It's more than eight years since I left the university, and I feel now that I'm able to take a look at our school system with a distance. I will talk about the education system in Slovakia, which I know best, but I'm sure you'll find many parallels with the school systems in your countries.
Let's memorize the world, shall we?
When I came into the elementary school, I remember the day when our teacher told us to memorize the multiplication table on the math class like it was yesterday. I came home that day and asked my mom why I need to remember this thing. I couldn't understand that. She explained to me that it would help me to do simple multiplications from my head without pen and paper (or a calculator), and I accepted her answer. After all, for me, she was an authority.
Later I appreciated to memorize the table, but there were just many more things to remember, which I don't think are useful to keep in my head to this day! For example, we have lists of selected words, which contain the letter y, e.g., Bystrica. Why do we need to learn them? Frankly, I don't know to this day. Every language has specific rules and many exceptions to them. By memorizing a few hundred words, we don't learn to write without mistakes.
Other subjects were not different. On Literature classes, we had to memorize poems or the list of authors from each era and the books they wrote. On our German lessons, we had to periodically learn lists of certain words, on our History class we had to memorize dates and years when certain events happened. To this day, I remember the Battle of Mohács occurred in 1526. What was the reason for the conflict? I don't know, but I know the year!
Foreign languages are hard to learn!
That was the feeling I had back then. I learned German for about eight years, and now I'm better in English, which I learned many years later during a much shorter time. Not to mention, I had to learn Latin, because my school had its roots in Collegium statuum evangelicorum superioris Hungariae, a school with a long tradition and famous graduates. I remember to this day the first sentence our Latin teacher, Mr. Pribula, told us.
Latin language — a dead language! — František Štefan Pribula, 1998
He wrote it also on the blackboard to emphasize this message. Why should I learn the lingua franca of the past, Latin, instead of the lingua franca of today, which is English?
I knew the importance of learning English, and as soon as I could, I took it as a non-compulsory subject. My brother and I, along with other classmates, had to wake up early to be at 7 AM sharp already at school learning. All these languages made me feel they are hard to learn. Later I found much more effective ways to learn foreign languages, and I will get to them, but I bet almost no school applies such techniques to this day!
Our teachers changed frequently
During my time at school, our teachers changed often. In eight years, we had like four Math teachers, three Chemistry teachers, three German language teachers, perhaps three or four Religion education teachers, two Physics teachers, two History teachers, and two Biology teachers. All of them taught differently, and all of them had different standards. I remember having a D from Math at the end of the term and suddenly having an A from a different teacher one semester later. I didn't change, the teachers and their way of teaching have. One of them couldn't correctly explain the concepts, the other one could and did!
University follows the wrong education practices
When I got into university, I didn't feel the school works differently. There were just more people in the class, but fundamentally the school worked the same, inefficient way as the schools on the lower levels. Most of our universities don't show in the world university rankings. I believe you can get a decent education here only if you study the STEM fields, which is because our schools go far more into teaching advanced Math stuff than western universities. I can relate based on what the people of the Erasmus program program told after they studied abroad for one semester.
The parallels with lower-level schools are in place — the professors write up some gibberish on the table, often don't explain it adequately, and you need to learn the stuff (or memorize it) by yourself. Still, ultimately, you'll figure it out, and you gain the understanding. If you wonder why so many startups have their branches in Slovakia, one of the reasons is because they know they'll get quality engineers for a relatively low wage. Also, a decent number of people from my country working in FANG companies shows that our STEM education is still proper. But we can do so much better!
After I graduated the university, I didn't get Magna or Summa Cum Laude and yet I had a feeling that I know more than the people who accomplished this. I learned new stuff regularly, and I tried to come with efficient ways how to learn. After I graduated, I had a strong feeling that all the knowledge I gained besides my study of Telecommunications was more worth it. I regard only my master's thesis because I learned to apply the knowledge to come up with something new, to write my accomplishments in a document, which is longer than a couple of pages, and I learned to cooperate with other people while working on it. Albeit worth it, I doubt it's an effort worth five years of your own life.
Schools don't prepare the students for real life
What's the point of sacrificing 9 to 20 years in schools, if you come unprepared for the real world? Those are also the most critical years of your life, where your mind works at its peak. These years have an impact on the rest of your life. In a recent video, Robert Kyiosaki talks about his Rich Dad from the Rich Dad Poor Dad book. If you don't know the book, his Rich Dad was the dad of his friend who took Robert as his protégé. He taught Robert how money works in real life and how to become successful after understanding this ultimately.
