Journal Entry

Fundamental Barriers to Education Reform

CEO Ray Girn shares three dichotomies that, when overcome, could transform education of the world.

Venture capitalist Paul Graham and others often talk about how winning, world-changing ideas seem obvious in retrospect. We see this also on a historical grand scale: The industrial revolution made the value of science obvious in a way that would have been unimaginable a few hundred years before.

In education, there are three transformative ideas that, once widely accepted, will fit this pattern. Hidden from view today, they will seem utterly simple and obvious in retrospect. Each is at root a rejection of an embedded false dichotomy: (1) the false dichotomy between knowledge-centered and child-centered, (2) the false dichotomy between the early years and K-12, and (3) the false dichotomy between preschool and daycare. Let’s consider them in turn.

Dichotomy No. 1: Knowledge-centered vs. child-centered

Ever since the Prussian model of schooling arose out of Bismarck’s Germany, education has been in the grips of an enduring clash between classical, knowledge-centered approaches and progressive, child-centered approaches.

Because this Prussian “factory” model is seen as the paradigmatic knowledge-centered approach, even by its critics, those who reject it have also generally rejected the role of knowledge in learning. This is the historical tragedy at the root of this first dichotomy.

As a result, for 150 years, educators who recognize that knowledge consists of nested evidentiary chains tend to diminish the centrality of choice in learning, whereas educators who recognize that learning is self-directed tend to reject the hierarchical architecture of knowledge.

Both miss the fact that *the* challenge in education is to integrate the two perspectives, i.e., to figure out how to identify and impart a definite set of content and skills that adult human flourishing requires — in a way that fully respects the agency and volition of the child. The wide acceptance of the knowledge-centered vs. child-centered dichotomy has arrested innovation in education and relegated it to the fringes where it does occur. It has prevented the emergence of an alternative assessment framework, the embrace of mixed age groupings, etc. 

In healthcare, talent and capital flow both to zero-to-one innovation (finding cures) and to one-to-n scaling of access (finding better or cheaper ways to distribute cures). All capital sources — public, philanthropic, PE, venture, etc. — support both innovation and access.

In education, talent and capital largely flow to increasing access. For over 150 years, creative energy has focused on spreading the best existing to more children. There has been little room for innovators who believe “the best education money can buy” isn’t actually that good.

This dichotomy has also shaped ed tech. Most creative efforts in ed tech are focused on increasing access. The central promise of educational software, its ability to transcend the knowledge-centered vs. child-centered false alternative, is mostly unknown or misunderstood. Where innovative ed tech work is being done, it is within this false framework: attempts at tech-enabled personalization are largely program-agnostic and attempts at fresh programatic content are largely trying to hack motivation while ignoring the nature of human agency.

A generation from now, we will hopefully marvel at our ignorance. Whether the (barbaric) practice of segregating children by age, or the hand-wavey notion that conceptual content can be learned no-how, we’ll see how we were shaped by a false view of knowledge vs. agency.

Dichotomy #2: Early education vs. K-12

The second false alternative permeating education is the structural divide between the early years and K-12. Early education/childcare is a different world from elementary and secondary education.

Whether one looks at the public or private sector, the U.S. or globally, one finds a complete separation between early education and K-12. Different programs, funding sources, regulatory bodies, human capital pipelines, academic departments — entirely different ecosystems.

The divide between early education and K-12 is as significant as the one between K-12 and post-secondary. Unlike the latter, however, the former has zero basis. Growth from infancy to adulthood is one contiguous process for the child, the family, and the educator.

Vistas of opportunity open up developmentally (and commercially) simply from rejecting this structural divide, unpacking the implications, and creating an integrated approach to development from infancy onward. Yet, few are even trying, at least not at any meaningful scale.

Dichotomy #3: Preschool vs. daycare

Finally, in the early years, there is a divide between the idealistic educators pushing a substantive vision of the needs of the developing child, and the childcare providers optimizing for the practical needs of working parents.

To put it simply, there is preschool, and then there is daycare. The former proudly reject the latter as a lowly function, while the latter superficially feign at being the former. There are few attempts to create new pedagogical models of childcare.

Meanwhile, we are amid a radical demand shift in parent expectations. Over 30 years of research in early education has reached a cultural tipping point. In early years (unlike K-12), parents-as-consumers are creating demand, and far ahead in their latent understanding.

Conclusion 

These three embedded dichotomies are the core structural barriers to unleashing the power of talent and capital and creating a “Silicon Valley of Education.” Their repudiation is the substantive revolution made possible by modern tech, globalization, and advances in developmental science.

Rejecting them will require radical innovation. But at a high level, they are simple ideas that will transform education around the world. Today we do not know, and tomorrow we will not know, how we could not have known.

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