Education Progress

Education is a hard problem. What should we teach kids? How should we teach them? When, and to what extent? How about adults?

There are so many angles to consider. And when we bring in the parents, the administrators, the laws, the operating logistics, the research, the technology, the history…don’t forget the students…education systems are pretty messy and difficult to navigate quickly.

As someone who has been educated, worked in education, empathized with many stakeholders, lived autodidactically, and thought about the topic from various perspectives, I’ve felt pretty stuck in forging any significant path forward—in finding clear understanding of the problem(s) of education and in thinking up any real effective “big idea” kind of solutions. It’s really very difficult.

Today though, I found a glimmer of hope, a little burst of insight that I believe might ratchet my thinking forward (and hopefully others’ thinking as well).

Here’s the starting point, from Seth Godin: what is school for?

It’s maybe a bit broken, but there could be parts that work fine. If we want to fix something about school, to make an impact on education in a big way, what can we do? How can we bring about long-term good? Where do we go once we recognize that there may be some issues with the status quo?

I’ve formulated some principles (axioms) and beliefs (personal values) that I think might be decent guide posts. I’ll lay them out below.

These ideas don’t really solve anything immediately, so the next step / question is to find some (not best, just some) specific problems or situations or examples to deploy these thought models towards.

First, though, we can mull over and discuss these statements. They can evolve, and in whatever form they could act as a filter for collaborative partners and projects. Here goes…

Principle 1 - Modern opportunity and exclusivity.

At present, there is a dramatic lack of opportunity / access to information / learning—at least for some—regarding real / adult life, and human systems. For example, at a young age, I was not exposed to taxes, companies, economics, philosophy, risk / reward profiles, math, high-quality humanities, thoughtfulness, rigor, a “why” mentality, norms of excellence, diverse cultures. Tactically and holistically / globally, I was not effectively taught / exposed to truths, nor questioning of said “truths” (Hegelian dialectics). I think I would have been ready for all these things significantly earlier in my life / intellectual development. Not to say this is true for everyone, just some.

Principle 2 - Doing is undervalued versus being told.

Experience is the best teacher. There is much room for pedagogy to iterate rapidly, pose questions and challenge faster. The exploration of interesting problems yields much fruit, and can usually be focused on more tightly. Essentially, this concept of learning by doing can often be incorporated to much greater effect in the classroom and in life—wherever and whenever teaching / learning occurs.

Principle 3 - Concentrated power and outcomes, i.e. power laws.

Due to the Pareto Principle inherent in many human systems, a small number of people have had and will continue to have outsized influence on the course of technology, human history, everything. There is basically some “ruling class” that exerts power within most systems, whether or not this class has agency within that system. Usually, however, members of this class have more agency than those who are outside it, or further away from the (relatively small) power center.

Principle 4 - There is room at the top! Non-zero-sum nature of the game.

At present, and for the foreseeable future, decision-makers and influencers are inefficient at many things. Humanity is clearly still evolving (in a plurality of ways) and growing more prosperous (in aggregate, though perhaps also more inequitable). Having been to the vanguard and having seen the way things work at the “highest” levels of human society (forgive the terminology), there is room for relatively many more contributors there. This will increase over time, rather than decrease, as the problems most pressing will be increasingly challenging / complex.

In my opinion, this is the shakiest principle. It’s more of an “I’m not sure, but probably.” Perhaps one way to reason about this: A- everyone has a remarkable lack of time (even or perhaps especially those at the top), and B- collaboration is good more often than not (and collaboration can usually be found / inserted if we think creatively enough), so C- there is room at the top!

Principle 5 - Action trumps inaction, with good intent. Ideas are powerful.

Pushing culture, communicating ideas, and building technology carries humanity forward (for better or for worse). Trying to teach someone something, in a new or different way, with goodwill, might be long-term better than accepting / perpetuating the status quo. At the very least, it might not be long-term harmful to increase the evolutionary velocity of culture / ideas. Therefore, we should seek to share, and to educate, in novel or unique / experimental ways.

This principle is a bit odd. It’s kind of like a pre-requisite to talking / doing anything at all with other people. The alternative is determinism. At our emotional, biochemical core, we probably have to accept this one, perhaps because we act on it. The alternative is some kind of nihilistic determinism, and if that’s a net negative than we would commit some logical suicide by existing and thinking and reading this and doing things.

Belief 1 - Education is important.

Human intelligence is the driver for everything within our conscious experience. We are conditioned by society. This conditioning process is critical. As a side note, humans are great and still important in the grand scheme of things, for the time being and possibly forever. (Strong artificial general intelligence seems a bit distant at present, when we consider the individual human advantage over current computer or other systems to navigate abstraction and ask “why?”)

Belief 2 - I have the capacity to have impact, here and now.

Internal Locus of control. Even if nature is powerful, so is nurture. School teaching doesn’t necessarily have to be a tertiary determinant vs parents / circumstances / etc. We can act to effect change in reasonable timeframes. Things aren’t set in stone.

Belief 3 - Focus yields better outcomes.

We should always seek to break down problems. From Einstein, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” When we’re stuck or making / feeling slow progress, it means we’re not taking a sufficiently granular approach. Paradoxically, we can often think smaller, to make bigger progress.

Belief 4 - There are things we can agree upon.

There are universal objective truths (maybe with the condition that we define “universal” in a clever way, or objective = subjective). It’s worth searching for these things, and discussion / interchange with other folks helps. If nothing else, at least the journey is good. Something about optimism for solutions / progress / communication / connection. A deep faith that good intent and truth not only exists in many places, but that it will eventually grow / manifest / solidify (into plain and simple good).

Yes, this one is a bit spiritual / hokey. Also probably the most “Andy” and confusing.

Belief 5 - Calibrated respect for the past / status quo. Humble, self-aware ignorance.

Also, good judgement. Thoughtfulness. Open-mindedness. There are reasons we don’t immediately see or understand for why most things are as they are. Gaining more knowledge is often best achieved by doing something with our naive assumptions, but these assumptions are then often best discarded, and fast. New knowledge is critical to assimilate.

Action can also require close-minded-seeming phases. These may not be well understood outside the sphere of actors. People and groups come from different places, conditions.

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