First-ish Principal Observations About Education

Posted on March 23, 2016


I’ve recently started putting together presentations about the educational research and work I’ve been doing toward The Puzzle School over the last few years.

During that time I’ve been able to explore a large number of diverse educational environments. From that exploration I’ve made some observations that are as close to “first principles” as I can get. A first principle observation would essentially be a fact. Something that can not be disputed and is not built upon any assumptions.

An example of a first-ish principle observation is:

Children learn to read at many different ages.

This observation can be directly observed and does not rely on any built-in assumptions or loose definitions (although you could argue that “learn to read” is a little ambiguous). I call it first-ish because you could make the argument that if the environment of every child were tightly controlled it is hypothetically possible that you could get every child to learn at the exact same age. I would bet a lot of money that that is not possible, but I can’t quite call it an incontrovertible fact.

Still this level of observation is what I aim for. This means that a commonly referenced observation such as:

1 in 6 children who are not proficient readers by 3rd grade will not graduate on time.

would not qualify as a first-ish principle observation. This observation comes from a recently released national study. I don’t consider it a first-ish principle observation as it loaded with assumptions. To begin there are many definitions of “graduation”. Different schools expect different things from students in order to graduate, so it is difficult to make observations based on that outcome. Maybe more importantly is the fact that a likely reason for this outcome may not be based so much on the ability to read as the reliance that most schools have on reading in order to learn everything else. If you reduced the reliance on reading by allowing students who were struggling with reading to use a text-to-speech tool that read to them when necessary then you may find that the correlation between 3rd grade reading proficiency and high school graduation reduced significantly. There are just too many assumptions and complex definitions built in to this observation for it to be a first-ish principle observation.

I know this distinction is a little loose, but it’s the best I have so far. I wish all of the observations were legitimately first principle (as in an indisputable fact), but education is a complicated endeavor. As such I’ve provided some commentary on each observation to further clarify how close I think it is to “first principle”.

I’m not trying to argue for any specific solutions based on these observations. I’m simply trying to make as many dispassionate first-ish principle observations as I can:


It’s very difficult to guess where someone went to school (private, public, etc).

I think this speaks to just how resilient and adaptive people can be, allowing students from a wide range of experience to become successful adults. I certainly think there are limitations to what constitutes a successful environment (e.g. certainly abuse of any sort would have long-lasting effects), and I think it’s likely that some environments are more conducive to healthy growth than others, but it is interesting that it is so hard to guess what kind of education someone received once they are an adult.


A wide range of educational philosophies are capable of producing successful adults.

Everything from the most rigid military-style academy to the most open democratic school (some which offer no classes and allow students to play video games all day if they want to) is capable of graduating successful adults. I don’t think this implies that the experience at any school is the same or that those experiences don’t in any way shape the eventual adults, but it is interesting that, despite having very diverse youth experiences, people are capable of having successful adult lives.


If you don’t feel respected bad things happen.

I’ve noticed few things more corrosive than an absence of respect in a given relationship. Students that don’t feel respected act out, and adults who don’t feel respected punish more quickly. A lack of respect between participants played a large part in many of the worst situations I’ve observed.


Every school fails with a student on occasion.

Every school I have ever visited has horror stories. Stories of students that completely rebelled and eventually left or were expelled. Some have more than others and I’d be willing to believe there exists a school out there that has no horror stories yet, but unless you are selecting which students you work with, it is highly likely that a few students will really struggle. When you add in the challenges most adolescents face socially and it’s very likely that some students will leave any school.


Relationships (a great teacher or mentor) often have more impact than the acquisition of content knowledge.

Frequently when a student or parent is really struggling in school it is due to a mismatch with the relationships they have, either with the adults (teachers, administrators) or with peers. A great teacher can go a long way toward making a student’s experience in school very good, regardless of the student.


It is difficult (impossible) to guess how old someone was when they started reading.

