It was around eight in the evening. She came to my dorm room in a panic. She was scared. She had no idea what most of the material on our chemistry exam at eight the next morning was about. Fear not. I had it together. We got to work… and boy did we. When we got the exams back the next week, she got an A, and I got a C.

I wish I could say that was the only time I was bested by one of my proteges. After something happens often enough, you realize you may have a natural gift — I took the hint. Like most of my family I was doomed to the purgatory that is education. Watch the movie “Ground Hog Day” with Bill Murray after this book and you’ll see the movie in entirely new ways.

Believe me that I’ve aced my fair share of exams over the years. My problem was usually overthinking things. In the absence of explicit structure for a problem, I’d think of multiple ways the problem could’ve been asked better to achieve the desired result. When instructors tried to structure the problem, I’d find problems in how it was structured and get stuck. I’d spend considerable time writing qualitative responses to quantitative exams. Instructors hate that. Now that I’m older and I have to write exams, I realize that I was my own worse nightmare.

Now that I have a four year old going through preschool, have extensively coached youth in sports, and taught many college level classes, in many ways, I’ve seen the similarities and shortfalls of our systems. Social dynamics can help us to increase the efficiency of education.

“Our Educational System is Broken”

Saying our educational system is broken is like ridiculing a toddler for inability to learn calculus. The European system of education is likely the most effective pedagogical system in human history. No other system has influenced more countries and people at more ages. Look no farther than an inner-city school to know that we have serious problems appropriately placing this system into context.

Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?,” is the most watched TED talk in history. He makes a great point that the European system was used to circulate orders to follow around the globe. Let’s place this into the Spiral v-Meme value spectrum to establish context:

Survival: If you’re trying to survive, you’re in fight or flight and not able to learn much.

Tribal: What the Europeans faced as they traversed the globe. It’s a natural phase and you’ll still see cliques in most schools, even in advanced nations. The tribes were rounded up, sometimes at gun point, baptized, and educated.

Authoritarian: The sage on the stage model was a core part of the European system. Somebody had to be in charge. Somebody had to say what the rules were and why we had to follow them. I’m just glad we’ve moved away from spankings.

Legalistic/Absolutistic: The rules we all must follow. Science-based evidence was a natural outcome.

Performance: Master the rules and you can start generating new knowledge by applying them in ways nobody has before.

Communitarian: If done well, you’re now prepared to contribute to community and society. Better hope we’ve taught you how.

Systemic: Some end up stewarding a balance in order to sustain the educational system.

From this progression it’s pretty easy to see our educational system is decidedly heavy on the Authoritarian-Legalistic/Absolutistic-Performance v-Memes within the meme stack. Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning, the dominant epistemology model applied to education reinforces these values, and is shown below. The six standard layers include: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Synthesizing, and Evaluating. There are many variants and “domains” that have increased the sophistication of the taxonomy to try to handle community and systemic value problems. The problem is these values are fundamentally orthogonal to the legalistic-performance transition that Bloom originally developed the taxonomy for.

Bloom’s Taxonomy as a rose. By K. Aainsqatsi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4000460

So you can see the problem with our educational system is simply one of narrow scope, a.k.a. “can’t see the forest on account of all the trees.” Authorities specializing in education have made the matter worse to an extent. Developing studies that absolutely prove something works or not are, almost by definition, authority-legalistic-performance in v-Meme stack. Good luck trying to get an education study published that doesn’t extensively utilize Bloom’s. — The purpose of any meme is to reproduce itself.

The more we try to clamp down on and control our educational system, the more it disrupts the flexibility and connections necessary to empathize. The less empathic our schools become, the harder it is for someone in a gang to understand the importance of the system. Threatening them at gun point kindof, well, misses the target. How can you get the students out into the communities as part of class with so many wavers to sign? Besides, how are you going to measure whether they are learning sociology when all they are doing is talking with people? When you get two or more levels removed from a v-Meme, the values you are communicated start sounding alien.

Montessori and the Structure versus Empathy conundrum

“My vision of the future is no longer of people taking exams and proceeding on that certification from the secondary school to the university, but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher, by means of their own activity, through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual.” Preface to From Childhood to Adolescence by Maria Montessori, 1948. The core premise of the Montessori system for pre-K-12 education is empathy to allow autonomy of the individual in order to drive personal phase change.

The Montessori method, pioneered by Maria Montessori from 1897 through the 1950’s in Italy, is one of the most extensively studied educational systems in human history. The system “had the largest positive effects on achievement of all programs evaluated” in a review of pedagogical methods and especially outperformed other programs in the areas of mathematics and science. If the study data is not enough, how about a personal anecdote: I attended a Montessori preschool, so did Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos — just sayin’.

