there is a problem with modern education. it is neither modern nor does it educate. this, indeed, is an issue for our society. we are creating a future where we can’t possibly do anything but regress to the darkness of our medieval, brutal past because we aren’t just forgetting the lessons it once taught us but wallowing in a present-focused lethargy where we simply ignore even the most basic plan to prepare for the future. we are collectively in denial about what has happened to cause our present or that our future is being determined by our actions in this moment.
there is a scene in disney’s “the lion king” where rafiki hits simba in the head with a stick and, when simba complains, says “it doesn’t matter — it’s in the past”. simba replies “but it still hurts”. while movies can often teach us important lessons, not just as children but significant for our whole lives, this may be the most fundamental one. i remember seeing that and thinking “that’s so very true — i wonder if kids will get that”. now i don’t wonder. the kids might. the adults certainly don’t.
how does the educational model work?
the general school system was based on the daily needs of the agrarian revolution. i’m not speaking of the american model of education in particular but that is an excellent example of this system at work.
while some educational systems (like those in china, korea, japan and vietnam) were originally created to educate a high-level thinking class, these systems have been completely replaced by a “modern”, american-type school system, at least at the grade-school level.
in most countries, especially in the west, education was disparate and rare before the nineteenth century and its adoption had very little to do with understanding or even knowledge. it was the impact of two significant changes in society — the industrialization of production and the increase in non-residential work. let’s take a look at these two separately but remember they work together.
in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the west (and to some degree the east), the industrial revolution occurred. what this meant was the rise of specialization. people had to have specific knowledge about a particular type of work in a way that simply wasn’t generalizable in the past. yes, a clockmaker had to spend many years apprenticing with gears and pendulums and a baker had a deep understanding of yeast and flour but most people were what we would now loosely term “homesteaders” — jacks of all trades, living separate from their neighbors and mostly self-sufficient. they lived mostly in rural locations, physically-isolated and requiring a moderate degree of functionality in many different disciplines. if something at home or outside became damaged, they had to fix it. it didn’t have to be perfect but it had to work. cooking and cleaning had to be done. childcare, education, healthcare and recreation were all personal responsibilities with little or no help from outside. with the urbanization and centralization of the industrial revolution, for the majority of people this suddenly shifted.
people came to cities to live much closer and instead of spending their days doing many different tasks do a single task repeatedly. the assembly-line or specialized-repetitive model of labor was more efficient, especially for large-scale production. but it meant general ability was no longer necessary (and, as a result, no longer prized or looked for), replaced almost instantly with highly-specialized knowledge of how to complete specific tasks and an absence of even basic understanding of others. this created a society of completely-uneducated workers who were capable of a single action performed perfectly and nothing else. it turned humans into single-task machines working for the profit of their companies or governments — a state that has shifted only a little today.
while a completely-uneducated population caused little difficulty for the companies, governments began to realize there were significant problems — a better-educated population would work more efficiently and produce more profit, lose less time at work from avoidable illness and feel a stronger sense of duty because of the high level of indoctrination standardized education can exert at a young age.
remember, these were people who had historically gotten a practical education from their parents, grandparents and neighbors in a wide variety of general topics from agriculture to carpentry and biology to cooking. this knowledge was now completely absent from their lives and they were living in nothing short of poverty and squalor in most cases as a result. life didn’t get better in the industrial period. it got dramatically worse. the rise in things like running water that we now think of as necessary for life to improve came at a time when society was shifting to a model that treated humans as expendable physical labor for profit and their impacts weren’t really felt for decades — in some cases, centuries.
standardized, general education was introduced (slowly) in this period in various countries but the impact was mostly the same because the purpose was the same — to produce workers capable of quickly learning highly-specialized tasks while possessing enough general knowledge about the world and human existence to take care of themselves and be efficient members of the new urban, for-profit society. this was a revolution in “education” and it is where our current school systems come from.
