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November 6th, 2020
It seems education is always in need of improvement. Where education is regarded as important, it is never good enough. Just imagine if a school or if a nation came to the quaint decision that their education system was as good as it possibly could be, that no improvement was necessary and even possible. The image is as funny as it is paradoxical, and it hints at the conundrum that always besets any educational system, which can best be summed up by a question:
How do you teach someone to be better than you are in your area of expertise?
The next generation of teachers are invariably being taught by the current generation of teachers. And, if it’s possible for education to improve than theoretically there must be some kind of subtle bootstrapping that turns today’s students into teachers that are more capable than the one’s doing the training.
Before slicing into that difficult trick, notice that the teacher is beset with two difficulties. Not only must a teacher be well learned in their subject, but there’s a meta-subject that a teacher requires a sufficient amount of expertise: teaching.
Many of the best minds who have broken ground with new forms and areas of knowledge were not terribly good at translating that discovery to other people. There is a kind of intermediate variety of educator who functions like a translator: understanding the obscure discovery and translating it into a form that is more readily understood by other people. The brilliant mind who makes the discovery is a one-trick pony. The intermediate translator is a two-trick pony: understanding in the first place, and then translating.
The improvement of education is a sly two-step movement: on the one hand there is always room for improvement with the translation - and this is probably the area that has always been at a chronic deficit. Everyone learns a bit differently based on their prior experience, their vocabulary, their exposure to the subject and when the communication abilities of the teacher are mixed in, the results can be all over the place.
What’s perhaps the biggest missed opportunity in education is that teachers have almost no incentive to get better as communicators and translators of complex topics. It’s without a doubt that many teachers would like to get better at their job, but this does not mean they are well incentivized. We would all like climate change to be mitigated, but that does not mean we are well incentivized to make it happen. We do, however, have more incentive to buy a really sexy electric car - primarily because it’s sexy. Climate change mitigation is a secondary bonus because sexy cars are desired regardless of if it effects the climate for better or worse.
Imagine for instance if teachers didn’t get paid unless their students made money because of what they learned in class? That creates an undeniable incentive for the teacher, and there are even institutions like Lambda School that have instituted this type of structure.
The other bit about education’s two-step climb is the discovery of new and useful pieces of knowledge. Currently, we really don’t have a system for coming up with new ideas. Certainly we have the scientific method which tests ideas, but we don’t really have a rubric for how to induce novel revelations about the universe. It’s sort of random, but that doesn’t mean random can’t be herded into productive directions. If for example, the first step of education went through substantial improvements than we’d simply have a greater number of capable thinking students, which raises the number of possible chances for new realizations based on the apex of current understanding. If for example a great idea is only 1 in a million, but a population only has half a million well educated people, then it’s going to take 2 generations to have a great new idea. If however, a population raises it’s educational efforts by an order of magnitude and produces 5 million well educated people then they are likely to get 5 great ideas in a single generation. Any network effect between these ideas further magnifies the effect of the original effort to improve the education of more people.
To refocus on this translation and transport of knowledge from teacher to student must also admit a further cramped aspect of the set up. Some people, perhaps even most people learn best by doing, and the current way that school is imagined is often not in line with this at all.
It’s tempting to imagine a not so distant future when our teachers are individual AI’s that are calibrated precisely to who we are and what we know, intuiting exactly what to reveal and when for greatest retention and further creating novel, tailored exercises that naturally hyper charge a student’s ability to learn.
It’s a nice thought, but still far from a reality.
In the meantime, the next best thing is to attempt to become that AI teacher for one’s self. This requires a good deal of self-awareness that is used to study one’s own self and to observe what sort of challenge works best, and how to choose and implement that form of challenge from a subject that may be a complete mystery. This is a self-contained instance of the earlier bootstrapping problem. How do you pick the correct sort of challenge from a subject you know nothing about? The trick here isn’t to pick perfectly but to have the mindfulness to pivot to a smaller or larger chunk of the subject depending on how difficult or easy that random stab at the topic turns out to be.
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