Some Thoughts on Education – Pt. 2, Possible Solutions

Obviously, I have some thoughts as to possible improvements. One thing I want to shy away from is “Let’s make learning more fun!” or “We need better teachers”. I mean, I agree with those things, but how do we do those things? Just saying it doesn’t make it so.

Will these work? No idea. I’m just spit-balling, because I’m not a real educator. But hell, I think these have as much merit as “Why don’t we take lectures and PUSH them on to a computer screen?”

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Commission Based Teaching

This on the surface sounds like a “WhY DoN’t We PaY TEacHuRes moAr AmiRIte?” sort of idea, but I think there is more going on here than simply paying our educators more.

The thought is that teaching as a profession would be more prestigious if it were tied to opulent amounts of money. Generally, this is met with resistance that often claims that teachers work less hours and have summers off and are thus paid adequately.

But let’s say we set certain metrics that are important to our school, for example, an inner-city Baltimore school may look at retention. Or attendance. Every full day of attendance or student that graduates may warrant a commissioned bonus, similar to how sales teams often receive commission.

Now the obvious objection is, what are we measuring? Because if we measure test scores, the teachers will cheat to achieve the test scores. And attendance doesn’t mean learning, right? Sure, fair arguments, but this thought was more to entice those starting their careers to education.

In order to get quality education, we need quality teachers.

In order to get quality teachers, we need to compensate them well.

But we also want them to work and earn every penny, so let’s marry performance and financial incentive. Simple, no?

What we consider adequate performance has to be nationally decided because right now we operate under a system that pretends to be about instruction and in actuality is about keep some of the population out of the labor force.

How else do you explain the fact that our generation is getting Master’s while Baby Boomers refuse to retire?

We don’t even know what an effective, educating system feels like. It’ll take time to figure out, but commission based teaching may help us get there.

Google Subject Reminders

One thing I noticed a lot while I was tutoring was how connected even the youngest child would be to technology. Little eyeballs glued to smartphone screens driving up ad revenue. But more interesting was what they were looking at. I mean, yes, a lot of times it was Flappy Bird, but a lot of times it was dinosaurs and the solar system.

It’s hard to take a device away from a child if they are actually trying to learn something from it. I heard it on the radio the other day, the DJ was talking about how he was upset at his daughter for spending too much time on an iPad, but when he confiscated it he saw that she was looking up facts about Pluto. Not for an assignment, just to drive her curiosity.

I think this points to earlier, when I said that children are always learning informally.

The issue I see is that there is no retention. I’m glad kids explore their curiosity, but they should also keep something from their little explorations.

I think technology has a wonderful opportunity here.

Say there was a plug-in that could identify when you go into a sinkhole of information devouring, but zeroed into commonly taught subjects. So your weird little obsession with dinosaurs dies down, but two weeks later, “Hey, remember that dinosaur spiral you went on?” pops up. Maybe then, hijack the so-called filter bubble to show how dinosaurs fit in the framework of biology.

Basically, gently guide our natural, informal tendencies to seek out new information to fit in the education system.

I’m sure something like this already exists.

I also want to point out that we don’t really have settled mores as to how to deal with technology. This goes back to how the older generation really might not be able to teach children in this landscape. After all, I’ve seen first-hand five-year-olds embarrass teachers on how to operate an iPad. Very quickly though, we’ll have to teach our children and ourselves how to navigate this space safely. 

School Supplies Social Business

This applies the social business idea I’ve been pushing for a while.

To recap, a normal business operates by creating a product or service which is sold on the market. This generates revenue. In order to provide this service or product, you need capital, labor, pay your taxes, etc. This is overhead. Revenue minus overhead is profit, and profit is generally accepted as the endgame of running a business.

Social business (SB) simply prefers to create a product or service for an explicit social benefit. SB rejects the profit, so instead of going in the pockets of the founders or investors, it is either reinvested in the business or is funneled into directly alleviating the chosen social ill.

Let’s apply this model.

Consider a school supply company. Mostly, currently done for profit (see: Texas Instruments). Instead, imagine a company that produce school supplies but sold them with the explicit social purpose of advancing educational welfare.

Maybe this translates to using all profits to giving a free set of supplies to needy areas.

Maybe this translates to textbooks.

Maybe this would mean that monopolistic price gouging to meet an arbitrary bottom line can be avoided and school supplies become more affordable to less-than-well-endowed schools.

This is where I feel educators really need to get involved and become more entrepreneurial. Because what I offered was a ridiculously half-assed idea to solve a problem that may or may not exist. Those on the frontlines will better be able to see problems and craft solutions or accelerate the deployment of useful workarounds.

A Teacher-Student Continuum

A real test against the current system is to just trash the whole teacher-student dichotomy altogether. This is almost blasphemous, but let’s consider it for a minute.

I mentioned earlier how in a rapidly changing time, time-tested wisdom no longer holds. Consider how many adults have told you to just “Walk in, be confident, and ask for an application!” I also mentioned how learning is generally an informal and constant process.

