Why is the School System Failing? The Future of Education.

Schools are in a sense factories in which the raw materials (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.
— Ellwood Cubberley, Educational Administrator

The Facts


College enrollment is expected to rise from approximately 20 million students in 2016 to over 23 million by 2025. The average student loan debt in America is currently over $30 000 per student. Shockingly, a recent study found that in the first 2 years of college, 45% of students showed no gains in critical thinking. If this is true, this begs the question: are schools failing us?

the facts about college

The History of Education


Before we can answer the question, we have to go over a very brief history of human education. For 90% of our existence, humans have lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. In those days, the dominant form of learning occurred within families and tribes. We learned to hunt and gather from those around us.

hunter gatherer

Around 10 000 BC, an agricultural revolution occurred. This dramatically changed the ways in which we lived. Humans began to settle down and form early civilizations. Agriculture was a massive part of our lives up until the Industrial revolution. As you can imagine, this agricultural period covers a large span of time from approximately 10 000 BC to around 1760 AD.

agricultural revolution

In this period of time, we shifted from primarily tribal learning to various types of apprenticeships. An apprenticeship takes on a very broad meaning here such as working under a master craftsman, a slave master, or being a part of a guild. Essentially, education started to shift away from the family unit.

evolution of education

The next major revolution, the Industrial revolution, marked another drastic change in our education. It was during the Industrial period that schools as we know them formed, but how did it happen?


The Factory Model of Education


The Secretary of Education for the state of Massachusetts at the time, Horace Mann, studied several systems across Europe to find the one that he believed would be the best for America. His conclusion? The Prussian model.

It was funded by taxes, attendance was mandatory, and it had specially trained teachers. But the thing is, many people might not know that the Prussians used their school system as a way to instill obedience to authority in young students. In fact, Johann Gotlieb Fichte, a Prussian philosopher who played a key role in forming their educational system, said that:

If you want to influence a person, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will
— Johann Gotlieb Fichte

This is where conspiracy theorists call it a day and reduce the entirety of public education in America to that of a brainwashing machine. I don’t agree.

In Mann’s journals, he openly acknowledges that the Prussian’s were using their system of education for evil but he believed that it could be used for good if it was put in the right hands. So, Mann advocated heavily for the Prussian model and it became the one implemented in America. The next step was to create a standardized educational experience.

Horace Mann's journal

In 1892, a “Committee of 10” people was selected to oversee the standardization of education in America. At the time, education was too varied across different schools to accurately gauge which schools were doing well, and how different students ranked compared to one another when assessing them for college admissions.

committee of 10

So, this Committee of 10 studied schools across America and saw that there were approximately 40 different courses being studied among the various schools. They narrowed this list down to the 9 courses that they deemed to be the most important which were:

  1. Latin
  2. Greek
  3. English
  4. Other Modern Languages
  5. Mathematics
  6. Physics, Astronomy, and Chemistry
  7. Natural History (Biology, Botany, Zoology, Physiology)
  8. History, Civil Government, and Political Economy
  9. Geography (Physical Geography, Geology, and Meteorology)

After these 9 courses were selected, the “Committee of 10” selected 10 more members for each course to answer questions such as:

  1. When should this subject be introduced? When should different parts of it be introduced?
  2. How long should it be studied for?
  3. What parts of the subject should be studied?

Together, these few people shaped the curriculum for all future students. Although there has been some changes to this curriculum, a large part of this curriculum still makes up the core of K-12 education.

At the time this public and standardized education was created, I believe that it was quite progressive and innovative. There are actually lots of benefits to a public and standardized education such as:

- It’s free

- It allows us to run schools more efficiently

- Maintains a minimum level of quality

- All people must be treated equally and allowed to receive an education regardless of race, sex, class, creed, or status

And lastly: it acted as a powerful economic machine during industrial times and allowed the middle class to grow. However, there are a few major cons of the current public and standardized system which have become more and more apparent in recent years.

education factory

An Aging System


Firstly, it stifles creativity. Students are limited in the subject matter they can learn, and the ways in which they can learn.

school kills creativity

Secondly, it values efficiency over mastery and promotes incomplete understanding of subject material. The current school system operates like a factory: students have a certain amount of time to get graded and they are either good products or bad products. The system moves students along after a certain period of time and not when they have fully mastered the current subject matter.

