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Things I Despised About My Education (nabeelqu.com)
113 points by amirhhz 1564 days ago | hide | past | web | 135 comments | favorite

Another "If education had been more customized to me, education would be better for everyone" lament. Know what, Nabeel? Few people are like you. Most people aren't tinkerers. Lots of people aren't curious, and many people respond to freeform environments with indecision and frustration that's self-defeating. That's not to say that Nabeel is a special flower and everyone else is a drone, it's to say that everyone is different--I mean, really different, in a way that any education system is going to struggle with.

Want to revolutionize education? Figure out a way to 1) reliably detect the optimum education environment for each student, and 2) give it to them. Some kids really do want, and thrive in, extremely structured, rote learning environments. Some kids really do want, and succeed best in, environments geared for professional advancement. And others want self-directed learning.

The education system failing one student doesn't mean its failing all students.

Few people are like you. Most people aren't tinkerers. Lots of people aren't curious, and many people respond to freeform environments with indecision and frustration that's self-defeating.

Ever seen a group of 3 year olds in a sandbox?

Most people may not be tinkerers, but it seems to me that most people have the potential to be. It is also a matter of historical fact that our school system was explicitly designed to train a population that would endure working in a factories.

I remember one class I was a tutor for while I was in grad school. I wrote up sample answers for the final, and I took a step that is seldom taken - for each question I wrote down 3 different answers using 3 different techniques. (Normally, of course, the person writing sample answers just tries the approach that is probably going to be easiest.)

It was a shock for the students. In a second year college course at an Ivy League college (Dartmouth College in this case) it was a revelation that there wouldn't be just one way to answer a math question. They had thought that if they tried one approach and the math prof another, that was proof that they had failed to understand the subject. It isn't. But far too many adults are walking around without understanding that.

I just thought I would share the origins of the US public education system for anyone who wanted to know more or was not aware of how it came to be. Much of it was derived from the German (Prussian) public education system by Horace Mann. I'm not sure if it was tailored towards factory work in the beginning, due to the time period (first half of the 1800s for the US), so that must have come later in the second half of 19th century America. However, I'm guessing it never thought overly high of creativity and free thinking when at the time, many who were going through the education system were still working on farms.



The book you really want for this information is "America's Public Schools: From the Common School to "No Child Left Behind" by education historian William Reese.

Best part of HN is always getting replies with ever more details on a subject, thank you. I'll have to check it out and read it. Having gone through the American Public School System for part of my education, I am always fascinated to learn more about its origins.

I find this angle particularly interesting in context of mathematics education, because it presupposes a certain mathematical intuition that many (most?) people lack. If you don't have reasonably strong spatial skills, chances are you're not going to find in pleasure in "exploring" K-12 mathematics. I went to engineering school and made it through on a "okay this is the equation I have to use" basis because for the life of me I couldn't visualize even simple things like order of rotations not being commutative. Even if I did it with a ruler to show myself, it didn't mean anything to me.

So when I see people say that the solution to mathematics education is to just get kids to explore, my reaction is "meh." At 28, I can do all the math I learned just fine, even though I learned it in an answer-seeking way. Had I been left on my own to just try and see the underlying nature of how it worked, I probably wouldn't be able to do even that much.

"Lots of people aren't curious"

every child is curious, we just beat that out of them because the questions sometimes make adults uncomfortable

Exactly. Just sit straight on the chair, don't move too much, don't look funny, bored, don't yawn, don't chew gum, don't drink, don't eat, don't look at that bug that's flying by, don't draw, don't chew on your pencil don't talk back. Heck, don't even talk unless the you're talked to!

You don't know any teachers, do you?

I can remember many of my middle and high school teachers, both good and bad, with "bad" being a majority.

The best teacher I had was a middle school math teacher who realized that my problem was not a lack of understanding, and that expecting discipline from a 12 year old boy was folly. She knew that my boredom was turning me in a distraction for the other boys in the class. Her solution was brilliant: she taught me material beyond what we were learning, and let me have at it. I will never forget learning the square root algorithm from her, because it kept me occupied for weeks (my notebooks are filled with pages where I computed square roots of various numbers in various bases).

Sadly, she was a rare exception, not even remotely approaching the norm. Most of my math teachers said that I should prove my talent by doing my homework, and told me that getting perfect marks on exams or otherwise demonstrating a well-developed understanding of the material was irrelevant if my homework was not being done. My teachers were vehemently opposed to the idea of grades reflecting aptitude; it was unfair to students who needed to do their homework to understand the material, and it would be equally unfair to give one student more interesting homework instead of the standard "busy work." If a bored student cuts class, and thus refrains from distracting other students, that is not acceptable either: attendance is part of the grade and to be fair to everyone no exceptions can be made. The only acceptable solution to a student who distracts others is compliance -- the student must be forced to obey and just be like everyone else.

I only barely got through the school system, despite having standardized math, reading, and writing scores of "PHS" -- post high-school. I was once forced to attend summer school because of an "F" I received in an English class, where the teacher basically said that he thought I deserved to be there as punishment (but ultimately allowed me to skip his class to attend a summer science program, but only as long as I wrote a pair of $n page essays). I was once threatened with being transferred to a high school with a violence problem if I did not start following orders.

So despite the fact that I come from a long line of teachers, I have difficulty believing that most teachers want to encourage creativity or curiosity among their students. In my experience, teachers want to encourage compliance, and only accept creativity when it leads to specific results and behavior. Curiosity seems to only be permissible after all instructions have been executed, and the teacher is free to give such a long list of instructions to follow that no compliant student could have time for creativity.

On a personal level, no.

What I described above is my experience with most of my teachers during my K-12 education. In 5 out of the 7 schools I attended almost all teachers were horrible. But so is the whole education system, and I think the bad teachers are just the byproduct of it.

If you can explain why is it the way I described it, I'm listening.

Depends on where he's coming from.

I went to a few private schools (K-8, K-12) staffed with teachers like that, when I was younger.

"Figure out a way to 1) reliably detect the optimum education environment for each student, and 2) give it to them."

This fits quite well into the "if you can measure it, you can change it" paradigm.

Shameless self-promotion: My startup, Geddit, is seeking to do exactly that, and empower students to take more control over their learning experience. http://letsgeddit.com

We're pretty basic at the moment but the feedback tool has got a good reception from both teachers and students in the classrooms we're live in - the next step is delivering the data mining and analytics.

> Lots of people aren't curious

Lots of adults aren't curious, but it seems like most small children are. What's going on there?

The curiosity we see in children at play rarely translates to the kind of self-directed learning that Nabeel holds up as an ideal. This is not the education system's fault--ask any teacher and they'll tell you that they'd love for children to be engaged and curious, and they're frustrated that it frequently feels like leading them by the nose and making them drink.

But there's another side as well: Watch children at play, and you'll see that children frequently sort themselves into leaders and followers. Children are often curious, but very often they're also looking for someone to give them cues and direction and structure. Children are complex; people are complex.

> they're frustrated that it frequently feels like leading them by the nose and making them drink.

And aren't they? I mean, isn't that exactly what we are talking about?

> Watch children at play

This also cuts to the core of the issue. It seems to me like children are curious all the time, and they don't seem to occupy states like "playing" and "working". That's basically what our industrial-age public school system is supposed to teach, right? Number one lesson, sit down and be quiet-- you're not playing, you're learning, and it's serious.

Number one lesson, sit down and be quiet-- you're not playing, you're learning, and it's serious.

This is nonsense. Teachers talk endlessly about methods of engaging children and teenagers that are the exact opposite of that, and they're constantly trying things. This sort of Prussian, militarized school setting is a dystopian fantasy.

