How to design fishing poles: Education Reform

Before the MITx final, they released a packet of exams from previous years as study material. Looking over them, I was quick to realize that If I had been given one of these exams with the same study habits and pacing that the online course had instilled in me, I would have been absolutely destroyed. Both the content of the questions and the way they were delivered were way more complex then anything I had seen online so far.

For that matter, they were way more demanding then anything I had seen in high school or college as well.

The biggest difference seems to be that while other exams require you to execute the material as you have learned it in the course, the MIT exams asked you to apply what you have learned to problems you have never seen before. It is the difference between someone telling you how to solve a problem vs having to figure out a problem no one has ever solved before.

The latter is obviously a much more valuable skill to develop. Rather then teaching students how to fish, they are exercising abilities which will allow them to develop better fishing poles.

It makes me wonder; are students at Universities like MIT smarter because they are taught using this method, or is it only because they accept exceptionally bright students that they are able to apply these teaching methods?

Bad habits

The issue of the lack of initiative thinking is one of the glaring problems wrong with the current education system. The majority of schools have come to revolve around the regurgitation style of teaching, where students are taught to parrot back facts and and follow instructions as they were told. This builds extremely bad habits, where if you do encounter a new problem you are much more likely to give up or go ask someone else how to solve it rather then try to figure it out yourself.

This is great if all you want are people who can follow orders and execute instructions, but it is horrible when you need employees to deal with unknown frontiers and execute creative initiative.


The problem has also become heightened lately because of the internet culture that has developed in the last decades. There are already a few psychology papers floating around showing how with the prevalence of the ability to look up just about anything on the internet, people are less likely to memorize or remember things since they can simply go and ask the internet how to do it later. You can look up transactive memory or assoicative memory if you are curious about that.

Studying the test, not the content

Probably the most glaring example of this are the standardized test that we use as one of the main guide lines for measuring education progress. Take the SAT for instance, one of the most used metrics for measuring student performance when heading off to upper education.

The majority of SAT classes and preparation is built around studying for the test, not for the content. They teach you tricks about how to quickly eliminate answers or what to watch out for. All of the content on the exam however, is merely executing things you have already memorized. The math portions are straight forward executions of simple formulas, while the verbal portion depends mostly on whether you already know as many obscure words as possible.

A lot of the standardized test used to measures the performance of schools are often similar. And because those exams were used as a metric of ranking and performance for the institutions, they naturally gained more of the attention in the curriculum.

Mastery and Content

So what would happen if we shifted the focus in schools to where the exams were based on applying taught lessons in ways that haven't been introduced to the students yet? Create a system where you couldn't actually study for the test? I think we would have to do a few things to pull that off.

1. We would have to have higher expectations of student performance. Class room lessons would focus primarily on the subject material of the course, with the students understandings that the exams would be fairly demanding applications of that material in new ways. If the students, teachers, and parents accept that they could adjust their habits accordingly.

2. We would have to allow students to fail. The current grading system is a mess in its own right and needs reform anyway, but under a system this demanding we would have to accept that A,B,C's are not the best measurement of a students mastery of a subject. Consistent 90% would be a lot less common with exams that demanding and that is fine, because students would be better educated by the end.

3. We would have to give students time to obtain mastery in the subject. The problem is with 30+ students in a single class room, education often has to be delivered out at a prescribed pace, regardless of whether all the students have understood the concept before moving on to the next. When new content builds on the old material though, students who fall a little behind face an expectational increasing up hill battle.

A conversation worth having

All of those things require a lot of resources however; in man hours, cost, and emotional investment to overcome old traditions. I would love to have or see more conversations about this though involving people in the education community and from schools.

A lot of what is going on in the online education initiative is about allowing students to work at their own pace to master material. Preliminary data and research has shown that when given time, students who were previously struggling on a specific subject can eventually catch up and even excel in future subjects when given the chance.

These new tools look pretty promising and I'm excited to see it pan out. For now though, I'll just try to see if raising these expectations for myself can help my own self improvement habits and education.

One thought on “How to design fishing poles: Education Reform

  • I think you're certainly right about letting students "fail." One of the biggest problem I see in the classroom and in childrens' sports is that nobody is allowed to fail. While I understand the motivation to protect the young from discouragement, we are also not really rewarding those who work harder and excel. If everyone receives As and Bs, then we haven't evaluated the students. Therefore we haven't rewarded and advanced the students that are proficient and we really can't figure out who needs help. We're crippling them with grading socialism! Haha! I know it can be difficult and embarassing to do poorly on a test or in a class, but I think NOT grading them (as we are effectively doing) is more detrimental to their success and growth.

    I think it's naive to segregate students by age. I know the alternative is magnitudes more difficult, but imagine if we gave educational institutions the resources they needed to do their best. What if each mentor/teacher had only 5 students in each class and they were sorted by skill level rather than age. They could even be sorted (as they got older and more data on their progress was collected) so that students who were quick to pick up, say, math would be placed with students who also picked up math quickly and these groups could learn more quickly or in more depth. Students that had trouble in math could be grouped with students that also needed more time to absorb a subject more difficult with them. Maybe a slow-pace student catches up and something clicks and they start progressing faster - well, they could move to a medium-pace group next year.

    I know this seems like it would be impossible to implement and I know at least some people reading this will be horrified by my terming them "slow" and "fast," but I think that's all related to how overly-sensitive we are. People are different. People learn differently. Why do we feel we need to hide that? Are we really so desperate to hide that some people are better and some people are worse at some things that we are willing to force them into the same program that will cripple both extremes? How many students fell behind in ONE math class and were never given the time and help to catch up and so had no possibility of getting the NEXT class? How many students got that first math class right away and were so bored they started daydreaming or getting into mischief? Still think we're doing it right?

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