Five Pieces of the Education Puzzle
I recently became an uncle. Over the past 6 months, I’ve watched my niece grow into a person, with her own unique laugh, smile and personality.
Watching her grow physically and mentally - she’s already a proficient manipulator - made me realise that as humans we don’t learn things by having them taught to us. We learn things by doing them. By trying and failing and trying again, and doing it on repeat. We then call it education.
Education isn't magic. It’s wisdom wrung from failure.
Imagine wringing a wet cloth. Water pours out of it at the beginning. But the more you wring, the more you twist and squeeze and manoeuvre, the more difficult it becomes. The cloth dries up.
Education is similar. It’s easy at the beginning. Young children seem to learn without even trying. And then they arrive at school. Learning becomes difficult. It becomes a chore. Like a cloth that runs out of water, learning runs out of appeal.
The difference between the wet cloth and the child sitting in the classroom is that the cloth has a finite amount of water. No matter how you twist, squeeze or manoeuvre, it will run out. Children are different. They’re filled with boundless potential.
The fact that learning changes when a child arrives at school shows where our efforts should be focused. Schools try to wring the potential out of children in the wrong way. Instead of sticking to a winning formula - allowing the child to learn in a way that suits them, piques their interest, and is driven by their curiosity - we attempt to stick them in the same box and teach them in the same way.
No country, school or classroom is the same and it would be ignorant to think that there is one strategy that applies to all forms of education. This essay introduces 5 pieces of the puzzle that fit together and work in sync, creating a more coherent view of what education has the potential to look like.
1. THE FLIPPED CLASSROOM
Watch videos at home and ask questions in class. The flipped classroom is not a synonym for online learning, but rather the idea that interaction and meaningful learning activities occur during the face-to-face time. It moves activities, including those that may have traditionally been considered homework, into the classroom.
In the traditional classroom, the teacher is typically the central focus of a lesson. Lessons are focused on delivering content using a lecture style, while discussions, collaborations and questions flow through the teacher.
The flipped classroom intentionally shifts instruction to a learner-centred model. Time in the classroom is used to explore topics in greater depth and create meaningful learning opportunities while students are initially introduced to new topics outside of the classroom.
The flipped classroom makes learning personal. It places students on the path to becoming lifelong learners. Students move at their own pace and review what they need to when they need to. Teachers are freed to work one-on-one with students on the content they most need support with.
The flipped classroom approach isn’t new. It’s what John Dewey (not to be confused with Melvil Dewey of the Dewey Decimal System) described at the turn of the 20th century: learning that is centred around the student, not the teacher. Learning that allows students to show their mastery of content in the way they prefer. Learning that allows children to learn the way they do best - through curiosity, exploration and discovery.
As I watch my niece grow and develop, I often think about her entering the education system. At 6 months old, her creativity and curiosity are prominent. The flipped classroom is a means for that creativity and curiosity to flourish instead of wither away. That strikes me as an important step in the right direction.
2. STOP TRYING TO TEACH EVERYTHING
The opening line of the book 'On Human Communication' by Colin Cherry says that Gottfried Leibniz, the German philosopher, was the last man to know everything. Leibniz died in 1716. He spoke 12 languages and was a major contributor to science, mathematics and philosophy.
At the time, it was possible to contain the entire domain of science in one human brain. Knowledge, and access to knowledge, has exploded since then. Regardless of your interests, it’s on the Internet.
While it’s impossible to teach children everything, it's important that we equip them with a baseline level of knowledge. Without it, they're like fish without fins, navigating through a sea of information. School must equip learners with the ability not to only find information on the Internet, but to discern between information which is true and that which isn’t.
I often hear the argument that we need to stop teaching children facts. Stop teaching capitals of the world, parts of the body and the role of different countries in World War 2. The argument is usually premised on the idea that this type of information is readily available on the Internet and we’re wasting time teaching it.
There is an element of truth to this, but it’s dangerous to stop teaching these things completely. Children need a baseline level of knowledge about the world and the way it works.
Consider each fact traditionally taught in schools, and picture it as a brick in the wall. Remove one brick, and the wall stands. Remove multiple bricks, and the wall still stands. But remove one brick too many, and it all comes crumbling down.
We need to caution against the assumption that the Internet, and the easy access to information that comes with it, makes content and information taught in schools irrelevant. Children need a baseline understanding of the world around them. This baseline represents the critical mass of bricks required to keep the wall upright. With a solid wall of knowledge, they can then go and use the wonderful tool that is the Internet, to their advantage. As they navigate their way through the information available on the Internet, they piece together their understanding of the world and the role they wish to play in it.
The flipped classroom model provides that baseline level through the content consumed at home. It provides enough bricks to keep the wall standing while leaving gaps for learners to fill in the rest.
