In Why This Way we have been discussing a philosophy of education that we hope will some day inspire or guide schools and/or universities. We are hoping both to start schools of our own, and to influence the way existing schools are run.
In order to understand the educational philosophy of Why This Way, it is helpful to first examine the way most mainstream educational systems work. In our society, there are a lot of assumptions about how education works that usually go completely unquestioned, for the simple reason that an overwhelming majority of schools and formal educational systems follow them.
Practices often present in mainstream education
The mainstream educational system in the U.S. and many other countries often fits the following model:
- Classroom learning with one teacher and many students - Most of the time in high school and earlier, and a good portion of the time in college and graduate school, is spent in a classroom with one teacher and a large number of students. The student-teacher ratio can vary from one teacher to a handful of students, up to hundreds (in a large lecture course), but students nearly always outnumber teachers.
- Students are typically grouped together with students of the same age - Students are grouped together in age cohorts from kindergarten through high school. In college there tends to be more mixing, but many colleges group freshmen together in dorms, and in many classes.
- Students are forced to move through a class at the same pace as other students - Because most mainstream education forces students into age cohorts and makes them progress through in a linear fashion, students and teachers have limited flexibility when it comes to changing the pace of classes to suit different abilities, needs, and levels of interest.
- Students are ranked on a linear scale - Central to mainstream education is the notion of grading, assigning numerical point scores to exams and assignments, letter grades (A,B,C,D,F), and GPA's (grade point averages).
- Students are segregated by supposed ability level - The segregation of students into different ability levels partially addresses, but does not completely solve, the problem of students needing to learn at different paces. This segregation can take the form of grouping of students by sections or cohorts in middle school or high school, or separation of two or more difficulties of a class (such as how most schools have a separate calculus sequence for mathematicians and scientists and a separate, easier, one for other majors), and honors classes. In colleges and universities, this separation also can take the form of different colleges having different academic standards, with some colleges having faster-paced classes and being more selective about admitting students.
- Most education happens in a separate environment from real-world experiences - With the exception of internships and a few isolated projects, most education in conventional schools happens either in classroom settings, or independently, when doing homework. Students learn theoretical principles of their subjects without getting much experience in dealing with real-life situations. Business and industry are particularly separated from schools. Colleges and universities tend to be slightly, but only slightly more integrated in this regard than primary and secondary schools.
- Students are usually penalized for making mistakes - Students are usually given lower grades and scores for making mistakes on assignments and exams. Students are sometimes shamed for making certain kinds of mistakes.
- Educational institutions are usually run with minimal input from students - Students tend to have slightly more influence at colleges and universities. Students in primary and secondary education usually have little or no say in the governance of schools.
- Many schools expect students to spend most of their time in school or formally studying - Schools place less emphasis, sometimes no emphasis, on the value of relaxation, breaks, zoning out, unstructured time, fun activities, and self-directed learning outside of school and assigned work.
We would like to question all of these practices.
Problems associated with these practices
- Students often graduate from college unprepared in certain ways for the real world - This is one result of the idea that education tends to be disconnected from real-life experiences; that it mostly happens in a separate environment, and that education often conforms to a consistent structure of grades, externally-imposed motivation, and one-dimensional thinking, that is different from the best approaches to most work environments.
- Students lose their natural curiosity and self-motivation for learning - We think that since self motivation leads to more effective learning, the stifling of natural curiosity hinders learning in our educational system as a whole.
- Students whose needs and abilities do not match the pace of their classes tend to become frustrated or bored - In milder cases, students whose classes are too mismatched to their optimal pace of learning will not learn as effectively. Students may become stressed out if the pace is too fast, and may become less interested in the subject if the pace is too slow. In more severe cases, students may drop out of classes, drop majors or minors that they would otherwise wish to study or complete, or even drop out of school.
- Students placed in lower tiers of segregated learning environments tend to perform poorly, regardless of their actual abilities - This can be due to low expectations, or possibly due to being surrounded by other students who are performing poorly. This tendency may cause tiered systems to be self-perpetuating, making it unlikely for students to move between tiers once they are segregated, and thus harder for students placed in lower tiers to fulfill their desired potential.
- Students come to believe that their self-worth depends on their performance in school - This can arise in part from an emphasis on linear grading, and in part from situations where students are spending most of their time studying, with little focus on other aspects of their lives. We believe this belief to be unhealthy and potentially damaging.
- Students are encouraged to think somewhat one-dimensionally - When students are graded on a linear scale and penalized for making mistakes, it leads to a mentality that there is a right and wrong way to do things, and students are taught to do things the "right" way, according to their teacher's ideals. Since students may be afraid of making mistakes, they are not encouraged as much as they could be to learn experimentally, take risks, and approach learning in different ways.
