Inverting Education

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I’m no expert in education, so I may be speaking out of school with this post (pun intended), but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how and what we teach our children.  As I’ve perused the education literature, I’ve been struck by an important similarity between education and medicine:  a significant gap exists between the leading edge of research and its implementation.  That is, what we now know we should be doing is quite different from what we actually are.

Many of us probably remember our education in the following terms:  a lot of useless information we’ll never need to know (and by now probably don’t remember) was drummed into us for the apparent sole purpose of advancing us to the next level, from grade school to junior high school, then junior high school to high school, and from high school to college.  If there are bright spots, they’re probably memories of particular teachers who inspired us, believed in us, or taught us something we actually do remember that has served us well.  Rarely, however, do I hear people say any such cherished lesson was about Euclidean geometry or the periodic table of the elements.  Usually, it was about believing in oneself, valuing oneself, learning to not give up when discouraged, or some other life skill that turned out to be as valuable to know now as it was then.  Sadly, such life lessons seem taught and learned almost by accident, as if in a footnote only.

And yet if we turn to what research is now showing predicts future happiness and success, it’s not any of the content we learned in our formal education.  IQ and test-taking ability, which are still the means by which students excel in primary education, barely correlate at all with those more important aims.  Rather, what best predicts success and happiness turns out to be things like a love of learning itself, resilience in the face of adversity, the ability to exert self-control and delay gratification, and the ability to work well with others and relate positively to the people around us.

Yet where do we learn these things?  Rarely in formal education.  Mostly from our parents and our peers, yielding, frankly, a highly varied mix of quality of teachers.  What’s most tragic about this is that research suggests a great opportunity is being wasted:  many of these skills can—and in fact need to be—taught to us when we’re young.  We’re teaching content early in life and form later when it should be the other way around.

Consider the pre-school program called Tools of the Mind as described in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s marvelous book Nurtureshock:

“When the class begins, the teacher tells the students they will be playing fire station.  The previous week, they all learned about firemen, so now…the children choose what role they want to take on in the pretend scenario—pump driver, 911 operator, fireman, or family that needs to be rescued.  Before the children begin to play, they each tell the teacher their choice of role.  With the teacher’s help, the children make individual “play plans.”  They all draw a picture of their chosen role, then they attempt to write it out as a sentence…then they go play, sticking to the role in their plan.  The resulting play continues for a full 45 minutes, with children staying in character, self-motivated.  If they get distracted or start to fuss, the teacher asks, “Is that in your play plan?”  At the end, the teacher puts a CD on to play the “clean-up song.”  As soon as the music begins, the kids stop playing and start cleaning up—without another word from their teacher.

“Overall, the Tools classrooms seem a little different, but not strange in any way…After pilot-testing the program in a few classrooms and Head Start centers, they put it to a true test in 1997, in cooperation with Denver Public Schools…in these classrooms one-third to one-half of the children were poor Hispanic students who began the year classified as having limited English-language proficiency:  they were starting kindergarten effectively a grade-level behind.

“The following spring, all the children took national standardized tests.  The results were jaw-dropping.  The children from the Tools classes were now almost a full grade-level ahead of the national standard.”

The books authors go on to describe the enormous behavior differences between children in the Tools classrooms and those in regular classrooms:  “From the teachers in the regular classrooms, the principal got reports of extremely disruptive behavior almost every day…but those kinds of reports never came from the Tools classes.”

Why does the Tools program work so well, not just in controlling behavior problems but in enhancing learning?  One reason seems to be the ability of the Tools program not to engage children in play but in sustained play.  As the authors state, “The notion of being able to sustain one’s own interest is considered a core building block in Tools.”  How, after all, can anyone learn if they can’t maintain attention and focus?  The brilliance of Tools is that it leverages play, something all kids want to do, to teach them the skills they need to be successful in life:  self-control, abstract thinking, higher order thinking like self-reflection, and working well with others.

