Flexible Education

February 13, 2019 • #

This is part 2 of a series on learning, education, and what we might do to improve. Read part 1.

In my introduction to this series a couple weeks ago, I posited a few ways we could rethink education. The first idea was about increasing the flexibility of the system to create one more prepared to adapt to changing demand:

Create a system flexible enough to keep up with what markets demand (and I use “market” to mean “any post-education environment”) — our system is too rigid to bend and adapt to that demand

“Rigid” is a good way to describe most western education systems, and it’s my belief that this lack of flexibility is poorly suited to being adaptable to what markets demand. When you look back on the history of what we’d call “structured” education, it’s very young in the big picture. Modern American public education models can be traced back to the Prussian military academies of the late 19th century. Age-based grouping, structured progression through a hierarchy, measurement and ranking at each stage — these all suited the need of a military organization, the goals of which were much different than what we’re after today.

In Sal Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse, he goes back to the start to try and understand how we got to where we are in education. The approach he lays out essentially disputes or reframes each of the implicit goals of the current public education system:

  • Instead of fixed age-based groupings, go back to the days of the town schoolhouse, where kids of various ages sat in the same room together
  • Rather than a forced progression, let students learn some of their preferred subjects, proceeding to the next when they feel comfortable doing so
  • And instead of being forced to “pass / fail” after a set period of time, use mastery-based learning to ensure there’s true understanding before building the next layer of concepts on a shaky foundation

Naturally such a wild restructuring of the system would be costly, time-consuming, and painful to peel away from the rigid institutions in place today. With his own Khan Academy, Khan is putting his own skin in this game to incrementally build toward a more sustainable future for education. The Khan Academy leverages modern tools and technology to first augment what’s already being done in public schools with teaching based on the principles outlined above.

Flexibility is not something the current model accommodates well at all. So much about each individual student varies wildly: home life, interests, physical vs. mental ability, and experience to name a few. Expecting to see complete alignment within an individual 12-month cohort sounds completely absurd when thought of in those terms. Then, when equity or uniformity is not achieved by year-end, we want to blame or “fix” everything else — be it teachers, course content, or parenting. I’d argue that the model for delivery of the education itself is what’s broken. Perfection is a noble objective, but it should be evident to anyone that it’s also a pipe dream (which also is not something to be upset about). Today’s system of rigorous measurement, grading, and scoring seems to be unfortunately focused on everything but the students.

I sometimes try to imagine the difference in outcome if the systems in place were organized around exposing ideas, identifying interests, harnessing said interests, and enabling students to have success in their areas of choice, even from an early age.

The argument is not to roll a kindergarten classroom back to anarchy and then “wait and see.” Obviously a medium is the goal. It is worthwhile to retain some amount of baseline exposure to various topics — math, reading, writing, science, humanities. But rather than zeroing in so closely on each and forcing every student to achieve total comprehension on everything, why not lower the baseline and raise targets on areas where students show strong aptitude in grade school?

We should establish the lowest possible baselines for foundational principles, then let students grow from there more organically than we do today. Improve the strengths rather than dragging forward the weaknesses.

Another huge benefit of something like the Khan Academy has nothing to do with western, rich public education systems at all — it can bring an education to an entire third of the world’s population that has little to no access to any at all. There’s an economy of scale here enabled by the internet that should be harnessed and invested in.