- Students often do not feel as though their education is serving them, but that they are serving their education - This happens especially when students don't have much control over their education. Teachers are often regarded as authority figures, with students working to accommodate their requirements, rather than teachers accommodating the learning needs of students.
- Many students do not have well-balanced lives - When students are expected to spend so much time doing schoolwork or engaging in studying for structures imposed on them, they often neglect other aspects of their lives which would help them to live healthier lives and learn more effectively. Also, students often do not learn how to effectively use unstructured time. The lack of ability to use unstructured time leads to a lack of preparation for the real world, as self-directed activities with less structure than most conventional schooling are central in many businesses and careers.
Other problems in mainstream education
- Educational fads - Education in the United States is often subject to fads, such as education being influenced by the "latest research" in such a way that people, such as school district administrators, pick up a specific idea, focus on it in isolation, and attempt to force a reform onto a school district. Such practice can stress teachers, who often do not have time to fully adapt their teaching to each fad, because by the time they adapt, the administration has adpoted a new fad. These fads can also create problems when they are not approached holistically...educational research is complex, and isolated studies can have misleading results.
- Funding - Mainstream education often uses money in ways that are ineffective, unsustainable, or create gross inequalities between different communities. For example:
- Most public education in the U.S. is funded by property tax, so wealthier communities can have lower tax rates yet better-funded schools than poorer communities.
- Some public school districts spend a huge portion of their funding on administrative expenses; this is a particular problem for the largest school districts.
- Modern colleges and universities in the U.S. have faced escalating costs such that tuition is no longer affordable; this setup leaves all but the wealthiest students or a few students with major scholarships shouldered with extreme amounts of debt upon graduation. Such large amounts of debt, in a society where people are expected to graduate from college, can make society less consensual.
- Institutional hypocrisy - Private religious schooling does not always stay in harmony with the supposed values of the religion that the schools are associated with. Non-religious schools can also have this problem; private schools often have philosophies or mission statements, and like religious organizations, they can deviate from their supposed purpose. In a more general sense, schools of any type can deviate from the general purpose of education, when the school starts to make decisions on the basis of growth, finances, or their reputation, even when the decisions go against the best interest of educating students.
Motivation in education: intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation
Why This Way places a high importance on intrinsic motivation, or self motivation, and believes that acting out of self motivation is the desired or ideal state to be in, rather than acting out of extrinsic (externally-imposed) motivation.
We see natural curiosity, an innate desire to learn, as one of the best motivators for learning. Natural curiosity can sometimes arise without apparent reason, but at other times, it flows naturally from an understanding of why the information is useful. For example, a student may be uninterested in mastering a particular subject because it seems boring and/or difficult to them, but they may become more motivated to learn it if they realize that this subject is truly necessary for them to pursue a subject that they are highly motivated to learn. Understanding of why information is useful can also take the form of natural consequences, such as when a student makes a costly mistake because of poor understanding of some material. Natural motivators can also include a desire to help people, understand people, create things, fix or repair things, or solve practical problems in the world.
Externally imposed rewards or consequences for learning or failing to learn material, such as grades, offering of degrees, or holding a student back, is a more extrinsic form of motivation. This sort of motivation can have negative impacts on learning, and can encourage a variety of undesirable behaviors, because it can lead students to seek the grades or other intrinsic results without focusing on actually learning the material. Such motivation can create an incentive for "gaming the system", cheating or plagiarism, and the pestering of teachers and authority figures over details of grading rather than interacting with teachers primarily to resolve underlying issues in learning. We view this sort of externally-imposed motivation as a last resort, to only be used in cases where there is a compelling need for students to master a particular sort of material, and the students have persistently been unable to learn the material when presented only with natural motivators.
There is not always a clear distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but in some cases, the distinction is clearly evident, and in these cases, we believe in encouraging and cultivating intrinsic motivation to the greatest degree possible, and minimizing our use of extrinsic motivation.
Our philosophy of motivation is related to our principles of keeping our prerequisites to a minimum, only requiring mastery of subjects when they are truly necessary for material that builds on them.
Our model of education
In Why This Way, we seek to implement our own system of education. Our model of education involves:
- Students move at their own pace - Rather than being forced into tracks, students would be able to move through subjects at their own desired pace. A greater degree of independent study, one-on-one and small group interactions, and the mixing of ability levels would make these different paces feasible. We are anticipating that the advantages of our system would be great enough that most students would be able to learn and progress faster than in existing conventional education systems.
- Students thoroughly master material before moving on - Compared to mainstream educational systems, we require a more thorough and deeper understanding of material before students are recorded as having mastered something. The higher standards will help our system address concerns that our system is somehow less rigorous because of its self-directed nature, absence of grades, and greater influence of students. We will be able to realistically achieve these higher standards in part by keeping prerequisites as minimal as possible.
