How do we educate people to thrive in a world we cannot predict? It starts by rethinking how we educate.
Education, up to a week ago, really wasn’t that much different from what it was a hundred years ago. It was classrooms crammed full of students all learning the same thing at the same pace from overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated teachers who spend thirty years teaching more or less the same thing.
From the time kids were old enough to start school, up until they were independent enough to make their own decisions, parents consumed themselves worrying about their child’s education. It made sense, after all getting your kids a good education was the best way to assure them a bright future. Parents all around the world went to crazy lengths to make sure their kids got the education they needed. They’d move houses to be in a better school district, spend thousands of dollars a year on after school and summer programs, or hire a fleet of tutors, all to try to ensure that their children have the best chance to succeed in the world of tomorrow.
However, for parents today, thing just got much more complicated. The world that the next generation will grow up in will be radically different from anything we have seen in the past. Not only may we be about to organize all of society in a radically different way, but their world will be filled with powerful and enticing ideas about the possibilities of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, automation, virtual reality, personalized medicine, self driving cars, and people on Mars. A world where people might not even have jobs and where society itself may be arranged in fundamentally different ways. How are parents, and society for that matter, supposed to know how to prepare them to succeed in a world that we cannot predict?
What School Can Be
It starts by rethinking what a school is. Schools used to be the storehouses of human knowledge and going to school was the only way to learn anything. Now that is no longer the case, knowledge is no longer confined to dusty classrooms or old books. Thanks to the internet, it is now accessible to anybody who wants it, the purpose of schools now should be to get people to want it.
School should no longer be a place where we fill heads with information, rather it should be a place that inspires students to be curious about the world they live in. Kids are born explorers, when they are young all they want to do is push boundaries and explore the limits of what they can do. Let’s not suffocate that curiosity by making them spend their childhoods preparing for one test after another while adhering to rigid school policies that stifle creativity and independent thought.
The ability to adapt and learn something new should be valued above all else. Gone are the days where you pick a profession and just do that one thing for the rest of your life. People will need to know how to learn something new multiple times over in their lives. Not only because it will be the only way you’ll still be able to contribute to society, but also because our knowledge of the world and who we are is progressing incredibly quickly. If the last time you learned anything new was when you were in school, than you will be missing out on new ways of understandings the world that are constantly opening up.
Blueprint For Education In The 21st Century:
- Gone should be the days when kids are arbitrarily lumped together into classrooms full of students all forced to learn the same thing at the same pace. We have the ability to customize learning to fit each individual’s needs and desires and should do everything we can to take advantage of that ability. There already exist multiple online learning platforms, such as crash course, that teach a variety of subjects better than most teacher can.
- All active learning should be task driven. No more lessons where you jot down notes off a blackboard, rather, students are assigned tasks to complete and given all the tools they might need to figure out how to solve the problem. (3d printers, virtual learning environments, interactive displays, a connection to labs and research facilities all around the world, etc.)
- Passive learning should not be rigidly structured. Students should be given a topic to learn about and a variety of educational materials to pick from to help them learn, it should then be up to them which they want to use. (podcasts, videos, books, virtual tours, etc.)
- Teachers become facilitators of learning. Rather than lecturing everyone they go from student to student or group to group helping them figure out how to learn what they need to know. Teachers no longer need a deep understanding of the given topic they are teaching, but they should know how to learn about it. Students eventually should also be supplied with their own virtual learning assistant to answer any question they may have and help them stay on task.
- Classrooms themselves will need to be redesigned. No more square boxes with rows of desks, the classrooms of the future should be spaces that promote curiosity while fostering creative social interaction with peers.
- The goal of education should never be to get an A or pass a test. Making students and parents obsess about grades and scores sucks and makes most in the system miserable. The goal should be to make students literate in all core subjects and fluent at a select few. Being able to do something that you couldn’t do before, or finding a new way of understanding the world, and being able to apply it in the real world is far more rewarding than any score on a piece of paper ever could be.
In addition, education should get people to see that the world is not divided up into discreet subjects. Separating knowledge into columns labelled science or history or French does at times help us teach these subjects, but everyone should be made to realize that the world is not made up of independent subjects, they bleed into each other and none can be fully understood in isolation.
Students should also know that no subject is beyond them. We are told lies that some people just can’t do math or can’t draw, when what is meant was that in our world, you probably won’t ever be good enough at those subjects to make money from them, but that doesn’t mean you don’t benefit from understanding them. What should be taught is that a certain level of literacy in any subject is not only attainable by everybody, but is necessary to be able to fully appreciate the world we live in.
Much of this may seem a romantic dream, but the opportunity is now there and radical change is needed if we are going to figure out how to live in the future we are quickly hurtling towards.
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” – William Butler Yeats