Arnold Kling  

Schools without Classrooms

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In the legacy education model, teachers combine coaching, feedback, and content delivery. By coaching I mean advice, guidance, and encouragement. Feedback includes formal grading as well as informal praise and criticism. Content delivery includes lectures and reading assignments.

Perhaps the key to radically changing education is to break up those functions.

1. The coach should be someone who knows the student well, who can relate to and motivate the student, who can recommend a good educational path, who takes account of the student's strengths and weaknesses, and who stays on top of how well the student is doing relative to the student's ability.

2. The formal feedback can come from strangers. Students can solve problems or write essays and have these graded by a separate service.

3. The content delivery should be "pulled" by the student rather than pushed by a teacher. For example, a student and a coach could agree that the student should learn statistics. The student then selects a statistics curriculum and works through it. The Khan Academy lectures on statistics are particularly good, in my opinion. But Carnegie-Mellon has a good on-line stats course, also. My guess is that, overall, there is enough content on line to obtain a world class education.

4. In addition to teachers, students can learn from peers. I think that peer learning works best when students are close to one another in terms of ability and motivation. My hypothesis is that ten students who are similar in ability and motivation but separated by distance can learn better together than ten students who are in the same room but with disparate levels of ability and motivation in the subject.

This is pretty close to the way I learned economics. Bernie Saffran was mostly a coach, giving us suggestions for topics to study. Ultimately, we were assessed by strangers (Swarthmore College has an Honors Program under which outside examiners come and administer tests).

Most education reformers want to focus on low-end students. While this is a noble idea, I think it is not a good path for reform. When you fail, you do not know whether it is because the innovations were not good or because the student population is too difficult to reach.

If I were trying to implement a school redesigned along the lines I describe, I would start with high-end students. Take some young people aged 16-18 who are bright misfits. The types who already would rather read on their own than sit in class. Offer them the alternative system described above. If it fails for them, you know you've got a bad model. But if you get it working for them, then you can try to spread it to other types of students.

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
Ameet writes:

Also, what you've described above with content readily available online (Khan Academy, Carnegie Mellon, one of the Romance language's via Auralog's Tell Me More or Rosetta Stone's products) makes me optimistic that home schooling will also become more robust and powerful. Hell, if you have a sixteen year old who wants to learn about investing, you could have him listen to Damadoran's NYU lectures, college level though they are.

What I wonder is, with the monopoly power of the government on most education, will alternative schooling - such as classrooms of students pulling content from online, and a teacher only monitoring if they are doing it and coming to help if there is a significant issue - end up advancing in other countries than the U.S. for a generation before we finally wake up and try to do it over here? Maybe so. Maybe in countries where there is less "universal coverage" in education is where education innovators can go to experiment. The virtue of that is that they may emphasize very low cost but effective education so that they can actually have demand for their product.

And besides that approach putting the lie to the notion that American schools just need more money every year, never mind nonimprovement, if those approaches ever came to the U.S., they would probably be cheaper than if they had first evolved in the U.S. And that would be very good for consumers.

Alex J. writes:

An older technique missing from current instruction is to have the older students teach the younger students. That's part of how one teacher could teach all different levels of students in one room school houses. Some of the teaching was done by the students.

Noah Yetter writes:

You forgot today's teachers' most important function: Prison Guard.

Eli writes:

Stanford's intro to AI class will be offered this fall for free online to anyone who wants to take it. In addition to graded homeworks and exams, online students will get a certificate showing their performance on the Stanford curve.

Neerav Kingsland writes:

"Most education reformers want to focus on low-end students. While this is a noble idea, I think it is not a good path for reform. When you fail, you do not know whether it is because the innovations were not good or because the student population is too difficult to reach."

There appears to be a logical error in this statement - if your goal is to change low-end academic achievement and you fail, by definition your innovation was not effective in meeting your goal. The whole point is to reach a difficult population.

So when you say working with low-end students is "not a good path to reform" - what you really mean is "not a good path to reforming school for middle to high end students." No need to mix your goals and reformer goals.


Matt C writes:

> In the legacy education model, teachers combine coaching, feedback, and content delivery.

There's another aspect. Noah beat me to it. I would call it "babysitting", but whatever you call it, it is absolutely a core feature of our K-12 education system. I think it is the most important feature for most parents and voters.

Your ideas sound fine for students who are actually interested in learning the material. They won't work for students who are "attending" only because their parents need to go to work and the law says they gotta.

As long as the primary function of schools is warehousing kids (even if we never talk about it or admit it), I expect the results of any other reforms will be modest at best.

