How To Fix the Public Education System
July 05, 2019
Kids say that school is boring and useless, and they’re right. School takes the innate curiosity all children have and hammers it until there’s nothing left.
Have you ever interacted with a young child? A common experience is incessantly asking “why”. They do this not because they just want to prolong a conversation, but because they actually want to know the answer. And, if you had a child, and someone else was speaking to them, which conversation would you rather overhear?
Young child: Why does it thunder?
Adult: Thunder comes from God and his angels bowling.
Young child: Why does it thunder?
Adult: When things rub together, sometimes they build up electricity. When clouds rub together, they can build up a lot of electricity and then it zaps to the ground, which makes lightning and thunder.
I say the second. Most children don’t really have the tools to understand an answer like that, but that doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you treated them with respect and fostered curiosity. The child had a question, and this was treated as a good and useful thing by the adults, and an answer was available. Here’s another example:
Young child: Why is soap slippery?
Adult: I’m not sure, do you want to look it up?
This is even better because it’s actually teaching the child that when they don’t know something, there are tools they can use to learn more. If you try and look that up, you’ll only find explanations that are way too complicated for most adults to understand (let alone children), but that doesn’t matter. What you need to teach them is that curiosity is good and that there are ways for them to satisfy their curiosity. If you can oversimplify a topic to make the concepts easier to understand at the cost of some accuracy, you should. For example, lightning is really caused by internal friction in the cloud, not multiple clouds rubbing together, but the “clouds rubbing together” idea is close enough.
The education system
The US K-12 education system is very good at a couple of things. It is free for all. It generally provides free transportation and provides free textbooks (among other materials). It makes sure that nearly every student who graduates high school will be able to read, do simple math in their head, do algebra on paper, and have a basic grasp of history and biology. But it does a terrible job at fostering curiosity or providing its students with useful tools.
In high school, I took math up to the equivalent of Calc 2. This did turn out to be somewhat useful to me when I became interested in machine learning. That seems to be the goal of school - teach you a lot of things, in the hopes that you end up using some of the things you learned, and it’s no biggie if you forget the rest.
But what school doesn’t do well is help you find things that you might be interested in. Could we do better? I think we could. Take this video, for instance. You probably won’t be able to watch the whole thing unless you have Youtube Premium, but I’ll go over the broad strokes.
A single microscopic brain cell cannot think, is not conscious. But if you bring in a few more brain cells, and a few more and connect them all at a certain point, at a certain point the group itself will be able to think. And experience emotions and have opinions and a personality and know that it exists. How can such astonishing things come from such simple ingredients?
Has your school ever asked you a question as interesting as this one? And then gone on to get part of the way toward answering it, like the video does? Mine didn’t. But it gets better.
Today, using what neuroscientists know so far, I am going to make my hometown function like a brain
How can you see that and not want to know more? The video is not afraid to talk about advanced concepts, either. It discusses how after light hits the retina, the signals pass through multiple processing stages inside your eye and brain, named V1, V2, V4, and the Infratemporal Cortex. These are all oversimplifications of what actually happens in the brain, but that’s irrelevant because the real point of the video is to leaves impressions in the mind that can be filled in later, with something closer to the truth.
And people are interested in this style of presentation! The channel that posted this video has 14 million subscribers, making it the 204th most subscribed Youtube channel. They got 15 million views in the last 30 days (at the time of this writing) and almost 100 thousand new subscribers, and they haven’t even posted any videos since January (6 months ago at the time of this writing). Here are some of the comments on the video:
I wonder how many “neurons” it would take to carry out a simple addition, with only the retina seeing the numbers used
I love this show, it is the only reason I still have youtube premium because to me this show is worth it
I love your work Michael
We could make a bigger example, like with an app, it would be cool
I am genuinely shocked at how amazing this was.
Vsauce’s YouTube Original’s are well worth a YouTube Premium subscription! I absolutely love this series, keep it up guys!
I’m not cherry-picking these, go read the comments yourself. People love these videos. So why is school so universally disliked, but people pay to watch these educational videos? It’s because school does not foster curiosity, it doesn’t respect students’ intelligence, and it doesn’t give them room to explore, grow, and be autonomous.
A better way
Here’s my proposal for a better way.
Students are presented with a multitude of videos like the one above, giving information about the topic, seeing specialists, etc. Between the videos they are given breaks to discuss them with their friends. You could find similar videos about math concepts, marine biology, engineering, graphic design, programming, etc. Then, for the next two weeks, they get to focus entirely on learning their choice of 3 of the options they were presented. Classes last an hour and 45 minutes, with a 10 minute break every 25 minutes (Since breaks are incredibly helpful for learning and making sense of new ideas). After that there is a 25 minute break to socialize, then another class on a different subject they selected. Then they have another 25-minute break, followed by an hour of “exercise time” (which would improve classroom behavior along with helping memory and cognition), then an hour of lunch, and then the final 1 hour and 45-minute class. The students are out of school after 6 hours and 35 minutes. Healthy and low-reward foods are provided during breaks to improve health and focus (hungry students impact classroom performance).
