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Radical change in education, through the eyes of a 17-year-old Intern Jasper Demuynck - February 5, 2018

The Future of Education Jasper Blog

Jasper Demuynck was an intern at nexxworks for two weeks. We suggested that he could take a stab at blogging during his time here and that we could post it, if the content proved to be relevant for us. It was, and very impressively so.

So, we are very proud to host this talented 17-year-old's perspective on the future of education. Here goes:

The education system as we know it dates back more than 200 years. It cannot keep up, and radical change is close. Is a school system without grades the solution? Is a fixed curriculum still relevant? Elon Musk apparently has the solution. 

I’m Jasper Demuynck, a 17-year-old intern at nexxworks, currently studying Business and IT in my last year of high school. This is how I see education in the future.

The history of education

I think it is best to start off by talking about how education, as we know it today, came to be. For a long time, education was an absolute privilege. Only the very rich were able to enroll. That changed when the Prussian system was introduced in the 1830s. Inspired by the industrial revolution, this system was comparable to an assembly line process. Every student attended school at fixed points in time, and they were all taught the same information. But most importantly: It was free. This was extremely new and egalitarian for the time and allowed the lower and middle class to get better jobs, which shaped the economies of many countries we know today. If you were to compare an 1830s classroom to a classroom today, it is significant how little has fundamentally changed. Students entered the classroom and sat down at their desk and were then required to listen to the teacher lecturing. This goes on until a bell rings to signal the end of that class. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Students today are in the same type of school system as their great-great-great-grandparents were.

The doubled-edged sword

As Peter Hinssen said in an interview (Dutch), education is the slowest moving industry, in a world that’s moving faster than ever before. And not only that, but this way of putting students in classes for an hour until a bell rings, over and over again, isn’t optimal, especially for teenagers. “This is basically Guantanamo Bay mental torture for a teenager today”, says Hinssen. The primary issue here is that the subjects just aren’t brought in a sufficiently interesting manner. It’s a big task for an average teenager to be deeply interested in an economics class that uses examples such as milk farmers and clothing factories. This, believe it or not, is in fact a reoccurring thing in my normal day at school. I would, for example, be talking about cryptocurrencies and AI with my friends near the end of my informatics class, and as we enter the next class room, our economics teacher starts lecturing about an abstract economic concept, with examples of a farm, or cotton factory. Do you see the huge leap here? 

Almost every single successful company right now is based on extreme customer centricity, the importance of the customer really cannot be emphasized enough. Yet, I haven’t learned anything about customer centricity at school. Above that, the word “customer” hasn’t even been mentioned during my economics class. Another example of the way we’re taught about business, is communication. In the world we live right now, the speed of communication is almost incomprehensible. Communication, through the internet and other media, has become the foundation of our economy. And yet, the only time spent on communication as a topic was the explanation of how communication is simply the process of a message going from sender to receiver. After that, our teacher explained to us how the “electronic mail” works.

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I think it’s clear that the major issue here is how outdated the subjects taught to students today are, and because of the lack of interest the students will then have, they won’t actually learn that much. This defeats the entire purpose of going to school in the first place. I call this the bigger picture. Education is outdated.

The close-up picture, to call it that, is the efficiency of teaching. The word “lecture” implies that the teacher talks about a certain subject, quoting a textbook, until the class is over and then expects the student to actually study and understand the concept themselves. In college and universities this works, but in many ways, this is absolutely incomparable to primary school or middle schools, for example. Studies show that when a teacher regularly revises during the class, this way including every student in the lecture and making sure everyone understands the subject, there is a drastic difference in results compared to when the teacher only revises at the end of the lecture. When there are multiple moments of revision in a single period, the amount of information per revision moment will decrease, enabling the teacher to more thoroughly explain a single concept again. This will grossly improve the average student’s understanding of a subject, therefore not only improving their grades, but also increasing the amount of information they maintain.

This combination of the bigger picture and the close-up picture, forms the double-edged sword that is our education system today. The problem with a sword is that far better weapons have been invented a long time ago and are still being invented at this moment. But we still decide to use that old sword. “It worked back then, it has always worked just fine, so why wouldn’t it still work right now?”, is what I imagine a lot of people would say, and it’s also extremely familiar to what people said about their home phones when portable phones were invented, or about movie renting stores when Netflix was becoming popular. Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but after a certain amount of time, it becomes necessary.