the increase in non-residential work was an obvious side-effect of industrialization. from a model of “cottage-industry” and local farming, generalized around the world in the preindustrial era, different areas began at different times to shift to centralized production facilities. it was no longer efficient to have a person sit at home with a loom weaving or an individual metalworker with a small forge and hammers. the loom became the weaving-factory, powered by massive steam plants and vast areas of belts and gears. the blacksmith’s forge became the steelworks where furnaces bigger than houses melted ore day and night and turned the bodies of their workers black from the heat and dirt.
so workers no longer took the raw materials home and used productive tools to create finished items for exchange or sale. they took themselves to the tools, housed in factories and government facilities — the materials didn’t move, only the workers. this “going to work” model has become so normalized in our modern society, even a global pandemic lasting multiple years did little to shift it from being the accepted way work happens. only two or three hundred years ago, though, this was such a rarity anyone who “went to work” was seen as unusual and most people in society didn’t understand how they could possibly live a fulfilling life that far from the comfort and community of home. time has shifted far more quickly and this onsite work is dramatically less-traditional than most people often imagine.
with a still-high birthrate, however, this left a significant issue. the rise of onsite work meant children were a much larger task to be completed at home, where people spent much less time. while women were generally expected to take care of their children, as had always been the case through history, especially in the west, that doesn’t tell the whole story. this was the case for young children but, as children became older, men took larger roles in their education because the children did more and more tasks to help at home, especially in farming settings. added to that, older children took care of younger children, regardless of gender. with the rise of onsite work, however, anyone old enough to go to work was no longer present at home to either take care of or educate children and the workload was dramatically increased on the few whose jobs were at least partially childcare — typically mothers. while this job was traditionally shared, it was certainly no longer possible simply because nobody else was there to share it. the stay-at-home-mother is not a traditional situation in any society — it is a result of the industrial revolution. mother-childcare is a traditional myth, not the reality of how families worked before factories and urbanization shifted societal norms.
schools were therefore created not simply to indoctrinate and provide a workforce. they ensured families were able to send their children somewhere so a single mother could complete all the expected tasks of cooking, cleaning and general home-maintenance without a large group of children at home to take care of and educate — only the very young spent time at home and, in many places, once they left for school might only return home for short visits, living at the schools. in most countries, children returned home in the evening but left in the morning for more schooling and this kept the children busy — the education was not particularly valuable to the children but it was incredibly-important to the structure of a family that would have collapsed with workload if childcare was a constant task.
there was the interesting side-effect of local-exceptionality and nationalist indoctrination in these schools. schools were mostly run by churches and governments — a combination in many places but sometimes one or the other, though there was practically little difference between them or their approaches. schools didn’t just create loyal, committed workers but obsessive nationalists devoted to national-service and willing to sacrifice their lives and families to fight and think of their own cultures and countries as superior to others’. the school system isn’t only to blame for its indoctrination of specialization and enforced-lack-of-understanding but the rise of nationalist hatred, racism, belligerence (at both individual and international levels) and war. war happened before schools were readily-available. society-wide, mechanized war was only possible in an age of generalized education.
while this is significant as a historical background, however, we are more interested in what schools do today. the problem, as is rather clear on inspection, is that very little has changed either in model or approach from the industrial era to the contemporary age. we still run our schools based on an informational model.
the informational model can also be called the “blank-slate” or “teaching-learning” model. this is the idea that students come with a need to learn and must be given information. not that they must understand the information, only that they be prepared to share that information on request and perform specific tasks. this is very different from the previous model — the apprenticeship model.
in an apprenticeship model, information transfer is limited. a master demonstrates and assigns physical or thought tasks to allow students to understand why and how a process is done to be able to replicate it. why is this model so different? because it must be self-sustaining. in an apprenticeship system, the apprentice becomes a master over time, eventually creating a new instantiation of an apprentice. it’s a cycle. every student is educated with the knowledge of how to do, why to do and how to teach the next generation. in the informational model, the vast majority of students are never expected to do more than use the information and skills so the “why” and especially the “how to teach” are seen as unnecessary and learning is simply a question of pouring facts and basic functional competencies into the waiting minds and bodies of students.