Filling the gaps, uncovering connections and discovering the interrelatedness of ideas is driven by the curiosity of children. They formulate questions and drive their learning toward the things that fascinate them. Instead of having a one-size-fits-all approach to education, children are empowered to learn and discover new ideas and topics.
The result is children that enjoy learning and have discovered the benefits of lifelong learning. It’s a classroom of learners with diverse and ranging skill sets, instead of a classroom where each learner is the same. It’s a system that produces walls of different shapes, colours and sizes.
The role of the teacher in this flipped classroom is also significantly altered. Teachers no longer need to act as a foreman in a factory, but instead, as guides as children undertake a journey of self-learning. The teacher creates an environment that fosters learning, instead of one where information is drilled into learners.
3. DITCH THE TESTS
Charlie Munger, the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffet, often tells a story:
“Max Planck, after he won the Nobel Prize, went around Germany giving the same standard lecture on the new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur memorized the lecture and said, “Would you mind, Professor Planck, because it’s so boring to stay in our routine. [What if] I gave the lecture in Munich and you just sat in front wearing my chauffeur’s hat?” Planck said, “Why not?” And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics. After which a physics professor stood up and asked a perfectly ghastly question. The speaker said, “Well I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.”
The quick wit of the chauffeur is admirable, but this story teaches an important lesson: there’s a big difference between knowing something and appearing to know something. Education systems need to focus on the former - developing learners with a deep understanding of concepts.
What is the first thought that pops into your head when you open a test paper?
It's not what the question is asking, what you're learning by answering it, or what the correct answer is. It's what is the expected answer. The answer that will earn me the most points.
Humans learn in two ways:
1. Through our own experiences.
2. Through the experiences of others.
Learning is simply the task of iterating through these two processes enough times to understand new concepts.
Assessments in the form of tests, do not fit into this way of learning. We don’t learn by cramming knowledge into our brains so that we can regurgitate it onto the question paper and forget it afterwards. That’s chauffeur knowledge.
Make assessments project-based. Ditch the tests.
In project-based learning, children work collaboratively, applying themselves and their knowledge to real-world problems. They solve it in the manner that they think is best. The experience what works, learn what doesn’t, and move steadily toward getting better at solving the problems they’ll one day face.
The result is children capable of thinking for themselves - a skill, which if you look around you, is becoming increasingly rare. It’s children capable of more than solving problems.
Solving problems is important (if it wasn’t, ‘problem-solving’ probably wouldn’t be the buzzword that it is today). But avoiding more and creating fewer problems is more important. The thing about problems is that they tend to remain solved for a short period of time before coming up again in a different form. The solutions that we roll out, and so eagerly want to teach children how to roll out, are often temporary fixes that go on to create more problems. For every new solution, we create a new problem.
By inverting the situation, and teaching children to avoid problems, we're more likely to make progress. Project-based learning doesn't come with a manual. It requires children to identify and consider various parts of a system and design a solution for it. The optimal solution is the one in which you encounter the fewest problems.
Different projects have different deadlines: A short weekly project. A longer monthly project. A long-term annual project. This teaches children how to manage time, allocate resources, and work on different ideas at the same time. It prepares them for the kind of work they're likely to encounter in the future.
Projects allow for plenty of feedback, self-correction, deep reflection, ongoing improvement and learning to embrace trial-and-error. Ultimately, that's how children learn best.
By doing this in a flipped classroom setting, children work on their projects and ask questions of the teacher in real-time. Questions don’t have to fit into a set curriculum. Instead of being told that they have two hours of maths followed by two hours of English, they learn through doing projects, which are chosen based on their interests and curiosity.
Having been through school, does that not sound more appealing than the lecture style learning you encountered? Is that not what you want for your children?
STRIKE WHILE THE IRON IS HOT
Think about a time when you started building a new LEGO model. Something like the Star Wars Millennium Falcon, with 7,541 pieces. At the start, motivation is high. You want to explore the model, figure out how it fits together and how it’s possible for tiny pieces of plastic to form this incredible machine. The big picture and your understanding of the machine become clearer with each piece.
Now imagine you’re forced to stop 45 minutes in. You’ve just got into a rhythm and started to understand how this complicated structure fits together. Picture this happening day after day - having to figure out where you ended and get back into the rhythm of building. And just as you’re getting back into it, your 45 minutes are up. You’d be frustrated. You'd be annoyed. You’d lose the motivation to keep building.
This is precisely what happens at school. You've got 45 minute periods. You can be loving maths, finally grasping a complex subject, when your 45 minutes run out and you're told it's time for English. The opportunity to dive deep, ask questions and explore the subject matter is taken away from you. It’s no surprise that motivation dies and curiosity withers away with it when this happens day after day.
Motivation is more important than we care to realise. When children are motivated to learn something, they do it at an incredibly fast pace. When they're not motivated, children won't learn, regardless of how much you push them. Until we fix the motivation problem, we cannot fix the education crisis.
