One education cannot fit all

I think all of us know that the education system is not perfect. Some of us secretely hope that a revolution will happen in the way people learn. And maybe some of the readers are actually making the first steps towards this revolution. For today I have chosen several really cool articles, so do read here, here, here, here, and here.

Conveyer belt mentality

I think the current form of education is a result of the industrial revolution. Remember Henry Ford saying “A customer can have a car painted any color he wants as long as it’s black”? This is the true conveyor belt mentality: if we want to mass-produce something we need to standardize it. For the most part of 20th century, the workforce was built from pretty standardized and replaceable selection of professionals. And the education was mass-providing these professionals.

How does the conveyer-belt technology work in education? The methodology varies, so I will showcase a generic approach. Maybe you experienced something different.

First, very diverse people are brought together in tight classes of ~30 individuals. These people are left with each other for very long periods of time so that the resulting culture within the group is averaged to use the most stereotypical view on life.

Then all of the students need to hear the same lecture in the same form. Those who are good will probably get bored and doze off. Those who struggle with the subject will continue to struggle with it. Since different people do think differently, the same subject is explained in three different forms, none of which covers advanced and controversial subjects for better students, and none of which fills in the gaps for the struggling students.

Now matter what are the interests of the children, they all learn roughly the same subjects are handled by the same educators. There are simply not enough educators to answer the needs of each student. Knowing the limitations, the better students are advised to read books and the struggling students are advised to pay for tutors. With time the better students will doze off significantly and develop some gaps in understanding, and the struggling students will get enough tutoring to close their gaps. As the result, all of the students will finish the school roughly with the same bag of knowledge.

Not all parents can hire tutors, and not all kids do have enough time and a safe environment for their homework, yet the yield of the educational factory is very good. The graduation rates in the US are around 90%. To become a dropout, a rare combination of bad things needs to happen: early pregnancy, criminal activity, health and mental health issues, parental neglect etc.

Heat and pressure of the colledge

The majority of high school graduates (about 65% in US) goes to college. The higher education is constructed to provide the industry with the qualified workforce. This is a bit different from the conveyor belt mentality of the schools, and hence very expensive.

First, the students are sorted to fit their faculty. It is very hard to sort students: after all the previous schooling is built to minimize the differences between people. The process is very similar to separating oil: get a uniform product and heat it up with the pressure of exams. Some will bubble up towards the ivy league schools, while others will be more inert and go to a community college. The factors that matter: the ability to handle the pressure of constant examination, parental support both emotional and financial and (to a lesser extent) the personal talents.

Then the students are bombarded with somewhat relevant and highly abstract courses and tested at each point of the course. The classes are pretty large, ~120 students, and each time a large percent of the students is expected to fail. Those who fail, can learn the same subject again or go to less challenging professions. The examination pressure separates the more energetic and resilient students from those who cannot handle the heat.

As the college goes by, the training process and the pressure gets very specific for the given profession: engineers build projects, programmers write code, physicist solve problems, and humanitarians analyze tons of books. The professional solidarity is being born and the social gaps get larger. Somewhere during the last year of the college, the students finally understand why their first year subjects were relevant. By that time it is too late to relearn anything.

The college ends with some sort of qualification exam, the last degree of sorting, to verify the quality of the finished product. In some professions, the qualification degree is almost a formality, while in others it is a complex and dreaded challenge with a high drop rate.

Finally ready to think

After the college, there is often an internship or a masters degree. During that time, the young professionals get the first real experience of what they should be doing. They are given some simple challenges, and they are expected to adapt. At that point, most people get so tired because of constant examination, adapting to professional mentality and absorbing the culture of their organization, that they become what they were educated to be: professional workforce.

Probably ~10% of the highly trained professionals rebel against group thinking. About 1% of the people who went to school continues to PhD, a larger proportion continues to business and entrepreneurial activity. These people get the rare chance to do something that is supposed to be quite built-in in education: the ability to ask questions and think. To tell the truth, nothing in their early education prepared them for this new task. There is no more common culture to adapt to, no exams to pass, no peers to compete with. This is the point where we start asking the true questions and see the true gaps in our education.

Basically, we are not equipped to think on our own. Even philosophy is infested with group thinking and ruling paradigms.


Now that we get what we missed, we try to fill the gaps in our education. Do we really have the tools to do that?

There are plenty of courses we can take, without worrying for examination. This time we know why we take those courses, and we are worried about learning and not about competing. However, we hardly have enough time and self-discipline to learn.

Moreover, we get the same course for everybody. There is simply no way to generate a commercial book or a course that will fit the needs of a specific student, and make it available for the student.

There is the path of mentorship which is open for all. Mentors can guide our self-education and point us to the resources that we need. The guidance provided by the mentors is mostly from the bird eye’s view: there is a high chance the mentor will understand what you want and formulate your need but will not be able to provide that himself.

At the other extreme, there are highly paid consultants, that can find a pinpoint solution for your personal difficulty and make you cross the chasm. Do not underestimate this possibility: most people ignore it and pay more in terms of their personal time, frustration and risks they take.

Trying to fix things

Suppose you want to make things right, how can you change the system?

It is easier for our own child than it is on general. The first line of support is pretty expensive and obvious: hire good tutors, get the right consultants, provide the emotional support, generate the environment that contributes to personal resilience and curiosity.

Then we can be the role models. We can provide the context and the pathway for our children. The context is an external perspective on why they learn what they learn and how that fits with the roles different people take. The pathway is the personal growth vision, of how different skills interlock and build the person into a better human being. This way the education processed are perceived not as external pressure, but as a personal growth opportunity.

There is also an alternative education system of Montessori schools, alternative private schools, etc. These alternative school methods have some advantages over the conventional education for some students. I do not have enough knowledge in this area to argue. I would say that these schools are with us for more than a hundred of years, so if they were significantly better than the dominant system, people would by now switched.

Truly personal and individually cut education is still very expensive. We can try to build an artificial intelligence as a teacher, or give exceptional young people inspirational workshops. If you are businessmen and want to recruit thinkers into your team, quite possibly you do not have better options.

A revolution is coming

So why am I so optimistic about the coming revolution in education? There are three reasons.

The first: for the first time in human history there is a dire need in thinkers. Like nine mothers cannot be pregnant with a child for a month, so nine programmers are not nine times faster than one. One of the first books to notice it is “The mythical man month”. The work we do is not monotonously replaceable. We actually need all of our creativity and individuality to build new products and new offerings. It is only reasonable that the production process of educations adapts to the market needs.

The second: the massive advance of information technologies. The basic classes became a commodity, and we can get them via the internet. The basic training and grading can be provided by a computer. In the first time in many years, educators become free to do the thing the computers cannot do: provide the context and the pathway for the students they educate, help form the questions that are hard to form, and actually educate.

The third: we are finally getting good at cognitive sciences. Up until 10 years ago, most talks about cognitive sciences were highly speculative. Now we can actually see what happens in the individual brain when we are exposed to the different stimulus. And this knowledge is building up into a science that can make us better thinkers, just like engineering made us more productive builders.

Our teachers and professors are underpaid because the result of their hard work is a commodity product. If the teachers become artists, shaping the most precious resource the humanity has to offer, the best and the brightest will become educators once again.

I truly believe that a revolution is coming to education, and I have the patience to wait till it comes.

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