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In Sal Khan’s book, The One World Schoolhouse, he refers to this as Swiss Cheese Learning. Students are allowed to pass on to the next year’s subject matter if they obtain a grade of at least 50%. That means that there is over 50% of the material that they don’t understand. Eventually, all of these holes in their learning will catch up to them and they’ll hit a point where the material stops making sense.

The analogy Sal uses is that of a house. You wouldn’t build a house on weak foundation, would you? But, we are constantly doing this to our students by pushing them ahead regardless of their mastery over a topic. Again, the current school system is like an assembly line: it values quantity over quality.

Lastly, curriculums are quickly becoming outdated. The world is evolving so rapidly that our older institutions can’t keep up. If you look at the revolutions in human history, from agricultural to informational, you’ll see that the gaps between them are getting smaller and smaller. All of the great revolutions in history have also had massive changes in how we educated one another, except for the most recent Information Age. However, we are starting to see a shift in the educational paradigm.

evolution of education

The Future of Education


Here are some of my predictions on the future of education. Education will likely be digital, automated, and highly personalized for the individual. It will go at the student's pace and it will require students to master subject matter before moving on.

It will also be cheaper than ever before.

school will be cheaper

We are already starting to see these things emerge with the birth of Khan Academy, educational YouTube channels, and an increase in quality in online courses. You have sites like Udemy or Skillshare where you can learn practical skills online. Universities are starting to put some of their lectures and notes online. Some are even hosting Massive Open Online Courses also known as MOOCs. Soon, a student's entire education will be based around a laptop and the internet with teachers being utilized on an “as-needed” basis.

Education will become more meritocratic. Students will reward the best educators with their attention and money, and so educators will start to compete to be the best or to be unique. As a result, we’ll see an increase in the quality of education students get.

meritocratic education

The road to this type of education will be a difficult one. The roots of our current educational system run deep. The infrastructure is already there, meanwhile, the infrastructure for the future of education is still in its infancy. Online education still doesn’t have the prestige and clout that traditional colleges have. Although, this paradigm is shifting as well. No one is going to hire a doctor or lawyer who learned everything online but they would hire a programmer, graphic designer, digital marketer, animator, or writer who learned everything online.

new educational system

Here’s the final note that I would like to conclude on. Human curiosity is very hard to kill. We are naturally very curious beings. We can see that by analyzing little kids and seeing how they interact with the world around them. They’re fascinated and they want to know how it all works and fits together. This is human nature.

We can see that our current system is starting to show its age because it’s somehow miraculously putting out the flames of human curiosity in our youth. Young kids are seeing education as a chore.

I think most of us would agree that the current system is outdated, and will leave many students unprepared for a rapidly changing future. For them, I already feel sad.

Although there is still lots of work to be done, I’m quite optimistic about the future of our education. I’m excited to see a world where we can bring back a system of education that allows students to find and use their natural talents and inclinations to make the world around them a better place. I’m excited to see a world where students freely choose to understand the parts of the world that fascinate them, instead of having their natural curiosity snuffed out.  

 
 

Sources

1. National Centre for Education Statistics, & Student Loan Hero. The statistics for critical thinking was obtained from this summary of a study done at the University of Chicago. 

2. The history of education was obtained from Sal Khan's book The One World Schoolhouse and from Psychology Today

3. The time scales of each age were obtained from the following sources: Neolithic Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Hunter-Gatherers

4. Information on the integration of the Prussian system in America was obtained from the following sources: Horace Mann's JournalThe One World SchoolhousePrussian Education System

5. The report of the Committee of Ten.