while educational theorists have disputed the “blank-slate” model of education, saying students function better if they are treated as comprehending participants in their educations, this doesn’t change the basic premise of a division between “student who must learn facts and skills” and “teacher who must share them”. the process has in many schools and times become more participatory and collaborative but there is still this sharp division, compared to the previous model where there was an expected progression of student eventually becoming teacher through experience and mastery.
what’s wrong with an informational model?
the problem with the information model (and why i am calling it the “informational” model here as opposed to the “teaching-learning” model) is that it focuses on information (as the name suggests) and specific tasks or skills. it is not about understanding the world, only living in it in an acceptable and functional way with enough knowledge to exist and complete required tasks — rarely more.
what this does is create a society where there is a small number of people that understands but an overwhelming majority that only knows. and knowledge in this sense is a problem because it’s not coming from thorough understanding of a topic. it’s coming from trust. how do you “know” gravity in the informational model? you memorize its existence. you can intuit it from the world around you but what’s important is believing it’s real. this is no different from being told of the existence of a deity and a moral and societal requirement to show up at church on a weekly basis to venerate and adore them. we have a school system (largely implemented by churches) that approximates the belief-based system of doctrinal education. you don’t have to know why 5+5=10, just be able to do it — and do it as quickly as possible.
why is this a problem? two reasons — speed of societal change and indoctrination.
our world changes quickly. without a basic, fundamental understanding of how the world works around us, we are paralyzed by large-scale change. if this doesn’t seem immediately-apparent, it is because you are used to it and believe it is a necessary part of the human cultural experience. it is not. it is a result of a failed education system. let’s take a look at an example.
let’s say you’re sixteen. you spend your life functioning with a phone. you know it intimately through experience. there is nothing you can possibly imagine that you can’t do with the thing and your parents don’t have a clue how to use it. you’re constantly laughing at your father for slow typing and not understanding the latest apps. when you visit your grandparents, they are so detached from it they are using technology years out of date and can only just barely manage to reply to your messages — not in seconds like your friends but in hours or days. you think of them as so far from your skill-level and that it’s quaint, traditional and perhaps even cute. but why are they incapable? it’s not because you’re smarter. and it’s not because you went to school to learn how to use your phone. it’s because you grew up learning to use it not through basic experience but understanding. you learned how a cloud service worked, how application-distribution networks functioned, when and why keyboards appeared and disappeared onscreen, what app was used for what purpose and why one thing was better than another. if it was simply a matter of experiential learning, the next shift in technology — for example the general shift that happened from microblogging (like twitter) to shared-experience social-media (like facebook) to a cultural obsession with short-video interactive-media (like tiktok) would have been difficult for you. but you adapted immediately because this isn’t just a system you learned — it’s a system you understood. if, however, you are comfortable with the information in your school-derived knowledge-system — for example, measurement — you can use it like it’s part of your inherent natural capacity but any shift completely destroys your competence. imagine replacing your system of measurement with a new one. instead of meters and grams, we will now use distances measured related to temperature gradients — a logarithmic distance scale — and mass will be measured as an exponential function of gravity. these are no less practical ways to measure distance and mass than meters and grams but this shift would be nearly-impossible for you. shifting measurement systems five-hundred years ago, however, would have been annoying (like shifting social-media platforms) but accepted and easy by your ancestors even three-hundred years ago. and these measurement-system changes happened regularly in history — the only one that has ever really been an issue for society is the shift that happened in the industrial age. when industrialized countries changed from traditional measurement-systems to metric, there was a brutal backlash from the population and many still have difficulty adapting — even after generations. in countries where industrialization hadn’t yet happened (china, japan, etc), this shift occurred without question and adaptation happened immediately.
