Recently I was asked to look at some new online education schemes - after all, large parts of education appear broken and too expensive, there is a disconnect between what is taught and skills requirements and there are probably many business opportunities. Not much time was allotted, but I've been thinking about this sort of thing for a long time.
I've written quite a bit on the subject in the blog - you can take a look at posts tagged with education. Rather than my distilling and summarizing it probably makes more sense for someone to think for themselves and then the two of us can have a much deeper discussion and perhaps both of us will learn something. A good starting point, if anyone is interested, is this short post that outlines some observations and questions I have about teaching and learning. A regular Omenti reader got in touch and we had a great conversation that went on for more than a week. Eventually I'd like to address some of those points, but I need to learn much more first.
But I'm seeing some very rigid schemes emerge. Everyone wants to teach to some curricula and make maximum use of a student's and teacher's time. What bothers me is this is very different from the most valuable piece of my education.
The K-12 schools I went to were probably average. There were a few inspired teachers and many others who, in retrospect, were probably marking time. The work load wasn't terribly high and I didn't have any real organized extracurricular activities or the micro-scheduling that seems to be common today in homes that are trying to get their kids into the "best" colleges so they can get the "best" jobs and presumably make the most money and be "happiest"...
What was really important to me was the freedom my parents gave me (that is probably the single most important post I've penned). I was, out of necessity, a free-range kid and I remember long periods of being really bored.
With time I learned how to fill those white spaces in my day with activities that fueled my curiosity.
I didn't realize it at the time, but I was learning how to learn
I also learned how to focus on something deeply - I've found, at least for me, that single-tasking for hours at at time is very important if you want to engage your mind. You have to realize it can take hours, days, weeks and sometimes much longer to wrestle with a set of ideas until you get to the point where the solution arrives and seems, in retrospect, simple and trivial. You have to learn how to pace yourself and to shift your focus to different tasks so you don't burn out on a specific problem.
When I talk to professor friends who teach physics, math, astrophysics, chemistry, biology and the like at the graduate level they note the successful students are those who have learned the trick of focus and single tasking. Increasingly they note that multi-field synthesis is critical too. It is useful to talk to others who are doing very different things. That allows you to connect the dots and to form really simple questions that perhaps can be answered.
I spent a few decades working in the research arm of a R&D lab connected to a huge company. It surprised me to see how many tasks peers in the business end were forced to juggle. They were clearly doing a lot of work, but it was often without perspective and frequently without a lot of thought (there were exceptions). I consider this a failure of the company to realize the ongoing education of many of its employees as they worked. Ultimately the company failed and was purchased by another for its assets and name. It isn't clear the new entity is much better - I don't see how they will learn and evolve in the long term, but we'll see. But this is a diversion...
I think there is a lot of value to be found in focusing more on how to learn and how to focus deeply. I worry the Internet gives "answers" too quickly - the act of puzzling over something is very important. When I was being mentored the US postal service imposed a week long latency in getting answers which forced me to learn how to ask better questions that weren't as trivial. Wikipedia would have probably been a disaster for me and I would have never reached a point where I could go on to physics.
Of course many items that are presently taught will be outmoded. Memorization is far less important now and perhaps more effort can go into teaching reasoning. I'd love to see logic and statistical thinking taught in 10th or 11th grade. These are critical skills that most American citizens lack.
I also think it is critically important to teach the arts. Not just an appreciation for them, but attempting to get basic skills across. Much of my thinking is visual and even musical even though I'm not a good artist and even worse as a musician. But I have enough that it helps me connect with people who are skilled either in person or studying what they've done and that has led to enough deep insights that all of my bumbling along has been worth the effort.1 Teaching the arts takes a lot of time and a different approach than what currently exists. Music composition or illustration is probably about as difficult as teaching basic literacy - figure at least eight or nine years before most people can do coherent work.
The notion of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education is stale in my mind. What some call STEAM (STEM plus the Arts) is much more relevant and one of the secret sauces at Apple and Pixar. Fortunately some Universities have recognized this and are extending their focus, but we need it to happen earlier.
I've given too many links that I'd ask you to read and I'd love to hear your ideas. In parting I mention that in the past few years I've learned that sport is also something important and, at least for me, combining sport and physics has led to some insight I wouldn't have found elsewhere. Others have found deep and beautiful connections with many of the sciences and cooking. Whatever your field, at some level there are probably seemingly poorly coupled connections that turn out to be deeply important.
Closing the circle I note that few, if any, of the new education schemes I've seen seem to have a lot of potential for addressing the fundamental issues head on... The good news is we're entering a period of great experimentation and, if we're lucky, many or all of these will fade away and be replaced with new models from the learnings that result. The ride should be fantastic!
But one last thought...
Americans place far too much weight on native talent. What a foolish notion! Hard work and curiosity are far more important.
1 Every good natural scientist I know has at least one passion in the arts and more than a few had to make a choice. In the US there is too much of an assumption that talent is central. Of course that is a corrupt notion. What is really important is curiosity and hard work.
Another black bean veggie burger.
I've been playing with veggie burgers lately and here is the latest iteration. It was excellent, but I'm sure could be improved. Note the egg, so it isn't vegan. The egg is there to hold it together.
° 4 tablespoons of barbecue sauce (I had a free sample of hickory bbq sauce)
° 1 tablespoon dark molasses
° 1 15 ounce can of black beans (drained)
° 2 cups of cooked brown rice (left over from another meal in my case, so I used a cup)
° 1 tablespoon of steel cut oats (for binder)
° 1/4 finely chopped red onion - probably about 2 tablespoons
° half a jalapeno pepper finely chopped
° about a teaspoon of chili powder
° some ground cumin
° uniodized salt and freshly ground pepper
° 1 egg white. I probably could have used a bit more, so beware. This is the binding agent
° Stir together barbecue sauce and molasses.
° In a large bowl, mash beans and stir in 3 tablespoons of the barbecue mixture (keep the rest for brushing) and remaining ingredients -- rice through egg white. Form into four 6 oz patties
° Cook in some olive oil in a non-stick skillet (that means seasoned cast iron for me) over medium. Cook burgers for 2 minutes on one side. Turn and brush with remaining barbecue/molasses mixture. Cook for another 2 minutes. You could top with a cheese when you flip it. Sadly it doesn't hold together well enough to really work on a barbecue grill, but if you get the binders better - perhaps