In the video, Robert talks about how his Rich Dad had to drop school early to take care of the family and the business. What seemed to be a misfortune, at first sight, showed up as a blessing very quickly. Instead of spending hours listening to the teachers of the academic world, his teachers were accountants, lawyers, and other people who know the real world better. At the time of my age, he already built an empire. He used the time well.
Sometimes I have a feeling, and I'm not alone, that the schools don't want to raise well-educated, self-thinking students. Instead, they educate obedient future workers and employees, often lacking critical thinking. We see this every day on social networks, during elections, and on many other occasions. Many people aren't capable of finding the truth and doing actual fact-checking from multiple sources because nobody told them how they should do it. Instead, they count on somebody else to do the work for them, and they accept the information often without a doubt.
Also, today we're facing a world where there's just too much information, and we need to effectively search in tons of books, articles, blogs and use the information to our advancements.
I won't discuss why schools work the way they do. It's not the subject of this post. Instead, I want to lay down my opinion on how the school system should work.
The book that changed everything
One day I was browsing the books in a bookstore when I found a book Ovládněte svůj mozek (literally "Master your brain") by some Czech author, Libor Činka. He wrote there that our brain is the most powerful thing we have, and we don't know how to get the maximum out of it, because nobody taught us that. He compared our brain with a PC and the operating system installed in it. I found out about effective memory techniques, speed reading techniques, what works and what doesn't.
For example, there are three kinds of people — visual types, the types who absorb information mostly through sounds, and the people who need to feel things. I learned that anybody could tell what type the other person is just by listening to him/her speaking carefully for a couple of minutes. "I see you're good at math!"; "I heard you were at Wendy's yesterday," or "I felt something went wrong with the machine." Anybody uses these words in their speech, but visual types tend to speak in a manner where they say words associated with seeing, etc. By the way, I'm a visual type, based on the test in the book.
People don't know how to learn.
Different personalities need different methods to learn efficiently. Do we take it into account in schools? I don't think so. John Amos Comenius came with a book called Schola Ludus (School by Play) in 1630. According to him, we should teach children by playing games. They will have an intense experience doing it, and they will remember it.
Do you read a book right now? Imagine, can you tell what wrote the author on page 40? If you don't have an eidetic memory, I doubt it. This time think about your Vacation with your family. I bet you can see your memories as a color movie. Even if not, I still feel that you remember it very well, although the recollection is a few years old!
John Comenius wrote the book almost 400 years ago, and yet schools don't teach this way. Also, the grading system is simply wrong! If you write a test and you know that you need to have a good grade, you'll be under stress, even if you have prepared yourself. The pressure is not right for remembering and storing things. If you're under stress, can you remember some information you need right now? Even if you do, it takes you probably much longer than if you were not stressed. I remember how often I experienced stress in my school years. If we know it's maleficent, we should do something to ease the pressure of the children, shouldn't we?
As I read the book, I realized that many techniques described there I discovered by accident. For example, I liked the TV series The Tudors very much, even if I knew it wasn't historically accurate. Each time I watched a new episode, I went to Wikipedia to read about the real events, and I compared them with what I saw in the TV series. You'll be surprised how efficient this method is, and I discovered it by accident. To this day, I know the history of the rulers of Great Britain in more depth than an average citizen of the United Kingdom. I have the visual sense from the series, and by comparing and learning the differences from the real events, I also remember these.
If you want to learn a new language, do you know what the most effective way is besides actually going abroad? If you watch Netflix with subtitles, you'll learn the foreign language at a more rapid pace than in your school, guaranteed! Start by watching the show in English with subtitles in your native language. Later, start watching shows with English subtitles and, after some time, turn the subtitles off. This approach works for any language, not just English.
When you play online games, and you need to chat with your opponents, you also learn the language efficiently. Recently I heard on Quora about the shadowing technique. First, you'll listen to a line in English spoken by your favorite character in a TV series, and then you pause the show and try to repeat the sentence, also with an accent. After some time, you should be more fluent when speaking and you'll talk closer to a native. I will try this technique and probably write a blog post sometime in the future.
The important thing is that almost no school uses these techniques, which proved to be efficient. Instead, you learn a language for years and speak worse than someone who is half a year abroad.
The e-learning revolution
In 2011, I discovered the MIT OpenCourseWare, and it blew me away! Suddenly, I had access to the lectures of probably the best teachers in the world. A year later, MIT launched its online learning platform, edX, and I was one of their first students. Harvard course CS50x is legendary now; hundreds of thousands of people took it. I took the first class ever launched with the course. In many ways, edX, Coursera, and other platforms revolutionized the way people learn these days.
