January 24, 2014
To receive Newt’s weekly newsletters, click here.
If you were asked to redesign the education system from scratch, would it look anything like the one we have today?
Would you propose that 35 students sit shoulder-to-shoulder for hours at a time, listening to their teacher lecture at the blackboard? Would you want to print six-hundred-page history textbooks, or workbooks full of rote practice sets? Would you suggest that each student’s school and teachers be determined not by what fit him or her best, but by zip code?
In the last half-century, almost everything has changed about how we transmit knowledge. We have evolved from once-a-day print newspapers, radio broadcasts, and network television to instantaneous tweets, blogs, and YouTube videos. We have replaced expensive leather-bound encyclopedias with Wikipedia, an infinitely richer version that is available for free, and library index cards with Google search, which is rapidly developing the capability to give us information we need before we even ask for it.
The only kind of knowledge we are still delivering in the same way is the kind our formal education system exists to teach. For the vast majority of students, school remains fundamentally the same as it was in 1950–or for that matter, 1900.
That austere old model cannot be the best way to help our children learn what they need in a world that has experienced a revolution in information.
The reason technology has not yet transformed education as it has transformed other knowledge industries is simple: schools (and school systems) historically haven’t had to compete for students. As a result, there hasn’t been much pressure on them to innovate, to find new and better ways of teaching children. And too often they have been administered by prison guards of the past who oppose change and fight to preserve the status quo, in the worst cases serving the teachers at the students’ expense.
As I argue in my new book, Breakout, we need to fundamentally rethink education based on what is possible in this century, rather than on whose comforts must be preserved from the last one.
What is in fact possible is the transformation of our schools from education factories into learning centers that personalize learning to each individual student, providing a higher quality, much more engaging experience than we could have imagined 20 years ago.
We are already seeing the earliest hints of this breakout in learning. Khan Academy has replicated virtually the entire K-12 curriculum in short videos coupled with adaptive exercises online, enabling students to progress through the material at their own pace, and to advance only when they’ve mastered the concepts they need to build upon. Udacity, a startup working to reinvent higher education, has successfully paired self-paced learning online with real, live “coaches,” or mentors, to help students when they get stuck. Kaplan is doing pioneering work to bring the insights of learning science and cognitive psychology into its courses–something which of course almost no traditional school does today. Glenn Reynolds’s recent book, The New School, does an excellent job of examining the potential for such information technology to transform education.
All of these breakthroughs could and should be incorporated into our schools. But so far they’ve been blocked by an old order which gets a veto over progress.
There is every reason to expect this bureaucratic obstruction will continue as long as the school systems have a near-monopoly on the education of our children.
The key to making sure these innovations reach students, then, is to promote genuine competition between schools. That means funding students, not school systems, so that families have the opportunity to pick the educational experience that is best for them.
Next week is National School Choice Week, during which thousands of events across the country will celebrate the idea that parents should have the freedom to choose where and how their children learn.
This is the commonsense path to a breakout in learning–making the schools compete for the best students, instead of forcing the students to compete for the best schools.
Freedom to Choose Better Learning
- on January 24, 2014