Never Normal Newsletter

Rethinking Education

Last week I shared a few weird theories and a study about seemingly sentient plants.

Thinking through theories and reading scientific studies and journal articles makes me I wish I’d studied more math and science in school.

My grades were okay. I passed all the classes that were required to graduate. And I still remember a decent amount of what I learned.

So why is it that now when I try looking into the more advanced, theoretical topics, I find myself lacking the fundamentals to make sense of it all?

An equation like the one below might as well be ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, as far as my brain can tell:

This TED Talk on Teaching for Mastery by Sal Khan (founder of Khan Academy) explains one of the reasons why:

Our schools are optimized for moving kids through the system. We’re not teaching for mastery. Getting a score of 90% on a test sounds great, until you hear it reframed as, “you still don’t know 10% of the material”.

And as Sal explains 10% here and 15% there starts to add up. Thinking back to my own experience learning calculus, that sounds about right. I managed to get through it, but I certainly didn’t master it.

In a world where one teacher has to move a group of 30 or more students through the material together, then this approach might make sense.

But we don’t live in that world anymore…

Now, thanks to technology, every student can master all of the material, and they can do it at their own pace (one might need more time to master calculus and less to master some aspect of reading comprehension).

In that model, testing is no longer about ranking students or assigning merit. Instead, test scores are merely an indication of which areas the student has already mastered, and which ones they need to study more before moving on.

How refreshing!

I’ve been wondering for years why we don’t use more self-paced approaches to learning. Especially now that we have platforms like YouTube, which add infinite scale and leverage.

Take the video below on linear algebra, for example:

In less than ten minutes, it provides a better explanation of the concepts than I ever got in all my years of school. I say this not to knock my teachers or school in particular. The creator of this video probably does a better job at explaining than virtually all other math teachers do.

And it’s been watched nearly 5,000,000 times as a result.

It would take one teacher, teaching thirty kids per class, five classes per day, five days per week, forty weeks per year, over 166 years to deliver a lesson that many times.

That’s the power of leverage!

But videos like the one above are just scratching the surface of what’s possible now.

Quantum Country is a new kind of textbook that incorporates interactive testing and spaced repetition as you learn (see also: Why Books Don’t Work from the same author).

And one of the most exciting startups that I follow is Synthesis School.

Born out of Ad Astra, a school that Elon Musk started on the SpaceX campus for his own kids, Synthesis aims to teach kids what it calls, “the world’s most valuable skill: how to solve complex problems with a team.”

They do this through the use of online, collaborative games — something most kids need little encouragement to spend time on.

The games are fast, complex, and constantly changing. You and your teammates will need to get loud shouting out ideas, helping each other, and debating strategies.

No adult will tell you the rules. You’ll need to experiment to make sense of the games. Try different tactics, test your ideas, and think of crazy new ways to win.

For now, Synthesis is just an extracurricular program for kids ages 6 to 14. Eventually they hope to create a full replacement for traditional schools.

I hope they are successful.

As a parent, I’m excited about all of the possibilities and learning opportunities that the next generation will have. I’m also becoming convinced that they will come from outside of the traditional school system (at the exact moment I’m writing this, Twitter erupted over the news, New York City to Phase Out Its Gifted and Talented Program).

That’s all for this week. More soon…

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I write occasional emails to share what I’m thinking, learning, and doing. It’s all related to the idea of breaking free from the “default plan” in life.

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