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Question #89537 posted on 05/02/2017 2:44 p.m.

Der Berliner (and any other writer whom this interests),

What would your ideal reformed educational system and curriculum look like?

-My Name Here


Hello Kitty,

I haven't put too much thought into details but after reading Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown and lots of related research I would put a lot of emphasis on active practice being built into the infrastructure of education.



Dear Crowley,

There are definitely a lot of problems with the current system. According to this site, as of 2015, only about 37% of students are prepared for college math and reading. That's a pretty depressing figure. Furthermore, referring to the same data, the lower performing students are doing worse than ever. Basically, while the US has some super intelligent and well-educated people, we also have a lot of people who are terribly educated. Ideally, this gap would decrease by pulling the low-students up in a new educational system. While I haven't done any research on the matter, I have some theories for what might help.

First, I think there should be a heavier emphasis on developing certain problem-solving skills as opposed to just teaching computation. Teaching mindsets would be much more applicable across disciplines than facts based on rote memorization, and ultimately makes people better-equipped to deal with real-world problems where there isn't an explicit formula nicely laid out. Specifically in a math context, I think we should teach logic and set theory earlier, as opposed to mindless memorization of times-tables.

Second, I totally agree with Alta that there should be more group work. Considering the types of problems that need to be solved in the real world are increasingly beyond the capacity of a single individual to do, people should learn young how to work well with others. Even if they aren't solving group problems, networking/building solid connections with others is a pretty vital life skill. However, I think we should be careful in how we implement group work. I remember as a little girl, whenever I participated in a group project, I always ended up doing all of the work. I learned nothing about working with others (though I did get a lot of firsthand experience with the economic problem of slacking and freeloading). In this personal anecdote the problem with group work was twofold: 1. I didn't trust others enough to hold up their end of the project. 2. Other kids often weren't as motivated as I was to do well/were content to let me do everything.

In order to solve the problem of slacking/freeloading, I think it could help to still have each individual turn in their own completed project, as opposed to one for the entire group. The students would have the help of each other in doing the project, but would still ultimately be held accountable for their own efforts. The problem that arises with this is that students like me would do everything themselves anyways, because they could. A potential solution could be to make the group projects hard enough as to be impossible without help. Again referring to my personal experience, I only started working in a group once my homework was too hard to do by myself. Effectively, this would force people to work together.

Third, I think we should teach different forms of writing, i.e. forms that are commonly used in the real world. I remember writing many book reports and a couple of persuasive essays in elementary school, but honestly, those types of writing skills are next to useless. Much more useful would be learning how to write in more contemporary and business settings. While I don't think we should do away completely with book reports, it would be good to add in assignments like writing an email, or even short posts like on Facebook or Twitter. 

Fourth, the biggest reform I would like to see is making the learning schedule more flexible. Everyone learns at a different pace in different subjects, and I think the educational system should better reflect that as opposed to the current system of rigid timelines for mastery. I have no idea how this could be effectively implemented, but I still think it's an important thing to try and achieve. This would shift the focus of school from competing against each other to see who does best in a certain time frame to actually mastering material. Each individual would have to stick with something until they had attained a set level of understanding. This could also possibly give added incentive to students to put effort into school so they weren't just stuck in it forever.

Huh, turns out I have lots of thoughts on this, but the question is already overdue, so I'm going to let my answer post as is.



Dear reader,

I heard the other day about a high school in my area that doesn't have designated classes. It basically is one giant interdisciplinary class and students run it like a business. I don't have time to look into it with alumni week ending, but the concept sounds awesome.

I also ran across this piece in the Atlantic that describes a six-year high school where graduates walk away with an associate's degree as well as a high school diploma. If you're interested in education policy, it's worth a read.



Dear name,

Politically, one word: vouchers!  

From a curriculum perspective (if I was designing a private school or teaching my children), my random wishlist in no particular order would include:

  • Early focus on phonics & basic grammar
  • Heavy emphasis on reading, particularly history and the "western canon"/Great Books/Harvard Classics tradition
  • Strong math education, including lots of early drills (memorize those multiplication tables, lazy kids!), voluminous practice of conceptual material, and emphasis on applied problems (relate calculus to physics, for example)
  • Computer science early & often, with little other technology (kids don't need more iPad in their lives)
  • Spend minimal time on science until you can teach it meaningfully, i.e. in an accurate and quantitative manner
  • Drastically reduce traditional English instruction (aimed at generating completely subjective literary analysis no one wants to read) and substitute writing about research, history, etc.
  • Eliminate cutesy busy-work: graded coloring, dioramas, etc.
  • Eliminate most group work, instead having students to interact with each other in ways that don't reward & teach social loafing (e.g. have class discussions, have them do peer reviews of each others' writing and grade them on quality of their comments)
  • Do labs but eliminate science fair projects: kids can't address any meaningful, open scientific question so it's usually just a charade and a burden on their parents
  • Have expert high school teachers with 2-3x current teacher compensation, with this cost offset by increased class sizes and their labor supplemented by assistants (more like a college model)

I'm influenced by Bryan Caplan on some of this.

