The Green Gap

In the Cold War, we feared a Missile Gap was a strategic weakness. Nowadays, we must awaken to the fact that the Green Gap is true strategic weakness: the nations whose economies will thrive in the coming years will not be those with the biggest factories, but those with the most sustainable, efficient, and ecological markets. What we require is a Strategic "Green Reserve" of ecological design to weather the coming changes that both climate and resource scarcity will force on the international economy.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Future of Education

A brilliant idea that is immediately implementable:

A few things spring from this video that are wholly systemic thinking:
1) why do we allow children to progress in school when they haven't fully mastered concepts?
2) even though kids get a regular report card based on tests and homework, why has that been the only feedback available?

The concept of assigning grades every quarter or semester is totally antiquated and leaves loads of kids unable to follow concepts in future simply because they were allowed to "pass" a subject even though they didn't master it. That's just dumb. Mastery is what we seek from education, not good grades. Just like our obsession with money can take us away from what we really need, our obsession with grades can distract us from what we must learn.

Systems demand closed information loops in order to function optimally. With teachers able to monitor not only what exercises their kids did but also what exercise questions they attempted, which questions they got wrong, and how long they spent on each video and question, teachers can guide their students' education without ever having to embarrass them in front of peers. The feedback loop in this system is finally closed, and it allows students, in effect, to direct their own education. The fact that the teacher can then assign tutors from the class to assist their students who haven't totally mastered all topics frees up the teacher from both doing lectures and attempting to help all the students all the time. Some kids just need a nudge, they can get that from other students. Some kids need teacher support, and by using this feedback, the teacher manages the education of the entire class, pupil by pupil, without much effort at all. All my teacher friends keep telling me they want to be an educator, not an administrator. Well, this should be their dream.


  1. This is an interesting video. The underlying philosophy here is that students should be assessed on an ongoing basis based on their individual achievement in relation to the curricular outcomes. The instruction and learning tasks are then adjusted (personalized) for each individual student. This replaces the model of teaching an entire class, administering a test at the end to determine the students' level of achievement, and then moving on to the next unit of study. It is particularly important in subjects with a high level of incremental skill development such as mathematics.

    Frankly, if the above paradigm shift (pardon the cliche but I think it actually fits here!) is not already happening in some way then there is something very wrong at one or more levels (teacher, school, board etc.). However, I have some reservations with the mechanism suggested in this post and the video for achieving this outcome. At its core, teaching is an interaction between two human beings, teacher and learner, and research consistently supports the notion that the strongest positive factor in learner outcomes is quality teaching. If some of the reactions described in the YouTube comments (discussed in the TEDtalk) aren't happening with some regularity in a conventional classroom then I'm not certain that requiring primary learning to take place in a fundamentally dehumanized context is going to improve the situation, no matter how much it enables students to have more time to explore the concepts.

    I also have some reservations about the effectiveness of science videos as a learning tool - they are explored in depth here: to which I would also add the challenges of getting the average Jr. High student to watch videos on their own time!

    Anyway, this comment is already getting to be longer than the original post, so to answer your original two questions in my opinion:
    1) On a day-to-day basis, we shouldn't be, although there is continuous pressure to keep moving forward. On a grade-to-grade level, there is much evidence to show that students who are made to repeat grades have higher drop-out rates (and lower high school completion rates - two sides of the same coin)
    2) Feedback to whom? Parents may only receive quarterly or biannual formal progress reports but students should receive daily feedback on how they are progressing with respect to outcomes

  2. Thank you for the comment David, and you're right - it has limited utility. Studies where incremental knowledge is necessary (i.e. lots of units that build on one another like math, as you say) are shoe-ins for this system. Another system that could be implemented would be phonics. With my wife's background in computational linguistics, I can guarantee you there is an off-the-shelf solution to generating random and infinite phonics questions. These two core subjects (phonics and math) form the two pillars of any other part of education, kind of like the two pillars of the Qabbalah, Boaz and Jachin. As long as that core is there, the deeper (applied) subjects become reachable by the majority of students.

