Some of you might have seen my opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday on the topic of teaching entrepreneurial skills to kids. It was inspired by a blog post you might have seen here.

As I wrote the article, I wondered why our school system is so mismatched to the educational needs of modern students. This leads me to a hypothesis that I will call the Education Complexity Shift.

I'll begin by stipulating that any field of study is helpful in training a student's mind to become more of a learning machine. Two hundred years ago, when life itself was simple (feed the horse, plant the corn) you needed to make school artificially complicated to stretch a student's mind. Once a student's mind was expanded, stressed, stretched and challenged, it became a powerful tool when released back into the relatively simple "real world."

The Education Complexity Shift observes that the real world has become more complicated than school. Imagine trying to teach a young child how to do the routine adult task of planning the most efficient trip by plane, or getting a mortgage, or investing. How about planning a wedding? How many pieces of software do you use for your job?

Today, life is more complicated than school. That means the best way to expand a student's mind is by teaching more about the practical complexities of the real world and less about, for example, the history of Europe, or trigonometry.

I'll pause here to acknowledge that both history and trigonometry are useful for students who plan to become historians or rocket scientists. For the other 99.9% of the world, little from those classes will be retained. The only benefit from much of what is taught in school is generic training of the mind, and for that we now have a better and more complicated option: the real world.

Some of you will argue that learning history is important on a number of levels, including creating a shared culture, understanding other countries, and avoiding the mistakes of the past. I agree. And if the question was teaching history versus teaching nothing, history would be the best choice every time. But if you compare teaching history with, for example, teaching a kid how to compare complicated financial alternatives, I'd always choose the skill that has the most practical value. You get all the benefit of generic mental training plus some real world benefits if any of it is retained.

I'd still teach history in school. But I think the world will survive if some of the details are skipped to make room for more relevant coursework.

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Apr 5, 2012
Here's another thought I had awhile back on how to improve education

Jun 20, 2011
The level of knowledge among many U.S. learners concerning American history has been discovered wanting in recent studies. High school seniors were discovered in a recently published Department of Education evaluation of school performance to be less proficient in U.S. history than their counterparts in the fourth graders. I found this here: <a title="U.S. learners not up to speed on U.S. history" href="http://www.newsytype.com/7681-american-history/">Most American students not proficient in American history</a>
Apr 25, 2011
I couldn't agree more; I have mixed feelings about education. On one hand, education helps produce an average knowledge of every subject for those willing to learn. That's a pro. But it treats all students the same, as if the students are cut from a cookie-cutter. That's a con. I know for a fact that every student in my school takes the same state standardized test. That means that honors students are taking the same tests as the (as we say) applied children! And the honors students miss more questions than you can count on two hands, so it's hard to imagine how the others do. I totally agree with Mr. Adams' point about 'B' students. Trig and History have their place but not with everyone. Some people will never really need to know how do divide trinomials (can you do that?). Frankly, hardly anyone needs to do that. (I know that's more algebra, but meh).

Of course, this is American education of which I speak.
Apr 23, 2011
You really need some sort of anti-spammer CAPTCHA or something Scott.
Apr 20, 2011
Very insightful!
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Apr 18, 2011
What makes you think that teachers are qualified to teach the things kids need to know? A history teacher can't teach how to do a corporate tax return, because he's trained to be a history teacher.

My daughter need to divide 57 by 3. The teacher makes her divide 5 by 3, carry 2 and divide 27 by 3. Instead of what she wanted to do: add 3, divide by 3 and subract 1. Because the teacher is good at early childhood education, not math.
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Apr 16, 2011
I think Scott is soooo right! Not in the details he explains, or whether it should be trigonometry or history what should be suppressed or similar thing on school, but on the fact that education systems worldwide are outdated. Deep revision of them should be done. By who? Most people here agrees that it is not a cartoonist or an IT engineer (like me) who should do it, but it is not the point, the point is, the geniuses on this matters should be doing it and helping the world become a better place by having kids well educated for the real future world, which by the ways it's going to be way different of what we live now with all of the tech being put in place which is drastically changing or way of living and interacting.
+12 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 14, 2011
Imagine if every person in the world THOUGHT they knew how to do what you do. Imagine if every person in the world THOUGHT they could DO what you do better than you can. Imagine every person in the world then using their obviously superior knowledge and talent to criticize what you do and suggest ways for you to do it better and ways to improve your project. You know, Scott, you have enough money now to hire a better artist. You have enough money to hire a funnier writer. Why not put one and one together and make 3? Seems simple enough!
Welcome to life as a teacher.

The one thing that your idea does not take into account is that you never know where a student is going to take their inspiration. Einstein derived his special theory of relativity while riding a trolley, looking out of the window. Inspiration comes at all times and in many ways. having a rounded background gives you better access to this type of inspiration.