Creators build their e-learning courses as interactive segments. First, they teach you new information in short videos, and then you immediately apply the knowledge in the parts that follow. It is much closer to how our brain works.
According to the MIT study, students learned more in an online course than in a traditional classroom. Teachers achieved the best results among students taught with an interactive engagement pedagogy, i.e., they learned the stuff online and were able to discuss the material with real teachers along the way.
The data is clear. Nevertheless, we think that sitting in a traditional classroom is better for us, and we pay more for the experience. Instead, we should shift towards e-learning. Thanks to the Internet, we're able to learn from the best teachers anywhere in the world. We are not limited anymore to the teachers in our local schools, who may not even know how to teach. I met great teachers for sure, but as a student, you don't have that guarantee. This profession is overly underpaid, and I know a lot of teachers who work in IT now. Who teaches the kids, then? Often, the people for which teaching is a lifelong mission or the people who weren't able to find a better job. Not good!
We should strive to level-out the differences irrespective of the school you were lucky to be in!
My vision for the learning of tomorrow
This blog post was in my mind for a longer time. Some time ago, I summarized my thoughts in a discussion to the topic on Facebook, and a few weeks later on LinkedIn.
I don't agree that people should learn inefficiently for so many years. It's a colossal waste. Today, almost everyone goes to university, and if they don't pick the right field, they will be unemployed, or they will work somewhere where their diploma isn't needed. I know many people who work in different areas than they studied. Our society, however, expects this higher level of education from everyone; it became a standard.
Thirty years ago, when you were a Master of Science and had a degree, you were highly regarded in society. Only a fraction of the population studied, and they were the best of the best. Today, if you don't have a degree, you are despised by the people. We should change that perception; a university degree should not be compulsory for everyone! We have alternatives.
Elementary and high schools
After you sticked to this point, you should see the problems of schools from my perspective. In my opinion, students should:
- Be able to read and write
- Know at least one foreign language, preferably English
- Have solid foundations in Math
- Be ready to socialize among other schoolmates
- Know how to sort, filter and verify information from multiple sources quickly
- Form their own opinions based on facts from various sources (i.e., be able to think critically)
- Know how to present their views (what I had to learn years later in my local Toastmasters club)
- (Most importantly) Be taught how to learn efficiently based on our latest knowledge
I believe that all the skills mentioned above can be taught within five years, maybe sooner. And I also think that these skills are more than sufficient. What's tragic is that today students don't learn most of these skills. They spend years learning something that they don't need.
If you take a look at the list carefully, I dropped all the subjects like Literature and History. It's because of two reasons: If people learn how to learn and process information, they should grasp these topics by themselves later if they want. They can study History or Literature, but it shouldn't be mandatory for everyone. The second reason is that teaching subjects like History is always biased. You need to follow given textbooks, and the teacher has his own beliefs too. You can never avoid that altogether. Through my study of History, I often came to some facts, which nobody mentioned in the classes. Sometimes new information can change the perspective on the person or event completely.
History Is Written by the Victors
The truth is, if we didn't face the events directly, we'd never have an objective look at them. Also, if we encounter the events directly, we interpret them subjectively, as did the people who wrote the chronicles. But if we know how to validate the information and read about the events from multiple sources, we actually can have the least biased picture possible. However, we should be the one who puts all the pieces together, independently from the teacher.
Students should learn foreign languages, like English, practically. You can teach the foreign languages even more efficiently, with virtual reality to reinforce the senses of students, but the Netflix way is still far better than what we see in schools today; and it's more fun, too!
Math and STEM don't have a place for bias. Countless experiments and mathematical proofs create the foundations on which we build our society. Therefore, everyone should learn at least the basics. However, they should learn them so that everyone understands the concepts. If we teach students properly, they can later study anything by themselves.
The ability to present your work or opinions publicly is also one of the keys to success. This blog post is better than the previous ones. I learn by doing, and I observe how you, the readers, like my content. Similarly, you can't become a public speaker within a day. Countless expensive workshops try to teach you to speak publicly in a day or two, but from my experience, it's not possible. It took me two years to gain enough confidence to speak freely and to share my thoughts in front of people. The students can practice this skill day-by-day, and by the time they leave school, they will be ready.
Socializing is also very important. You can learn that only by doing it. Maybe this is the most important thing you'll learn in school. The whole world works on social relations and personal networks of friends and acquaintances. You may have the feeling that the machines and AI will rule the world, but they are just tools. From my experience, our society still works on relationships. Think about it: Would you attend a conference taught by a machine? I doubt it.
