The Future of Education

The times, they are a changin’. Every day we read about companies, industries, and ways of life overturned by technology. Orbitz and other websites replace travel agencies. Uber makes taxi companies quake in their boots. Netflix and others put the video rental chains out of business. Cable television may be next to go.

Education lumbers along, barely changed since 20, 40, or 60 years ago.

Obviously there have been some changes. Kids don’t use slide rules much any more. Research now mostly involves the internet rather than searching through a library. But that’s minor stuff. In terms of how it’s organized, education still looks a lot like it did when my dad was young. Every day, tens of millions of children between the ages of 6 and 18 are walked, driven, or bussed to ugly, box-like buildings. There they listen to droning teachers and are forced to go through endlessly repetitive exercises on worksheets and workbooks. Meanwhile, millions more aged 18 to 22 are at colleges and universities, where they buy textbooks, attend lectures, and takes quizzes and exams. Other than a little bit of technology at the edges, it would all be familiar to someone who time-traveled from the Eisenhower Administration.

It will change some day, however. For starters, people are challenging the notion that every kid should be packed off to a public school determined solely by where his or her parents happen to live. New options are arising. In some places, parents are allowed to choose among different public schools. In some, charter schools offer a different option. Elsewhere, school vouchers let parents pick a private school. Homeschooling is a possibility, and legal barriers to it are falling. All of these options have been growing in recent years, charter schools most particularly. Those who fight for the old model, where most children were trapped in whatever public school served their parents’ neighborhood, are clearly on the wrong side of history.

Yet for all that, none of those options other than home-schooling changes the idea of education very much. Most private schools look a lot like public schools: students arrive in class, sit in desks, listen to teachers, do worksheets or homework assignments out of textbooks, take quizzes and tests. Repeat for 13 years and you’ve got an education.

Now that may be changing, since technology offers different ways to educate. Of course, correspondence education has been around for a long time, but typically played only a minor role. It’s been assumed that having a knowledgeable person in the room with the students is vital to the success of education, and when compared to only reading a book on a subject, that’s probably correct. But new educational software offers a much broader set of options. A 21st century student can watch a video lecture on calculus. But if she gets confused at some point, she can give the software a detailed explanation of what she’s unable to understand. The software then determines the right way to address her confusion, possibly by switching to a different video or some other approach to an explanation, or connecting her to a human tutor over the internet. In this way, the student gets the same sort of dynamic interaction as a physical classroom with a physical professor.

A few years ago, everyone was talking about MOOCs, which turned out to not be such a big deal. In the past few years, actual online courses which offer actual credit, and which use more diverse and effective means of teaching material online, have exploded. Everyone knows that college education in this country is too expensive and many people graduate without good job prospects. Online courses are letting students–or at least the smart ones–spend less while learning more.

Not surprisingly, K-12 education lags behind college in this area, since the government largely shields it from competition. Nonetheless, some progress is being made. Right now, hundreds of thousands of students are enrolled in online schools after withdrawing from traditional public school, while other students take some of their courses online. As an example of how this may look in the future, the state of Arizona offers Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Students who are either in failing public schools or have special needs can be withdrawn from school, and the state instead makes available to their parents a portion of the cost of the child’s education. But what makes this different from a traditional voucher program is that the parents need not spend the money on a private school. Instead they can distribute the money among multiple schools, private tutors, or online educations options, however they see fit within certain parameters. This is true school choice. Parents not only choose where there kid goes to school, but also whether to use physical school.

I rather imagine that within my lifetime, public schools and universities as we know them will be as obsolete as the Pony Express and Blockbuster Video.

One of the educational trends that I’m watching most intensely is Competency-Based Education. This is similar to (or, depending on exact definition, identical with) Outcome-Based Education, which got some bad press about 20 years ago due to a few incompetent rollouts.