Many are familiar with the system. But here’s a quick review of the basics from the Wiki:

  • Mixed age classrooms, with classrooms for children ages 2½ or 3 to 6 years old are by far the most common
  • Student choice of activity from within a prescribed range of options
  • Uninterrupted blocks of work time, ideally three hours
  • A discovery model, where students learn concepts from working with materials, rather than by direct instruction
  • Specialized educational materials developed by Montessori and her collaborators
  • Freedom of movement within the classroom

Other characteristics include a high degree of order, children work on mats to keep themselves contained, everything in the classroom has a place, and all of the children actively clean up after themselves to maintain the classroom. It’s not uncommon for parents to say, “I’m not paying you to have my kid do dishes!” But you can see the community-sustainability values.

Maria believed that the children would naturally play with whatever was most interesting to them at the time. This immediately empowers the child to decide if something is over their head or not, and allows them to self optimize to the classroom environment. This of course requires a highly developed system of scaffolded learning exercises.

“Today it is not by philosophy, not by discussion of metaphysical concepts, that the morals of mankind can be raised. It is by activity, by experience, and by action… All the points noted put the finger on the impossibility of enclosing education within the limits of a room where the individual at work is inert, perpetually dependent on the teacher, separated from the rest of mankind. This is true even for small children… all facilities ought to be provided to create some form of work that may permit the students to get a start toward economic independence, so that they may be entirely free to study and able to find their true position according to their just value.”

Maria Montessori understood the challenges of both structure and empathy of the individual at an incredible level. From autonomy of the individual, to mentoring of younger students by older.

Grading

The traditional Gaussian grading system distributes grades in a bell shape around a 75% of work completion. If you got everything, you got an A, half gets an F, and a bell-shaped distribution between. We apply this system to determine who goes to the best colleges, who graduates from college, who is selected for graduate school, who is hired into the Academy, and who is promoted to full and eventually regents professor. No surprise 20% are good enough to go onto college, 20% are good enough for graduate school, 20% get tenure…. you see the pattern. Now think of everyone else who didn’t make the cut. Are they really less capable of contributing to society? Is a society that marginalizes such a high percentage fundamentally sustainable?

The Montessori system doesn’t grade. Montessori teachers develop students towards mastery — understanding a concept from every angle. How do they determine whether a student understands? They watch the student doing the exercise and ask a couple of questions while they are doing the activity. Check. Do some students excel exceptionally? Absolutely — allow them to specialize.

Scoring, like our Gaussian system for grading implies, works great for sports and other games that were invented with scoring as the intent. Removing scoring from children’s t-ball is as pointless as grading in school. Moreover, Campbell’s law states that, “Anytime a metric is used for social progress, the more it is susceptible to corruption and manipulation pressures, hence it ceases to be an effective metric.” GPA is nearly played out. Google and others have moved away from it as a benchmark.

We all need to perform in roles that contribute to society. Which do you think is a better motivator: the threat of a B, or the threat that the gazebo you’re building in the park caves in? Which is a better preparation for community and society?

The Classroom

The current fad in STEM education is problem based learning in very large (>100) classrooms enabled by clickers. Clickers are a pricey ($50) button that students turn on in a classroom to register responses to in class multiple choice questions. The responses will display in real time. Nobel leaureate Carl Wieman is quoted as saying, “It’s really what’s going on in the students’ minds rather than who is instructing them. This is clearly more effective learning. Everybody should be doing this. … You’re practicing bad teaching if you are not doing this.”

Clickers and responses like Wieman’s are important efforts to try to fix the totally non-empathic one way dumps typical of many classes, yet still miss the point. It’s not about the student’s head or the instructor’s — it’s about both. Empathic connections are two way. Forcing students to use the non-empathic clickers, robbing them of the facial cues and association to their responses diminishes the empathy of the entire class.

Technology should play only an ancillary role to trust, confidence, and empathy in the classroom. I’ve always used a simple hand raise, leaving an “unsure” response at the end so everyone still participates. It helps others find those who think similarly, or differently. It’s this multiple ways, yet still connected, that helps the most reach a point of understanding.

The Big Picture

Sir Ken Robinson famously associated our educational system for one that produces “automobiles” instead of people — our mass-manufacturing, control-based approach to solving the needs of society. Unchecked for so many years, no wonder our institutions are associated with prisons. They may be more cost effective than the Montessori system or other community-focused approaches. But in the end, the toll of having an apathetic non empathic society is much greater. It’s time for change.