Schools of the Future

What will the school of the future look like? What should it look like?

Rilke in one of his letter wrote:

Each person ought to be guided only to the point where he becomes capable of thinking by himself, working by himself, learning by himself [...]
Schools ought to think about all in terms of individuals, not in terms of grades

and I think that in the future, the educational system will fully embrace that philosophy.

What would it look like, exactly? Well, first, schools need to be personalized. Through teaching various people in wildly different circumstances (teaching math to a seven-year-old; teaching college students; on-boarding new hires) I realized that different people learn differently, and the element of feedback is crucial to continuing progress; in other words, if the specific lesson someone took (as opposed to being given – which implies passivity) from a session isn’t reflected on by the teacher and built upon, the teaching is not going to succeed.

Fortunately, technology can make this possible, giving the teacher leverage he or she could never have dreamt of. However, historically the teaching industry has been going through much slower release cycles and so it will probably take a long time before any change is apparent.

This is one part of the “thinking in terms of individuals, not grades” philosophy — instead of standardizing on the outcome, think about how the teaching is internalized by each student. Another part has to do with the goal of education itself — that goal is to increase the intellectual capacity of an individual, not to produce a society that achieves high grades. The latter is just a construct of the educational system and just as any system that starts overly relying on its metrics, it runs a significant risk of the educators losing sight of the goal (not to mention the reality of any standardized system being game-able by those who have spent a lot of time in it). So in addition to focusing on the individual, we will have to come up with more meaningful success metrics, probably more qualitative ones (since the tuition will be so individualized, we will no longer be able to come up with a single number to describe an entire population).

“Guiding each person up to a point” is just as important. I’ve always thought that the purpose of school is to teach you to think, not to teach you anything specific–the specific may be a side effect, a necessary outcome of a particular educational design (and may be required no matter what design, although we don’t know that), but should definitely not be a goal onto itself. This also means specific knowledge should not be used as a determinant of how well someone has been taught.

In a way, nobody should ever “fail” an education — the point of education should be to determine someone’s potential and enable them to achieve it by themselves. Of course, an individual may choose not to fulfill that potential, but that is not a failing of the educational system (or, at least, not a primary failing of it); it’s probably a failing of the value system instilled by the parents and the society. Today the educational system also plays a role in providing these values; it would be interesting to decouple the two in order to focus better on the thing an individual has a problem with — and possibly use different techniques for either.

My friend had a particular design for a school of the future: it should teach the concept of a concept, and hopefully at some point the students will understand that this meta-ness is a fundamental block of reasoning and intelligence. I think while it’s an elegant design, it’s impractical — the students need to be bootstrapped first, before they can understand what meta-ness is. Focusing on the concept of a concept for its own sake will probably not lead to a good internalization.

I think back to my education. How much time did it take me to get to the point where I could think for myself? Specifically, when did I internalize that things are related in hierarchies, and that there are different kinds of relationships between the objects in hierarchies, for example an “instance-of” relationship. It took a while, and by the time I understood these concepts viscerally, I could say that the education satisfied an important objective. But the way I got there was certainly complicated and had many diverse and uncorrelated paths — trial and error, learning by example, learning by rote, learning by thinking (surprisingly not much of it!).

We will not get to the school of the future overnight. It probably needs a revolution just like many other industries did. But there is little economic incentive for this to happen — schools are monopolies and profit is not usually correlated with efficiency (which reminds me of the DMV). Teaching by definition takes longer. Unlike e.g. the financial sector, it’s very difficult to come up with good metrics for success. And the barrier for entry is huge (can a startup really revolutionize an educational system?).

There have been instances in the past of people overcoming similar obstacles. So I am hopeful. And while I wait, I may come up with my own syllabus.