The basic idea is that educational credentials (diplomas, degrees, etc.) should be based on what you know and what you can do, not how long you have sat in a classroom or whether you submitted (or even have time to submit) five completed worksheets a week. Instead of getting a D on the midterm, feeling disillusioned, and thinking of dropping out, you can try again next week for a small fee. With CBE, you aren’t bound to semesters - you take as long as you need, whether that is shorter or longer than State U wants. You can take as long as you need to master material (e.g. take two years to master Freshman Calculus), and make up for it by whizzing through the English composition requirements in a whirlwind six week maelstrom of essays, because you’re just that good. But you suck at math, so you take that time that you saved by getting your English requirements out of the way and go get a few months of tutoring. And there’s no deadline, so no nervous nights worrying whether you’ll get a big F and a huge GPA hit. Just a minor worry that you’ll end up taking a extra month to finish your degree and have to pay another $500 in monthly tuition.

The concept does still have some problems, primarily in defining a sufficiently rigorous set of “competencies” to prevent people from “testing out” of entire degrees by getting lucky on a multiple choice test and whatnot.

One big reason why this is relevant now is that the rise of the Internet has given the average person access to a huge set of material that they can actually learn something from. In 1850, most people lived on farms where there might have been two or three books total in the home, and the public library was 50 miles away. Back then, you really did need to have a teacher slowly and methodically lead you through the material. Now, you don’t. You might need a bit of tutoring now and then, or maybe even some direct lessons for some of the harder stuff. But that’s the difference between being able to mostly feed yourself with some nutritional advice once in a while versus needing to be spoon-fed by a nurse.

One big change that’s getting a lot of talk lately is the “inverted classroom”. The idea is that, instead of having the teacher lecture to the students during class and sending them home with homework, the students instead watch pre-recorded lectures at home on their own time, and then do their work in class where the teacher’s available to help them and answer questions. It’s a great idea, with a lot of potential…

Except that it depends on all of the students, 100% of them, having access to some way to watch the videos at home. You can’t count on this for all students, and the schools where you can least count on it are exactly the ones that don’t have the funding to provide technology for these students.

I asked one of my education professors about this, and he said it was simple: If a student doesn’t have a computer at home to watch the videos on, they can watch it on their smartphones instead. Let them eat cake.

The OP, of course, is the OP of someone who hasn’t set foot in a classroom in a long time, or else surely he’d know about changes like project-based learning, twentyfirst century skills, differentiation, and similar strategies for improving student learning. Of course there are a lot of changes.

I was in a meeting this afternoon about this issue. In a district with about 40% free/reduced lunch students, we’re rolling out one-to-one Chromebooks for all students starting in sixth grade. The elementary school principal is looking for a way to provide e-readers to impoverished students so that they can access an extensive library of e-books from home. Our city is providing free WiFi to the housing projects and is exploring citywide free Internet.

What you’ve described is a real set of issues (to be clear, I’m addressing Chronos). It’s the reason I don’t assign online homework to my third-graders. But I think we’re moving toward a world with solutions to these problems.

Okay, let me see if I can fix the things you’re complaining about.

First we’ll have to build some new school buildings that are neither ugly nor box-like (or at least not both) to send the kids to. Or maybe we can find some gothic cathedrals that aren’t being used during the week.

We’ll tell the teachers not to drone. They should speak more perkily and excitedly. Maybe a coffee maker in the teachers’ lounge would help.

Instead of having the children go through endlessly repetitive exercises on worksheets and workbooks, we’ll have them do them on notebook paper, or big sheets of posterboard. And we’ll put a little variety into the kinds of things they’re doing, so that the exercises aren’t so repetitive. If we want to get really radical, maybe we could replace a little of that paper-and-pencil work with activities on computers or tablets or with manipulating physical objects. Although I’m skeptical: if that were really such a good idea, surely someone would have tried it by now.

There: I’ve fixed K-12 education. Maybe tomorrow I’ll tackle college.

I remember regularly reading a decade or two ago articles about how American students were worse in math and science than foreign students, how in say 8th grade courses reading comprehension of the English language has been dumbed down from a century ago…

Does anyone believe this has changed?

The OP clearly does not understand the primary purpose of the educational establishment. That purpose is to provide credentials and the educational establishment has a monopoly on this. Suppose there are two candidates for a job: Candidate A has a degree from Princeton. Candidate B does not have a college degree but has more knowledge and superior thinking skills.

Candidate A will almost always get the job.