History is important because in this society we get the opportunity to make it look like we are picking who will lead us. Understanding our culture, how it developed, and how it continues to develop is what history teaches. If we are going to maintain the illusion that we choose out leaders, then we need to protect the illusion that history is important. Also, history is the only subject that grows every year. When I was in school, they never got to the Vietnam war, because world war 2 took so long. Now, they don't get to the gulf war, because Vietnam takes so long...
Apr 14, 2011
This is a great post and it generated some good discussion. Now, I offer some humor (with potentially embedded truth): Father Guido Sarducci's proposed 'Five Minute University.' It only takes 5 minutes to teach you everything that the average college graduate would remember after 5 years: http://bit.ly/ihEs47 For $20 you get everything including a diploma, cap & gown and polaroid photo. If you want to go to law school that will take an extra minute.
+12 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 13, 2011
Maybe if the execs at Merrill Lynch had spent more time learning the history of the great depression than studying complicated financial schemes they wouldn't have fallen for the "Hello I'm a Nigerian Princess that needs your help to send you $12M" scam that Enron emailed them.

(True story! Remember how crazy we were back in the 90s? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merrill_Lynch#Enron.2FMerrill_Lynch_Nigerian_barge)
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 13, 2011
While I agree education should be relevant to the needs of the era during which it is being taught I think "feed the horse, plant the corn" is a major oversimplification. My mom is 91 years old and the course work she had to accomplish just to finish public High School, not to mention the strict discipline, was a heck of a lot tougher than I ever had it in school. And High School today is a joke comparatively speaking.
Apr 13, 2011
Scott, I feel you have painted education with a broad brush and viewing education as primarily a necessary evil to prepare oneself for the practicalities of life. What about the serendipities in life that occur from being exposed to something that is new, difficult, challenging. It helps us grow, to make connections into other areas of our more familiar sensibilities.

I recently read a post from a Dale Carnegie invitation to hear you speak in Washington, and was taken aback by the B-student mentality. Putting the A-students on a pedestal is an elitist idea. Yes, certain aspects of trig may not have anything to do with what a person may end up doing as their primary job, not to mention professional career, but it could help build other problem-solving -- and creative -- skills.

I still love your Dilbert strip, though! Keep on truckin'...
Apr 13, 2011
I love the thought process behind the post, and I agree that there should be a shift from mind-expanding theory towards mind-focusing pragmatism.

Nonetheless, thinking about a generation that hasn't learned the theoretical basis on which everything else is founded is scary. I can't help but think of the countless science fiction novels where calculators and simulation programs become "magic boxes" that few, if any, understand. Science would become a religion to most, which would quickly remove the scientific method and replace science with pseudo-science.

If you listen to many neo-spiritual gurus and charismatic dictators, they borrow and butcher scientific concepts. Today, many people call BS on them because we have some basic understanding of how math works and what, historically, has happened with similar "leaders."

I love the idea that we need to have a course in how to make choices and value alternatives and trade-offs, but how can you do that unless you have an understanding of at least some of the more basic stuff. Maybe trigonometry should be optional beyond a certain basic level, but I don't want to live in a world where people are introduced to these topics for the first and only time by Wikipedia.

On a side note, if we don't have these courses, how will we get those .1% of people who design, create, and build everything useful for the rest of us interested at a young age? As much as I love Dilbert, I would rather lose a generation of cartoonists than a generation of people who can design computers.
Apr 13, 2011
What the American people ought to do is install a director of Epicurean Hedonism as their leader on education. I doubt anybody is convinced at this point or has the slightest clue of EH.

Here's a couple of snippets from Wikipedia to put you up to speed: "Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquility and freedom from fear (ataraxia) as well as absence of bodily pain (aponia) through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of our desires." and "In the Epicurean view, the highest pleasure (tranquility and freedom from fear) was obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life."

With an Epicurean director of eduction, education's primary goal will be to teach kids on pleasure and pain (aka, excitement and boredom). A whip will come in handy :) If the kid is any good he will be maximizing his learning pleasure. The pleasure will keep him interested in learning a particular subject until he is an expert or surpasses the world expert on that particular subject. There are thousands, if not millions, of subjects to specialize in. When you taste a pizza made by a true world expert you will know the limit of a freaking good pizza. When you experience the cancer medicine developed by a true world expert you will be cured of cancer (there are many types of cancers in the general subject of "cancer").

After the appearance of true world experts, the rest is just copycat work. Society will have an abundance of people with useful and applicable knowledge instead of this current state of people in apathy, pain and ignorance.
Apr 13, 2011
The most useful thing that could be taught to high school students is critical thinking skills. There are many, many areas where data is misused and abused, whether to make a point, sell a product, or advocate a proposed piece of legislation. Teach kids the ability to see through this and get toward the truth of the matter and they have a powerful tool to help them not be suckers for every day of their lives.

Example: there was an article once that made the claim, "Every year since 1950 the number of children gunned down has doubled." This is ludicrous on the face of it; even if just one child was "gunned down" in 1950, the year 1990 would mark the time the number of children gunned down passed the one trillion mark. Yet it was published and went unchallenged for a number of years. The stat was a mangling of a piece of data published by the Children's Defense Fund in 1994 which stated, "The number of children killed each year by guns has doubled since 1950."

Poor comprehension skills, advocacy of a particular problem, desire to see your name in the paper: there are all sorts of reasons people will mangle, twist, or downright misrepresent data. Kids need to be trained on how to detect this, or they will go on believing any number of things that are just FLAT OUT WRONG.
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 13, 2011
Hi Scott,
Some excellent points, but I disagree on the "you don't need to learn this" perspective. I remember one college course I took called "lumped parameter systems". Never use the stuff, but I use the problem solving approach all the time in my career as an IT architect. Other students maybe didn't get as much, but they probably got more out of something I can't even remember. I often found that tackling the next area in math or science was instrumental in achieving mastery of the previous area. I also agree with the comment someone made about how the country needs voters who understand science and basic logic.

I DO agree that there are a lot of practical things that we do need to teach our children, and I also think we do a lousy job on many subjects in school. With so much to learn, why are children ever bored in school? I hated history and later learned just how horribly it is taught in our schools, and now I find most of it fascinating.

One big problem with being a parent is you need the schools to improve RIGHT NOW, not in 5-10 years when it is too late for your children to benefit. Maybe what is really needed is some kind of parent community focused specifically on ways to close the gaps in our children's educations, with or without the cooperation of the schools themselves? Not home schooling per se, but making sure your children get a complete education. Public schools seem in many ways to be an impenetrable closed system, with very little useful information on curricula or the reasons behind them available at all.
+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 13, 2011
I've argued for years that many students aren't college material. But our primary education system is based on equality of outcomes instead of merit. So we have great difficulty separating kids into college, technical and trade tracks. Therefore most high schools are geared toward sending kids to college whether they're suited for it or not. I would like to see tracks for trades and techs that prepare those kids for entry into apprentice positions in the general economy. Then as these kids gain experience in their chosen fields the more ambitious will become business owners themselves.

Not everyone has to go to college. We still need ditch diggers.

Honest work is by definition honorable.
Apr 13, 2011
2 things come to mind here Scott:

1. One of the things I have always thought was broken in school is the current method of teaching by approximation and not giving the student the entire truth. I understand the complexities of say general or even special relativity is beyond grade 10 mathematics but when teaching Newtonian physics as an example it could at least be mentioned that the latter is only an approximation. I think that alone would spur on interest in further learning and research.

2. Secondly if students even had a glimpse of the complexities in the real world in almost any science field they would get more interested in it - specifically the "real" world is fascinating - but the way it is taught is more of a lie in traditional education schemes. What is so hard about saying "These are the limits of our knowledge [in field X], the rest is a mystery to be solved" or even more concise "We don't know"

Having 3 young kids I am amazed about what they are and are not taught in school... They often come home describing a "boring subject matter" and within 3 minutes I can have them in awe and interested in the same subject matter simply by telling them the "truth" about the reality of the subject - almost universally ending in a mystery as we reach the end of what science knows about the subject matter.

Traditionally teachers/parents had to represent all knowing "gods" - a much more powerful approach int he modern complex world as you mentioned is if they/we can get over our vanity is to be "facilitators" of the mysteries, now THAT would be some powerful education and not only admit but be proud of the limitations of science and our knowledge.
Apr 13, 2011

Sorry about the lack of paragraph spaces.

I'll do better next time.

This was my first comment.
Apr 13, 2011
History is still just as important as it was for all the reasons you mention. (aside: I hated it). And you are correct regarding the more complex nature of our lives. But this complexity shift has been going on ever since we progressed beyond "Feed the cow, Plant the corn". We should deal with it as we always have. By specialized education. When all we did was feed the cow and plant the corn, grade school was enough and a single teacher could teach us all we needed. Later we needed high school and teachers which specialized in a subject. Still later, even high school wasn't enough. A generic college education was required. Then it was necessary to specialize in college. For example, one could get the degree in history or rocket scientology. For those without the history degree, the lessons of history are still just as important. But now we delegate the responsibility for jobs that require this knowledge (maybe to politicians). I trust that someone else has studied every thing else and is watching their department and that leaves me free to concentrate on my area of specialty. Those that cannot or will not get the higher education, well, the cow still needs feeding.
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