- Prerequisites are as minimal as possible - Mastering certain material before progressing would only be required for material that truly requires mastery of earlier material. For example, a student would need to know the basics of arithmetic before being able to understand the material from a typical high-school algebra course, but a student might be able to study a great deal of "advanced" mathematics like set theory, abstract algebra, or topology, without knowing any of the material from a typical college calculus course.
- Mastery of material is established by consensus - In contrast to mainstream education, where grading is imposed on students by a teacher, the mastery of material would be established by a consensus involving students and teachers, and involving both people directly involved in the learning process as others offering an impartial perspective. Students would discuss their progress and the question of their level of mastery of material with their teachers and students, and would progress only when there was a consensus that they had mastered the material and were ready to move on. The input of outsiders (other students or teachers not directly involved in the learning process for a given student) could provide a more impartial perspective to the consensus discussion.
- Mixing students of different ability levels - The mixing of students of different ability levels can help students to learn more from other students, both in terms of more advanced students helping students reach their level of understanding, and helping students solidify or deepen their understanding of material by explaining it to others. This mixing also can prepare students more for the real world, in which businesses, organizations, and other workplaces typically have a mix of people of different abilities.
- Consent - Students consent to participate in each aspect of education to the greatest degree possible.
- More equal mixing of students with teachers - Instead of a traditional classroom model, based on one person with advanced knowledge (the teacher) and many people (students) with little to no knowledge, with a one-sided transfer of knowledge from teacher to students, our model involves a community of people of different ability levels, talking about a subject and helping each other to advance each of their knowledge about it.
- Awareness - We emphasize both self-awareness on the part of students, in terms of awareness of their own level of understanding of the material, their abilities, and how various methods of learning are working for them, and awareness on the part of teachers, in terms of awareness of which methods are actually working and helping students to learn effectively. We also emphasize awareness of the present moment.
- Integrate education with value-producing activities - This integration serves multiple purposes, including better preparing students for the real world, and making our system more practical. This sort of integration can include:
- Apprenticeships and internships - Learning hands-on in a work setting, and learning while creating goods or services of value to the school, to the community, or creating financial value for oneself and/or for a business.
- Creation of public goods - Students could learn through working on and contributing to public goods, such as editing Wikipedia, and creating open-source textbooks and open curricula. The development of open, freely available educational tools could keep the costs down both for our school, and for other unrelated schools.
- Shared resources between school and community - Schools could have dining halls, cafes, bookstores, in-house copy shops, and other services that also are run somewhat like businesses and open to the community. These aspects of the school could draw in additional income, and reduce costs by improving economy of scale, and could also feed into the opportunity for apprenticeships or internships.
- Work-to-study programs - Especially in the case of older students (whose education tends to be more costly in our society), students could work within the school to earn credits that could be used for using the various resources in the school. This sort of system could keep the school's costs down and could make education more accessible to people with fewer financial resources. It could also work positively with our belief in learning in a more real-world setting.
We want to view each student as a whole person, and accurately see the level of knowledge that the student has, flowing from our beliefs of viewing people as whole people, rather than characterizing them by their grade, age, or tier.
These ideas do not work in isolation
Our group is by no means the first to suggest many of the above changes to educational systems or educational philosophy. Many of the ideas that we are proposing have been tried in various contexts, and in some cases, have failed to achieve good results. Part of the problem with implementing these ideas is that many of them feed off each other, and only make sense in the context of a system that works very differently from mainstream systems.
- Mixing students of different ability levels - If one takes a mainstream educational system, such as a college-level lecture class, and mixes students of different ability levels, it can produce problems because the format of the class will lead to the more advanced students being bored and the less advanced students being lost. Such mixing of students can also stress or burden a teacher who has to expend more effort to make their class relevant and useful to the students of differing ability levels, and it also provides a problem to evaluating students by the traditional grading system. The idea of mixing students of different ability levels requires a different approach which allows students to progress at their own pace, evaluates students in a different way, and which encourages more decentralized interactions rather than a traditional one-teacher-to-many-students model.
- Having a more equal ratio of students to teachers - It is not practical or even possible, from a financial or resource perspective, to have a more equal mixing or ratio of students to teachers, within a conventional educational system. Because most schools operate on the model of paying teachers a salary and providing benefits, in exchange for full-time employment, and schools have additional expenses besides teachers, even well-to-do schools do not have the financial resources to create a more 1-to-1 model. Our model aims to make a more equal mixing more realistic through a combination of means, including:
- Helping students learn more from each other, and learn more independently, thus reducing the need for teachers to directly intervene.
- Eliminating the wasted effort and resources put into maintaining the system of grades and externally-imposed motivators, leading both to more effective learning and less burden on teachers.