This is one of the things that Competency-Based Education/Degrees is supposed to rectify. In their (still a bit pipe-dreamy) world, people won’t go to Princeton to get a shiny Princeton certificate. They’ll go because they think that Princeton provides a damn good value on their dollar for super-high-quality impartation of knowledge and thinking skills. Boy, when one of their instructors walks into the room, you can almost hear the “whoosh” as your brain starts absorbing wisdom from the very way they hold the class textbook. Then, the Princeton alum and the person who never went to college will go an assessment center where their knowledge and thinking skills will be evaluated and rated. So in that world, you can get an education however you want, or in what ever way is best for you. All that will really matter is that you somehow learn the material. Do that, and that degree is yours. You made yourself a Master of Science by reading discarded journals and doing experiments by moonlight and figured out how to adapt. Congratulations, you deserve that degree. You Mastered Science.

I think this has changed, but it actually supports the main point you make, see the next reply:

But then what is a big reason for the numbers that come out about sorry educational levels? A big elephant in the room: Poverty:

PastTense is correct about the elitism that is out there, and it is not only for secondary education.

All of these sound like great ideas on the surface but there is a fatal flaw inherent in most of them. That is, they depend on heavy parent involvement in education that simply doesn’t exist much in many families or even whole communities. Primary education serves a dual role. One is simple, basic education but the other is at least as important. It is that you get young kids involved in structured, organized activities at a very young age while ensuring that they have enough to eat during the day. It is not always optimal and can be counterproductive in some circumstances but it is generally better than the alternative. If you think the kids of minimum wage workers with multiple young children are going to study on their own at home, reality hasn’t caught on in your area yet. What you would see is a vast increase in hooliganism and general criminality among the younger set.

Sure, there are some children of doctors that want to be a future President of the U.S. that will happily study all day long on their own but that is a rare quality that doesn’t describe the vast majority of kids let alone teenagers that are left to their own devices.

I work in high-tech and my mother is one of the foremost decorated teachers and education advocacy speakers in the world. Let’s not dumb down this problem by assuming that the whole thing can be solved by the future equivalent of IPads and Youtube. Those types of technology certainly have their place (I could have learned all of neuroanatomy in less than two days if it was presented in the form of game rather than dry white pages and diagrams for example) but that is only part of the goal. The other part is socialization, health and general safety.

Even if you give young kids complete educational freedom, they may learn a some but what will that really achieve? My child psychiatrist uncle and incredibly flaky aunt tried that real-life experiment with my two female cousins. The kids were smart as could be but they only finished college at 30 because they always had time to “find themselves” and they are both still underemployed and often unemployed for years at a time. They are perfect case of what not to do even if you have originally talented children.

Learning for its own sake is good for those that want to take advantage of it but that doesn’t apply to the vast majority of people. Most people just want a piece of paper that gets them a job and gives them the privilege of never having to think much again outside of whatever the most lucrative niche they can handle. You can’t build an education system around pure freedom and choice because many people have no reason to participate in it other than the fact that it is currently mandated by law.

My neighbors with two elementary school kids are trying to move to a different area (same city) that has a better school. Why? The local school has lots of low/no income kids and the education is dumbed down to meet their needs. The school has turned into a baby sitting service so their parents can struggle with minimum wage jobs, or nothing at all. There is no respect from these parents that education is important for their kids. The school supplies a full breakfast and lunch program (according to the bureaucracy and not a nutritionist), and whatever “education” is taught to them is constant remedial, barely at state standards to meet funding.

My neighbor’s kids are above average and gifted. The school cannot meet their educational needs at all. Their only recourse is to swell their home and move to a different part of town that actually teaches children. They cannot send their kinds to that other school because it’s school board policy you can only attend the school in your immediate geographic area. No exceptions.

So this inverted classroom would never work here. The low/no income family kids have no educational support at home from their parents. Even if those families had money for a computer/smartphone and Internet access, it would be taken up with games or constant gabbing on the phone because, as I said, their parents see no value in educating their kids (even though public education is free).

Adding insult to injury, my neighbor is a teacher at a different school. She knows what her kids need to have a full education. Her hands are tied, unless they move.

Technology may be the future of education. But the reality is many families do not value education, and many have no money for technology. When the two are combined, we have way too many families and their children who can/will never rise from the ashes. My neighbor fears it will not be a rising tide lifts all boats, but instead these families are opening the drains bigger and bigger and taking everyone with them.

