Education in the 21st century is broken. To fix it we need to accept the possibility that learning is more than gaining knowledge. It is something we can be passionate about, as we are passionate about games or TV shows. This is a very different perspective on education, and I think it facilitates learning.
The best entertainment around
When I was a child school used to be boring, but physics books were interesting. In fact, it was the best entertainment I could find. The next best alternative was playing chess. I was very good at the game, but I really hated it. TV was very bad. There were two channels, and the best shows were about science, traveling and animals. The best books we had at home dealt with physics, biology, and history. I could read classical Russian literature or victorian English literature, but both were too dark for my taste. Learning was my best option to have fun.
Today the situation is radically different and it is much harder for education to compete with YouTube. Yet, it has a fighting chance.
The visuals of nature
Some nature films can be extremely compelling. In coral reefs, African Savana or Deep Space, the visuals are extraordinarily beautiful. Art is beautiful almost by definition, unfortunately, it is targeted for elders and the soundtrack is usually boring. At the same time, history is both documentaries for more serious public and coming to the popular culture in movies and animated series.
On Youtube we can find some crazy statistics and chemistry experiments. Not sure there is much we can learn from these oddities, but we might get intrigued by what we see.
The math as a riddle
While certain mathematicians consider math the divine music, most of us do not share this enthusiasm. Math is a great way to describe and solve riddles. As a child, if I wanted to do something active I could choose between chess riddles, math riddles, and Rubik’s cube. I could go out if I was not sick, but I was sick more often than not. Using math I was taught to be creative. Interesting people would sit with me and solve riddles together. That was the only thing except eating that I could do with my uncle or my father. There were huge books of mathematical riddles for every age, and it would take me 10 min to solve a riddle. A great way to spend time being sick during the long winter nights.
My kids still love riddles, and that’s a pleasure. They even have some extracurricular riddle-solving activities. Nowadays about 90% of their riddle consumption comes from strategy games on their computers and mobile devices. Programming riddles are by far the most popular with my kids, but they also do some math and logic riddles. (This does not have to be done at home. International schools in Singapore also offer some extracurricular riddle-solving activities.)
How things work
When I was a child there were no shows about how they build things or how things work. Watching a huge plant mass-producing anything from cars to bagels is a great learning experience. I am not really sure what it teaches, but the entertainment factor is there. Also, it is great for certain kinds of trivia. My kids especially enjoy when a big guy creates a clear cut using a chain saw or a similar apparatus and they can see the insides of things.
My kids are the only kids in their music school who truly enjoy the theory lessons. I am not really sure why. They claim they like identifying and naming patterns. Then why other kids are less enthusiastic? Is it some kind of my personal influence? In any case, music theory is not an ability to show off and not the joy of making beautiful sounds, but the strange science of how sounds can be arranged to make us feel. It is like a decomposition of magic. You witness a magic act, and then the equipment is revealed. I think this is a highly educating experience, even if it is not a STEM subject. To learn more about music theory, please visit Musicaroo or equivalent.
So, why is learning entertaining? Here are some ideas:
- Hypnotizing sounds and visuals. Bad teachers are boring. Great science often comes with breathtaking effects. We can stand quite a lot as long as we are allowed to watch explosions, wild chases, strange costumes, and beautiful sunsets.
- Construction and Deconstruction. Analysis often involves breaking something into pieces and understanding how it works. Then these pieces can be reconnected into something new. The behavior is so deeply rooted in human evolution, that we find it deeply enjoyable.
- Competitions. If we get a measure of our progress and ability to improve, the activity is gamified. More so if we are measured against the others and are better than our peers. If we are not as good as our peers the same gamification is a negative stressor and should be avoided. We can always compete against ourselves, and almost always improve over time.
- Creativity and self-expression. The way we understand and visualize information and the way we explain ourselves to others can be interesting. People love self-expression and creativity is often enjoyable. Certain riddles may cause obsessive or compulsive behavior, but overall we feel good when we are creative.
- Adventure. Some learning is an adventure. We need to step out of our comfort zone and get into a new comfort zone. It is frightening and exciting. We do not fully know what we will find next, and we can anticipate it. As a child, I remember looking at the curriculum and fantasizing. Today the thrill is gone. I open Wikipedia and learn the basics, then all that is left is diving deeper into the details.
When I was a child, knowledge was power. Today we have too much knowledge. In fact, AI will probably outplay us in every knowledge-related game from playing chess to answering trivia, from creating metal music to solving mathematical activities. If AI cannot outplay humans, possibly in some sweatshops in China or Indonesia (or any other place you fancy) thousands of people repeat the same task, perfecting it beyond the level of mastery and into automatism.
Yet there are things still slightly out of reach for AI or sweatshops. We are talking about true creativity, passion, excitement. When learning is entertaining we can do something very few people can handle: discover or create something new.
This is something hard to proof, yet I firmly believe it to be true. If learning is treated as mass production of good citizens, we will not be able to compete globally. Only truly creative, entertaining and mobilizing learning experience may provide a competitive edge.