It seems to me like children are curious all the time

They're not. Some are, some aren't. Some are curious in ways that are useless for education. And I haven't even started discussing some of the practical issues that affect pedagogy, like poverty and bullying, that mitigate against creative, free-form "unschooling".

You're treating children like noble savages, with all the fallacious reasoning that entails.

"Teachers talk endlessly about methods of engaging children"

Unless they are faced with a child who spent all of their time learning instead of doing mind-numbing homework assignments. Then you'll hear teachers talk about how they have a student who is wasting his talent and how shameful it is that someone who can handle more advanced material is getting failing grades (even though they are the ones giving the grades). Teachers may talk about trying to get students to think "outside the box," but when a student actually does so they are punished for it.

Our education philosophy is based on attacking independence and ensuring compliance, and our teachers show it. Rigid structures are enforced everywhere in school, explicitly and implicitly. Assignments are rigidly structured. Classrooms are rigidly structured. Daily schedules are rigidly structured. Grades, which become the purpose of school for many students, reflect how well students follow instructions more than how well they understand the material.

"This sort of Prussian, militarized school setting is a dystopian fantasy."

Well, maybe so, but in dystopian fiction the hero is typically one a small group of people who can recognize that anything is wrong with the system; everyone else believes they live in a utopia. Perhaps school truly is dystopian, and only a minority of people can actually recognize the existence of a problem.

> Teachers talk endlessly about methods of engaging children and teenagers

Step 1: Force all children to go to a big building eight hours a day for twelve years "to learn".

Step 2: They aren't learning. Figure out a way to make the average child interested and engaged by this circumstance.

Step 3: Who knows?

I'm sure teachers are, by and large, intelligent, caring people who really want to help pupils to fulfil themselves. But that doesn't help much if (as is being proposed) the education system itself is founded on flawed principles.

> Some are curious in ways that are useless for education.

Can you give me an example of such a form of curiosity? As I define it curiosity means wanting to know more; I can't make that be not useful for education in my head.

> Can you give me an example of such a form of curiosity?

Boys like learning lists of names and stats. You'll have met boys who can give you a very long list of dinosaur names or pokemon or supercars. But that's just rote recitation of facts; there's nothing in there about why things are how they are. Feynmann gives an interesting anecdote about his father talking about birds and trees. He'd rarely give just the name, but he would talk about why the tree had broad leaves or such.

Sorry, are you implying that there are kids out there who are drilling a list of dinosaur names every night without any interest in what those dinosaurs looked like, or sounded like, or ate?

Every kid who's ever wanted to tell me about all the X she knows hasn't been able to wait to tell me all kinds of facts and details about each X, and was eager to hear if I knew something interesting about X.

That's not rote recitation; that's knowledge.

The problem with Step 1 is "all". The whole point of my initial post is that children vary, and the methods by which they're educated need to vary as well. "All children will be lead into the forest by an experienced guide who will let their curiosity guide them in a journey of self-exploration" is just as wrong.

Can you give me an example of such a form of curiosity?

My friend's son is endlessly curious about dinosaurs, so much so that he refuses to invest any time in math homework. In general, curiosity leads to specialization, which is great only to the extent that it doesn't preclude some time being exposed to other subjects. Curiosity is like having a favourite food: Children need to learn a balanced diet, lest they die of malnutrition for eating nothing but candy.

> The problem with Step 1 is "all". The whole point of my initial post is that children vary, and the methods by which they're educated need to vary as well. "All children will be lead into the forest by an experienced guide who will let their curiosity guide them in a journey of self-exploration" is just as wrong.

It's not just as wrong, and I think that's the friction we're having. The original premise is, "Our one-size-fits-all approach is obviously not working, we need education to be more self-directed." I hear you saying, "Some people might not be able to learn in a self-directed way, we need some other director." That may well be true, but it still leaves our current system undirected which is definitely worse.

> My friend's son is endlessly curious about dinosaurs, so much so that he refuses to invest any time in math homework. In general, curiosity leads to specialization, which is great only to the extent that it doesn't preclude some time being exposed to other subjects. Curiosity is like having a favourite food: Children need to learn a balanced diet, lest they die of malnutrition for eating nothing but candy.

Sorry, that just sounds like speculation to me. If you can demonstrate somehow that forcing everyone to study arithmetic is necessary for us to have a happy, productive society, I'll accept that; as it stands, I know a lot of people who were forced to study arithmetic for many years and still struggle with basic math. Is it possible that we just wasted a bunch of their time?

"The education system failing one student doesn't mean its failing all students."

Except that the education system is failing all students, at least here in America. Some countries expect high school graduates to be able to do basic calculus; in the US, we barely expect high school graduates to be able to do basic algebra. The average literacy in the USA is middle school level.

"Most people aren't tinkerers. Lots of people aren't curious"

I would say that the education system shares some of the blame for that. American schools punish curiosity and creativity. We live in a country where a student who finds the correct answer using a logically sound approach may still get marks off because they used a technique they did not learn in class. Not only are curious and creative students harmed by that, but all the other students who see curiosity being punished learn not to act on whatever curiosity they possess. By the time a student is in high school, they have been subjected to years of training to suppress their independence, curiosity, and creativity.

When a student shows aptitude, they should be praised and given more challenging assignments, rather than punished.

Tell me this, then. What should we be attempting to optimize in education? Currently, schools try to optimize for maximum average knowledge. They try to put as much knowledge in each student.

However, this leads to the ever-present question "When will I need this in life?" from students who don't care about a given subject. The correct answer to that is always "Because you are the sort of person who asks that question, you won't need it."

Why not, instead, optimize for the most usefulness of knowledge. If a student is interested in math, they should receive extra attention in math, rather than the attitude of "Oh, good. A student that I can ignore because they'll learn it on their own." The correct response is "Oh, good. A student that I should continue teaching because they will remember it five years from now."

This has turned into a bit of rambling, but in summary, schools should focus efforts on people who will use the information given, rather than focusing efforts on temporarily boosting mediocre students who will just forget the information after the test.

"Currently, schools try to optimize for maximum average knowledge"

From where I sit, schools try to optimize for minimum average independent thought, with knowledge being a secondary goal. A student who receives perfect scores on their exams can still receive a D- in a class; a student who does all their homework, even if they do not get everything right, will likely receive no less than an A-. Schools reward compliance over understanding, and often punish curiosity, creativity, and independence.

Humans have one very prominent attribute - they rationalise what they have. Kids who were physically hit will rationalise that this is the correct way to rear a child when they become adults. Similarly, kids who were taught not to think will rationalise that it's not a necessary thing after they grow up.

There are opinions, there is rarely an absolute truth, but one can be more wrong or less wrong about something. You are more wrong about education than you think.


I've said nothing about education beyond "children are complex", that we need a variety of educational methods, and most crucially, we need to identify what the best variant is for any child--that's currently the great failing. You're the one handing out an absolute truth about education--like Cushman, you're indulging in a myth of the noble savage.

Since this is the second time you mention it: The noble savage trope is about the innate goodness of indigenous peoples, particularly in their connection to nature and the spiritual. It's a pretty weak analogy here— may I suggest you instead reference the cult of childhood, a trope that idealizes and idolizes the youthful innocence of children?

Fair enough. The (metaphorical) point I was trying to communicate was that, in discussions like these, you constantly get this image of a child as a boundlessly curious creature who would learn all they need to know if we just give them space and time and whatever else they need.

I find this trope to be self-serving in the extreme, and deeply ignorant of the practical realities of education, poverty, and parenting.

I'll strongly agree with that: The foundational problem with our public education system is that its primary utility to us is not education, but dealing with issues with poverty and parenting that shouldn't exist in the first place.