One way to codify this might be viewing the relationship between info-giver and info-absorber as more of a continuum than a strict dichotomy. This might mean getting rid of grades (of the K through 12 variety, not the A, B+, F-, etc variety) and instead gauging how much time a student spends at each section of the spectrum.

I like this idea for a few reasons.

One, it is absurd to me that my early education was spent competing against peers of the same age group. In kindergarten, it was me vs other six year olds. As a high school sophomore, it was me vs other sixteen year olds. But now, in the workforce at twenty-four, it is me vs other sixty year olds. This continuum setup is more akin to the workplace than an arbitrary division by age.

Two, this continuum setup shifts the focus from product on a line to information spreaders and information absorbers. And the cool thing is you can shift from one to the other relatively quickly, maybe even on the same topic. This also seems, intuitively at least, more in line with the paradigms of the computer era – who is acting as our database, who is acting as a function, who is defining our classes, etc.

This also grants the child autonomy. I think it is easy to treat of children as separate from adults, but the older I get, the more I realize that children act in their own personhood and that some of the most respectable, dignified members of our society are really just boys grown tall.

This doesn’t mean let kids do whatever they want – they still haven’t matured. But allow them to make decisions about themselves and their place in a group and teach them to respect other’s decisions as their own.

Treating the child as having autonomy is one of the best things to come of this framework.

Again, just spit-balling here.

Makerspace Learning

This goes hand in hand with our previous point of granting autonomy from an early age. Makerspaces, as you may know, are areas devoted to providing the materials need to create things. Basically, an open machine shop, art studio, recording studio, laboratory, play space and more, all at once.

Using the makerspace as the center of learning instead of the classroom would shift the emphasis from rote memorization and grinding through theoretical, abstract exercises to creating something. This means the student now must be entrepreneurial, curious, inventive, creative, and/or problem-solving.

Often, we try to cultivate a sense of ‘critical thinking’, but rubber never seems to hit the road, does it? But if you are forced to create something of quality you will find that you cannot afford not to solve a problem at least once. Critical thinking is best exercised, not theorized.

This may not be for every student. Some students may never have it in them come up with a brilliant or original idea. That’s okay. Assisting and humbling yourself to help others pursue their goals is equally important society. In fact, I would say this is truly the backbone of ingenuity in society.

Maybe these traits aren’t what you consider the purpose of education, but I personally would want the future generation to be able to meet the challenges of the future. I think the traits I identified (creative, inquisitive, etc) would be crucial for that.

Story-Telling as Instruction

I mentioned that one thing I often try to do is look at primitive cultures as inspiration for how to model current systems as my own form of biomimetic engineering. Already I mentioned how primitive cultures give us the insight that learning is diffuse and constant. I think another insight we have yet to fully capitalize on is the role of story-telling.

Hear me out. I know this is very un-engineer to say, but myth and story are important ways for people to convey information to each other. It’s why we used stories to identify constellations. Scorpio and Orion were important because from there, when I was travelling, I could look up and know where I was.

I personally noticed this when I tutored. I would often teach the Pythagorean Theorem by first explaining Pythagoras’ cult and how he basically died because he hated beans. If you don’t know it, look it up. But such a ridiculous story easily cements learning.

I should mention though, storytelling is often considered a skill in primitive societies and one that is woefully underdeveloped in so-called civilized societies. The fact that my student earned a 98% on the Pythagorean theorem quiz was in spite of, not because of, my storytelling ability.

And I’m definitely not alone.

One way I’ve seen this attempted is through turning facts into memes. Memes, besides being hilarious, quickly and effectively disseminate ideas. Generally, they fail, because I’m trying to laugh, not learn. Also, some geezer trying to stay lit and crack a cold one with the boys is as cringey as this sentence I just wrote.

But it still stands, I’ve seen more political “facts” spread in the last election cycle than I have seen sum total before that point. How do we meme-ify the core ideas of major academic subjects?  Can we hack this weird quirk of human nature to spread actual ideas and non-partisan facts?

Again, reaaally not my field.

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Those were just a few ideas, not fully formed at all. But you can see that this area is ripe for disruption. Education has been static for the last 60 to 70 years, at least. Sure, we have obvious ideas in the funnel like flipped classrooms and putting lectures online.

But I think we can do better.

I think we are in a unique position in history and we should take advantage of that, but also recognize that this transition is violent and challenging for a lot of people. Some are getting left behind. Some are getting forgotten.

If our future minds are in these groups, the resilience of our society will rapidly decline. Equipping children and future generations to meet these challenges head on must be thought about in a more rigorous way than simply using education as an excuse for offloading our inability to solve current problems to some future populace.

This current generation is already indebted with the problems of past generations. We cannot let this cycle continue, because this cycle, unlike most cycles, will not perpetuate. For good or for ill.

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