Working On An Essay About Education

Posted on September 6, 2012


I’m working on a short essay for an essay competition. I’m trying to summarize my thoughts on how we can approach learning from a new perspective (most concisely described as a puzzle) that will more effectively encourage a lifetime love of learning. I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on the contents of the essay.

The Question
What should we do to create a strong US education system that works for all, that improves student outcomes and enables our country to regain its leadership position in the field of education?

My Essay
If you want to create the strongest education system in the world, one where students learn not just facts, but how to apply those facts, how to question those facts, and how to creatively re-organize those facts, then students must engage in activities that require these skills on a daily basis. You must create an environment where the application of learning to solve challenges happens at the same time as the learning itself.

Ideally this environment will also leave students, once their education is over, with a desire to continue this process. As it is not possible for us to predict what knowledge or skills will be most valuable to our society in the future, the best education will have to be one that leaves students with the motivation to continue to learn after their formal education has come to an end.

I believe that all of these factors can come together if students learn in a specific way:

  • They are presented with a challenge, a very easy one to start, but getting progressively harder as the student progresses, that requires certain knowledge to solve.
  • It should be possible to solve any challenge through brute force (trying all available options), but it should take a very long time to solve more advanced challenges through brute force.
  • At the beginning the available options are very limited, but as the student progresses the option field can become more diverse, making it far more difficult (eventually impossible) to solve the challenge through brute force.
  • This brute force option enables the student to explore the option space in search of a solution, both allowing them to learn what works and what doesn’t work and preventing them from stalling out, unable to move forward at all because they can’t remember the necessary information to solve the challenge.
  • In an ideal environment there would be many solutions to a given challenge, encouraging creative solutions, but this is not an absolute requirement.
  • Either way the student is “figuring out” the solution and in doing so learning both what patterns work and will be valuable for later challenges as well as which patterns do not work and why they don’t work.

This process of learning through “figuring it out” is fundamental to this approach. Learning through “figuring it out” requires a student to develop hypotheses about what will work, test those hypotheses, and, depending on whether the feedback tells them they are going in the right direction or not, iterate on those hypotheses.

The development of the hypotheses allows students to practice creativity. It allows them to constantly come up with new ideas about what will work or not work.

The whole process of:

  • Examining a challenge
  • Developing a hypothesis about how to solve that challenge
  • Testing that hypothesis
  • Evaluating the feedback to determine if you are on the right track or not
  • Iterating based on the feedback
  • Eventually solving the challenge

is the Scientific Method at work. Approaching education from this perspective allows students to practice this incredibly valuable skill on a daily basis while they learn new information.

This process meets all of the criteria laid out in the first paragraph of this essay. It not only teaches facts, but allows students to apply those facts to a challenge by exploring how the facts interact with an environment and creatively coming up with hypotheses on how to use those facts to solve the challenge.

This process will seem less efficient than simply telling a student how something works and then having them use that knowledge to answer a question, but the process of “figuring it out” benefits from one of the most powerful intrinsically motivating factors, “progress”. As Teresa Amabile discovered in her research for The Progress Principle, the single most powerfully motivating force for people in the work environment is the sense that they are making progress on meaningful work. When students solve increasingly difficult challenges the sense of progress they are making is much more obvious as they will confront both failure and success while they try to solve challenges. The failure that is inherent in the process of “figuring out” a challenge is necessary to establish a sense of progress.

This process of increasingly difficult challenges which lead to an intrinsically motivating sense of progress is at the heart of the “gamification” movement in education as well. Game designers have long recognized the power of this process. This process however, does not seek to leverage other gamification techniques, such as badges and leaderboards. These techniques are not necessary when you are able to take advantage of the Goldilocks Effect which has been shown to hold children’s attention effectively without additional extrinsic motivators such as badges that are often applied when gamifying learning.

This process will engage students on a daily basis with the learning of new material while providing practice at the Scientific Method and giving them a deep sense of progress through both the successes and failures that come as a result of their creative hypotheses.

Constant practice with this process is exactly what will enable education in the US to deliver the education that students need to be successful in the workplace, in society, and as individuals. Most importantly, it will leave students with a desire to continue learning after their formal education has come to an end, ensuring that they are able to change in the dynamic, fast-paced world they will encounter upon graduation.