    Back when I took classes in Education (my original career path was veering towards teaching social studies) I loved to do thought experiments with new forms of educational administration, and one thought that a few friends and I heard about was essentially a system where all kids do a boot camp in readin' writin' and 'rithmetic and then are more or less set free to direct their own studies after attaining basic mastery of those core skills. Since the core skills are universally required for any further study, I see great merit in concentrating loads of energy on creating user-friendly systems that guarantee that a student has mastered the prerequisites for further study. For example, in order to do grade 10 chemistry, the students must have been able to complete the mathematics core up to and including balancing equations at the grade 10 level. Once that mastery was attained, the student could then move on into your chemistry class where he could apply the knowledge.

    I suppose there are some teachers who enjoy teaching fundamentals, but I would assume (you can correct me if I'm wrong) that the majority of teachers would rather teach what they're interested in most rather than the prerequisites. If teachers could be assured their pupils had mastered the basic skills that would be applied in their class, then the teacher would be able to target his curriculum far more specifically, not having to account for a broad range of variably capable and experienced students. Teachers could teach the "cool stuff" and let the kids grasp the basics on their own. I personally think that kind of positive interaction would make kids more interested in going to class. If they knew "my teacher's gonna let us light stuff on fire tomorrow" they would be more motivated to do their background work - and the teacher could verify that the kids had the prerequisite background study done before even each lab. I have to say, I love thinking about the possibilities, so if I seem like I'm rambling... it's because I am. This kind of policy planning really gets me excited.


  3. ...

    I suppose that's good, because it doesn't make a lot of other people excited. Policy needs to feel wanted.

    Regarding your replies:
    1) I agree with you. Repeating grades is bad for socialisation, which is an enormous part of school. Kids want to be with their peer group, and forcibly removing them due to what would be perceived as their inability to measure up to their peers must be devastating. I think the interest in this system is to make certain that, on a day-to-day basis, the kids are all achieving the same base mastery. This system seems to have the potential to make certain each student leaves a class with adequate fundamental knowledge. Teachers can apply it individually, day in and day out. If I was a teacher, I'd take a certain delight in knowing that Jill can help Tommy with X, Tim can help Tracy with Y, and I can step in and talk to Jim about Z because he got some tutoring yesterday and it didn't seem to take. I'd feel guiltless helping Jim, because I know all the other kids are getting the concepts or are easily helped by a little tutoring, and I'd get that buzz from Jim's eventual breakthrough when he understands the concepts. There's a rush as an instructor when a kid's brain just engages. I'm certain you get that, too. I think this system would produce more of those results (if we kept it in the subjects that are incremental, as you so rightly say).

    2) In this case I mean closing the feedback loop from a systems perspective. It is kind of like a computer program I suppose, iterating until it reaches a goal: 1) teach student concept, 2) test concept, 3) did student get concept? 4) if no, go to 1; if yes, continue. That step 3 is the constant feedback that is important to a system. Systems thrive based on feedback, so long as the feedback is meaningful and timely. The time horizon of feedback is essential. In the case of students in a class, the "feedback" I am talking about is the automatic indication to the teacher that a student has achieved, is in the process of achieving, or has attempted and not yet achieved a benchmark. Tests, quizzes, reports, homework, these things are ways that teachers could tell how a student is faring in class, but they are copious amounts of difficult to organise information. Organising that information and visualising it allows for the instructor to see immediately how the kids are doing in a given discreet exercise, and the feedback is more detailed and organised than a series of test scores. In effect, teachers do collect feedback in the old-fashioned way, but this type of feedback on student performance is eminently actionable.

    Well, that was a long and rambling comment, but I hope I said something useful. I get excited talking about this stuff because making education better involves making meaningful measurable benchmarks. This is an important thing when it comes to policy and systems in general. What this system does, I think, is frees the teacher to do the cool stuff, the stuff that really engages the students. It lets the teacher be just a little bit more of a hero. That's good. If it delivers positive outcomes, then that's great.