What should students be learning and how?

What subjects prepare students for the real world as well as enrich their lives? What is the best way to educate an innovative and well rounded generation of kids? I am curious to see ideas about what a superb education system might look like.

Written Sep 28, 2016

I agree with the importance of learning to learn. I also agree that one of the good education methods employed (Finland’s free reign to explore passions) is beneficial.

However, I take issue with the reason to memorize.

Why not memorize?

Richard Feynman visited Brazil to study their education system. To make a long story short, the students were able to correctly answer questions, but had no real understanding of the subject matter.

Memorization of facts provides only a superficial appearance of understanding a topic. It conveniently supports the factory system of education, where the transmission of knowledge (facts) can be measured by testing (especially multiple choice). Therefore, memorization of facts such as dates of battles, or capital cities, do not provide understanding.

However, there are occasions where memorization and rote learning can be a necessary adjunct to understanding a topic. For example, while it is absolutely necessary to understand why we do certain things in mathematics, it is also necessary to develop a fluency with the subject matter by practicing problems. This allows a student to internalize and become more familiar with the concepts, and therefore increase understanding.

Similarly, other topics, such as learning a musical instrument, or becoming proficient in a sport, requires a significant amount of “rote learning”.

However, rote learning and memorization by themselves do not guarantee proficiency or understanding. It is also necessary to be guided by a teacher, coach, or mentor to ensure that the practice is being conducted correctly and appropriately. Anders Ericsson refers to this as Deliberate Practice.

Putting it all together

The purpose of learning is to understand the world around us, and how to effectively function in our world. There are some fundamental ideas that support these goals. Examples include:

  • The ability to read
  • The ability to write effectively
  • The ability to express and convey ideas effectively
  • The ability to think critically
  • The ability to understand how people interact with each other, and how rules are created and implemented to allow us to exist with each other
  • The ability to understand and utilize technologies available to us.

There are many ways to accomplish these. In my opinion, the factory model prevalent in today’s schools is not optimized to achieve these goals.

Bloom’s Two-Signal Problem paper highlights that the most effective learning method is one-on-one tutoring. However, he recognizes the financial obstacles inherent in implementing this method. His paper explores other options for achieving good learning results, and gives particular to “Mastery Learning” (details in paper).

There are examples of Mastery Learning being incorporated into online learning (Khan Academy is a good example of this). This is an encouraging development.

Answering the question …

What should students be learning? I have provided my guidelines above. Once the basic capabilities are in place, the opportunities for further development are endless.

How should students be learning? Certainly not the factory system. Instead, it should be possible to utilize alternate forms of learning, such as online, videos, MOOCs, etc. The knowledge is provided and available on demand. The “teacher” then becomes available for personal attention and guidance – either as a mentor, tutor, or coach. I have seen this referred to as the “flipped” approach to learning. “Rote learning” and “Deliberate Practice” then become the means of achieving fluency, and eventually mastery.