~Professor Kirke


Dear MNH,

MORE group work! Sorry, everyone who hated group work, but if it's done right it can actually be a good experience. Group work is more than just doing big projects with a group of people you dislike and who don't do anything to contribute, so if the teacher sets it up right it can go smoothly and be good. Plus, apparently one of the biggest complaints schools get from businesses is that kids don't know how to work in groups. I'm sorry if you hate it, but as it turns out, you have to know how to work with other people in life.

I was going to write more (smaller class sizes, teaching thinking rather than memorization, better assessments than endless multiple choice tests, cutting out busy work, incorporating more activities that are meaningful and promote learning), but I don't really have the time or inclination right now to expound on all of that. Just trust me when I say that I have lots of strong opinions about the education system in America.



Dear Couldn't Think of a Name,

Truth be told, I find it much easier to complain about our current system than to propose solutions. This is mostly because I despair of seeing any substantive changes taking place. I will lay out a number of my ideas, and hopefully some coherence will emerge.

First, I don't think privatizing the system/creating school choice will work. There are those who say that we need the education system to look more like the open market, which has put a cell phone in everyone's pocket through the magic of supply and demand. A number of people think that if school choice were available, we would see all kinds of innovations, with effective schools attracting kids like crazy, ineffective schools shutting down, and the best methods being copied, spread, and improved upon. I don't buy this, and strangely, I am the only person I have seen make the argument I am about to make, which is that the market will not provide supply where there is no demand, and there is virtually no demand to be educated.

Put another way, if the free market could solve our education problems, it would be solving them already. People possess both the time and money to pursue effective learning methods, which are more available than ever before with the advent of the internet. But virtually no one chooses to use their available resources to educate themselves. Instead, the real money is in entertainment.

To be sure, there is plenty of demand for good grades. And good grades are supposed to be connected to learning. But if a teacher were to give out good grades to kids who hadn't learned anything--it would be a long time before any complaints were issued. It's the rare parent indeed who would storm into a teacher's room to say "How can my Johnny possibly have an A in your chemistry class!? I asked him to name a single element, and he couldn't!" And think about how many people would utter something like "I took two years of Spanish, but I can't speak a single word of it." This phrase is never uttered with anger or resentment at a system that let them spend hundreds of hours on a skill with nothing to show for it. If these people are bothered by not being able to speak Spanish (or solve for x, or balance a chemical equation), they hide it well.

So...on a more positive note, I would like to see learning experiences made more authentic. The question "When am I ever going to use this?" is a legitimate question. And truth be told, no one ever encounters experiences in the course of their daily lives where they needed to complete the square to solve a real problem they faced. (People who really did need to complete the square to solve a real life problem: please tell me your story!). While for all practical purposes, no one grows up to be a professional athlete, students at school will put far more effort into sports than into their studies, because they know they'll use it in the upcoming games. (Quick side tangent: I would be 100% supportive of killing school athletics programs. Yes, they bring benefits. But they bring costs that are minimized or ignored, and distract schools from their mission of educating students).

One example of an authentic learning experience is a school where students wrote proposals for their dream bedroom. They were given constraints (such as a budget) and wrote up as detailed a plan as they could. The students whose essays were judged best actually got their dream bedroom makeover. The kids had every incentive to write well, because real rewards were at stake here--not just some letter grade. Some other examples of authentic learning are nationwide contests that students enter, such as FIRST robotics.

I would like to see students recognized more regularly by the community at large for academic accomplishments. Currently, if you are a student who wants positive attention beyond a handful of teachers, sports is about the only way to get it. When people talk about showing your support for a school, with few exceptions it means supporting the school's athletes. When heartwarming stories are spread about an autistic kid or such being accepted, it's usually tied to sports in some way (Imagine, if you will, the heartwarming story of kid with Down's syndrome who solved the quadratic equation with her peers cheering her on).

Students are identified and characterized in news stories as athletes ("Jane Doe, a volleyball player and John Doe High School...") but I don't recall them seeing students referred to as being chemists, poets, artists, authors, or mathematicians. Surely the distance between their skill as student athletes vs the skills of professional athletes is as great or greater than the distance between their art skills and those of professional artists. So if they merit the title of "football player" for their fledgling efforts, they can most certainly be called "artists" or "physicists."

The biggest obstacle to the aforementioned paragraph is society itself. Society places a high value on sports. There's a reason there are multiple channels on cable dedicated to sports and why every newspaper has a sports section. It's what people want to read/see/hear/talk about. So...yeah.

In short, what I'd like to see is students presented with real puzzles and taught content as needed to solve questions that intrigued them. Their efforts would be evaluated in as authentic a context as possible (for example, did you move people emotionally with your poem? Or make them laugh?) There would still be some aspects that required disciplined instruction, such as mastering the times tables. As much as possible, students would be taught things that adults really do need to know on a regular basis.

I apologize that this reply is long and rambling. I don't really have the time to clean it up. I mean, I guess I do. But I won't.

Der Berliner