Most adults don’t even remember when they learned how to read. It had little to no correlation on how effective of a reader you are later in life. This doesn’t mean that how you learn how to read, or even when you learn how to read, won’t impact your future ability, but that people learn how to read at many different ages and it’s impossible to guess when they learned specifically later in life. This relates to a lot of learning and childhood development (e.g. learning to walk at an early age does not correlate with better athletic performance later in life).


If someone struggles with reading it will create significant challenges within many schools as so many other courses rely on reading/writing for learning/assessment.

If a student struggles with reading it can have a disproportionate affect on their ability to learn other subjects because so many classes rely on reading to teach the material and writing to assess material. This often implies a need to teach students reading, but it may also imply that we aren’t providing students who struggle with reading the opportunities to learn other subjects as effectively as they could. Personally I land somewhere in the middle of those two possible solutions. It is often amazing to see how a student can demonstrate their knowledge when they are able to verbalize that information instead of being required to write it down.


The most effective learning tends to be multi-modal & from multiple perspectives.

This one isn’t a first-ish principle as I think it requires evidence to prove and a better definition of what “learning” means exactly. I probably shouldn’t have included it, but I really believe it to be true, so I did ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Learning happens along a nonlinear path. It is difficult to predict when or how fast progress will occur.

This one also feels like it requires more evidence to prove, but I think there is ample anecdotal evidence to prove that you can not predict how quickly someone will learn something or how quickly they will continue to make progress on it. This is easy to test with yourself as I don’t think anyone can predict how quickly they will learn something themselves.


Unless you are an expert (and even if you are), you need to be able test your understanding.

Experts often know enough about their area of expertise to test new ideas in their head with reasonable accuracy. Regardless most people benefit a great deal when they have opportunities to apply their learning to check to make sure they don’t have any misconceptions. Simply listening to an explanation is often not enough to ensure there aren’t any misconceptions.


It is extremely difficult to recognize when you don’t understand something.

It is very easy to think you understand something only to find that understanding completely break down when you try to apply your knowledge. Even if  you are very practiced at analyzing your understanding you still may not recognize that you don’t understand something. This is a problem that frequently occurs in classrooms where students are unable to ask questions because they can’t identify what they don’t understand.


The common skills required to be a successful adult are quite limited.

When you really dig in to what knowledge and skills are required to lead a successful adult life (i.e. you can’t find a single successful person who doesn’t have these skills) you find that very few skills are common. This applies no matter what definition of “success” you use. People achieve “success” in very diverse ways. This does not mean that only these common skills are required to be successful. I think all successful adults have many skills beyond these common skills and that their unique skill set is part of what makes them successful, it’s simply meant to point out that the skills all successful people have in common is fairly limited.


The range of valuable adult skills is enormously diverse.

Again, it doesn’t really matter what definition of “valuable” you use. Adults find value in an enormously diverse set of skills and knowledge. In fact, when you start to combine different sets of skills (e.g. an artist who knows how to skateboard) you can create even more unique value.


You can only do your best work if you legitimately care about the work.

I suppose you could get lucky and do your best work on something that you don’t care about, but generally speaking how much you care about the work you’re doing will be directly correlated with the quality of the output.


Most students are not provided time to explore interests within the school day.

For most students the only time they have to explore their personal interests is outside of school hours, but with homework, sports, social time, etc. even these hours are frequently filled up, providing students with no time at all to explore their personal interests (unless those interests align with school or after-school activities). Even if students have time they are likely so exhausted from the day to truly engage in an exploration.


Most students are never asked about or supported in their interests.

Very few schools have structures set up such that students are asked about or supported in their personal interests. I’m sure many teachers take it on themselves to ask this question, but at a systematic level you rarely hear about.


Many students when provided a lot of freedom to explore interests still take well-worn paths.

Many of the students I’ve work with who do have freedom to explore their personal interests still ended up going to college based on the rankings of the college instead of a close fit to their personal interests. There were many students who did take a more unique path based on their personal interests, but providing time for students to explore their interests in no way guaranteed that they would find a passionate interest that would direct their life going forward.