the other problem with the model is indoctrination. what occurs in a system where information is provided is that the information can be right or wrong. understanding can be misleading or misled but it’s never completely right or wrong and can fluidly adapt as more experience is available. with information, however, there is an absolute quality to it — a belief-structure. if you have been told all your life that 5+5=9 and suddenly discover it’s actually 10, this is a problem. if you understand how addition as a concept works, the fact that it is 10 is irrelevant and not in any way interesting to you. if you truly understand how something works, memorizing the results is unnecessary and meaningless. what matter is the system, the process and how it fits with reality, not the specific facts.
how does this really apply in life? nobody is being taught 5+5=9, of course. but they are being taught many things about the world. let’s take a simple example that clearly demonstrates this indoctrination problem between the united kingdom and south korea — the same difference exists between the united states and china or france and japan but it’s helpful to pick countries that are more similar in size and population to see the absolute effect. during the novel-coronavirus pandemic, the united kingdom’s response was ridiculous while south korea’s was logical. in both countries, however, it was generally-accepted and understood as necessary. how did that actually occur? it’s a result of educational models based in indoctrination.
if you have spent your entire life being taught personal-freedom is more important than personal-responsibility, a common theme in western classrooms, it is completely reasonable to accept a government response that says “it’s ok if others get sick as long as your daily life is not inconvenienced in any way”. in a society where personal-responsibility and duty to the community is a coherent and constant theme in the education system, such a response would be unthinkable and something closer to “it is your absolute moral duty to keep those around you safe regardless of what that involves as long as you are capable” is expected. this example demonstrates two other things. the informational model is not simply present in the west — the south-korean, japanese, chinese and indian school systems are firmly-rooted in this concept much the same as american, canadian, british and french systems. additionally, the indoctrination doesn’t necessarily mean bad or incorrect information is shared. in this case, a good response is created through indoctrination. what is obvious, however, is that you can condition the population in favor of a particular type of future using this approach and predict it with little error — the informational approach to education is, practically-speaking, nothing more than long-term behavioral-programming from childhood to late-adolescence, often early-adulthood.
what’s a better model?
a better model is what i call “awareness-creativity-engagement” or “ace”. this is a three-stage system where information is not seen as either necessity or goal. it assumes the availability of information and that possessing it is largely irrelevant to daily experience — it focuses on situational understanding, changing and reacting to that situation and being present in the moment to determine the path for the future.
it’s important to think of this as a multistage system where the stages are simultaneous rather than consecutive. it’s not that a child begins by developing awareness then becomes creative, later engaged. these three things happen as cycles constantly throughout the educational process. it is a way of thinking and teaching, not a development strategy for a child becoming an adult.
let’s look at a very simple example of how this would work. this example is linear — awareness to creativity to engagement — but that doesn’t signify that the entire process is that way. individual teaching takes these stages as steps on a path but the engagement stage of one concept can easily lead to the awareness or creativity stage of another. education is a holistic reality, not a single path like in an indoctrination model.
let’s say you want a student to understand what water is — a typical basic-chemistry concept. it is, of course, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen bonded as a stable molecule, repeated to form pure water (if you don’t know what all these things mean, it is not that i have become highly-technical but that your education has let you down — these are extremely foundational concepts and it doesn’t matter what you do in your life — you truly should understand them and they are basic and easily-understood).
the awareness step could simply take the form of diagrams and atomic-level images of water. but it should include instruction on the entire atomic structure. not as a memorization exercise but teaching the history of how it was discovered and the current state — atoms, of course, are not indivisible and are made of many subatomic particles. we simply find it useful to look at atoms and molecules because they’re human-scale things that function in our world. being aware of a thing isn’t just knowledge about it — it is knowledge about why it must be that way. the student needs to understand how the structure forms, why atoms are stable, how they come together, how molecules are formed and why two hydrogens and one oxygen work well together but two oxygens and a hydrogen would be hydroperoxyl, vastly less-common and in many ways destructive as a chemical — why is it dramatically rarer than water? what’s the effective difference? this all comes as part of awareness of water’s structure. there is more to it than that but i suspect you get the idea of this step.