Another famous experiment conducted by Walter Mischel around 1970 demonstrates the value of self-control in future success in life.  David Brooks describes the experiment in his book The Social Animal:

“[Mischel] sat a series of four-year-olds in a room and put a marshmallow on the table.  He told them they could eat the marshmallow right away, but that he was going to go away and if they waited until he returned he would give them two marshmallows.  In the videos of the experiment you can see Mischel leave the room, and then the children squirming, kicking, hiding their eyes…trying not to eat the marshmallow in front of them…the significant thing is this:  the kids who could wait several minutes subsequently did much better in school and had fewer behavioral problems than the kids who could wait only a few minutes.  The kids who could wait a full fifteen minutes had, thirteen years later, SAT scores that were 210 points higher than the kids who could wait only thirty seconds…twenty years later, they had much higher college-completion rates, and thirty years later, they had much higher incomes.  The kids who could not wait at all had much higher incarceration rates…and were much more likely to suffer from drug- and alcohol-addiction problems.”

Not that higher incomes predict happiness all that well, but the differences here are striking:  self-control is a key requirement for success in life by many measures.  Why then hasn’t formal education widely recognized its importance or the importance of teaching critical thinking and cooperation in the classrooms of the young?

I’m sure there are reasons for this.  Perhaps it’s the challenge of disseminating widespread change across large bureaucracies, or the shortage of funds for educational reform.  But it seems to me enough evidence now exists that we should be focusing on teaching children different things than we are now, things like how to recognize their own cognitive biases and how to be on guard against them to improve their ability to reason.  We should be seeking ways to motivate children to learn by placing engaging challenges before them that at the same time require them to learn the skills we now know they need to be successful and happy in later life, rather than requiring them to memorize reams of disembodied facts unrelated to real-world problems that need solving.  (In one example in Nurtureshock, children in a middle school were tasked with figuring out how to make a section of their library quieter, a task that completely engaged them and required them to think creatively and critically, to work together, and to learn about the physical properties of various materials.  None of those children, I’d wager, would have asked about the principles of physics they had to learn, “Why do we have to learn those?”)  Indeed, why not begin emphasizing content later in a student’s educational life once they’ve developed a love of learning and allow them to gravitate to subjects they find interesting?

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m certainly no educational expert, but the idea of inverting our current educational curriculum to some degree remains on my mind as I watch my own son at the beginning of his educational career.  We’re barely even raising a generation of content-educated people.  What will happen to our society if the average person finds himself or herself with a significant deficit of self-control or ability to work with others?  I worry for our future.

Next WeekWhat Justice Is





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  • Jean Piaget humbly watched young children. He observed how they learn, how they “find out,” honoring the child’s innate curiosity. He followed the lead of the child. The buds of lifelong learning (love of learning) are there—it is up to teacher to honor the budding curiosity.

    Mothers and dads, the first teachers, know to engage with a baby who locks eyes with you, and reaches out his hand. They sustain the engagement (attention to) until the baby looks away. First lessons in sustained attention, perhaps?

    Learning via the senses. Children watch and listen and they reach out their hands to touch. They have a parachute reflex at the very earliest stages—they know where they are in space (kinesthetic sense). What are they watching and listening to? Are they set up to see and hear and touch beauty? To hear kindness in the voices that speak/read to them? To hear music and birdsong?

    Maybe some children, by the time they reach school age, need corrective lessons in watching and listening and touching, in order to tweak or amplify those skills . . .

    Is this the learning that parents want their kids to have down pat? Rock solid, as in foundation skills? Or do parents want kids to know how to read and print at age 2,3,4?

    Are we answering questions for kids that the kids have never asked? Or do we respect and honor their curiosity, answering the questions that they ask, keeping in mind each child’s developmental stage?

    I was a teacher. I then home-schooled 4 kids through their elementary school years . . . I believe that Alex is not making the case strongly enough: that our educational system is not at all to the point. It is a lot of pressure. It is disrespectful of kids, not allowing them to develop at their own rates. The system does not lay a good foundation, with emphasis on keen observation, following a child’s curiosity, and learning via the senses.

    Many of us come out on the other end thinking that technology is the ticket to the future, instead of creativity in problem-solving, following one’s passion, working harder when the path is not easy/straightforward.

    We should be, as Alex is, at least as worried about the children’s formation as we are about burdening them with the national debt.

