An Education.

 

Today I’m going to talk about public education. I’ve been thinking about writing about this for a long time. I guess that’s true for a lot of my topics. It’s a bit long today, so I apologize in advance. That’s what he said.

 

I often think about problems with the world and how they might be solved. Because of my obsession with optimization / perfection, I would like to not devote my time to solving anything except for the problem which will have the maximum desired effect in proportion to the amount of work put in. If I spend my time working on a problem that is not optimal in this way, then I feel as though I’ve wasted time. Of course, I can never hope to fully optimize anything like this, but I would at least like to have a worthy goal to strive towards rather than devoting a lot of time and resources to solving a problem that is not important or that would have a very localized effect. Since the world is big and I don’t know much about problems overseas, my more realistic thoughts tend to be related to problems in America. Ironically, the fact that America is so prosperous means that problems solved here will have a more drastic effect than elsewhere, as “problems” as I define them will often refer to poor allocation of resources. Also, the high degree of individual opportunity here makes it more likely that my thoughts and actions might actually affect some sort of change.

 

When I try to think of solutions to problems, they almost always lead back to public education. If only the average man were more intelligent, more knowledgeable, more prepared, more organized, more well-equipped with critical thinking and problem solving skills, more frugal, the list goes on and on, many problems could be solved. This is because information is the most powerful human resource in the world (besides energy…). Information allows humans to better understand the way the world works, and the ability to gather and efficiently dispense and store information is responsible for any and all of mankind’s most impressive achievements, technologically or otherwise. Considering that natural resources are hardly a limiting factor for America, the logical extension is that we should be focusing our energy on gathering and sharing information. Unfortunately, our public education system lags far behind that of many other countries, and it’s reasonable to assume that the education systems of other countries are not optimized either.

 

I could elaborate on the reasons behind why I believe this all day, but here is the bottom line for me. I believe that better public education will:

– drastically reduce energy consumption

– improve overall human health and extend human life

– result in faster and better technological and scientific advancements

– reduce violence and crime

– reduce political and corporate corruption

– mitigate exponential population growth issues

– encourage environmentally sustainable practices

– improve average human happiness and well being

– result in more efficient utilization of time, energy, and resources

 

I believe all of this will come about through nothing other than children learning things that we already know to be true about the world. The best way to educate a lot of people this way is through public education. Taking these things as a premise, what can we do to improve our public education system?

 

First, it is necessary to define what makes public education “good” in order to know how to make it “better.” This is of course entirely subjective and based only upon my intuition and reasoning. I find that there are only three major requirements of a good public education system:

– teach kids how to learn (how to read /write, how to listen effectively, and how to use computers)

– teach kids how to think critically and solve problems

– have consistent standards for what qualifies as fact

There are a lot of other factors that will come into play, and of course even what I’ve said so far is a gross oversimplification of what would actually have to happen, but I think these at least are the absolute basics. They key point that I want to get across here is that teaching facts should not be a particular priority – as long as you have the ability to learn, the ability to think critically, and a source of reliable information, you can find any facts you need by yourself. The only facts that should be taught are those that are so relevant that everyone should know them, and my opinion is that most facts that are taught in public schools today are not of this nature.

 

Those things are what I would want in the ideal scenario – how our public education system is currently set up is not always like this. Here are my main criticisms of public education in America as it currently exists:

– Strong emphasis on facts instead of skills

– Little promotion of creativity or flexibility in coursework

– Uninteractive learning environments that focus on regurgitation of information

– Lack of quality teachers

– Strong bias towards American History

– Lack of focus on STEM subjects, little to no focus on the environment and sustainability, little to no focus on economics and statistics

– Low standards / focus on teaching towards the lowest denominator of students

 

Large systems are hard to change or control. It would be difficult to implement changes to our public education system – it would involve the devotion of a lot of time and resources. However, it is not a task so difficult that we can’t do it. In fact, we already devote more resources to our education system per student than many other countries – these resources are simply not intelligently allocated. Of course, we would have to devote yet more resources in order to optimize this allocation. That being said, I believe that improving public education in the ways outlined above should be America’s #1 priority. This is because it is an investment for the future – spending money on things we want in the now will just make us even more screwed later on when we realize our kids are uneducated and unskilled.

 

Brain dump on ways to improve public education:
– start when kids are very young, this is when they are the best learners

– do not underestimate kids; they will do well if you set high expectations

– improve incentives for teachers

– determine optimal teaching methods for every subject – this can probably be done empirically

– make learning fun and interactive

– make language, music, and art required subjects

– begin teaching math and science young – in fact teach everything as young as possible. The earlier kids start learning, the better.

– encourage free thinking, creativity, and collaboration with peers

– Most ideas from the Khan Academy are good – lessons should be learned outside of class, while work completed in-class

(definitely watch the Khan Academy link, it’s very cool)

 

Obviously this subject is huge, and difficult to talk about in a medium like this. I haven’t said even close to everything that I have to say on this subject, and honestly what I do have to say is not nearly as thought out as I’d like it to be. I will probably be developing these ideas more in the future, because I find them important. So important that I’m entertaining the idea of getting involved in public education reform in my future.

 

Oh, I had one last idea that I’d like to end on. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about Google, and how they seem to be taking over the internet. Although many might complain that they are gaining too much power, I, for one, welcome our new Google overlords. I would like nothing better than for the world to be taken over by engineers who are interested in the spread of knowledge. Google makes it possible for the average person to quickly and easily find almost any information that one would want to find about the world. The way that it is heading, it will also serve as a hub for information sharing and collaboration, through Gmail, Google Docs, Google+, YouTube, and numerous other resources as well. The main idea I had here was that YouTube, or some sort of extension or modification of it, could potentially either join forces with Khan Academy or compete with it. An infrastructure similar to YouTube’s would be very useful for educational purposes, as various lectures and tutorials could be standardized in terms of consistency, correctness, and teaching methodology, organized in a hierarchical structure, and shared freely with anyone who wanted to learn or any teachers who wanted to use it.

 

Think of this hypothetical model of teaching / learning. Students would be told to go home and read a chapter from a textbook and watch a corresponding video about the subject. This would engage them passively and intellectually through the reading, and audio-visually through the video. Then, they would come into class the next day, receive a brief review of the subject, and then spend the class period working on problems and answering questions in groups, with the teacher mainly acting as moderator and proctor. They could learn in a fully interactive and collaborative environment, where the faster students could help the slower students to learn the concepts. Focus would be taken away from memorization, homework grades, and busy work – the kids would come into class primed and ready to learn, and would want to work together. There is social incentive to learn and improve, which I think is very important, and studying is easy because you don’t have to go home and do homework, you just have to watch a video and read a bit. I think this model could be streamlined and become very effective. It would be less stressful for both the students and the teacher, relatively inexpensive once implemented, and could increase knowledge retention as well as overall enjoyment of the learning process by students. It is my sincere hope that a model such as this is adopted in the not-too-distant future, and if possible I would like to play a part in making that happen.

 

I’ve said enough about this for today. Hopefully you had the patience to read through it all. Here’s a completely unrelated song.

 

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