Radical change

Elon Musk was confronted with this problem as well, and decided to pull his kids out of their prestigious private school for gifted kids and started his own school. One can only imagine what these kids are being taught, and in what way. As a matter of fact, imagining is the only thing we can do, because Musk is extremely secretive about this school. What we do know, is that the school doesn’t provide grades, and that it focuses on the skillset of the student, rather than letting all the kids follow the same curriculum. Compared to regular schools, I imagine that, first of all, there isn’t a problem with keeping the students interested. If what you’re teaching is based on what the student is good at, then they will automatically excel much faster. Being good at something obviously doesn’t guarantee a particular interest in that subject, but it significantly increases the chance of that student actually wanting to learn more. This is a solution for the bigger picture problem. It changes the subject according to the student, so that students are taught things they find valuable themselves. Of course, in the case of Elon Musk, this isn’t such a big issue as there are only twenty students and three teachers, so the attention each student gets is significantly higher. But this doesn’t mean that this concept cannot work in a regular school with only one teacher for a group of twenty students, for example. By eliminating fixed curriculums and fixed grades and focusing more on the students and their interests, by putting them in groups based on that, I’m convinced that the results of the individual students would be remarkable. The students would get taught things based on their interests and skill, therefore becoming more likely to enjoy going to school.

Another example of a radically new approach to education is the Khan Academy, an online platform containing thousands of videos about subjects ranging from simple arithmetic to multivariable calculus, or history and psychology. The website also includes supplementary practice exercises and materials for educators. Salman Khan, the founder of this amazing platform, explains his approach to education as focusing on mastery instead of focusing on test grades. In the current system, a student is able to complete a course by passing. But does that mean that the student masters that course? The way Khan Academy handles this is, is by letting the student take a test at the end of a chapter or course, and if they cannot answer a certain amount of questions in a row correctly, you complete the course and can go on to the next one. This way, you can only start the next course if you’ve mastered the previous one. Khan Academy lets the student learn at their own pace, and focuses on mastery, yielding amazing results. For example, students who complete 60% of their grade-level math on Khan Academy experience 1.8 times their expected growth on the NWEA MAP Test. In addition to that, 65% of students at Stanford have found this platform meaningful to their education.

We can see that these new platforms, such as Khan Academy or Coursera, are becoming popular and are having a positive effect on students. The students not only learn more but enjoy learning significantly more as well. By mastering subjects at their own pace, the student will gain, or perhaps regain, confidence in their ability to learn things they might before thought to be impossible to understand.

Salman Khan has a great thought experiment about this in his Ted talkIf you go back 400 years in the past to Western Europe, about 15% of the population knew how to read. I suspect that if you would ask someone who actually did know how to read “What percentage of the population is even capable of reading?”, they might say “Well, with a great education system maybe twenty or thirty percent.” When you look at today, you can confidently say that that statement was extremely pessimistic. Khan then goes on to talk about what would happen if you ask a similar question today, “What percentage of the population do you think is able to truly master calculus, or master organic chemistry?”, a lot of you might say, “Well, with a great education system in place, maybe 20 or 30%.”, and this is a fascinating thing to think about. It shows that maybe a vast majority of the population could have far greater education, if it were focused on mastery. We have no idea what huge upside potential this might have, if a large amount of the population is getting educated in a much more efficient way.

A lost generation

Changing a system as dense and complex as education isn’t the easiest task, and with that change, we will likely experience some diminishing returns in our society. When the day finally comes that this system does in fact make a 180 degree turn, this newly educated generation will be radically different from the current generation that is being educated or recently graduated. Assuming that this new generation will be educated in an entirely different way, it is very likely that this will have some negative effects on the generation that “missed out” on this new system. Perhaps, it will make only a slight difference in the eyes of employers, but it is probable that this will be a setback for this “lost” generation. 

The future

The information that students are being taught today is no longer relevant, and the way that they are being taught this irrelevant information is inefficient. As a result of this, graduates are thrown into a world they are not prepared for. Their degree will usually be relevant for their first job, and that after that their job experience will be more valued. When are we going to change what “education” means? How are we going to change that system? And finally, when are we going to realize that the fundamental purpose of education is learning, instead of getting grades and degrees, and that preparation for the industry is absolutely necessary? Let’s do something amazing with this 18-year timeframe.

Feed your thirst for innovation!

Jasper Demmuynck Short
Intern Jasper Demuynck

The amazing Jasper Demuynck was our intern for two weeks. He currently studies Business and IT in his last year of high school.