While watching my kid with his gymnastics teacher last weekend it occurred to me how much my child has learned from private education: preschool, gymnastics, swimming lessons, soccer league, story time and reading programs at the local library (though technically public), youtube, wikipedia, internet games and even the Wii (which has helped learn how to play real games like bowling, golf and tennis).
All of these classes and activities were relatively inexpensive, yet valuable. I could see that my kid learned things.
It made me think of how we’ve standardized one model of K-12 education throughout our country and I wonder if that really is such a good idea. That model is based primarily on the preferences of a group of experts for college prep education that may or may not be good.
Realizing how much my kid has learned through private activities that exist on the periphery of public education makes me wonder what would emerge if the K-12 model wasn’t thrust upon us by the experts and their tight grip over how our property tax dollars are spent on education.
Before I go on, it’s important to understand my underlying belief.
I believe that much of the improvement in our lives result from innovations discovered from trial-and-error experimentation. I also believe that many of the best innovations result from accidental and often failed experiments (that is they failed to do they thing they were intended to do, but someone discovered some other use for it).
I believe this is true for all areas of our lives. The classic business example is the 3M Post-It Notes which resulted from a failed attempt to make a super strong adhesive, but the weak, non-residue-leaving adhesive was discovered to be quite useful for other things.
We all experiment nearly every day and sometimes find things that improve our lives, even when we didn’t expect it. The experiment might be as simple as trying a new product or recipe. Sometimes we find things we like and we continue to use (success) and sometimes not (failure). Often those experiments occur by accident or at random.
We can all probably think of something we do or use that we discovered by accident. I once had a hard time running. The pounding hurt my legs. I bought a pair a shoes for general use once that happened to be on sale and discovered that I could run in them without pain. I’ve been running ever since using that same model (currently the Asics GT-2000 series).
Further, not every innovation works for everyone. The Asics running shoe works for me, but it may not for others. There’s no reason to limit all running shoes to the model I prefer. Yet, that’s what we’ve done with public education. We’ve basically said that we should have one model of running shoe, even if that doesn’t work for every one. Some might say that we have experimented with the education model a little and it is not one-size-fits-all. To me, that’s like saying that we’ve made the one running shoe model available in different colors. The variations are cosmetic, not fundamental, because ultimately the educational experiments also have to adhere to the standards that have been pre-decided.
To sum up I think there are two key advantages to experimentation: innovation and evolution of variations that better serve our individual tastes and needs.
A key upside to providing universal education is everyone has access.
Downsides include that it’s more-or-less a one-size-fits all model with very limited experimentation to drive innovation and discovery of variations that might better meet everyone’s specific needs and preferences. It’s no wonder to me that we haven’t seen significant innovations in the classroom for decades and we have groups of people who say public education doesn’t serve their needs.
I think we are seeing some experimentation with charter schools, but that’s very limited and contained to variations of the existing K-12 model since charters have to meet standards created by the same people who run public schools.
The result might be that we find better ways to manage the existing model, but that also limits us to that model and doesn’t allow for much experimentation of other models. Which means that it will remain to be unseen what we’re missing.
As I was writing this blog post, I came across a related post on Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist blog which discusses one educational innovation. The excerpt below demonstrates how embedded the one-size-fits-all model is in our thinking:
Everybody knows that the Internet will transform education, but nobody yet knows how. Most of the models sound like dull attempts to reproduce, at a distance, the medieval habit of schooling—one teacher telling a bunch of children what to think. Now, though, I think I have glimpsed a better idea: the self-organized learning environment (SOLE).
Perhaps SOLE is a better idea than our current model, or perhaps its a better idea for some people and not for others. Our problem with education is that as soon as we see promise in something like this, we want to scale it to everybody. The iPhone, while a remarkably successful product, does not meet the needs and preferences of everybody. Other phones are selling fine for those who have different tastes.
If we want to improve education, I recommend that we remove barriers to experimentation and allow different variations to emerge to meet varying tastes rather than trying to find the next one-size-fits-all solution.