What do we want from education?

August 3, 2019

Why has education as a science or as an industry or as a social enterprise stagnated? Does learning happen only in schools and colleges? Are tests, exams, marks and grades the only ways to assess learning? What do we want from education?

These are difficult questions bordering on rhetoric. With the world embracing divisiveness, impending resource crunch, climate crisis, these questions are fundamental for the next generation burdened with an exhausted earth.

Where are we?

Go back a decade or two, accomplishing anything required investment, raw materials, good connections and a spotless pedigree. Much of it is true now, however, there are a few glaring exceptions. If you are an artist, you have instagram. If you are a musician or into theatre, you have sound-cloud/youtube. You are a writer? There is Kindle. If you can write software and you have access to a computer, with just time as an investment you can impact 100s of lives or if you are good and lucky, millions.

We don’t need boilerplate assessments to gauge learning. We can simply value creation. Learning, when inspired by a need to create, becomes a necessity. At that point assessments become unnecessary.

Seen with this lens, education becomes a platform to facilitate creation. Music, poetry, math, art, code, most things fit. Surgery and similar large-scale / high-skill disciplines may probably be exceptions that come to my mind.

A personal take

A little more than two and a half decades back, I was disinterested in school but fascinated by some “subjects”. In my 8th grade, theorems and riders and the concept of proving something was mind-blowing. I went through the entire section without any incentive.

Growing up, discrete mathematics and logic were so fascinating that I couldn’t put the books down. I got interested in Chess, but didn’t like that there was opening theory. I wrote poetry when I was angry, stories when I was inspired and essays when philosophical. My audience was limited and predominantly disinterested. People bucketed me as someone with a lot of potential but aimless. I felt helpless and misunderstood.

Things took a different turn when I got my first computer. An unbranded 386 assembled from spares. I also got my hands on “C++ - The complete reference” by Herbert Schildt. That was the time I felt truly empowered. There was an avenue for me to create things out of nothing.

It was as if the poetry I wrote could take a life form. Combined with my distaste for the Windows 95 operating system, inability to get my hands on Windows 98, and a windows internals book by Charles Petzold, I got to work. Trying to make Windows 95 into Windows 98 all on my own. First things first, a button on the explorer tool bar to create a new folder instead of the context menu. When I could get that working, I realized this was a super power. The only thing stopping me from creating something of incredible value was what I didn’t know and can’t do.

I sought out things I had to learn to solve the problem at hand. To create the next thing that made my life better. The wonderful thing was, what made my life better made others’ lives better too. With every need for me to create, came a thousand things I needed to learn and it was (and still is) the most pleasurable thing to do. Learn, then create. Create and learn along the way.

My academic project was a hit. I released it as shareware - published articles on code guru about some of the components that were a part of my project. At that time, open source hadn’t caught on yet, but sites like Code Guru and Code Project were the Github + Stack Overflow equivalents. I received hundreds of emails from all over the world with questions, “thank you”s and some USD 6 figure offers - unaware that this was a kid in Chennai who would soon get into a lot of trouble over the money spent on uploading all those files through a telephone connection.

Over a period of time, I have found out that my story wasn’t unique. Outcasts in school become successes in life. The difference: motivation.

We can do better

Combined with play, providing the ability to create solves the most important problem in learning - intrinsic motivation. Now, that’s tremendous power if you are an educator.

We have the tools that are needed to make this happen. With everyone having an option of availing their 15 minutes of fame, our educators need to be empowered. Empowered to innovate, experiment and inspire. Educators need to be creators. Creators need to be educators.

Over the last two decades, I have had to train the teams that I had worked with - particularly the ones I worked with in India. I found fundamental skills missing in their repertoire, from work ethic to deep thought to analysis to reasoning - skills that 15 - 18 years of education, paid for in time and money, ought to provide.

When hiring, I look for problem solvers, people who take pride in their work, people that see their work as a way to impact the world around them. People that are creators, builders. With more and more companies not requiring a degree for employment and as industries embrace this idea and look for builders and makers, we as parents and as educators, need to ask ourselves, are our children ready? Are they ready to create? Are they ready to build?