- Utilizing freely available, open resources to minimize the need for teachers to work on curriculum design.
- Blurring the boundary between students and teachers, allowing people to function both as teachers and as students, teaching from their strengths and learning subjects they are less familiar with.
- Having more apprenticeship-like learning setups, in which teachers can directly mentor students in the context of a functional business, industry, or other organization, thus allowing teachers and students to both pursue income-generating and resource-producing activities in the course of their learning.
- Making prerequisites as minimal as possible - In mainstream education, it is not the norm for students to fully master material before moving on--most students are pushed through classes with incomplete mastery of the material. This can even be true of students who achieve the highest grades or scores, like A's in classes or 5/5 on an AP (Advanced Placement) test. When incomplete understanding is the norm, schools can compensate for the incomplete understanding by covering difficult material that is necessary for advanced subjects multiple times, in multiple classes. Thus, even if a subject does not absolutely depend on another, it may be required by high schools or universities for practical reasons--teachers or school administrators may have learned from experience that students perform better when they have taken certain classes as preparation. Merely eliminating requirements without making other changes in the educational system could thus cause problems. We hope to address this potential problem by pairing the minimal requirements with higher standards for mastery of the pieces of material that truly are necessary to understand each subject.
College / university level
We have discussed what a college or university run in accordance with our educational philosophy would look like. Some of the points we have discussed include:
- The school would have a dining hall which was open to the public as a restaurant, and conveniently located for people from the community to visit and eat in it. This open / mixed setup for the dining hall could draw in additional revenue for the school, and also reduce costs by improving the economy of scale in the dining hall. It could also lead towards greater integration between the school and community.
- The school could have a work-to-study program whereby students could be employed in various capacities in the school, from teaching to staff and administrative work, in exchange for credits which could be applied directly towards participating in various aspects of the school. This could help keep the cash costs of the school low, while allowing students to more easily afford school. This setup would also mesh well with our educational model which emphasizes learning in an environment more like the real world, and learning more in mentoring, hands-on, and apprenticeship-like contexts. In some cases, people could function in different capacities as staff, faculty, and students at the same time.
- Our school would issue degrees which corresponded to mainstream college and university degrees by encompassing a mastery of the same topics covered in mainstream college degrees. Our high standards for complete mastery of material before progressing could lead to a strong reputation for our school and degree holders, which could help our school to attain and retain accredited status even if people outside our school were initially skeptical of our unorthodox model.
Working within the mainstream educational system
We have begun discussing how we would act, both as teachers and as students, consistently with the core beliefs and practices of Why This Way, in the mainstream educational system.
Communication is central in how we approach scenarios like this. We emphasize open communication channels between different people involved, including students, teachers, and administrators.
Mainstream education often places students in a more passive role than we would consider ideal under our description of a healthy state. Students typically have a lot of constraints placed on them without their consent, which include grades which are assigned by teachers, as well as required classes, and other constraints about how and when they pursue various aspects of their education.
Assertiveness can be of key importance in these situations. One example is being assertive about grades. Even in the mainstream educational system, it may be possible to reach a consensus with professors over a grade. In many cases, a student may agree with an assigned grade, believing it to be fair and accurate as an indicator of the student's work or level of understanding of the material. But when there is a disconnect and the student feels that the grade does not fit, they can be assertive in speaking to the teacher about the grade. Students can also be assertive about communicating when they have trouble understanding the material, when they question course requirements, or when the pace of a class is not working for them.
It is also important for students to be respectful of teachers and school administrators, even when they see those people as making choices that they do not agree with, or imposing decisions or constraints on them that conflict with their values. Our rules of communication can be useful for students when considering how to converse with teachers or administrators over points of conflict, and they can also be useful to consider when writing teaching evaluations, emails, or other written feedback, so as to keep this feedback as constructive as possible.
A common problem in mainstream education is that students become focused or fixated on grades or test scores, often to an extent that they are distracted from learning the material itself.
If you are a teacher, and students come to you with complaints or requests about their grades, you can shift the discussion away from specific grades, and to discussion of the grading system as a whole. For example, if a student is complaining that a certain grade or a way of grading a test or assignment seems unfair or frustrating, try to figure out whether or not they have a legitimate complaint about the grading system creating poor incentives for learning. It is still important to address specific, pointed complaints, however, such as if a student thinks that a straightforward mistake has been made in grading.
You can emphasize to the students that you want them to focus on learning, and want to implement a grading system that will create a good incentive. You can even ask students if anything about how you are grading is setting up an incentive for them to try to game the system.
You can encourage honesty in the following ways:
- Do not punish or shame students for not expressing enough enthusiasm.
- Do not encourage students to back up thesis statements they don't agree with, or skew facts to support a thesis.
- Admit when you don't know something, or when you realize that you made a mistake.