I remember reading during the Chicago teachers' strike that with public schools closed, many poor kids would not eat lunch, or possibly at all. That is messed up in a way that transcends any thoughts we might have about the best way to educate.

Thank you for acknowledging this. I'm so angry right now at jrogers65's blithe dismissal above of the problem of poverty and poor family life that I'm not even going to respond to him.

Yes, it is a messed up situation all around, and the roots of the problem lie far outside the realm of education; yet no teacher can be successful at their goal of educating children, now matter how they go about it, without dealing with those problems.

Apologies for causing any distress, it's not my intent. My contention is that these are separate issues and that educators should concern themselves with providing the best level of training possible as opposed to being concerned with the kids' home lives.

I grew up in somewhat unfavourable circumstances myself and did not do well at school. Then I taught myself a profession using the "problem first thinking" approach. It has yielded great results. I wouldn't have wanted the teachers to account for my disadvantages by giving me a crippled education. I do, however, wish that there was some organisation which would have addressed the problems I was having.

Like I said, I agree that the issue must be tackled - just not by teachers. Why should someone who is trying to teach calculus waste their time on adressing emotional needs? A psychologist doesn't concern himself with teaching IT skills, after all. I would agree that it's the teacher's job to raise a red flag if they notice something odd, but let someone trained in the field deal with resolving it. Most people barely master one field, let alone two.

If I'm being oversensitive, I apologize. My wife teaches at an inner-city high school. I'm very familiar with the kinds of problems caused by poverty and poor family life.

That said, I disagree with you that these are separate issues. If nothing else, a teacher can't reliably evaluate a student without acknowledging the role external issues play. Is it fair to flunk a student who can't concentrate because they're hungry all the time? Is it fair to flunk a student who doesn't turn in homework because they're working all the time to pay the rent that their parent can't? You can argue it various ways, but as a teacher you're confronted by these issues, and importantly, that you're in a position to turn a student against education by handling the situation badly.

You call it a "crippled" education. I call it avoiding the trap of causing the student to think that school is irrelevant or hostile to them because they're being punished for their circumstances. And when you say that you wish there was some organization which would have addressed your problems, you're ignoring the most obvious candidate, I think. My wife has participated in charitable food distribution programs through her school. Recently, we bought a hundred dollar gift card for a student who was kicked out by her foster parents.

Ideally, a child's education would be completely orthogonal to their circumstances. Until it is, school will necessarily have a role to play in social welfare.

This whole conversation about education tends to focus on the individual, and how school helps or hinders her. It tends not to discuss another role of school, which is to prepare children to participate fully in civil life. We ignore that aspect at our peril, and the peril of the children involved.

I would argue that in circumstances where they are not unfairly burdened, children are indeed naturally curious.

The problems they inherit from poverty or poor family life are not resolvable through education in the first place. That is a separate issue which requires just as much attention, but it's not a teacher's job to do so.

Giving those children a route where they can skip learning how to think and instead memorise everything is putting a bandage on the wound, not healing the illness.

Moreover, when we talk of different learning styles, it does not mean that one human is robotic in their thinking while another is not. Learning styles are about how to communicate information - i.e. through visual, auditory or kinesthetic means. There is not one person who would not benefit from learning how to think for themself, just as all people benefit from learning how to use their emotion and intuition to inspire creativity.

> Most people aren't tinkerers. Lots of people aren't curious, and many people respond to freeform environments with indecision and frustration that's self-defeating.

They weren't born they way, these people lost their curiosity because they were put into a society that alienates them from the design process. Proprietary software alienates its users from the software design process and it thereby destroys the curiosity people have about the inner workings of computers. Nonetheless, proprietary software is heavily present in schools because companies like Microsoft give out free licenses to them.

You are wrong. "Some kids really do want, and thrive in, extremely structured, rote learning environments" < here

Some kids do want structured, rote enviroments, but there is no meaning in such environments. There's no use of structured, rote math. There's no problems to solve with structured, rote physics. This kind of education is worthless.

Now, you are saying to us, "Some students only excel at pointless activity. Therefore we should teach pointless activity". But what's the value of such education? Better no education at all, which would free the time to something marginally productive.

The name of the fallacy you demonstrate for us all is "straw man".

New Jersey's Youth Challenge Academies have been remarkably successful at graduating children from at-risk environments, who go on to college and successful careers. They are NOT a general model for education, but for the children who get into them, they are a tremendously effective and advantageous educational experience that helps them overcome a background in poverty and gives them the opportunity to do much more meaningful things with their lives.

I don't understand how does it relate to the point that I made.

You said that I was wrong about some students wanting and needing a strict environment full of rote learning. I provided an example of one such environment that has been remarkably successful for a certain group of students. You said such an environment was worthless. I observed that the students coming out of such an environment were escaping poverty and finding new opportunities they didn't have before, which would suggest that it wasn't worthless.

I don't think the facility you described is different from the ordinary schools when it comes to how sciences are taught and how tests are performed.

And that's where the useless rote lives, not in the "strictness" of the environment. As well a liberal, private school will have the same problems. It's not about the where we teach. It's about how we teach.

Want to revolutionize education? Figure out a way to 1) reliably detect the optimum education environment for each student, and 2) give it to them.

Finding out what learning environment, inside or outside school, is optimal for each learner is definitely a worthy goal, especially if means are then provided to obtain that environment. Education policy is the issue that drew me to participate on Hacker News,


and I'm glad to see that so many participants, from the founder on to the newest member, enjoy thinking about and checking facts on education issues.

To achieve the worthy goal mentioned in the parent post involves changing the incentives now operating in the school system in most countries, both as to direct regulations and as to funding. Mark Blaug, one of the co-founders of the academic discipline of economics of education, wrote about this over the decades of his career: "The education system is a formalised, bureaucratic organisational structure and, like any bureaucratic organisational structure, it strives for maximum autonomy from external pressures as its cardinal principle of survival. While ostensibly devoted to the education of children, teachers, school administrators and local education officers must nevertheless regard parents acting on behalf of children as a force to be kept at bay because parental pressures in effect threaten the autonomy of the educational system. . . . I would hold that the stupefying conservatism of the educational system and its utter disdain of non-professional opinion is such that nothing less than a radical shake-up of the financing mechanism will do much to promote parental power." -- Mark Blaug, "Education Vouchers--It All Depends on What You Mean," in Economics of Privatization, J. Le Grand & R. Robinson, ed. (1985).

I have seen some examples of helpful reforms where I live. The state of Minnesota in the United States had what was called "the Minnesota Miracle" in the 1970s, state legislation that changed the pattern of school finance so that most funding for schools is distributed by the state government on a per-pupil enrollment basis.



The funding reform in the 1970s was followed up by two further reforms in the 1980s. First, the former compulsory instruction statute in Minnesota was ruled unconstitutional in a court case involving a homeschooling family, and a new compulsory instruction statute explicitly allows more nonpublic school alternatives for families who seek those. Second, the Legislature, pushed by the then Governor, set up statewide open enrollment


and the opportunity for advanced learners to attend up to two years of college while still high school students on the state's dime.


Parents in Minnesota now have more power to shop than parents in most states. That gets closer to the ideal of

detect the optimum education environment for each student

(by parents observing what works for each of their differing children)


give it to them

by open-enrolling in another school district (my school district has inbound open-enrollment students from forty-one other school districts of residence) or by homeschooling, or by postsecondary study at high school age, or by exercising other choices.

The educational results of Minnesota schools are well above the meager results of most United States schools, and almost competitive (but not fully competitive) with the better schools in the newly industrialized countries of east Asia and southeast Asia. It's a start. More choices would be even better.

"Want to revolutionize education?"