Despite knowing how important motivation is to learning, we design classrooms in a way to demotivate students. With the teacher as the focal point, teaching children the same thing, in the same place, and at the same pace.
Learning is interesting, and motivation to learn is high, when learning is self-directed and fueled by curiosity. When working on projects that grab your attention, with the freedom to work on them for as long as you want while being able to ask questions of the teacher.
With the constant development of the Internet and an increased focus on education, the tools for learning are abundant. The Internet is making it possible to learn anything from anyone. But it means nothing if the desire to learn is scarce.
The flipped classroom and project-based learning prioritise motivation by placing a premium on curiosity and learning on your own time. Learning is easy when you want to learn.
5. LEARNING THROUGH PLAY
How did you learn your first language? How did you learn to ride a bicycle?
By mumbling. By falling. By trying and failing and trying again. We learn what we do, not what we're taught. It’s how we’ve learnt for millions of years.
In Sapiens, Yuval Harari says:
"Each individual had to understand how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloak, how to lay a rabbit trap, and how to face avalanches, snakebites or hungry lions. Mastery of each of these many skills required years of apprenticeship and practice. "
Our ancestors weren’t taught to do these things. They learnt by going out and doing it. Humans have been learning by doing for over 2 million years. Human evolution has shaped our behaviours and how we learn.
The way we currently learn - by sitting in classrooms and having content taught to us - goes completely against the way we've evolved to learn. It goes completely against our biology. It’s no surprise that it doesn’t work for so many people.
Curiosity-driven learning has been a core theme of this essay. It’s through this that motivation is accounted for and lifelong-learners are created. Learning through Play is the vehicle that allows curiosity-driven learning to occur.
Children's development and learning is complex. Physical, social, cognitive, creative and emotional skills complement and interact with one another as the child learns to navigate a complicated world. Playful learning experiences are an exceptionally effective way of developing these broad, dynamic and interconnected skills. It’s the reason you won’t find a page on the LEGO Foundation website which doesn’t discuss learning through play.
What makes play such an effective vehicle of learning?
A pair of studies were conducted comparing children’s behaviour when provided with direct instruction about how to use a toy, and when allowed to explore the toy without explicit instruction. Imagine a free-play type of condition.
The children given direct instruction learned the intended use of the toy. The children given the freedom to explore and play with the toy did so, as well. But the children in the play-based groups also discovered additional uses of the toy. This group showed creativity and problem-solving skills not necessary in the direct instruction condition.
This wasn’t a flash in the pan. Different scientists, in a different lab, running their experiment in a different way, produced strikingly similar results. What does it actually mean though?
Speak to a teacher about this and most of them will tell you that they’ve had an intuition about this all along: Direct instruction limits young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific— how the toy works. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions. Consider the work your children will be doing in 20 years from - which skills do you think will be more valuable?
Adults often assume that most learning is the result of teaching and that exploratory, spontaneous learning is unusual. But spontaneous, self-directed learning, is more fundamental. Learning from teachers first requires you to learn about teachers. For example, if you know how teachers work, you tend to assume that they are trying to be informative. When the teacher in the toy experiment doesn’t go looking for hidden features, the learner unconsciously thinks: “She’s a teacher. If there were something interesting in there, she would have shown it to me.”
These assumptions lead children to narrow in, and to consider only the specific information a teacher provides. Without a teacher present, children look for a much wider range of information and consider a greater range of options.
Play creates the conditions for this exploration to take place. It enables students to figure things out for themselves, and discover unique insights and solutions along the way. It combines all the ideas mentioned in this essay.
It enables children to discover the world around them using their senses and inquisitiveness. It allows them to piece together their intellectual walls of knowledge in much the same way they’d piece together the 7,541 piece millennium falcon: slowly, steadily and eventually confidently. More importantly, it allows them to piece together their understanding of the world in a way that works for them. It makes learning personal.
If I hand you the key to a lock but don’t tell you where the treasure is, I haven’t given you much. It’s easy to get excited about what the treasure may be, but we first need to do the work to locate it.
It’s easy to have a vision for what the future of education might look like. But that vision is just the key to the lock.
It’s only when we begin to implement change - when we do the work required to make the change we seek to make - that we can begin to feel excited.
As I wrote this, I couldn’t help but think about a point in the future at which I will have to decide about how I want my children to be educated. It dawned on me that as parents and future parents - we each have a choice to make. A choice between doing what’s been done before, or challenging the status quo in the name of better education and a different future.
The old system is comfortable. It’s easy, it’s known and it’s available. It’s convenient to push kids into it. Walking away from that system will be uncomfortable. It will be difficult because inefficient systems will be defended and maintained if they serve the needs of people who benefit from them – individual incentives can sustain systemic stupidity.
But if we don’t walk away from how we did things yesterday, it’s difficult to imagine that tomorrow will be any better than today.
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