Christian writes:

While agree with some of your points here (and disagree in general with you position on education), I think it only applies to secondary/collegiate education.

I agree that testing should be taken out of the hands of the instructors. There is no reason that another teacher could not do the grading for another teacher's students. There would be a greater focus on mastering the material instead of preparing for specific tests. My only caveat is that it should be ongoing and not simply one final test at the end of the year.

I thin you overrate some of the online materials and the ability of younger students to find it and locate it. I also think you assume that students already have basic literacy and numeracy skills. Most of the material is only useful assuming you have a solid base to start with. This is not most students. I also think it works better for courses that have defined material and presentation, i.e., intro to chemistry or economics and would less well for literature or writing classes or history or classes that have a lab/experimental element such as most high school science classes.

Tracy W writes:

Starting off with a bunch of bright 16 year old misfits who already read heaps strikes me as like trying to figure out how to treat cancer by starting with people who've never had it. Yes you might hit on something brilliant but it's hardly likely.

In my experience the best teachers are more likely to be the ones who weren't that bright and instead had to figure out things the hard way.

Paul writes:

If you watch Sal Khan's talk on TED, he mentions how his website has had a profound impact for some teachers. Now, rather than teaching the content in class and sending the students home to do homework, students complete Khan Academy videos at home and come in to do problems with the teacher and their peers. In effect, teachers become facilitators/coaches and, thanks to the available analytics, allow the more proficient students to assist their peers.

In light of this development and the fascinating research by psychologist Carol Dweck at Columbia University regarding the effects of teacher expectations (toward students) and subsequent performance, I think the assertion made in #4 is problematic. As Sal mentions in the TED talk, the 'slow' kids tended to converge with their 'faster' classmates after a short delay. There is an inherent danger with classifying students by 'ability' since such implicit beliefs have a discernible effect on the student and his or her performance. In addition, the more advanced students will probably learn their subject matter even more thoroughly through the act of teaching it to their peers. Thus, a classroom of disparate ability levels is not necessarily worse, though it often is under the current paradigm. Still, I think that it's possible that self-guided learning resources can provide the conditions necessary to provide self-motivation to the students and, as a consequence, allow classes of heterogeneous ability levels to function to their full potential.

For the most part, however, I agree with your post and I think that the changes you propose would have a tremendous impact on the quality of the educational experience.

LJ writes:

It's a lovely idea, and I think I would've been far better off going through the posited form of education system. But "this is pretty close to the way I learned economics" is a concern.

Getting bright, motivated people to learn isn't overly difficult. Up-skilling the majority of students to contribute their maximum marginal product to society is challenging.

steve writes:

These are all sound ideas but I would add a reminder that all of this is for nothing in a public school setting.

In the 70's I attended a public school that implemented a go at your own pace program in the 4th through 6th grade. The idea was to allow each student to advance as rapidly as possible in reading, writing and math. The other subjects were taught in the usual way.

Anyway what happened is that the brighter students finished the program for the 6th grade while they were still in the middle of the 5th grade according to the calendar. So, the teachers put them in the class with the special ed students. They were well behaved the other kids weren't. So the teacher just let them play cards for three hours a day for a year while she focused on the unruly kids in her class.

Oh, except for one month when there was a school reading contest with prizes for the most pages read. Of course, with 3 hours a day on their hands these kids swept the contest.

The moral: In a public school system even the good done by a program will later be squandered.

Sam writes:

I believe this is called "homeschooling".

Chris Koresko writes:

David Friedman has some interesting and relevant comments here.

Eileen writes:

I like this idea and that it is more individualized. I would modify grading - what if we have kids study a subject until they reach a specific level of aptitude. This could be 85% to 100% of the area studied and that percentage agreed upon between the student, coach and parents. Subjects that build skills, like math, would have a higher competency rate, but others, less so. Don't push struggling students along to the next level until they are ready, while allowing the rest to advance. I think we also need to stop pushing students to have straight A's. Allow them to get 90% of, lets say, World history, and concentrate on their interests and strong points. This is more productive. I think this better mimics the real world. Employers train and work with employees until they get what the job entails, or they loose their jobs. They have priorities that they want 100% success, but a others where 80-90% is acceptable.

Thomas Sewell writes:
2. The formal feedback can come from strangers. Students can solve problems or write essays and have these graded by a separate service.
Sometimes assesment is better done by someone the student knows and respects. They tend to care more what that group thinks of their work than what a pure stranger thinks, providing more motivation to do excellent instead of just the required minimum.