Since classes are so short (just two weeks), students are willing to experiment and try something new. If they’re taking art, music, and psychology classes, they might be willing to take 2 weeks off art to try programming or history. The classes have no grades, whether students progress is based on whether they feel like progressing and the recommendations of the teacher. The goal is that students are motivated by their intrinsic desire to learn and succeed, rather than external pressures such as grades.
Classes are mostly taught by students watching videos in small groups. This has the advantage of experts being able to create videos, A/B test them, modify them to make them better and more interesting, etc. There are still teachers for each class, but it’s closer to having two teachers for every student between Biology week zero and Biology week 20, then another for weeks 20-40, etc., while the students are mostly educating themselves by watching videos and doing projects with their friends. This obviously doesn’t work perfectly in all cases like classes on playing an instrument, so exceptions have to be made. Videos are interspersed with questions that the students answer individually to make sure they’re following along, with teachers being notified of any students who appear to be struggling.
At the end of each class, students are put into groups of two and show each other flash cards of the content they’ve learned, using a program like Anki. This is entirely for their benefit and not graded in any way. Students mark each flashcard as “easy”, “medium”, and “hard”. Flashcards which they mark as easy will be shown to them less frequently, and flashcards which they mark as hard will be shown to them more. The flash card content is sourced from all the classes they’ve ever taken, to promote long-term recall of what they learned. They would only do this for around 5-10 minutes per class. This doesn’t really make sense for classes like music and art which aren’t based on memory, but they still would have the flash card sections to reinforce what they learned in other classes. This technique is called spaced repetition and is the best-known method for helping people remember things for a long time.
Teachers are notified of students who are consistently marking flashcards from their classes as “hard”, to ask them if they need help or extra personal attention. Math problems testing particular skills can also be put in the flashcard sections, with step-by-step solutions and explanations being automatically generated if the student is stumped.
Summer break is beneficial because it gives a time where many students can get jobs and work full time for a few months and help students feel less burnt out, but it also makes teachers waste time re-teaching forgotten content. I suggest a 1-month summer break and a 3-week break in fall and spring. Motivated students can review their flashcards over break with parents or siblings, to retain content even better.
Students are curious all the time, not just when in school. There is a website and an app where students can watch any of the videos (including for classes they aren’t enrolled in) and add anything they want to their flashcard deck. They can also text teachers questions either answer or direct the students to someone who is better suited towards answering the question (possibly an expert). Teachers have a “file” about a student where they can see information about what classes they’ve taken and read notes about that student left by other teachers. Teachers are generally expected to respond to student questions within an hour or two. Being on-call like this would probably be annoying to teachers but would be very beneficial towards students’ curiosity, so we can increase teacher pay to compensate. Additionally, the school day will actually start 2-3 hours later than it does now (starting around 9 and ending around 4), as school starting later allows students to get better sleep. Since many people need to get to work earlier than this and are not able to leave young children home alone, schools will also provide daycare/latchkey for 2 hours before classes start.
Right now, students have to go to school, and student engagement is not valued. So it is really no surprise that schools are not fun or engaging. Schools should try to be interesting to students while still being educational. This means giving them time to learn and play. Students should regularly work on projects, ideally with tangible results that demonstrate their learning. A class on CAD should 3D-print student’s work. A class on civic engineering should involve students making a suspension bridge out of raw spaghetti and fishing line that uses the concepts they’ve learned (its okay if this takes the full two weeks), and at the end, they should take a picture with their bridge and get a printed-out copy. A programming class should have students making themselves a website which they can actually host on DigitalOcean or Netlify. It’s not hard or unsafe to build a simple electric motor, but science classes never seem to do this when teaching electromagnetism. The only class that really does “projects” consistently in the US is Band, where students get to work towards their next performance multiple times per year which will be seen by their parents/family. People say in math class “when will we ever use this in the real world” but don’t ever seem to say that about Band, and I think that’s why.
The way forward
This idea has a high upfront cost to implement because you need to make a lot of high-quality videos on a variety of subjects. However, websites like Khan Academy are proof that this can be done without too much expense. They have a much worse production quality compared to 3Blue1Brown or Vsauce but are vastly superior in terms of how much content they provide. But the thing about videos is that, in theory, you only need to make them once and then every student who speaks the language can benefit.
“Depends on the video. If I do an example problem in, say, algebra, I don’t do any prep so it takes me about 10 minutes. If I am thinking about introducing a complex topic that I already know well, I think about it on my walk to work so it may be 30 mins -1 hour total. If it is a topic that I need to brush up on, it might be half a day. When I did organic chemistry, I spent 2 weeks immersing myself in the subject before making the first video.”
However, it remains to be seen how much benefit you actually get from making “higher quality” videos. If this idea is interesting to you, it might be a good idea to try homeschooling your kids. If you can devote the right amount of time to it, then it can be a very fun experience. However, care must be taken to be sure they don’t go looking at things they shouldn’t…
sit down to grade my 13yo’s math work and at the bottom of the page, after all the answers, it says real big, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE BANACH-TARSKI PARADOX
apparently my 9yo doesn’t believe it, so they want me to weigh in
you worry sometimes about what your kids are looking at on the internet, but you decide to trust them, then next thing you know, they’re messing with the axiom of choice
Written by Andre Popovitch, a Michigan State student who wants to change the world. You should follow him on Twitter