The information age has fundamentally changed the job requirements of a teacher. A vast majority of the world’s basic knowledge is now ubiquitous – stored and easily accessible online from almost every computer and billions of mobile devices. Why, then, are we still forcing students to buy expensive textbooks and hiring teachers to lecture on subjects whose content is largely available from a quick Google search?
Before the 15th century, only a small subset of people on the planet had access to society’s accumulated knowledge. In the past 500 years, while the accessibility of knowledge has advanced dramatically, teaching methods have largely remained the same. Imagine the standard high school algebra class: the same set of materials is being taught in every school across the country by hundreds of thousands of teachers of varying competency. Yet a quick Google search reveals enormous amounts of free online materials on the subject that anyone can use to learn from right now on their own. So why do we still employ thousands of teachers to convey those exact same materials to students?
Rather than have restless students sit in a lecture and be instructed on a subject, we should teach them how to discover the subject themselves, and let them be free to explore. Teachers (sherpas?) should point students towards online resources like Khan Academy, and students should be left to explore different areas that interest them on their own with some basic guidance as to the minimum required competency of the subject they must achieve. The teacher would act more as a mentor and guide, working with individual students on conceptual issues that arise in their learning, and ensuring they find the best resources on the subject along the way.
I hated school – and was a terrible student throughout most of it –, yet I love to learn. This doesn’t make sense. Teachers should not teach – they should inspire their students to learn, instilling curiosity and holding their hand through the discovery process.
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While angel investors and early-stage venture capitalists invest pre-revenue or sometimes even pre-product, university admissions officers are the true early-stage investors: they invest pre-idea! When you think about it, it’s actually striking how similar admissions officers are to VCs: they invest in people, they (the university) hope for large returns in the future (by way of donations), it’s an expensive investment on both sides, and a stamp of approval and access to the network of a cream of the crop ‘investor’ is highly valuable.
As much as I bash universities for not providing the right educational experience for students and allowing enough room for experimentation – most of my learning definitely happened outside of the classroom –, there is no denying that my Harvard diploma has opened doors that would have been a lot harder to maneuver into without. That stamp of approval – similar to an investment from Kleiner or Sequoia – has made it a lot easier for people to have faith in me at a young age. And of course, my peer-group at the universities I’ve attended has also been a huge factor in my success.
Are universities paying enough attention to who they hire as admissions officers? Probably not: it’s not exactly the most prestigious and sought-after employment position, and I’m sure it does not pay anywhere near what a venture firm pays. As a result, the people they hire are not anything like the world-changing rock stars they should aspire to admit. A similar argument can, should, and has been made for teachers, but this seems like a much easier issue for universities to fix - an issue that directly affects their top line.
When I say ‘fix,’ I mean universities should hire admissions offers good enough to identify passion, creativity, tenacity, and a big vision, without simply relying on easily-gamed, non-representative indicators like GPAs, standardized test scores, club memberships, and application essays. Wake up, Harvard - you’re hiring poor investors and it’s going to hurt when you’re the last one in the room to figure that out.
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I was exploring the Brooklyn Botanic Garden two weeks ago, thinking about how nice it would be return with my Kindle for some grassy reading, when it dawned on me that we now have the opportunity to totally rethink how we use libraries, and what a ‘library’ actually is.
Libraries haven’t changed much since the Library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt - they still exist as physical spaces crammed with shelves of books that bring people together to devour knowledge. This model has worked pretty well for the past few thousand years (except perhaps for the fact that Julius Caesar accidentally burned that one down), but today, thanks to the digital world and mobile internet, knowledge has been detached from paper and can be called upon anywhere.
This paradigm shift of ‘knowledge in the cloud’ presents the opportunity for us to rethink how we use libraries, and public space in general. I propose the following:
- Instead of local and federal governments spending money acquiring new books, they begin to shift libraries onto e-readers, striking a deal with publishers to grant those within the library walls unlimited access to their entire catalog of books (whether the person is on their own device or a library-owned one). Access rights could be managed through the library Wi-Fi network.
- Governments then use these ‘unlimited reading licenses’ purchased from publishers to spread open reading access to other public spaces as well, perhaps parks and public transportation, creating a whole new way to experience public space.
In this scheme everyone wins: governments would spend less on maintenance and incent the use of public space, publishers could entice people to buy more books by allowing them to ‘sample’ it in libraries, and everyone would have access to vastly more knowledge than any single library could ever hold.
There are massive opportunities here beyond what I’ve outlined, to retool libraries into spaces that can also accommodate other cultural experiences – perhaps facilitating the display of art and music – while at the same time keeping alive the best part of the library experience: social learning.
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Lately, as I prepare for exams and trudge through my thesis, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of being able to focus. It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time.
When I was in middle school I was given Retalin to help me focus. I don’t remember if it actually worked, but I do remember that the side effects were terrible, and I quickly stopped taking it. I eventually managed to get over my issues with a combination of persistence, and help from my parents and a few tutors. I made it through high school, then into Washington University in St Louis, transferring to Harvard sophomore year to complete my bachelors, and this fall I hopefully will be receiving a masters from Oxford. If you asked any of my middle school teachers where they thought I would end up academically, I assure you they would have been wrong.
I’m not going to debate the issue of medicating an increasing number of children for ADD & ADHD, as I simply don’t know enough of the science to argue whether it exists and if it’s actually worth medicating given the side-effects. I do believe, however, that regardless of one person’s propensity toward distraction, we are all faced with exponentially more stimulus in today’s world than ever before, and no human is properly prepared for it.
Given this, I believe schools should teach ‘focus’ as a core discipline in K-12 education. It’s such an important skill - necessary for success in just about everything, yet totally undervalued in our society. Do you check Facebook, Twitter, or your email every 10 minutes? Do you pull out your mobile during dinner or mid conversation with someone? Then you have the problem too.
I struggle every day to overcome it, and I hope someday soon we can prepare kids in advance for dealing with all this stimulus – without the stigma – as they enter an ever-increasing world of connectivity.
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Juventas Fugit is designed and written by Justin Wohlstadter, who, when not writing in the third person, can be found in a coffee shop talking about startups, thinking about the future of education, and generally procrastinating something important.
- Passions: startups that positively affect the world, education innovation, good design, learning, and meeting those with an equally insatiable curiosity.
- Play: working on something really neat....
- Previously: was director of product design at Enterproid. Before that I built the early-stage venture arm of Penny Black and co-founded BOLDstart Ventures, where I was lucky enough to invest in some awesome startups including Rapportive (sold to Linkedin), Blaze (sold to Akamai), GoInstant (sold to Salesforce), Klout, Indiegogo, Enterproid, ShowMe, LocalResponse, and many more. And before all of this I was involved in a bunch of other crazy, less successful startup ventures involving fire extinguishers, measuring philanthropic impact, and creative spaces.
- Pedantry: most of the important stuff I taught myself or learned from friends, but I’m fortunate to have also (barely received) degrees from Harvard and Oxford. At Oxford I wrote my dissertation on how internet innovation will disrupt access to higher education.
- Procrastination: can be found on Twitter, Linkedin, AngelList and other web spaces, and be reached via email at my first name at this domain.