It still should be someone other than the person in the mentor/coach role, though.

At the K-8 competency-based, learn-at-your-own-pace-with-a-mentor charter school we founded, we scheduled a "festival" five times a year where students were required to present and demonstrate the projects/papers/etc... from their learning. The idea is that most students are more likely to give their best if they expect their parents, other students and community to see an judge their work.

Think of plays/science fairs/verbal paper defenses/etc... all wrapped into a couple of days. Helps with cross-learning as well.

The best approach tends to vary a bit with the subject matter itself. Sometimes it's best to take a broad test with a definition of competency for a math subject to look for gaps in knowledge, other times it's better to do a surveying project that uses the math in question and demonstrate you know how to use it in a real world application.

Chris Lemens writes:

I concur with Sam, with a reservation. This is very close to how we homeschooled our daughter for three years (middle school years).

We (in fairness, my wife far more than me) found materials that we believed did a good job covering the subject. The interesting thing that we learned is that you don't need to be an expert in a subject to recognize materials that teach it well. Our daughter supplemented this with other materials, depending on what she was learning.

We used a combination for feedback. We generally used the tests from the content provider. Because of her grade level, we didn't need much in the way of a credential here, which is different from the group you seem to be discussing. The only credential she really needed was to pass the private school entrance exams for high school, which wasn't much of a challenge.

So, really, the content providers also provided the form of the feedback, though we administered it. If a credential had been important at the end of materials, then maybe the content provider would have had some mechanism like the correspondence schools do for administering tests. I suspect a better developed approach along these lines would have a core content that suggests a lot of indpendent research that the content provider would expect to see when providing feedback (through a grading service).

Chris Lemens

Seth writes:

I think that's pretty much how life really works, but schools have managed to mask that and make folks believe that (much like unions) their logos matter.

We just don't recognize that they don't really matter until it really counts.

As I was going under (probably too late to ask) to get my emergency appendectomy (where I didn't have much chance to select my surgeon) I didn't ask the surgeon where he went to school. But, I did ask the nurse if she would recommend my surgeon to someone in her family. Her answer was reassuring.

Michael Strong writes:

As other commentators have noted, there are already plenty of alternative schools as well as plenty of homeschoolers who use variations on these suggestions, and many of these kids are amazingly well prepared for college and for life. For the "formal feedback from strangers" condition in the various schools I've created I've used things such as Advanced Placement exams (even for bright middle school students) as well as on-line reviews, which are rated by other reviewers, blog commenting (where real people arguing with them), etc.

For one more detailed description of such an approach, see "How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private School Education for Less Than $3,000 per Year."

While these approaches don't completely solve the problem of motivation, in the right circumstances, they can dramatically increase the percentage of students which are motivated to learn. Creating "the right circumstances" can include:

1. Providing compelling adults to learn from, e.g. real musicians, real software developers, people who really love science, or poetry, or whatever, RATHER than "certified" teachers. The process of obtaining a teaching credential typically screens for boring, not-too-bright, people who are not the kind of adult human beings young primates want to impress.

2. Coaching students how to set life goals and how academic skills and credentials are useful towards achieving those goals, in a realistic, no nonsense manner - which includes admitting when academic training is a complete waste of time and when particular credentials are mostly without content but are necessary for legal reasons anyway.

3. Creating peer cultures that support learning, which is not as hard as it sounds - once one has young human primates being led by adult primates whom they want to imitate or impress, and once one has helped them develop goals THEY care about and then become completely honest with them about the real world value of various skills and credentials in achieving those goals, and then allow them to pursue those goals, then one can strategically cultivate and prune peer interactions such that the peer culture is increasingly supportive of authentic learning.

But although school choice and homeschooling are gradually moving us in this direction, until we reach a tipping point at which the dominant operating system is no longer dominant, progress will be slow.

SSY writes:

I agree with the idea that “the coach should be someone who knows the student well, who can relate to and motivate the student”. Because from what I learned in the textbook, if the wages of professors aren’t related to the grade of students, they will grade fairly according to the academic performance of every student. The author’s idea will make the student learn more and help students get incentives to study.

However, although the formal feedback sounds good, it may lead to the problem of cheating. Maybe some professors will put in extra hours and search for better teaching methods. Others will not. They may raise student grades in order to gain the good comments and guarantee their position.

So the education system still needs to improve.

John Fast writes:

Instead of saying "legacy" (as in "legacy media" or "legacy educational system" or "legacy political parties") I think we should simply say "obsolete" or "obso" for short.

anirprof writes:

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