Sunday, February 19, 2017

Educating Our Children for Tomorrow instead of Yesterday

“For every human problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.”
H.L. Mencken. 1880-1956.

“You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family.”
Excerpt of letter from Robert Darwin to his son, Charles. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
Mark Twain. 1835-1910.

I can't help but think that many of the problems that afflict us today are caused by poor educational systems around the world. Today's schools most often educate through memorization: rote learning of formulas, algorithms, theorems, facts, and dates in every field from mathematics to science and history. It seems, as educators and as parents, we expect the children to follow the same model that we did two or three decades ago. It's odd, in retrospect, that the educational model that was first created by the British empire during the industrial revolution is still the norm in the vast majority of schools around the globe. At best, it's been “streamlined” through the introduction of multiple choice tests and standardized national tests.

Little do we realize that this same model that made a lot of sense when we needed armies of factory workers (later armies of engineers) no longer makes sense in tomorrow’s world. Hell, it doesn't even make sense in today's world. What we need now are not specialists in any given field (we have plenty of those) but rather generalists and polymaths who are comfortable jumping between multiple disciplines and connecting the dots. The only way to educate our children for such a future is to teach them how to think independently and be inquisitive about the world around them.

It's the lucky few who go through an educational system that asks them to actually think for themselves instead of cramming their heads with formulas that they will likely never use throughout the rest of their lives. Even luckier are those scarce few who find amazing teachers that bring subjects to life - instead of clubbing them to death with the hammer of standardized tests. The vast majority of children go through what basically amounts to hours and hours of memorization often without understanding (let alone internalizing) the subject at hand.

The emphasis on memorization means the student narrowly follows the rules to get to the desired result, like a laboratory rat solving a maze in return for a piece of cheese, but fails to truly understand the principles at play behind the formulas and, in turn, fails to apply them in slightly different settings where they may apply just as well. The goal of their study is to get to the end result (A, B, C, Or D: None of the above). The question of why and how come A or B or C often does not enter their consciousness.

Educators such as Maria Montessori (1870-1952) evangelized a vastly different approach to education in the past century, emphasizing self-guided exploration over rote memorization of facts. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Julia Child are just a few of the famous and successful graduates of the Montessori system. Unfortunately, most children today don't enjoy such an education.

I was horrified when I saw this video of some girls in an Indian village “computing” for their teacher:

Watch as they mimic the action of an abacus with their fingers in order to solve the math problems. How many months did they spend perfecting this skill - and, why exactly, is the teacher happy about that? Shouldn't their brains be put to a more useful activity in this day and age? As I watched their teacher proudly show off their skill and egg them on with harder problems, I couldn't help but wonder if they also make the “carriage return” motion from old manual typewriters when they type on the computer!

The British empire was made successful in part by the educational system it created and propagated around the world - not just to their colonies but also to most of the rest of the globe. The so-called “ragged schools” were created to prepare destitute children in inner cities for work in factories during the industrial revolution. The American empire has, by comparison, failed miserably when it comes to education by continuing to prepare students for yesterday's world instead of tomorrow's. We need a revolution in our educational system if we ever want to succeed in the long run. It will take decades, it will be hard work, to undo what we have created. But nothing less than the future of our children depends on it.

1 comment:

  1. Good one Ben couldn't agree more. But any formal education is just that - mass produce for mass production needs. The apprentice of yore wasn't scalable (carpentry, blacksmith) and mass education focused on skills, the narrower the better. So learning is best till we get into school....