  • I love reading, learning and knowledge including your editorials every week. There were a number of things I enjoyed in vet school. But I can’t remember how many times someone thought I should know calculus-type maths in pre-vet and vet school. At least once a year probably. I can’t remember ever wishing I knew that since graduation and that has been a long time ago. My point would be that either I am terribly deficient or school has these things they totally wast your time on and so I agree there could be a lot of improvement in education. Your second paragraph really connects with me. But sustained or sticking to something or patience, however you do it, is really important. Flitting from topic to topic or multi-tasking has always seemed wrong to me or my brain.

    Your comment on the library makes me think of all the times I went on a call to a home that home schooled yet the kids never were there. Now I wasn’t going to wow the world but it always seemed like they should be there observing some person trying to think and diagnosis and observe animal handling, and all the things that go with diagnosing and treating a sick animal. I wasn’t going to ask them anything technical about the meds but the kids never took the opportunity to observe some example of life. I would include going to Les Schwab or the lumber yard in the same concept. You can learn so much by being out there observing and doing.

  • Great post-as usual!
    I could not agree more—

    “Rather, what best predicts success and happiness turns out to be things like a love of learning itself, resilience in the face of adversity, the ability to exert self-control and delay gratification, and the ability to work well with others and relate positively to the people around us.”

    I wish that all that you stressed beautifully in the post was involved in our education process while we were students and hope that it is available for future students.

    Thanks again!

  • Very well written. The education system as far as I think teaches us to be more and more competitive; we have to finish high school at the right age, graduate at the right age and ironically even marry at the right age.

    This very attitude is resulting in a lot of frustration and depression. Most of people you come across are unhappy.

    We need to educate our kids how to be happy and make them more interested in seeking knowledge and asking questions.

    P.S—I love your posts.

    Hazzerah: I’m so glad you do!


  • I agree with your point somewhat, but I feel like people will start using this as an excuse not to learn a topic they find boring or of no use to them. I feel that getting an education is about more than applying knowledge, but rather it should be about broadening the mind. No student is ever really going to be able to apply elementary physics to the real world, for example, because the physics is simplified to a point where it no longer represents real-world conditions. Still, there is tremendous value in being able to understand concepts and work through a problem. We never know when these “boring” fields that “don’t matter” will lead to some new understanding in a way we never expected.

  • Thank you for this important post. Why is it that in this 21st century, we are still so primitive in our approach to education? Is it because we don’t test for self-control, resilience and cooperation? Do we not realize that we are always teaching a whole person? How can anyone think that memorizing information without a context is “education”? For children or adults, nothing is work when we are engaged. That’s when light bulbs go off, connections are made, creativity blooms, confidence is built, self-control and cooperation are rewarded and the experience is remembered. Imagine the potential we are wasting with our inverted system.

  • Excellent post, thought provoking. I would love to see creatives changes to public school curriculum—WITHOUT an increase in taxes AND with measurable results, especially in lower income neighborhoods, where those kids seem to suffer the most (both from home life, environment and public schools).

    Unfortunately there is so much resistance to any kind of meaningful change—I wonder what it will take for that to happen?

  • Well, it’s not like school here in the U.S. USED to be good. Focus on obedience and memorization has always been de rigueur in our schools. So as bad as it may be—and I agree, it’s bad—considering it’s been this way for a long time, I’m not so sure “the future” will bring things terribly worse than they are now. Just a slow, continual slide downward, mirroring our society as a whole.

    Thanks for your continuing, thoughtful articles.

  • I am an 11th grade English teacher, and I certainly do teach self-control and love of learning, but not in a vacuum. Those skills come while we are learning grammar and reading and writing and evaluation skills. And they come from our interactions in the classroom. Probably most effective is modeling patience and tolerance—treating kids with respect when they don’t respect you, laughing at yourself instead of getting defensive.

    We have a “character education” class, and it looks pretty hollow to me. I think it’s far better to teach character in a writing or literature class, even a math class. Behavior happens in context. An ethical discussion of a student’s plagiarism is more valuable than any what-if. Writing about ethics of the characters in the Crucible is more valuable, too.

    Also, lacking memorization skills and a grasp of lower-level knowledge (dates, basic historical progressions, arithmetic) sets kids up for failure. They need to do some memorizing and learn patience and self-control from following processes. I see a lot of inner-city students who are helpless in high school chemistry because no one made them memorize multiplication tables.

    Elizabeth: Points well taken.


  • Some similar points from Seth Godin’s blog: