"Fixing education" is a hot topic in the startup space nowadays. "Some Thoughts On Teaching" by Bret Victor (admirable thinker & Interactive Designer) published last week prompts this post.
There was a student in my business courses at UC Berkeley's Haas undergraduate Business program who used to raise his hand in our 200+ person lecture hall two to three times each class. He wasn't doing it to be a teacher's pet; you could tell he was genuinely fascinated by the material.* Yet, he was billed a know-it-all, and people would groan each time his hand creeped into the air. Meanwhile, the cool people sat in the back, chatted, smacked gum, and gave smart aleck answers when they were called upon during lecture.
We all know that scene, because it's not an anomaly; it's the common classroom. It doesn't just exist in elementary, middle and high schools, but continues in job training too (see Michael Lewis's descriptions of the spitball-throwing MBAs at Salomon Brothers in the incredible, and funny, book Liar's Poker).
I want to provoke the question: do we critique students as much as we critique teachers?
A Matter of Demand Meets Supply
Education is like any other good, with supply and demand. It may have positive externalities to society, but regardless of other economic theories at play, it is governed at its core by supply and demand.
The supply side of education is derided as not being great enough, but we don't seem to debate the demand side quite as much in entrepreneurial circles. The articles I see on education reform often point out problems with teachers, teaching quality, schools, etc., or they seek to revise the educational processes America or other countries employ in order to address supply side quality and quantity problems. There has been tons of thought leadership in the startup community about revolutionizing, rethinking and disrupting education, and these technologies and platforms aim to disrupt the educational model of teachers teaching, but fewer startups rethink how learners learn, and fewer still recognize the fact that often the students can be the ones making education difficult. Regardless of the processes used in education (grades, standardized tests, online learning, etc), if we don't improve educational demand - not just in wanting a college degree, but in truly wanting to be educated, whatever form that takes - we won't get as far as we'd like in education reform.
How do we affect education demand in a scalable way? Further, do we even know or innately understand who controls education demand? Is it students themselves, or their parents, perhaps? And, what is needed to increase the quantity and quality of education demand? New processes or classroom norm shifts?
Education Demand Is Not Homogeneous
It's taken as given that education is wanted by all, but what if that's not true? Personally, I believe deeply in education and lifelong learning and have never struggled in my pursuit of it, however we must acknowledge the reality that learning can have stigma and even physical consequences for many. (This study published this August leads with the title, "bullying victims see lower GPAs, particularly high achieving Blacks and Latinos," with italicized emphasis my own). We need to dive deeper into fixing these cultural perversities and to make student-driven learning cool and attainable.
For example, I have a friend who decided not to go to college, and instead studies on his own something for which he is passionate and of which can make a career. Yet, students like him are questioned and made to feel smaller because they do not choose to go to college. Many people fall prey to initial biases: "Wait, really? You're not studying at school? You won't get a B.S. or a B.A. or a B.Something? What's wrong with you?," we're trained to think.
Conversely, if someone chooses to go to college, how do we ensure that they're using their time there most effectively?
Shift from Teaching-Centrism
I'd love to read posts from thinkers titled, "Some Thoughts On Learning," about bolstering the demand side of education as a means of ameliorating educational problems. After all, when people demand goods, they're willing to pay for them, and thus the supply side should gain urgency in working itself out in accordance.
For example, Codecademy does an exceptional job at this because it's demand-driven in its current model. For whatever reasons - perhaps because coding is cooler than ever, and there's a perception of monetary rewards for coding facilities - Codecademy is able to lure learners, and these learners may even be willing to pay for that new knowledge (I, and Codecademy's for-profit investors, are betting on it). Similarly, the first version of Khan Academy achieves student-driven learning; students watch the videos because they care to know. There's a confluence of factors making Codecademy and Khan Academy effective, and I think there must be more discussion around these types of successes.
Interestingly, one similarity, beyond the tech-enabled platform, of Codecademy and Khan Academy is that learners are learning in private. Learning is highly personalized, and I see in my research a trend of learning becoming more intimate. Perhaps the classroom model should entirely go, replaced by a more self-reflective studying model with frequent "salons" to inspire debate and "projects" to inspire collaboration.
Education Reform Begins with Fixing Education Demand
Ultimately, students have to want to learn. It's not enough to integrate gaming and entertainment into learning experiences, for example; it's too easy for students - at any age - to flip the channel or browser tab and go to a pure gaming or pure entertainment session. We have to encourage learning in ways that don't just disguise them. The master disguise of course is that of attaining education for grades or degrees alone; the original "education game." The reform began with defining, in a more salient way, what education is (i.e. questioning, curiosity, challenging the status quo, seeing inefficiencies, solving problems, communicating solutions, and having motivation to do something about it all), but we're beyond definitions now.
Action is incumbent, starting by shifting to demand-drivers, as engaged students steer their own educations. Fix that students themselves don't voice often enough dissatisfaction with teaching. It's imperative to respect teachers, but it's also important to bring out the best from our teachers.
To students, young, old and in-between: Call a teacher out if you're not learning enough, or if you want to learn more. If you feel it's important to know more about the French Revolution in History class, for example, ask that the teacher spend more time on it, ask that they'll review your research about the Tennis Court Oath, or ask to do roundtable discussions about the Bastille to debate all sides.
These are the sorts of demand-driven, individual-performed activities I envision being quite effective in the short-term; they not only steer the educational conversation to something that can be changed more rapidly (i.e. student action toward demanding better education), but also galvanize teachers into not dreading their day jobs. Rather than a teacher living for that one student who actually cares, let's make that two students, three in each class... and eventually all students in every class will care to learn.
*This former peer continues his Business education today as a PhD student at a renowned B-School.