this step doesn’t have to be completed to move to the next — they overlap while being somewhat-linear in process. without awareness, creativity isn’t really possible. creativity is where situational-understanding becomes useful-understanding. the student goes from knowing how something works and why that is the case, from experience and exploration, to practical application of the knowledge. in the case of water structure, this could involve experiments showing how water is purified from other substances and how it can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen. it can extend beyond those basic experiments, however. the student would be encouraged to take the knowledge of the structure and see what its implications are for their daily life — what does that mean for their neighborhood, for example? while the structure of water may seem distant and unrelated, it truly is not. a creative student may look at how waste-water is treated and how far it must travel, the reasons gray-waste and more toxic forms are kept separate, explore better ways to treat water and preserve the distinction between salt and fresh sources of water to avoid the difficulty of desalination. creativity is about engaging the understanding that came in the previous step and turning it into an applied interaction with daily life — understanding something is useless if you can’t put it into practice. a model of education focused on information ignores the next step — understanding. an understanding-focused model without creativity simply cuts off the process at a later step.
in the engagement step, this applicability becomes less theoretical and the student would be encouraged to actually go into the world and relate their creative thoughts to those of others — environmental groups or industry, for example, in the case of water. there is no point if the student gets an understanding of water’s molecular structure, develops thoughts about how this impacts their daily life then doesn’t communicate with those in the real-world trying to ensure better water-quality and environmental protections in their neighborhood. this means the school is far more connected with its generalized environment — each new understanding comes with a relationship between student and world or at least between student and community.
this model takes information as a basic commodity that is not memorized or even learned. it uses information as fuel for understanding, takes that understanding and applies it with creative questions and solutions then takes those and applies them to the real-world, three processes that are distinctly-lacking in the current school approach — not just in the west but globally.
what subjects are included in an awareness-creativity-engagement (ace) model?
the notion of “subject” is problematic because there is vast overlap but this specialization is truly necessary to ensure expert instruction and unavoidable in the practice of education — a math teacher should know a significant amount about english literature but doesn’t necessarily have to be an expert while the literature teacher should understand organic chemistry at a coherent and basic level but knowing the details well-enough to teach complete classes is unnecessary. this division of educational labor is the only way a system like this can operate.
the result would be a system loosely divided as subjects but these would no longer be structured as independently-graded classes. they would work together and projects would be supervised by more than one teacher at a time, spanning multiple disciplines. instruction would happen in a divided manner but evaluation would be collective and the awareness would simply be shared across all potential sources of information.
the basic structure would be to have…
- hard science
- social science
- media studies
while this looks like a large group of subjects compared to what is taught in a typical contemporary school, many of these would be grouped. they are all important for the development of a young learner’s mind.
in a structure where students are expected to attend school from 8-5, for example, divided in hour-long classes with an hour of break throughout the day for eating, this would allow 56 class blocks. for a sixteen-year-old, it might look like this. (combined courses wouldn’t necessarily mean every day had all components, just that topics would vary and a single instructor could be expected to teach anything in that block.)
- 7 blocks math
- 4 blocks physics-astronomy-meteorology-geology
- 4 blocks chemistry-biology-biochemistry-immunology
- 3 blocks engineering-robotics
- 3 blocks psychology
- 3 blocks anatomy-health
- 5 blocks sociology-anthropology-geography-culture
- 5 blocks language-creative-writing
- 3 blocks literature-translation-media-studies
- 4 blocks history-politics-philosophy
- 5 blocks language-learning
- 2 blocks technology-coding
- 1 block woodworking-metalworking
- 1 block cooking-agriculture
- 2 blocks physical-exercise
- 3 blocks music-fine-arts-performing-arts
- 1 block finance-practical-economics
students would, of course, be expected to do extracurricular activities and these would probably be much the same as those are today — related to one or more subjects from the regular day like playing sports, singing in choirs, playing in bands, studying and practicing languages, exploring diverse cultures through their cinema and cuisine and participating in local government, among many other activities, whatever students find interesting. these should be focused on practical relationships with the real-world, however — what use is activity if not beneficial to the general society the school is part of. a choir can perform in public to improve the lives of others. a robotics club can contribute to ongoing research. a language club can go into the community and engage with native-speakers to improve cultural awareness. emphasizing the basic human duty to improve the community and society as a whole is an important part of the ace model.