"Figure out a way to 1) reliably detect the optimum education environment for each student, and 2) give it to them."

tokenadult, If you wouldn't mind discussing some ideas myself and a friend have, my email is in my profile. We're in the fairly early stages, but the above seems to be the pervading idea and feedback would be great.

When you're talking about solving this problem, please please please consider the role that poverty plays in education. Many of these discussions occur in a vacuum, absent any considerations about how various externalities affect education. At a minimum, consider examples like school lunches raising test scores because students aren't too hungry to concentrate.

Every problem a child has outside of school, shows up in the classroom as a barrier to learning. If you want to revolutionize education, understanding that is a very good starting point.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. You have to take care of survival before you get to betterment and self-actualization. Thank yo for remembering that these things play out in the very real world, not inside a bubble.

One thing on my mind is the notion of a "Star Trek Economy". The idea being that in Star Trek, specifically TNG, the basic needs aren't an issue. Food is provided when needed, entertainment and physical fitness are available, etc. I use the Star Trek metaphor because people around HN are very likely to understand what I mean.

I think that things like living arrangements, mental health and necessities (food,etc) must be provided in a way that allows focus on learning. The larger problem seems to be a cultural one, which isn't an easy fix, but the aforementioned items are a decent start.

From my thoughts, I believe that the approach necessitates starting at a University-type level, with the self-directed learners. From the self-directed learners, we can then extrapolate flexible structure for those that want/need it and expand further to the concept of "classes" or "programs" down the line. I am interested in the fact that graduate level programs in the current model of education tend to go from the rigorous structure of K-12 to very unstructured, research driven.

My personal experience doesn't include extreme poverty, but I will make sure I consider the impact of deficits on the educational process.

The term you are looking for is a post-scarcity economy.

Thank you very much! I don't know how that slipped my mind.

my email is in my profile

I think like a lot of other HN users, you think you have disclosed your email address because you've filled out the field that lets the Hacker News curation team know how to reach you (for example, to get a new password for your username if you forget your old password). I actually can't see an email address when I view your profile. You should be able to discover how to reach me by reading my profile, and I'm happy to discuss your ideas.

Ah. Thank you for pointing that out. I've fixed my profile and found your contact information as well.

I'll make contact soon.

Fatbird, you suggest that we "reliably detect the optimum education environment for each student, and 2) give it to them".

Replace the word education in your statement with the word training and you have a good definition of what exists in schools around the world today.

"The secret of American schooling is that it doesn’t teach the way children learn, and it isn’t supposed to; school was engineered to serve a concealed command economy and a deliberately re-stratified social order." - John Taylor Gatto http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30fxRwkBbHc

Yeah, I used to quote Gatto too, as well as the publishing house founder who established a publishing house to get Gatto's work published. It is super popular on homeschooling lists, even gifted homeschooling lists where people parrot this crapola like it is Gospel without ever engaging their brain. I figured it was kosher because it was repeated by so many smart, highly educated folk on elitist lists. (People who have been to big name colleges, like Harvard, some on scholarship because they were brainiacs.)

Then one day, on a forum unrelated to homescholling, I repeated the bit about how literacy rates used to be lots higher, before public school was instituted. I made an ass of myself. Yes, I have visited old ghost towns and seen the poor spelling conventions and other physical evidence of low general literacy. Yes, I used to be a history major and I know details like you used a pictorial sign for your tavern because so few people could read and that the purpose of church stained glass windows was to share some of the bible stories in pictorial form with the illiterate masses. I was taken in anyway, as are lots of very intelligent, educated folks.

Yes, I also know that there is a huge, important difference between a real education, which teaches you to think effectively, and mere training, which typically prepares you for a particular job. I have spoken of that many times. (FYI: "liberal arts" is designed to teach you to think. They are called that because they are supposed to be very freeing: If you can think effectively, you have much more genuine choice in life than the average person. Liberal Arts gets pissed on a lot as a really terrible thing to major in. And it may well be terrible, at a lot of schools. I don't really know. I think there is some truth to the idea that "90% of everything is crap".)

These days I find it questionable to quote anything by Gatto. The book was published with a hugely biased political agenda. The publishing house founder is a homeschooling crusader who would love to have public school abolished. For that matter, he would like to also have private school abolished. He would like homeschooling to be compulsory nationwide in the U.S. (if not globally).

That's a much more questionable agenda in my opinion than whatever agenda the powers that be had when they dreamed up public school.

(I homeschooled for many years. I think it can be a wonderful thing. But I see zero reason to believe that compulsory homeschooling would be inherently superior to what we do today. In the U.S. today, homeschoolers are generally rebels, defying the system in order to do right by their children. So they are typically very devoted parents. There is no reason to believe the excellence in education typical of homeschoolers today would remain the norm for homeschooling if it was the only avenue for getting a k-12 education.)

"In the U.S. today, homeschoolers are generally rebels, defying the system in order to do right by children."

Or to shove creationist propaganda down their throat, as in my case. A significantly large part of the homeschooling movement is dominated by christian fundamentalists determined to keep their children from "secular pollution" by evilutionists. Unfortunately, all the censorship just made me even more curious about real science.

Have an upvote. I will take that as agreement with my basic point that homeschooling is not some perfect, idyllic solution and all the world would be a better place if we ensured that parents had near total control of what their kids learned by doing away with all other options, like public school and private school.

I'm going to go ahead and say that's "fortunate" rather than "unfortunate"...

It's unfortunate from the fundamentalist parents' perspective.

In fairness to John Gatto, Horace Mann himself estimated the general level of literacy in Massachusetts to be quite high well before school attendance was first made compulsory in Massachusetts. (I read many back issues of Mann's Common School Journal back in the day when you and I were learning about homeschooling.) Mann desired compulsory public schools for reasons other than promoting literacy. I have many people in my direct ancestral line, whose books from centuries ago I have inherited, who learned to read without a public school system.

Two wrongs do not make a right. And public works typically need to serve multiple agendas in order to serve the common good.

You are hardly of average intelligence. I see zero reason to believe your ancestors were either. Your remarks remind me that the publishing house founder routinely said "literacy was quite high where it mattered". A way to hedge his bets and justify the many folks who were illiterate and signed their name with an X. I guess that also completely justifies the average 2nd to 4th grade education typical of American women during Abe Lincoln's life. God knows women don't need an education. They just need to cook and clean and do as they are told.

(To everyone about to flame me: Please note that is sarcasm. I am a college educated woman.)

JTG also emphasizes active literacy (writing, speaking) versus passive literacy (reading, listening). One without the other is as a table with half it's legs.

Hi Mz,

I think the true test is to go to an educational institution and observe first hand what is happening. Is it a or b and to what extent either of the two:

a) Education that helps people leverage their innate curiosity to become free and intelligent individuals capable of independent investigation and thought.

b) Schooling that trains people to be obedient to authority, conform to standards of thought and behavior, distrustful of their own abilities and reliant upon experts.

The evidence I have seen shows the state ( any state, anywhere ) to be delivering to children today much more of b than a. JTG lived this for 30 years as a distinguished and awarded public school teacher in NYC. If you look at the incentives of those in power and actively controlling the government and it's apparatus, it is easy to understand why it would be this way and not get too judgmental about it. Lets imagine that you are a general in battle, which would you prefer: Obedient soldiers who follow orders or free-thinkers with their own agenda?


You are barking up the wrong tree. My father and ex husband were both career military. They are both extremely intelligent men. The military needs people who can do some of both, which is an even bigger challenge than promoting one or the other. The military has manuals for things like your uniform which are to be followed to the letter. But it has guidelines (not rules) for battle -- in other words, widom to help you make it up effectively as you go because no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Historically, river-based agricultural systems thrived as long as you had an effectively educated populace for running the large bureaucracy necessary to make the water distribution system work. Historically, they tend to break down periodically. Given that we currently have several billion people alive today, we need to master the need to get good at both things: at dealing with systems which serve a large scale population without killing independent thinking and new ideas. Claiming one is inherently superior to the other is foolish. They each have valuable uses, in appropriate situations.

