Old models of education

This is a post for the Edgeryders conference that I will be visiting in a little over a week. It is also available on that site.

We have many problems in education, and too often the response is to look to at technology and say “Oooh Shiny!”. The excitement over Khan academy being a great example. Yet Khan academy to me has little to do with education. It is fantastic at putting information into people’s hands, but cannot give them the skill to recognise what they need to know. In this it resembles the internet itself.

Think about the internet. Sitting here in bed, without moving much, I can go out to a massive chunk of humanity’s knowledge. It is a profoundly different fact that today a kid in Africa lucky enough to have a computer can access more knowledge than a professor traveling round the world’s best research libraries could when I was that age. This should have a huge impact on education. In the face of this sea of information every fact you learn in school, if it is not wrong, is useless.

Yet good education and good teachers have never focused on facts. In addition teaching is not a technical problem that can be solved by clever young thinkers. The gap between theory and practice is very large. Teaching is about performing magic in someone else’s head. Changing the way that they think. Sometimes that requires a positive approach, encouraging the person learning. In other cases it involves telling someone that they should do better, violently rejecting good work as something great is possible. A great teacher will know the time to sit back and let someone bash their head against a problem, getting lost and frustrated. Then find the exact time to ask the question that reveals the crack that allows them to open up the whole thing for themselves. As Dan Meyer says “Be less helpful“.

Yet a great teacher will also get these things wrong, probably most of the time. Remember you are trying to change someone’s mind, that is never a simple act. As a teacher you might not even know if you got it right or wrong. As a student you might not realise how right your teacher got it until years later, if at all. This does not mean that we should not try to measure and observe learning, but does mean we have to be careful. Great theoretical models and shiny ideas might work well only in what we can measure or just in theory.

To take education forward, let us look at the old models, from school and university to apprenticeships and martial arts training. Let us consider how Sushi chefs have traditionally trained, how farmers pass on their knowledge of the land to the child who must care for it one day and how clowns are introduced to their world. Let us approach these old models humbly and see not how we can disrupt them, but how we can enable them. Learning their lessons, wisdom and failures as we bring to bear our clever new ideas.