how does the ace model align with current school division?
while there is nothing particularly useful about the way current schools are divided — primary, elementary, junior-secondary, senior-secondary, undergraduate, graduate, postgraduate — there is no reason the current age-type divisions couldn’t be expanded to reflect the function of an ace model.
students would begin at approximately 2 in a primary-school that would continue to age 6 (levels 1-4) followed by levels 5-8 in an elementary-school, getting to age 10. the next four years (levels 9-12, ages 10/11-13/14) would be a middle-school followed by a four-hear high-school (levels 13-16, ages 14/15-17/18), allowing the same school-leaving-age as is currently common. there is no particular reason for this division but it is already so well-integrated in our society it would be easier to adopt it and gradually shift. students should be permitted to move freely between levels and mix-and-match levels in different disciplines as ability and interest vary, as opposed to the rigid age-grade system currently in place. over time, the year divisions would gradually break down and students would no longer be grouped by age but this is a generation-long change that would be prohibitive to propose in the first step and it is, practically-speaking, not inherent to the model’s success.
is anything like this being implemented?
no. there is nothing like this being implemented anywhere in a school-system. perhaps more surprising is that there is no undergraduate or graduate/postgraduate program doing this. we live in a world where information is everywhere and understanding is vital but we still have even universities focused solely on teaching and testing knowledge rather than application of that knowledge in most cases and very rarely specifically teaching creativity and real-world application. industrial models, particularly those in technology, are far closer — google’s flexible-education model, for example, at least embraces the first stage of an ace-style system.
does this model work at the postsecondary level?
yes. there is no reason postsecondary education couldn’t function using this model. the shift would be easier in that context because universities are already, at least in theory, equipped to deal with deeper understanding rather than simply transmitting and testing information. practically, the shift would be as fundamental for them as standard schools. the level of complexity at college and beyond, however, would make the benefits even more significant and the instructors at that level are likely better-prepared to deal with both creative application and real-world engagement segments of the model.
what is the implication for academia and industry of implementing an ace model?
academia has always been a vacuum — a self-perpetuating and self-regulating system. this means its views tend to be conservative and insular. shifting to an ace model would mean it has no choice but to become liberal in its approaches as students require up-to-the-moment interaction with the world around them rather than a theoretical model stuck in the past — reading shakespeare and trying to apply it to daily life, for example, rather than contemporary fiction or working with outdated models of learning-styles-based education or religious nonsense as a foundation for scientific or ethical practice. the benefit is obvious.
industry stands to gain even more from this model shift — a higher level of understanding in its workers means far less on-the-job training and experiential learning, leading to more efficiency and a workforce more engaged.
the other side-effect, though, might not be as comfortable for industry. the ace model implies cultural, environmental and interpersonal connectedness, something industry has often tried very hard to avoid — it is common for industry to act in ways that are destructive or unethical. a workforce unwilling to engage in these practices could be damaging to profit, though beneficial to the community and society in general.
shifting from a model of education where “knowing things” is important and the end-goal to one where knowledge is just the input for the first stage and understanding gives way to creativity leading to real-world engagement is a necessary step in the direction of progress. will this happen? it’s impossible to tell. if it doesn’t however, we will see a continuation of the trend we currently see — obsessive self-focus, lethargy, laziness, lack of cultural connectivity, lack of education and awareness of the world, disinterest and a population simply living for pleasure in the moment. this is no way for humans to live. it is, however, our reality in this moment. does the future hold something better? it certainly does if we choose to act. if we don’t, we’re as fucked as our schools. thanks for taking the time to think about this with me today!