I will also assume that you are some peacenik and your example is rooted in the assumption that the military is inherently evil. Again: you will get zero sympathy from me. Without a nation and its ability to defend its people, you tend to have anarchy and gang rule, essentially.

If you want to live in some idyllic paradise where large bureaucracies do no exist, you first need to exterminate a few billion people. Good luck with convincing people this is a loving, kind thing to do to improve the lot of your fellow man.

Gosh, I like you a lot.

I don't even know what you're talking about besides a plug for a homeschooling crank. If you think "reliably detect the optimum training environment" is what we do now, you know little about the education system.

The ad hominem attacks and annoyed tone of your argument betray a disintrest in any argument that does not match your established view. I invite you to consider new ideas.

"crank": An eccentric person, esp. one obsessed by a particular subject or theory.

John Taylor Gatto is an education crank who has dedicated his life to improving education and fighting schooling. I think we would do well to have more such cranks among us.


Read MZ's comment above for why I dismiss Gatto as a crank. I not only consider new ideas, I'm familiar with a variety that work in various circumstances and not others, and my point remains that children vary, so should educational options, and that the primary problem is finding the right option, once options are available.

Gatto would have us all homeschooling. Read up on New Jersey Youth Challenge Academies for a very on-point counterexample.

I don't see how pointless memorization is helpful to anyone though.

I learned the multiplication tables by memorization. Would I have been better served by having numbers explained to me, and then a guided, self-learning experience where I figured out the theory of multiplication myself?

You get utility from knowing your times tables proportionally to how often you use them. The difference between the amount of time and energy it took you to memorize them deliberately and the amount of time you would spend manually multiplying until you learned them organically defines whether or not that was a useful thing for you to do.

Wouldn't you learn it organically as you used it? Why memorize the whole thing at once and not just learn through actual use?

I realize that last sentence is a mouthful, but yes, that's what I'm saying :)

I did in fact learn the times table by keeping a printed one handy as I did my school's arithmetic problems -- 'cheating'. We were supposed to memorize it beforehand but I thought that was silly. My memorizing-along-the-way worked fine.

Even if you had achieved that, you would memorize the multiplication tables eventually!

In many public schools, "oh you'll have a calculator for that!" is the common response. You don't need to memorize them, so many kids won't. But if you want to be good at foiling later on, you need to know them in your head automatically. Refusing to require some degree of memorization is setting kids up for flunking out of math later, and most tickets out of poverty these days require a college degree with heavy math coursework.

I never memorized the tables, I either had a calculator, or on the SAT and GRE or other times I don't have a calculator and need to multiply, I just draw dots and then count them up.

That's a tautology. Memorization of some facts is useful. It's probably best when the memorization happens as a side effect of the knowledge being used frequently.

Let's invert that and close the loop: memorization is by nature a side-effect of accessing knowledge for some useful purpose. Accessing knowledge for no purpose but to memorize it is, by that definition, pointless.

I recall a Grace Hopper interview where she said you had to memorize the heirarchy of the navy; you couldn't derive it.

A lot of memorization that people feel is pointless actually isn't. I was drilled to death on my times tables, and it's served me well in my later math endeavors, even though I wasn't too thrilled about it at the time.

On the other hand, memorizing stuff about how god created the earth in a week about 5,000 years ago was crap I had to scoop out of my brain later on.

the bad habits that school somehow implanted in me

School might be a mechanism, but I doubt that's the driving force. Losing a sense of curiosity and play is an ancient phenomenon that predates modern education. When I became a man, I put away childish things was written 10^3 years ago.

If schools are doing X, Y, and Z and students are losing curiosity, stopping X Y and Z might not do any good unless it's part of a broader cultural problem. More importantly, the question of whether schools are the best place to prod cultural forces remains open. If we do decide to curate curiosity in schools, it might be beneficial to understand why curiosity is dying in the first place.

I'm curious if anyone has any insight into what these forces might be and why they're so universal. Unless losing your sense of wonder is a relatively recent transformation, why did humans evolve in such a way that wonder isn't conserved across development?

Disillusionment with age seems a relatively universal phenomenon. There is no end to stories about humorless elders in any part of the world, at any point in remembered history.

> More importantly, the question of whether schools are the best place to prod cultural forces remains open.

I think that the problem is actually in how society looks at schools, rather than schools themselves. We think of it like a machine, to be kept fueled and oiled, into which we can feed empty buckets and get them filled. We try not to get involved in the actual machinery, which is full of loud noises and creaking cogs. We expect magic. We expect numbers. We expect efficiency. We expect standards. And this is wrong, all wrong.

Curiosity dies when boundaries are perceived as absolute. If you push at a wall, and it doesn't budge, you stop pushing. It has given you a response, and it's a boring response; you lose interest. You stop being curious. That doesn't mean we shouldn't have absolute boundaries, but it does mean we need to give serious thought to why each boundary exists.

Few ideas:

1. Part of the issue today I believe is the standardization. Inherent in standardization is depersonalization, lower standards, skewed values and incentives, which leads to a mediocracy, and demoralization ensues, which leads to lack of care, which is directly related to a dying curiosity.

2. Another part is the poor understanding and poor acknowledgement of how humans learn. Meaning the system in places doesn't cater for the basic needs of kids/adults.

3. A third is a potential misalignment or friction between societal expectations of behavior and human nature.

Lastly, just because it could be true that people have always become disillusioned doesn't mean that the school isn't a driving force.

"I'm curious if anyone has any insight into what these forces might be and why they're so universal."

The force that can causes a loss of a sense of wonder is survival. People do not just learn for the sake of learning. They learn because they are a part of a complex system that requires knowledge to survive. At some point, the cost of failure is no longer worth the utility of eventual success. Lots of people quit their jobs to try something new, lose all their money, and file for bankruptcy. If they had simple stuck to what they know, they would be in a better position. Satisfying curiosity is not free in terms of time, money, or happiness.

Being in a better position financially often does not equate to more happiness. This is one thing about the human spirit that cannot be quantified.

Research says otherwise.

Recent research has begun to distinguish two aspects of subjective well-being. Emotional well-being refers to the emotional quality of an individual's everyday experience—the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, stress, sadness, anger, and affection that make one's life pleasant or unpleasant. Life evaluation refers to the thoughts that people have about their life when they think about it. We raise the question of whether money buys happiness, separately for these two aspects of well-being. We report an analysis of more than 450,000 responses to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a daily survey of 1,000 US residents conducted by the Gallup Organization. We find that emotional well-being (measured by questions about emotional experiences yesterday) and life evaluation (measured by Cantril's Self-Anchoring Scale) have different correlates. Income and education are more closely related to life evaluation, but health, care giving, loneliness, and smoking are relatively stronger predictors of daily emotions. When plotted against log income, life evaluation rises steadily. Emotional well-being also rises with log income, but there is no further progress beyond an annual income of ~$75,000. Low income exacerbates the emotional pain associated with such misfortunes as divorce, ill health, and being alone. We conclude that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness, and that low income is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being.


My guess would be it is, as you indicated, an evolutionary development. When humans are young, we have very little knowledge of how the world works, knowledge which will help our chances of survival later in life. We also have our parents providing what we need to survive (at least during our early childhood). It makes sense that at this time we try to learn as much about the world as possible.