The rest of the points should be pretty straightforward. My point is to gather our latest knowledge about how the brains work and teach students effective learning techniques to help them.
If students learn only the skills mentioned above, they will already be better prepared for practical life than many are today! However, let's think further. Dropping all the useless stuff allows the students to dedicate their time to what they like. If they want to learn Latin, we should let them do this. Similarly, if they prefer to learn English, they should learn that! Their brains work best just when they are young, and they should be part of the decision on how to seize their brainpower in their best interest.
The advent of e-learning
With solid foundations, I believe the students should further learn from the best teachers out there. Best teachers from the whole world. Platforms like Coursera already proved how well it works. I learned more applied knowledge on platforms like Coursera than in my schools. Teachers should just assist the students and help them better understand the topics. This approach will significantly eliminate the effect of sub-par teachers in your local school.
E-learning is excellent if we do it properly. Our schools use e-learning courses in their classes, but often it's sub-par in terms of quality. The providers of the e-learning programs should be independent of the state and should compete to prepare the best educational materials possible.
If we look at the existing projects out there, Khan Academy is an excellent resource for the students of elementary and high schools. Instead of creating something from scratch, maybe we could adapt the courses from this academy and provide them to the students. English may be a bottleneck for the students, but Khan Academy supports the translation of the materials on a volunteer base. What if instead of volunteers (like me), the state would hire professional translators and consultants to make sure the content is localized correctly and without mistakes?
If the students accomplish what's in Khan Academy, they can proceed to higher education on Coursera, edX, or anywhere they like. They should be free to choose from many providers. The goal of teachers should be to help and assist the students. It is more than enough.
Elementary and high school education should be free of charge!
Let me demonstrate the power of e-learning with very recent news from Finland. The University of Helsinki published a free online course on artificial intelligence for all European citizens. Over time, this course will be available in all official EU languages. We should take it as an example worth following.
Another example comes from MIT. This technological institute heavily uses e-learning for many of its classes. MIT runs its custom instance of the edX platform, where teachers publish lectures and materials. Consultations with the students happen in person. Best of the two worlds! Other schools should take this as an example.
What about specialized study programs?
Believe me, I thought about it. High school study programs like electrical engineering, microelectronics, and health service require to teach some skills practically. Students need to grab a soldering iron and use it so that they can safely operate it in the future. They can't learn it from videos. However, even in these cases, we can use e-learning to assist with teaching.
Students of these programs would also be taught the basics like Math. However, after accomplishing all the necessary skills, they won't be able to choose what to study next through e-Learning freely. Instead, their school will allocate part of their time to teach them necessary practical skills for the profession. The rest of the time will the students use to gain a theoretical background for the future job, and they will also have some time to study whatever they want.
People in Slovakia go to school at the age of 6 or 7 and reach adulthood when they are 18-years old. That's 12 years! Plenty of time to learn all the necessary skills, specialized skills, even skills, which are taught at the universities today. At the age of 18, they should be prepared for their profession or start their own companies if they wish.
If we stick to my vision, the universities would still exist, but they wouldn't teach what the students can learn in high schools through e-Learning and other means. It will, among other things, significantly reduce the cost of education for the individuals. They won't have massive debt above their heads after they finish their school. Universities should be attended primarily by the students who want to dedicate their lives to research and academia.
Often, great inventions come from the universities. However, for most people, maybe 80 percent, online education and the knowledge gained in lower level education should be enough.
Everyone should be allowed to apply to the university, and the university should accept the students who qualify. The bar for admitting the students should be set reasonably high. Today, our universities take money for each student they have and therefore are motivated to accept most of the applicants. This is fundamentally wrong. Also, many study programs seem useless to me. I don't want to be the judge of what to keep and what to cancel, but we should have a way of assessing the study programs, their quality and benefits for the society.
Universities make the most sense to me to teach students of the medical profession or future architects. These fields are highly specialized, and I acknowledge the need to learn the knowledge at the university. However, these fields are an exception, and we should handle the study of these fields as such.
Students should pay for university education. We should provide scholarship programs to students who meet the criteria.
I realize that my views on the future of schools and education are idealistic. However, I think that going towards that direction is the right thing to do. To transform an antiquated school system takes years and the will of the elected representatives who govern your country. Rome wasn't built in a day. If this blog post sparks a discussion, it's a decent start. Feel free to leave a comment; I'm pretty much interested in all opinions, notably different than mine. Because this is the key to critical thinking, which is needed in today's world more than ever.