It is very easy to forget how hard it is to learn something new when you are an expert.

Once you are an expert it becomes very difficult to remember all of the possible misconceptions one may arrive at when learning. It all makes sense to you so that idea that someone could arrive at a different conclusion seems almost impossible. I believe this creates many problems in education and is at the root of many requirements. If you are an expert at something you both derive a great deal of value from it and now find it so easy that you don’t understand why everyone would not want to learn the material and benefit in the same way you do, but you forget how hard it was to learn. (this is just a theory – not a first-ish principle observation)


Peer comparisons can impact an individual’s perception of their own abilities.

Children often observe how their skills compare with their peers. These comparisons are limited to the people that are in close proximity to the student and may not be an accurate representation of their ability compared to the rest of society. Unfortunately these casual comparisons can affect a student’s desire to continue their work in that area.


There is an opportunity cost to coercion.

Any time a person is coerced in to work, either through promise of reward of threat of punishment an opportunity cost occurs. Because they have been coerced (vs. doing it on their own volition) it is likely they will derive less and produce less from that activity than they would have if they wanted to do that activity without coercion. This is not to say that we should never coerce children in to doing things, but that when we do, there is an associated opportunity cost, and so any attempt to convince a student to engage without coercion is likely valuable.


Educating everyone in a society requires taxation.

Education is expensive. The US alone spends about $640 billion on primary and secondary education. That’s assuming roughly $10k per student per year, which is a lot, but still requires most schools operate on a shoe-string budget. Regardless I can’t come up with any way to pay that cost other than taxation. I suppose this isn’t a first-ish principle as you may be able to lower the overall costs and there could be some technique to fund everything that isn’t reliant on taxation, but the raw numbers make it very hard to imagine a solution where a significant portion of students are not being education by taxation-supported educational environments.

Note: I’m not saying that it should be a goal to avoid taxation. I really believe that society benefits from great schools and so taxes should go to support that goal. I take it to mean that attempts to work around public systems (usually to avoid the accountability measures public systems require) are likely only ever going to serve a small portion of children.


Public support for education requires some form of accountability.

Again, it’s hard to say that this is a first-ish principle observation, but I can’t imagine a public system that is responsible for millions of students that does not have an accountability system of some sort. Hopefully we will get better at holding schools accountable and move beyond just test scores to accomplish this, but either way there will likely always be some system in place (and it will likely always include test scores), so I think it’s necessary to deal with accountability measures if you work within a public system.


For many students their social lives are as valuable, if not more valuable, than their academic lives.

I don’t think this is necessarily wrong either. For many adults the friendships they made during their childhood or college years are just as valuable or more valuable than what they learned during those years.


Learning is “risky”

It takes a considerable amount of time and energy to learn something new. There is an inherent risk in this that people frequently evaluate with regard to whether they will spend that time and energy trying to learn something. Will the value that this learning provides for me outweigh the time and energy I spend learning it? There is also no guarantee that someone can gain a deep understanding even if they do try to learn it. Both of these factors I think weigh heavily on people. If someone could just take a pill and, assuming there were absolutely no side effects, learn and deeply understand calculus, many people would. So it’s not that people don’t recognize the value in calculus, they just aren’t sure if the value justifies the time and energy, or even how much time and energy it will take to learn, assuming they are ever successful.

Note: I know this sounds like a very mathematical equation for evaluating learning. I do think learning is often enjoyable in itself (I personally love learning), but I also think that people are constantly making gut decisions about how to spend their time and the risks associated with learning something (or whether you will be successful in learning it) do factor in to people’s decisions about whether or not to learn something.


Social interactions can provide motivation to get over the risks learning presents.

You see this reflected in the prevalence of book clubs and study groups even among adults. The enjoyment and value of the social interactions (as well as the social pressure) can help to keep people motivated toward learning goals that are important to them. The risks associated with learning can be mitigated by these social interactions. You are receiving guaranteed social value from the group work, so even if you are unsuccessful in your learning or the learning does not result in significant value, you still benefit from the social interactions.