Thoughts on Educational Priorities

It seems like our education system currently has the goal of trying to get the bulk of students to some level of knowledge we consider minimal.  It’s like we aim at the middle 60% or so of the curve, presenting material that they should be able to understand, at a pace that works for them. OK, some folks below that won’t get it, and some folks above that could learn much more and more quickly, but we’re doing roughly the right thing for that 60-80%.

And schools spend extra effort/money trying to educate that bottom 10 to 20%.  No child left behind! Get everyone to that minimum!

But then these people go out into the workforce and it’s largely that *top* 10-20% that creates the value in STEM fields.  And the vast majority of the rest, the ones that we organized our education system around, well, most of them can’t *really* make effective use of what we taught them.  Yes, they learned algebra well enough to pass that exam in high school, but they didn’t really GROK it.  Now they’ve forgotten most of it, and even the part they *do* sort of remember they do not grok well enough to use it to improve any process.

Of course one problem is that we are forcing everyone to learn at the same pace in the first place.  We need to find a way to let the top 10-20% go fast and the bottom 10-20% go slow. Honestly, this would help everyone — even bright students have bad weeks.

But it also feels like we are investing the least in the people who offer the most potential for return.  Why not try hard to maximize what the really bright kids get out of school?  Instead of taking the attitude “they’re fine — those others need help,” spend some money on a good experience for the bright kids, too.

Jonathan Wai, a psychologist studying the correlation between early cognitive ability and adult achievement, was quoted in this article as saying “The kids who test in the top 1% tend to become our eminent scientists and academics, our Fortune 500 CEOs and federal judges, senators and billionaires,”

And if some kids are having a really hard time with even basic algebra, why torture them?  Let them focus on something else, something that comes more naturally to them.  No matter how much we pressure them, there is very little chance that they are going to make use of the knowledge outside of the classroom, let alone be the ones who change the world through STEM advances.  If we *do* manage to get them through an algebra course, and the last they think about algebra is the immense relief that they never have to do that again, haven’t we wasted our time, wasted their time, and done major damage to their self-esteem for nothing?

Don’t get me wrong. I think that everyone should give math their best shot, and go as far as they can — with solid comprehension and high retention. Don’t give up on those who struggle! But don’t insist that they all acquire certain skills, when we all know darn well that a lot of them are not going to remember it after the test. Really, what is the point in that?

I would like to see more effort and attention going toward the Diracs and Feynmans of the next generation, not just the ones who are trying to meet a requirement by demonstrating a skill they will never use in the real world.

For example, perhaps you could arrange to get the top students of all high schools in the state get together online under the tutelage of the best math and science educators for their level?  Have them dive much deeper into the material, interacting with their equally bright peers in small groups.  Young Einsteins and Eulers become friends during class, even though they live in different cities (or even states or countries!), and talk about what they are learning over Skype. Awesome!

My claim is that the top students could learn much more, and more deeply, without being held back (and often socially regarded as freaks) by the other students.  I know this to be true in part because one grade school I know of tried an experiment: they gave all the kids in the upper grades a long math test, and then divided them up into about a dozen groups based on aptitude.  Then they taught each group at its own pace.  Unfortunately they spent no money at all on the top students — they simply put them in separate rooms, alone, with a box of lessons.  Take the next lesson from the box, read the material, and work the problems.  Nobody to talk to — at all.  It was not a good environment: it was socially isolating, and the learning materials were not designed for that purpose.  Yet the top student did 22 months worth of material in 9 months — in spite of feeling bored and alone, and having nobody to ask questions of.

A less visible benefit accrued to the *other* students: they were less afraid of looking stupid.  Average students are loathe to venture a guess when they know that the “class brain” over there knows the answer for sure and is just holding back to give others a chance.

Imagine if you spent *more* money on the top students, not *less*!  Imagine if instead of teaching the top kids the same way you teach the average kids, you really dug in to each topic and had the kids grovel around in the concepts, soaking it all up.  What *is* algebra, really?  There are other algebras — let’s explore some!  What is a *number*, really?  Prove some interesting theorems.  Use a language like Idris or Agda to do some math. Imagine the top students coming out of that education system!  Wouldn’t you expect that the downstream economic benefit from having taught those top students much more, and with deeper understanding, would more than cover the extra cost of teaching them at their own pace rather than just shunting them off to be taught with the middle of the bell curve?

I doubt that this would ever fly, because society places value on equality.  Teach them equally, please, even if that means extra effort spent on those with the least aptitude.  Even if most will never use it.  Even if those most likely to change the world with it could have learned far more, and been much better prepared to create the future with that knowledge.

Our definition of “equally” should allow students with greater aptitude to learn quickly and deeply — rather than chaining them to the pace and content of the majority of students.

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