As we grow up, we start to already know more about the world, so their is a diminishing return on more exploration. We also (becuase of our increased knowledge) would move to being the more productive members of the species, so it makes sense for our efforts to go more into survival so our offspring can devote their resources to exploration.

It's probably an example of the exploration exploitation strategy. When young figure shit out, when older further develop the knowledge and expertise you started on while young. This is only a partial explanation, of course.

Exploration and Exploitation in Evolutionary Algorithms: A Survey



Your analysis is spot on. Schools are part of a larger economic system that is based upon alienation. How can I be curious about the things around me if they are based upon closed designs? For example, how can I be curious about the operations of my own computer if it is based upon proprietary software? Our entire society alienates people from the production and design processes and it alienates people from themselves and one another.

I think the computer as an example of a closed design is perfect, and that this will soon no longer be the case. Raspberry Pi is doing, IMO, exactly what you are describing here. Allowing child-like, fearless exploration of the device. I don't understand why corporations feel the need to continue with this closed design process when there is already enough evidence provided by Raspberry Pi that this is not necessary. There is a continuous backlog of requests for the units. Clearly, according to basic supply and demand in economics, this is what people want. Looking at all the brilliant software that has been designed is astounding. Alienation is not how greatness is achieved, and Raspberry Pi IMO is rightly proving this system very wrong.

Unfortunately, I don't share your optimism with regards to our immediate ability to liberate ourselves from computer systems with closed designs. The Microsoft hegemony has been here for decades and I don't see it going away anytime soon, so it looks like closed designs are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

In the spirit of healthy debate, Microsoft's control of the desktop is akin to Kleenex's control of the tissue market. It will always be there because no one really expects it to change. Which is true. Innovations in desktops are lagging behind those of mobile innovations. Raspberry Pi cannot truly be classified as a desktop device, or any other classification we use for tech. The fact that it ships without a case exemplifies its versatility and wanton openness, which I believe is a key element to the OP's desire in education reformation. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has sold somewhere near one million devices since its inception 347 days ago. The iPhone sold one million devices in 74 days. Apple had nearly thirty years of market presence before hitting that benchmark. The Raspberry Pi foundation has not and I think that if the tech giants wish to stay alive, they should stop locking down their devices and software if they want increased adoption rates. Computers are the future of education and the more open their designs, the more open people will be to tinkering with them, and, as the OP puts it, no longer "Avoiding stuff I didn’t know how to do." This will help advance and educate along the lines the OP wishes to see.

This isn't to say that everything ought to be open source. Capitalism is intrinsic to certain innovations, so the need for closed designs is necessary. The openness need not be as outlandish as it sounds. Less penalizing Terms of Service might be an excellent step towards this.

> In the spirit of healthy debate, Microsoft's control of the desktop is akin to Kleenex's control of the tissue market. It will always be there because no one really expects it to change.

The thing is that most software development is done on desktops and similar environments that Microsoft controls. Software development isn't usually done on mobile devices because they generally don't have keyboards. This means that developing an operating system that that doesn't alienate its users from production and that ultimately works to eliminate the user/producer distinction is something that remains out of our reach.

> Capitalism is intrinsic to certain innovations, so the need for closed designs is necessary.

When do you think it is okay to alienate consumers from the design process? Capitalism transforms peoples labour power into a commodity to be bought and sold in a competitive market. This alienates workers from their own productive lives and from one another. When is alienation which is intrinsic to capitalism ever essential to innovation?

1. Getting punished for being smarter than some teachers. It doesn't have to happen often to really really sour things.

2. Being fed a lot of crap by rote, with critical thinking only allowed in the sharp boundaries of the expected outcome for the curriculum.

3. The absolute unfairness and dictator-like behaviour of so many teachers, the mediocre characters, the lame-ass half-knowledge and pseudo-funny anecdotes they poured on the kids in between the lessons and oogling the girls. The lack of bodily hygiene of many.

Yes, there were good teachers too, but they had the chances of a snowball in hell. For me school was mostly a nightmare, I hated it, I ran away from it. Now I hate the fact that everybody automatically assumes I have degrees and whatnot because I'm smart. Fuck education, encourage curiosity... or it'll just be another brick in the wall.

> 1. Getting punished for being smarter than some teachers. It doesn't have to happen often to really really sour things.

I have witnessed teachers putting down bright kids hundreds of times.

They often cloak it in concern.

A lot of people interpret a smarter person than themselves as a cognitive insult, and will automatically try to bring the person they feel is smarter than them down a peg or two.

This crab mentality is so prevalent, and gifted children feel things so acutely that I would encourage any gifted adolescent to drop out as soon as possible, get a GED and get on with their lives.

They will be 7-8 years ahead of their peers at 23.

A gifted child we be smarter than most of their teachers at all but the best institutions. Their time would be better spent reading books and learning from the eminent experts in their fields than some hack with a teaching certificate.

Living in a place like NYC can replace the social aspect of the college experience just fine.

There is no excuse for tormenting a gifted child with the ordinary school system. It is designed to produce the mid-level workers capitalism needs for it's factories and offices, it is not designed to imbue the best education possible on young minds.

That it was different for you doesn't change the fact that this is how it was for me. Maybe you were more lucky, maybe you had lower standards; who knows.

Feynman's key point is that learning rote means you can't invent new things. Its not knowledge, its not progress.

The article mostly looks at it from a 'its boring' angle instead. Which is not nearly as damning.

By and large we don't need average kids to be able to invent knew things. Heck, even above average kids don't need to invent knew things. Most engineers working at Boeing couldn't invent new things, but they do a perfectly fine job of plugging in the numbers into the right equations and keeping the aircraft rolling out.

Note, I don't mean to be in any way negative towards you in any way at all, at all.

However, one could equally as well argue that we don't need average people to be able to read or do maths. They can learn it all from videos on Youtube et al anyway, right?

More seriously, the notion that most people can't produce wonderful things is the single most pernicious lie of our times. Everyone is born with more than enough potential to do great things, and the job of society is to give them the tools and encouragement they need to do this.

So, don't sell the species short. We may not need everyone to create new things, but hell, it couldn't hurt, right?

We have an economy that is structured such that we need average people to be able to read and do basic arithmetic. We do not have an economy that requires them to do more than that. Indeed, I'd argue that we have over-educated the average person--too many people with college educations working basically the same jobs they could have gotten 50 years ago with just a high school education.

Firstly, apologies for the ridiculously late reply.

Secondly, so what? The particular structure of our economy is no reason to constrain our abilities as a species. I would argue that we have crippled, half educated college graduates doing pointless work across the WEIRD (google the acronym) world, and that this is bad.

My argument is not that we have educated the "average person" (presumably you're not one) too much, but rather that we have educated them too little. Just enough to believe that they know enough, but not enough that they actually reflect upon their existence.

I would say we don't need people to invent new things, but we do want them to.

No it's not. See the passage here. (http://v.cx/2010/04/feynman-brazil-education)

He's complaining about the fact that they don't really know what they've learned, they've just learned to 'say the right things', specifically because of the way they have been taught. Which is precisely the point I'm making.

e.g. "After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant."

Read onwards to where he gives a summing-up speech to the uni.

"My education taught me to value getting the right answer. (It also taught me to value prestige, prizes, etc.) So I worked hard at memorizing things, and anytime I wasn’t sure I’d get the right answer the first time, I’d be scared to try, in case I failed or made myself look stupid."

Here's where the above really starts to hurt: during high school, I got away with avoiding failure because everything is set up for you to 'succeed'. As soon as I went to University the opportunities for failure increased by an order of magnitude and at the same time there was nothing and no-one there to assure you that this is OK and part of the process of learning. The spiral of self-doubt, depression and fear that this created almost completely ruined my academic career.