For K-12, maybe there are good ways to do it, but the way that US states are choosing to approach these changes is appalling. Basically, right now “school choice” politicians are in cahoots with a variety of fly-by-night online charter school operators who provide barely-adequate online classes in exchange for a direct stream of public dollars in to their pockets. It’s a riff on the teat that for-profit colleges are sucking so happily.

In universities, I think there is strong potential, especially in 101-type classes. But I also think there is still a strong need to have a cohort. For one, having a strong cohort increases hiring options. A good professional network isn’t just valuable for you, it’s an asset to whoever employs you as well. For very good schools, the cohorts they develop can be an asset to the entire field or industry. I think anyone who leaves school without that formed is at a huge disadvantage, and that’s not going to change just because you may want it to.

There are other ways of building a cohort than a traditional model, but I do think there needs to be substantial face-to-face time and a building of shared experiences. I’ve seen executive graduate degrees that have done that pretty well through short, intense in-person classes lasting a few weekends or a few weeks. They seem to do okay. But I do think having time together, in person, as a class, in a structured environment is an important part of a modern education. It’s also valuable for learning. Every teacher knows students learn more from each other than they do from the teacher.

As a former teacher, I also believe that the most valuable role a teacher plays is as a guide or a coach. A teacher’s role is to help a student to let go of preconceptions, open up to new ideas, challenge themselves, and integrate their new knowledge into their worldview. Only 10% of my teaching time was about the readings or the work. The other 90% was on reading the classroom, understanding where people were, coaching people past mental blocks, devising challenges that stretched them enough to grow without undo frusteration, and making sure my students were truly able to apply their new knowledge in novel ways. Learning requires emotional feedback, as well as technical feedback.

I think technology can enhance teaching, but I’m not sure it will reshape the face of education any time soon. Think about sports-- with video cameras and other technology, an athlete can get access incredible information about their sport and their performance. But athletes still need coaches, and training is still going to be somewhat social.

With the possible exception of affirmative action cases I think it is a pretty safe bet that in the entry-level field of candidates a graduate of an elite university such as Princeton is going to possess vastly greater knowledge and thinking skills than over 95% all non-collegians. I also expect that their consequent job performances tend strongly to bear this out.

One, it’s ridiculous to say education hasn’t changed in 60 years. My own high school experience–only 20 years ago–would be well nigh unrecognizable to my students. Technology is a big part of the change, but so are expectations. We did so much more busy work 20 years ago, AP classes were few and far between (instead of half or more of your junior and senior year), standardized tests were rare and a joke when they happened, teachers were much less available (tutoring hours? No one had tutoring hours then).

Two, whie I do think finding more time to help kids practice skill matters, I think flipped classrooms are pretty much doomed. For one thing, lots of kids won’t watch the lectures, or wil “watch” them in the sense that they play them but don’t really pay attention, and there is no way to force compliance. The idea is that they watch the videos, get as far as they can on their own, and then you do the rest. But “as far as they can on their own” varies by kid. So in class you will have three sets of kids: watched and understood, watched and didn’t understand, didn’t watch. The last two are indistinguishable, so you have to help them both, which means the first group quickly realized they are chumps, it’ll all be covered in class anyway, and stop watching themselves. To me, a lecture you listen to at home is more like doing the reading at home. Even in college, tons of people blow off the reading. Why would they meticulously watch the videos?
Second, lectures are a lot more dynamic than people realize. I am constantly adjusting my pacing, my delivery, my content based on feedback. Some of that is obvious–questions and comments from students–but a lot of it is body language–eye contact, posture, etc. Related to that: where will these great lectures come from? It’s the process of lecturing to a group of kids that teaches you how to do it. And it’s also dynamic–you learn to match your population, and you adjust and shift as your population changes. There’s no “ideal” lecture you can capture in a video and have forever.

Third, lecture can be amazingly efficient provided a teacher knows how to keep kids emotionally invested. Otherwise, it’s just a book on tape. It’s so much harder to be funny, or passionate, or even infuriatingly asshole-ish, on tape. The distance deadens the emotional impact. As a teacher, I work so hard to be funny. I sass my kids, mock myself, “accidently” say things that sound dirty, pretty much everything except actual pratfalls. Because that’s what it takes to help them learn. On tape, I’d just look insane. In person, it’s funny and it’s personal and it’s interactive. And it works.

