Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Learn To Fail And Fail To Learn

"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" - Mark Twain

In a casual conversation with a dad of an eight-year old over a little league baseball game on a breezy bay area evening, who also happens to be an elementary school teacher, he told me that teaching cursive writing to kids isn't particularly a bright idea. He said, "it's a dying skill." The only thing he cares about is to teach kids write legibly. He even wonders whether kids would learn typing the same way some of us learned or they would learn tap-typing due to the growing popularity of tablets. He is right.

When the kids still have to go to a "lab" to work on a "computer" while "buffering" is amongst the first ten words of a two-year old's vocabulary, I conclude that the schools haven't managed to keep up their pace with today's reality.

I am a passionate educator. I teach graduate classes and I have worked very hard to ensure that my classes — the content as well as the delivery methods — are designed to prepare students for today's and tomorrow's world. At times, I feel ashamed we haven't managed to change our K-12 system, especially the elementary schools, to prepare kids for the world they would work in.

This is what I want the kids to learn in a school:  

Learn to look for signal in noise:

Today's digital world is full of noise with a very little signal. It's almost an art to comb through this vast ocean of real-time information to make sense out of it. Despite the current generation being digital native the kids are not trained to effectively look for signal in noise. While conceited pundits still debate whether multi-tasking is a good idea or not, in reality the only way to deal with an eternal digital workflow and the associated interactions is to multitask. I want the schools to teach kids differentiate between the tasks that can be accomplished by multitasking and the ones that require their full attention. Telling them not to multitask is no longer an option.

I spend a good chunk of of time reading books, blogs, magazines, papers, and a lot of other stuff. I personally taught myself when to scan and when to read. I also taught myself to read fast. The schools emphasize a lot on developing reading skills early on, but the schools don't teach the kids how to read fast. The schools also don't teach the kids how to scan - look for signal in noise. The reading skills developed by kids early on are solely based on print books. Most kids will stop reading print books as soon as they graduate, or even before that. Their reading skills won't necessarily translate well into digital medium. I want schools to teach the kids when to scan and how to read fast, and most importantly to differentiate between these two based on the context and the content.

Learn to speak multiple languages:

I grew up learning to read, write, and speak three languages fluently. I cannot overemphasize how much it has overall helped me. One of the drawbacks of the US education system is that emphasize on a second or a third language starts very late. I also can't believe it's optional to learn a second language. In this highly globalized economy, why would you settle with just one language? Can you imagine if a very large number of Americans were to speak either Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, or Hindi? Imagine the impact this country will have.

A recent research has proven that bilinguals have heightened ability to monitor the environment and being able to switch the context. A recent study also proved that bilinguals are more resistant to dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

Learn to fail and fail to learn:

"For our children, everything they will 'know' is wrong – in the sense it won’t be the primary determinant of their success. Everything they can learn anew will matter – forever in their multiple and productive careers." - Rohit Sharma

As my friend Rohit says you actually want to teach kids how to learn. Ability to learn is far more important than what you know because what you know is going to become irrelevant very soon. Our schools are not designed to deal with this. On top of that there is too much emphasis on incentivizing kids at every stage to become perfect. The teachers are not trained to provide constructive feedback to help kids fail fast, iterate, and get better.

Our education system that emphasizes on measuring students based on what and how much they know as opposed to how quickly they can learn what they don't know is counterproductive in serving its own purpose.

Learn to embrace unschooling:

Peter Thiel's 20 under 20 fellowship program has received a good deal of criticism from people who are suggesting that dropping out from a college to pursue entrepreneurship is not a good idea. I really liked the response from one of the fellows of this program, Dale Stephens, where he discusses unschooling. He is also the founder of UnCollege. Unschooling is not about not going to school but it's about not accepting the school as your only option. Lately if you have looked at the education startups, especially my favorite ones — Khan Academy, Coursera, and Codeacademy — you would realize the impact of technology and social networks on radically changing the way people learn. Our schools are neither designed to comprehend this idea nor to embrace it. This is what disruption looks like when students find different ways to compensate for things that they can't get from a school. This trend will not only continue but is likely to accelerate. This is a leading indicator suggesting that we need a change. Education is what has made this country great and it is one of the main reasons why skilled immigrants are attracted to the US. Let's not take it for granted, and let's definitely not lose that advantage.

Originally, I had written this as a guest post for Vijay Vijayasankar's blog

Photo courtesy: BarbaraLN

No comments: