Hey, teachers! Leave them kids alone!

A plea (and a proposal) for education reform

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

My niece, Eden, turned six recently. She came to visit us in California for her birthday. We went to Disneyland together and spent a few days at home as well: typical spring break for a six year old living in New Jersey.

Eden and I end up spending quite a bit of time together when she visits, mostly sitting in the backyard and talking. She relishes the California sunshine and warmth after a cold New Jersey winter spent cooped up in the house. And I, too, admit to being a sun worshiper, enjoying the backyard and California’s seemingly perpetual springtime.

These conversations with Eden can revolve around anything: recent events in school, what happened on a cartoon she was watching today, the latest happenings on Wall Street, Donald Trump, civil war history; you name it. I’ve learned to talk to her like an adult and am constantly amazed by how much she can absorb.

Eden, in my honest opinion, is a genius. But, then again, I think all children are brilliant. Eden speaks three languages fluently without ever having been “taught” any of them. She could play the piano and catch her own mistakes long before she ever learned to read notes, a seemingly magical ability to someone like me who can’t speak “Piano-ese” any more than Japanese. She already reads at a third grade level and is, consequently, often bored in school given that she’s still stuck in kindergarten.

Her high level of intelligence also means she often gets frustrated with the childish environment she is forced to inhabit. For the first couple of days of her visit, I couldn’t get her to read even a picture book, one that should have been a piece of cake. She refused to concentrate and intentionally misread simple words. Once I caught her not even looking at the page as she recited the words, apparently from perfect memory of a previous reading. She was telling me she was bored with the exercise, that it was too simple. Then I put a much harder book in front of her, one with a hundred words per page instead of just ten. She immediately started reading with no problem whatsoever!

“In the next thirty years, according to UNESCO, more people worldwide will be graduating through education than since the beginning of history.” — Sir Ken Robinson. Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Every time I sit with Eden, I’m reminded of this amazing TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson on education and how we need to completely rethink our approach to it for the next century. Children need individualized attention and they need to be challenged mentally. They are vastly more intelligent than we give them credit, capable of learning complex concepts more easily than us adults.

We take these brilliant minds and force them to sit through a dozen or more years of institutionalized hell called primary and secondary education, memorizing formulas and theorems so they can answer multiple-choice questions on a test before promptly forgetting them.

I’m convinced kids are interested in everything that we bother to make interesting for them. If they have trouble in a subject, it’s not because they don’t “get” it but rather that they didn’t “get” an earlier foundational concept because the teacher didn’t make the topic interesting.

Our model of education, unfortunately, is often not set up to challenge kids intellectually or to teach them how to think; instead, its assembly line approach is based on rote memorization, standardized tests, and principles based on the needs of the 18th century.

The British empire was successful in part because of the educational system it created and propagated around the world during the industrial revolution. That model is still used today but it no longer makes sense given everything that has happened in the intervening centuries. We have to start preparing children for tomorrow’s information based world instead of yesterday’s world of factories.

What we need now are not more specialists in any given field (we already have plenty of those and will continue to get more based on individual interests) but rather generalists and polymaths who are comfortable jumping between disciplines and connecting the dots, noticing patterns and thinking outside the box. The only way to educate our children for the future is to teach them how to think independently and be inquisitive about the world around them.

A scant few children will have the privilege of working with amazing teachers who will challenge them while the vast majority will be marginalized by an education system that crams their heads full of formulas they will likely never use throughout the rest of their lives. Worse, they will come to resent learning and stop reading after they graduate from school.

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, as a result, 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 questions of why and how come often don’t enter their consciousness.

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.

“Now the problem with standardized tests is that it's based on the mistake that we can simply scale up the education of children like you would scale up making carburetors. And we can't, because human beings are very different from motorcars, and they have feelings about what they do and motivations in doing it.” — Sir Ken Robinson.

Here we are with “blank slates” that hunger to learn, children who have the mental capacity to pick up three completely distinct human languages in just a couple of years of ad hoc practice, who teach themselves to play the piano… take your pick of amazing skills you’ve seen children display.

We take these geniuses — there is no other word for it — with the massive computing engines they carry around on top of their necks all day, and we sit them down and tell them to memorize formulas they will never need — instead of helping them understand the deep principles behind those formulas, instead of teaching them to seek answers and not just memorize them.

After we’ve crammed their heads full of data for sixteen to twenty years, we tell them they’re all set for the rest of their lives and send them out into the workforce. This may have worked well when the average life expectancy was forty but it’s a recipe for disaster now that it’s eighty and creeping towards one hundred. What we learned half a century ago in school, assuming we even remember much of it, is stale by definition and no longer relevant to today’s — let alone tomorrow’s — needs.

We need a model for continuous life-long education, one that teaches children to think and learn for themselves in the long run — for the joy of learning, not because they want to pass a test or because they need a paycheck next year.

Incremental improvements in the current model of education will not get us where we need to go. Nothing short of a revolution in our thinking about education will address the problems of the current system. We need to stop thinking about twelve to sixteen years of education early in life that prepares you for a lifetime of work.

Our world is moving forward at such a fast clip that much of the education we received even two decades ago is obsolete for today’s workforce, let alone tomorrow’s information based needs. The education you are receiving today will not prepare you for a career in the year 2050 or beyond.

Think instead about a model of education that will prepare you only for the next stage of life, the next twenty years. Assume that you’ll need continuing education along the way as you work in order to pick up additional specialized knowledge. Rinse and repeat every two decades in order to avoid the “planned obsolescence” almost guaranteed by today’s system.

In the world I’m proposing, you graduate to an apprenticeship in your chosen field and continue to take classes on the side as you work. There is an admission here that on-the-job training and continuous life-long education is required for staying competitive in the job market.

Once you reach age forty in this new model, you get to a fork in the road. If you’re happy and want to continue down the same career path then, by all means, double down for the next twenty years, pick a specific sub-field to specialize in, continue to take senior level graduate courses to beef up your theoretical understanding and learn about the sub-specialty you’re interested in.

Remember, you’ve just spent twenty years investing in this particular field — be it computer science or economics or medieval European history. Now you’ve come to a fork in the road and have decided to double down. Well, good for you. Fame and fortune is sure to be yours as you become a senior leader in your field with many decades of work and study under your belt.

If, on the other hand, you decide you’ve had enough and want to try your luck at something else, be it nuclear physics or genetic engineering or Egyptian hieroglyphics, well then — welcome to your second career.

You may go down this other path for several legitimate reasons. Maybe you decide you’re just not good at your initial field of endeavor and want to try your hand at something else. Maybe you realize your career is not what you thought it would be and are not fulfilled. Maybe you feel you’ve learned enough about this field (say, computer science) and want to learn more about another (say, economics)— and the intersection of these two disciplines.

The proposed model of education would also, by necessity, spend less time on minutiae and formulas, memorization and multiple choice exams, and instead spend more time on teaching principles of science and learning, the values of logic and skepticism, the place of humans in history, and why it’s important to seek knowledge for its own sake. A real liberal arts education!

Such an educational model would finally be able to tell teachers: “Hey, teachers! Leave them kids alone,” as Pink Floyd so wisely said. Stop forcing them to memorize formulas and teach them how to learn instead. Teach them how to think instead. Stop forcing them to learn how to do integrals. Assume they have an app for that. Tell them what integrals are good for, instead.

Such a system would reward teachers for connecting the dots between science and history, between philosophy and mathematics, between logic and morality, between religion and history, between psychology and biology.

Lots of interesting business ideas are born at the cross-section of disciplines, not within a single field. We should be welcoming and rewarding polymaths who straddle multiple fields, yet our educational system and career models make it extremely difficult in their current implementations.

You may argue that people are free to switch careers even today and that there’s nothing new in what I’m proposing. In reality, switching careers is frowned upon today, causes a huge financial setback, and is rarely even attempted. What I envision is a world in which we as a society encourage and support, perhaps even subsidize, such a move instead of actively making it difficult, as we do today.

This proposed model obviously rewards generalists and practitioners but it also leaves the door open for specialization — later, as needed and with fresher more up-to-date content. Rinse and repeat every twenty years and, I claim, the end result is a much healthier society with happier citizens living longer, more productive, lives.

Your forties and fifties in this new model will be much more productive and happy than what we get today — with the vast majority of people deciding they’re stuck in a career they hate for the rest of their lives. It reinvigorates them, I claim, if they are given a chance to pursue another career. Rinse and repeat at sixty and maybe even eighty. As our average life expectancy increases, it’s the only sustainable model.

Crucially, also, you’ll have decades of life experience behind you when you opt for your second career. Let’s face it: Some fields of study naturally lend themselves better to incorporation of past social interactions and life lessons. It’s more fruitful to study, say, psychology or law or journalism later in life, as a forty year old, than it is to do so as a twenty year old with no scars on your back.

Industry would have to collaborate in this model of the universe, accepting people into their employ with a few less TLAs in front of their title, hiring more generalists interested in learning a craft. Most high tech companies already do this today through intern programs that sometimes reach all the way into high school to find early talent. Companies would also have to support ongoing part-time education more holistically than they do today.

Back to Eden. She has long known how to Google things for herself, order apps on her iPad, watch videos on YouTube, play Words with Friends against the computer, and much more. Compare this to the intellectual universe available to a six year old a century ago… or even just thirty years ago. There is no comparison.

It’s amazing how quickly our brains have stepped up to handle the massive amounts of information coming at us 24x7. We are only now starting to realize the extraordinary cognitive and pattern matching abilities of the human brain. But, still, we choose to take these amazing supercomputers while at the peak of their learning abilities and lock them into rooms for hours a day, teaching them… to hate learning! Nothing short of a revolution in how we think about education will fix that.

Having just returned from Disneyland where she stood, starry-eyed, taking pictures with her favorite princesses, I felt a bit subversive as I gave Eden this t-shirt for her sixth birthday gift.

Former CTO of VMware, former VP at Microsoft, recovering long distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.

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