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Rethinking K-12 school

When I was in seventh grade I was invited to take the SATs for, what was then, an experiment.

I scored well enough that they asked me to participate in program called TIP, "Talent Identification Program" at Duke University. It was the first year they did it and it was about 30-40 young kids. 40 years later the program has over 20,000 kids all over the country each summer.

Everyone was much smarter than me. Kids spoke ten languages, were building computers in their dorm rooms, new physics at grad school levels, etc. I was out of my league by far.

The point of the program was to try a different approach to learning the subjects that were taught in middle school and high school.

I was in the "Math" program. There was "Math" and "English" then. Now there are a gazillion subjects. I went for three summers in a row.

What happens is starting at 9am you're in a classroom and you study a topic at your own pace. You can take a break whenever, do whatever.

Everytime you need help with the topic there were teaching assistants roaming around the classroom who would help you. Each topic had mid-term exams and final exams and you could take them whenever you wanted. When you passed a final exam you moved onto the next course in that track.

So that first summer, a three week period, I went from Algebra II (when I was in seventh grade I took Algebra I so I started off this program with Algebra II) all the way through Calculus I (in the three weeks I passed Algebra II, Algebra III, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Analytic Geometry).

When I got back to regular school in September the teachers wanted me to take a bus to the high school every afternoon so I could take Calculus. But I didn't want to. I was afraid to be bullied. So I re-took Algebra II and, of course, it was very easy for me after having already taken that and the next four years of classes.

Looking back on it I now with I had taken the Calculus and just skipped right through it. I knew other kids from that program who went on to be very successful and get double PhDs at age 20 or earlier and went on to have great careers. I took a different path which took me all over the place. Jack of all trades and master of none. But it's a life.

Meanwhile, it gave me a lot of thoughts about education.

    1. What is "traditional education"?

    - Basically every pubic high school teaches more or less the same six topics (give or take) to everyone, regardless of an individual student's talents or abilities.

    - the focus is on high test scores

    - the way to get high test scores is mostly memorization of facts.

    - there is pretty much zero focus on social development and socilalizing is limited to specific scheduled parts of the day.

    - the day is divided into six or seven periods where a different topic is taught each period. The reason for this is that if a student misses a day he misses only a small % of what is being taught for each particular topic (the % is compared with the overall knowledge supposedly gained on the year).

    2. Some problems (I think) of traditional education.

    Not everyone is equal. And I'm not talking about "smart" or "not smart".

    Some people love math, some love history, some love art, some love sports, etc.


    6 periods a day is ridiculous. Who can focus on six different topics a day? I can't and was never able to. I never got good grades the entire time I was growing up.


    A focus on pure memorization of facts is also ridiculous for preparing for real life skills. Almost zero focus on the real understanding of the facts. For instance, what is the reason for "the quadratic formula". I know the formula (or I did) but I couldn't tell you a practical use case.


    Emphasis on the same subjects for the past 100 years (Calculus as an example) ignores the fact that many people never use most of these subjects in their adult lives.

    So schooling emphasizes BS topics that are mostly useless versus learning real life skills.


    Little emphasis on social development and other "adulting" skills.

    3. Here's how I'd change it. FIrst, Immersion.

    Not 6 topics divided up and taught each day. But I really learned a lot by immersing in one topic all day every day until the topic was learned or I got tired of it.

    And students can be divided up by interest or ability and can choose from an array of topics and not just 6.

    Some kids might not have an interest in any topic and that's fine. They can explore until they find things interesting to them and more vocational topics can be offered as well.

    4. Core life skill topics need be taught. The next few ideas are topics that people need to know in real life.

    5. Statistics and Probability.

    Everyone needs to know these. They need to know these more than any other topic in "Math".

    Statistics and Probability are mentioned in the news media every single day. The recent election, for instance, was all about statistics and probability. Covid studies and projections were all about statistics and probabitlity.

    So the two major issues of 2020-2022 were filled with tons of statistics.