I got lucky and it all worked out such that I am now a software developer who knows failure and experimentation (on almost any scale) are part and parcel of getting better at what you do, and the impact of this knowledge on one's emotional well-being is immense. It's what I would tell my 18-year-old self if I had the chance.

You were lucky at least to find a better place in college. Although not all classes I took was as bad as high school, unfortunately I just graduated memorizing my way out of college most of the time. The idea and the gist of the subject was always elusive, there was no connectedness with anything else. There was no exploration however the workload was enormous, we were taking 5-6 college level math classes per term. Quantity ruled over quality.

Great article. Unfortunately the vast majority of the so-called education to which people around the world are exposed is not education, it's merely schooling. For those interested in the difference I suggest reading John Taylor Gatto's books. Also most important is to reflect on your own experiences of education vs. schooling. I myself have found that the two are absolutely antithetical.

"The Underground History of American Education" available free online: http://mhkeehn.tripod.com/ughoae.pdf

Radio piece w/ JTG on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKci3_cmlqI

This is something I've always observed. But to be fair, there are many different types of pupils, especially on a high school. If you were to explain things in a way, that they actually mean something, some of your students would do really well, while the rest is unable to grasp the essence. Nowadays schools teach in a way that works for all: Just give recipes, and hope that a few students will motivate themselves to actually understand what they're doing. Or, let them do it for so long, that they get the idea the better, the more often they apply the recipe.

In my case I was one of the lucky few who actually understood derivations after the first class. At home, I thought about half an hour about it, and was able to tell the next "recipe" on the lesson plan. (Side note: Students get rewarded for memorizing algorithms, not understanding them. So even people who are "good in maths" are - even in college - not always good at understanding them.)

Now in university I'm still a bit disappointed. This could be because of my engineering course. We're still just being taught how to do what, but not in a descriptive way. This became extremely bad at differential equations. We weren't even told what differential equations are, and when you use them. It was a mere "you have this, then you have to do that". It seemed very difficult to me, but many other students had no problems. They told me because "it's just: you have this, then you do that".

"Trying to get answers before fully considering the problem." "Being uncomfortable with not knowing."

These two things seem totally at odds to me and it's something I struggle with constantly. How do you ever know if you've considered the problem enough? If you come to a problem you cant solve and go to someone for help there's always a chance that person will ridicule you and put you down, destroying your motivation, because you didn't "fully consider the problem" in his eyes.

If you goto someone else for help and they ridicule you, that person is wasting your time, and you should ignore them. If the person won't help, or at least give you constructive criticism, then ignore them.

It doesn't matter if you didn't fully consider the problem, it matters if the other person will help you. And sometimes, if the other person doesn't know either, he can at least make himself feel good by making you feel bad. Don't let him.

"That’s what I hated about school - it felt like such a waste of time, learning stuff that I was probably going to forget."

Some people go to gyms, where they exert themselves pointlessly - they're not drawing water, generating electricity, or moving materials uphill.

They seem to think that the process somehow improves them. Modern medicine apparently agrees with them.

If that is not the case with whatever exercises are done in school, perhaps we could get better proof than "it felt".

I can also relate, studying for my A-Levels (AS) this year. The biggest part of the problem is that everything is too academical, I'm trying to not take into account the fact that I can learn a lot without the rigid structure of school. Mathematics only teach you how to solve problems, it does not in any way encompass the other parts of mathematics which are important (e.g. how do you model a problem). Sciences are stuck in the 80's (I've been studying Physics with a text book that is way older than me). Why cant we talk a bit about the 'cool' new stuff in class (mentioning things such as quad-copters, 3d printers and cryptography would certainly get a lot of kids interested). I can't relate to the more language based subjects but I hear that it is problematic too.

Finally, I'm also preparing for the SAT, and that, that is a horrible test. It tests you're ability to adapt to a new system/test, I really don't see how it is a good indicator for college applications. It is awful on so many levels and yet it remains the primary test for college admission in the US.

Public education in modern capitalist society is a step up over what we had before. When capitalism first emerged in England there were no child labor laws so millions of children were denied an education and put into working in slave like conditions in factories with minimal if any safety equipment.

Capitalism is based upon uneven and unequal development so much of the global population is still denied an education and even a basic level of literacy. Those people would love to have any education at all to complain about in the first place.

I feel it is important to put this person's complaints into the context. Nonetheless, I will be the last person in the world to actually defend the education system in first world because it is just based on turning the first world citizens into obedient service sector workers and consumers of products mainly produced in China and extracted from the third world.

> Our system should be producing more adults with this same fearlessness, who go after what they really want from the start in rational, systematic ways. Right now, we tend to produce ‘answer-centred’ people who are terrified of doing things wrong.

Capitalism is not based upon letting people go after what they really want. Capitalism is based upon having a class of people (the proletariat) who are alienated from their own work and for whom doing things wrong means getting fired.

> We need to find a better way to teach children, one that doesn’t kill their innate sense of curiosity and play.

We need a system that teaches children to be alienated from the things around them, their productive activities, their own lives, and their peers. This is demanded by the capitalist mode of production itself and there is no way of getting around this without revolutionizing society.

An interesting essay by Nabeel Qureshi, opening up with a great example from Richard Feynman and then showing the development of the author's own thinking on how to learn. The author writes, "My education taught me to value getting the right answer. (It also taught me to value prestige, prizes, etc.)" And of course many people receive an education like that.

Qureshi credits John Holt's book How Children Fail


with opening his eyes to a different view of education. (The same book was recommended to me by my junior high assistant principal in 1971. How Children Fail was a life-changing book for me, and I recommend it to everyone who has ever been in school.) Qureshi writes, "In the last couple of years, I’ve been going through a process of un-education: removing all the bad habits that school somehow implanted in me:

"Being afraid of failure or embarrassment"

That's crucial. To be afraid to fail is to be afraid to learn. Here's a link to a FAQ I have prepared for my local mathematics students, "Courage in the Face of Stupidity,"


designed to prevent the kind of misguided approach to learning mentioned in the essay kindly submitted here. School curricula in many parts of the United States (and perhaps elsewhere too, as I note the essay is from Britain?) are designed so that most pupils will succeed in school assignments most of the time. That doesn't provide enough practice in taking on HARD tasks, and inadequately prepares young learners to succeed in either

a) study of more than one really difficult subject at the same time


b) successful problem-solving in adult life in private employment, when the problems are often open-ended and ill-defined.

As a parent of four children, and as a teacher of elementary-age pupils, I'm all about first bolstering children's expectations that initial failure is not a sure predictor of never succeeding, and then introducing CHALLENGING problems into their education so that one thing they practice while young is overcoming failure.


Another top-level comment just asked,

Anyone out there tried home schooling?

Yes. And it was John Holt's writings, beginning with How Children Fail in the early 1970s, that sparked my interest in homeschooling. I have been pleased with the results of homeschooling in the case of my oldest son, now fully grown and making a living as a hacker for a start-up, and I am glad to continue homeschooling for my three younger children.

It's unfortunate that this post about a young businessman's frustrations with school showed up when you weren't reading: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5194104

It would have been nice to read your thoughts on whether he should just get a GED (or perhaps no diploma) and find other ways of educating himself.

But perhaps they would have been similar to this: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2358559

You can preach to children the value of the process, the importance of learning, etc. But the second you give them an exam, you lose all credibility. That's the real problem with school. Even if teachers devote themselves to imbuing this "problem centric" approach in their students, the school system requires them to give examinations, which inherently encourage the "answer centric" approach.

To the contrary, I know many examples of young people who rock on exams precisely because they learn to pursue curiosity rather than to fulfill minimal school requirements. How useful an examination is depends on how it is designed and administered. How influential examinations are in an overall educational system depends on what incentives are attached to exams and what rewards and opportunities are available to learners irrespective of exams.