If you believe that’s true, shouldn’t the blame be placed on the public school system that refuses to allow any parental choice whatsoever?

As a Canadian, the first and best reform Americans could make is blindingly obvious - let parents choose which school their kids go to. That’s the way it works in Canada. We researched the high school in our neighborhood and discovered it wasn’t great, so we send our kid to a distant school more suited to his needs. Anyone can do that. The only penalty you suffer is that if you take your kid out of the assigned school for your neighborhood, you lose the free busing and have to figure out your own way to get your kid to and from school.

The other advantage of this system is that it allows schools to specialize. So some schools focus more on liberal arts, and others are more technical. All have to teach the basic curriculum, but the focus for options and after-school programs is different.

And if some schools are bad enough that they can’t attract enough students, we shut them down. My city shut down several inner-city schools a few years ago because the parents pulled their kids out because the schools were awful. And those teachers and administrators were out of a job. Knowing that bad teaching can result in job loss is an additional incentive for teachers and administrators to do a better job. And administrators spend more effort helping teachers to get better and spend more time evaluating teacher candidates in the first place.

The next step would be to make teachers more accountable, both by making it easier to fire the bad ones and also to reward the good ones. The literature shows that a single bad teacher can do serious damage to a child’s progress, and a single great teacher can elevate a student above the norm. And yet, the stupid union-based teacher system rewards teachers by seniority and makes it damned near impossible to fire the bad ones or financially reward the good ones for excellence. And the mandatory neighborhood school model takes away any incentive for administrators to care.

If you did those reforms, perhaps you wouldn’t have to worry so much about parents taking their kids out of dysfunctional schools and putting in those ‘horrible’ for-profit schools.

One of the reason we don’t do that in the US is that schools are funded locally. You’d have to change the funding system first, and good luck with that. We have a bazillion school districts, all acting more or less autonomously.

Parental choice doesn’t solve the problem, either. Or rather, it solves the small problem, but makes the big problem worse.

To illustrate, suppose we have a very small district, with only two schools at some level. By random variation, one of those schools is going to end up a little bit better than the other. And when that happens, all of the parents that care are going to request that their kids go to that school. That’s a win, right? The kids end up going to a better school.

Except that the district can’t fit everyone’s kid in that school, and they still have the other school to fill. So all of the parents who didn’t request any particular school, their kids are going to go to the worse school. And so now you have a school full of students whose parents don’t care, and that’s always going to make a school worse. It’s a positive feedback loop, and positive feedback loops always end with something breaking down.

Left Hand of Dorkness, I’m glad to hear that your district has its head out of its posterior on issues like this. Sadly, I can report that the Cleveland Municipal Schools have no such hope.

I am all for providing choice among public schools, especially as that will require coming up with some kind of system for equitable funding.

For teacher accountability, you need to rig up a system that doesn’t add even more disincentives for good teachers to teach at poor schools. If teaching at a poor school means a near automatic threat to your livlihood, you’d have to be insane or unemployable to take on a challenging school. And of course the middle class and well off are going to be in a better position to flee to better schools, leaving the poor with the absolute drges (or, worse yet, shuttered schools.) You need to build a system that counters that trend, and provides good teachers with good reasons to go to difficult schools.

I took two math classes online in high school in the 90s. While they weren’t put together very well (this was the internet in the 90s), it worked out fine. It’s pretty easy to individualize math instruction, and I think many students would benefit from it. I’m not sure about other topics.

We are a generation of adults who state “I never really understood math.” If we want to become a generation of adults who can utilize mathematics seamlessly to solve real life problems, teachers will need more and better training to meet the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the Common Core Standards requirements for the mathematics instruction. The traditional way of teaching formulas and procedures is only a part of the picture. Students understand the use of these formulas when they can derive the formulas themselves in interesting activities done with manipulatives and visuals to make mathematics real in real life. Then, students need to utilize these traditional formulas and procedures solving real life problems and have whole class discussions about their findings. This makes mathematics a field of problem solving, which it truly is, rather than just a field of disparate numbers. Teachers need time to get the professional development to teach these new standards and to create lessons that are targeted and relevant for their students.