    At the beginning of Covid when I was going IG Lives every day to explain what was going on with Covid and parts where the media was getting it wrong, it was about interpreting their statistics (which were almost always incorrect) into terminology that people could understand.

    As an example: the media (and then everyone else) felt that everyone in the world would get Covid quickly (because of exponential growth) and that 140 million people would die within 18 months (because of 2% fatality rate).

    This was ridiculous and I had to point out again and again why it was ridiculous. But this was the media getting it wrong and everyone believing the media.

    Also, almost every major decision you make in life can be put in terms of basic probability. Including career decisions, romantic decisions, etc.

    6. Writing

    Yes, "English" is taught. But some people care about "The Canterbury Tales" and "Beowulf" and I would bet that most kids (including me) have zero interest. Almost every book I was taught in school was over 100 years old and extremely boring. I've always been an avid reader but never of the books taught in school.)

    So rather than reading the "classics" of English Literature, people should read books they love and then learn writing by first, writing like their favorite writers and then, of course, developing their own style.

    Writing should be the focus rather than memorizing the chronology of events in "Moby Dick."

    Never ONCE in my life did I need to recount the themes of Moby Dick but communication is perhaps the most important life skill an adult can learn and story-telling via writing is the basics of learning communication.

    And yet this is never really taught in school (or college or graduate school - try reading any academic paper as an example. Try explaining "the F-K score" to academics.

    This is just an idea but maybe in a different list I'd put together an entire curriculum for reading and writing.

    7. Science

    Nobody needs to know "F=MA" in real life (unless you are a builder of some sort). Or the basics of chemical equations (unless you want to).

    For Physics, everyone should learn the basic theories (and the history of those theories) of gravity, astronomy, cosmology (stuff not taught in schools really), atoms, and alternative theories.

    For Biology, there are similar foundational theories as opposed to remembering every bone in the body. Similar for Chemistry.

    8. History

    Most people as adults do not know any history for several reasons.

    A) Memorization of facts does not lead to understanding and the memories are usually not retained. For instance, even if someone can tell you when the Magna Carta happened (which most people can't) they still can't tell you what it meant and its role in creating modern institutions of government.

    I always do an experiment. Ask people to name Charlemagne's birthday (arguably the most important king in European history) within 500 years and nobody will get it right, even history major from college.

    B) Most history, as interpreted in textbooks, is just one version and not necessarily a correct one.

    C) schools in the US tend to ignore big chunks of American history (like Vietnam).

    I don't know what history can be considered important but the way it's taught now is pathetic.

    9. Social sciences.

    Basics of economics (the words "supply and demand", as far as I can remember, were not mentioned in any of my schools), anthropology, psychology, etc were rarely touched on and should probably be taught.

    For instance, "Positive psychology" seems to me to be more important for life than learning the periodic table of elements.

    10. Socialization and other Adulting skills.

    - negotiation
    - sales
    - finance
    - basic business concepts
    - leadership
    - entrepreneurship
    - the basics of innovation
    - understanding the current economy
    - how products are made

    Not to mention basic laws in society: what, why, where, how.

    Also, other adulting skills - how to rent an apartment, buy a house, cook a meal (sometimes this is taught in the weirdly named "home economics" course), buy a car, interview for a job, etc.

    11. TALENTS

    Maybe the most important thing: what if some students are talented at something.

    Often, because of how students are accepted to colleges and later on, jobs, talents are discouraged in kids so they can focus on memorizing facts to get good grades.

    Schools are even better-funded by the government if they focus on rote fact memorization instead of talent development.

    If all of the above were taught correctly I think the US would continue to lead the world in innovation for the next 100 years at least. But the entire third world is becoming first world , which means billions of kids will have the same or better access to equipment and teachers and materials that US kids have and the US will fall behind in innovation.

    Just like every other industry, education has to evolve or it will leave behind the societies that are not evolving with it.
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