Albert Einstein had an interesting account of his school experiences in his longest autobiographical writing, the introductory section of a book I grew up having in my home library (because my dad bought the book when he was a student of the philosophy of science).


The examination system that Einstein encountered as a student in Switzerland actually allowed him to spend minimal time getting ready for examinations and most of his time independently pursuing his interest in physics. As Einstein wrote, "There were altogether only two examinations; aside from these, one could just about do as one pleased." If his school grades had been based more on daily homework assignments (as in the United States), then he probably would have seen his "holy curiosity of inquiry" entirely strangled by the school system, to use his words.

Those exams required minimal time (for Einstein -- a student of average intelligence might have a different experience).

If passing the exams requires spending most of your school time preparing for them, it's a very different situation.

That's one reason I liked my non-science/math courses in school better than the science/math ones, despite otherwise being inclined in the other direction. It varied based on the course, but on average I felt that courses where you wrote a paper or essay took the problem-centric approach more seriously, and graded me based on whether my analysis was interesting, coherent, supported properly, took into account obvious objections, etc., rather than by whether it was the "right" analysis matching some pre-determined answer the teacher was looking for.

I did have a few project-based science courses, based more on having to propose something and justify your proposal, rather than giving a pre-determined answer. But I wasn't able to find more than a handful of those, and they tended to only be senior-level elective seminars, with a small number of students. I would guess the trend towards large, lecture-based courses (whether in-person, or MOOCs) will make them even more rare.

Interestingly that was why I disliked English specifically. It felt like the teacher often had a predetermined view, and would grade a compelling argument for the opposite view below a holey one for the "right" one.

I don't understand this comment. If you don't test someone's knowledge how do you know that they have learned? Good exams aren't "answer centric" they are "problem centric". If you have learned a subject, and someone presents you a problem in that subject, you can provide a solution based on that knowledge.

When your just starting out its harder, you can't say "explain the impact of European colonization on the Americas" you have to say "When did Columbus discover America?" and yes, poor educators sometimes try to give multiple choice exams because it is easier for them, but that doesn't say anything about the need to measure the effectiveness of the child at learning the material.

"We need to find a better way to teach children, one that doesn’t kill their innate sense of curiosity and play."

But how do you objectively measure creativity and play? You can't. So it's not surprising that American public education is moving in exactly the opposite direction, drifting ever closer to a system where high stakes standardized tests determine your entire future. At the root of this is some deep seated hysteria about being overtaken by China or whatnot. It's madness, but I have no politically viable ideas for fixing the system.

Anyone out there tried home schooling?

Can't we meet in the middle somehow?

I think that there is merit to rote learning. When I practice piano, most of the time I practice scales. Not creative at all - mind numbing, really, but fundamentally important. When I play a piece, it in theory the rote learning (ie. scales) gives me the dexterity and muscle memory to be creative within the piece of music.

I believe that this translates into education as well. I think it's important that people can do mental math quickly. I think that it's important that a computer scientist can implement merge sort or a min heap without having to resort to Wikipedia. They should be able to explain it too, naturally, but I think that the baseline of knowledge is required to be creative with more difficult problems.

I think that the important thing though, which music gets quite well yet academics mostly don't, is to separate the two. You practice scales, and mechanical exercises, so that you have the ability to be creative when playing the pieces. If they were more clearly separated, I think that it might be better, instead of confusing the two constantly. This is where I think the fear of failure comes from. With the mechanical side, failure is almost always bad. If you are not able to play the scale correctly, you haven't practiced enough - this is your own failing. With the creative side, failure is not necessarily bad, and success is not necessarily good. It's an experiment, an expression, and if it falls flat, you get knowledge from it, and if you're always succeeding, you're not pushing your limits. When the technical and creative get blurred, I think that it becomes natural to mistake the creative side as the technical side, and assume that failure is always bad.

My favourite course in school was computer graphics. The final assignment, worth 20% of your grade if I recall correctly, was this: "Make something awesome with what you learned. You'll have 10-15 minutes to demo it to the professor. You have 3 weeks." So you had better be darn comfortable with perspective transforms and normals and writing shaders, which you are, because you've built up that knowledge over the rest of the course. Now with it, you are given a platform to be creative. We were tested on the rote learning stuff - the exams required us to transform vectors and decompose matrices and write down lighting equations, but this was a test of ones creative ability. I think it's almost perfect in this regard, in getting a lot out of both worlds in a way that is focused and guided but not on rails.

I had friends who wouldn't take this course with me in school because they were worried that the courses would hurt their GPA.

I really love the music analogy. I wish people would view math in that light, too, because I feel like it translates extremely well.

I'm currently an A-Level Student in the UK. I can agree with all the points made.

The education system believes you still need to go to college, uni etc.

I don't anymore.

I've learnt more outside of college (internet, local groups, friends in the area I'm interested in) than what the teachers can teach (I wish they were researchers rather than "curriculum" pushers).

I both agree and disagree with you there. I would agree that I myself have learned more from independent study than I have from formal education (and I've almost finished a PhD) but, I did learn a lot of things that I didn't realise I needed from college/university.

Granted given the recent changes to fees in the UK, I completely see where you're coming from. I suppose in your situation (as a (presumably bright) A level student in the UK) it would probably only make economic sense to attend a Russell Group University, preferably Oxbridge.

Then, the real returns from education are not (in my experience) economic. Mind you, money is nice, so don't completely ignore economics.

The bit that I struggled with in high school a bit was gaining an understanding of where certain areas of maths were useful. If an area of maths isn't immediately useful at least some explanation of why we should appreciate it and how it relates to other math concepts would be useful.

Does anyone have suggestions for good books/websites where I can learn more about education and our educational system? I'm really interested in trying to make it better, but I don't feel like I know enough yet to come up with significant changes.

This emergence of "essays" lately is interesting, and I've been thinking about the differences between them and blog posts.

Conclusion: essays don't have a place for comments on the bottom.

I've actually always had comments on, but recently switched to a CMS I wrote myself. I haven't had time to implement comments yet, but it's on the todo list. :)

Good to hear. Might I suggest linking to the HN discussion in the mean time (and/or wherever else it's discussed)? Your essay/blog is well-written and valuable, but comments can add at least as much value, and not everyone who visits your site will know to come here.

good suggestion. done.

Sure they do. Right here. :-)

It is not a good sign in a teacher to use the word "despised."

Convex vs. concave. See: http://michaelochurch.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/the-end-of-ma...

The old-style, industrial-era education was based on limiting mistakes and reducing variance. Produce 100 widgets, by deadline X, with low variation. Reliable, low-variance work is still important, but machines do it a lot better than we do.

We've handed the concave world over to machines. They do that stuff far better than we can. Now the only marketable human labor is the convex stuff where the variance-reducing approach that has characterized 200+ years of industrial capitalism fails (because when the input-output curve is convex, you want variance).

The way we do things in the U.S. is ideal for the concave world and utterly incapable of preparing people for convex work, in which autonomy is no longer a rare reward but a prerequisite for producing quality work.

It's not just education that has become outmoded. Our attitudes have as well. We understand natively that both talent (to be judged at best) and character (to be judged at worst) are important in assessing other people (building teams, choosing leaders) but we also conflate superficial reliability with character, to disastrous results. It turns out that the people who most easily maximize superficial reliability ("team players") are often the people of the worst character (psychopaths).

The educational process is designed to (a) inculcate reliability appropriate to a concave world, and (b) prime the smartest people for a world in which superficial reliability will be the main criterion for advancement.

Sadly, things don't change all that much in Grad school either.

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