Modern Western education teaches us collectively, and then kicks us out to beg for a job where we will work, for the most part, individually. No wonder this crazy system, which gets it exactly backwards, is so inefficient and dysfunctional. What if we were to invent an intelligent system, one which recognized that we learn in unique and individual ways. What would it look like?
In an earlier article, I described the cognitive experts’ theory of how we learn: We take in information through our senses, at least when we’re paying attention. Then we process this information through our personal mental models or ‘frames’, coded right into the neurons of our brains, kicking out any concepts that don’t fit the frames and any references we don’t understand. Next, we store the filtered, processed, regurgitated, parsed ‘learnings’ in our ‘working memory’, the brain’s RAM, where they continue to be molded, considered, and amended until we have essentially ‘decided what they mean’. Then they get filed away in long-term memory, to be accessed and extracted if and when they are ever needed again, or forgotten if they are not.
Picture a teacher in a classroom telling 20 students about, say, monarch butteflies. Because the learning process is so individual, the twenty students will end up with twenty very different conceptions of what the relevant information is and what it means. If you don’t believe me, debrief with a bunch of people who have just attended a presentation — you’ll be astounded at the different perceptions you’ll hear. The best way to convey information is to do it in a way that can be self-paced and immediately tested, by prompting participants to articulate the learnings in ways that make sense to them, to challenge and discuss them, and to apply them in a useful context. Telling stories also helps the learner to grasp the concepts in more concrete and memorable terms. Good teachers, of course, try to compensate both for the lack of context in the sterile classroom (using visual aids) and the differences in the way we internalize information (by discussion and exercises), but teaching-by-telling, in a classroom, is a hopelessly dysfunctional way to impart both information and skills.
There is a reason why ‘on the job’ training has such an excellent reputation. It provides an immediate context that makes learning easier. It provides an immediate chance to practice or apply what has been learned. And it provides one-on-one coaching for the many aspects of learning that may require iterative reinforcement, and a chance to ask questions. It’s especially valuable when what is to be learned is a skill, not information.
The map above was developed by reviewing a variety of school, university and applied curricula, and considering how they might be applied in three different contexts: making a living, deciding where and with whom to make a life, and gardening. It lists six main fields of information about the world that would provide useful knowledge to do this work, eight core skills that would be useful to apply to this work, and two sets of applied skills or competencies that integrate the eight core skills.
How might these be crafted into a curriculum without ‘teachers’ and without walls, a curriculum that could replace the boring and impractical curricula that are taught in most schools and universities today?
The best way to explain this is to describe a day in the life of a ‘student’ in, say, her late teens. Let’s suppose our student, Kim, is looking to be a musician, a writer, or a veterinarian. How might she acquire the 16 critical learnings in the above map, in a way that also integrates the technical learnings of music, language and medicine she needs for her chosen work?
Our success, and the quality of the solutions we come up with, is a function of the quality of these three inputs, and our ability to apply them effectively. For Kim, the problems, the context we want her to use to learn and practice applying knowledge and skills, is that of her three chosen fields of endeavor, music, language and medicine. So suppose one of the information modules that Kim has to complete (part of the third field of information, The Economic System) is The History of Agriculture, with Richard Manning’s Against the Grain as a suggested reading. It might be paired up with the second of the core skills, Critical Thinking. And suppose the chosen application for these learnings is Animal Nutrition, related to Kim’s interest in veterinary medicine. So her assignment for the next two days is to do the History of Agriculture reading, and the self-study on Critical Thinking, to call on the people in her self-compiled Animal Nutrition resource list (which would include other people also studying Animal Nutrition, and some veterinarians, and some experts, and some potential customers, people with animals), and to bring all of that information, skills, and people help to bear to address some specific assigned problems in Animal Nutrition. From those people, and in applying what she’s learned, Kim also picks up what she needs to know of the technical learnings of veterinary medicine.
See how this could work? It meets all of the criteria in the pink coloured box above. It entails no scheduled classes and requires no bricks-and-mortar buildings. Integrated, contextual learning. And what’s the chance Kim’s going to be bored doing this?
Let’s try a couple more examples. From the sixth field of information (Arts, Science & Technology) the information module is Acoustics, paired up with the fourth of the core skills Attention Skills: Making ‘Sense’ of the World (learning to listen not only to music but to bird songs and train whistles), and the chosen application is Composing Harmony. The resources could include scientists, musicians, musicologists, experts in meditation, engineers in recording studios, and, of course, other students of music.
Or, from the fifth field of information (Human Nature) the information module is Negotiation & Conflict Resolution, paired up with the sixth (Collaboration & Collective Wisdom) and eighth (Story-Telling) core skills, and the chosen application is Writing About Making Love Last. The resources could include negotiators, teaming consultants, James Surowiecki, Thomas King, Tom Robbins and other successful writers, and other student writers.
This approach turns education on its head, and centres it on the student instead of the teacher and on learning instead of teaching. There would be no need for what we now call ‘teachers’ with this system. Instead, we would need learning facilitators, and personalized curriculum developers to organize and coordinate the resources (information, self-directed learning materials, lists of people to talk to, and appropriate ‘pairing’ of the information modules, the core skills and competencies, and the people in the community who can provide context in which to learn them). Kind of like bibliographers, connectors and coaches rolled into one. Giving each student a personalized ‘map’ of what to learn and where to find the resources, and then leaving them to their own resources to go out into the great wide world and learn.
That’s my model for education. To me it seems inclusive, flexible, engaging, and yet eminently practical. It is participatory, both in the way it requires students to practice what they’re learning, and in its outreach to the community. And with the money we would save on school buildings and administrators we might even be able to pay Messrs Manning, Surowiecki, King, Robbins and millions of other writers, doctors, musicians, teachers and experts to spend some of their time mentoring the next generation.
Or is my vision clouded by my own mental models, my own instinctive and perhaps naive belief that motivated young people will learn on their own, their own way, and need only a gentle framework and some occasional coaching from someone who will listen to them, instead if teaching them, in order to make a living for themselves and those they love, joyously, in our brave new world?