I would be a hypocrite if I weren’t open to discussing this manifesto and even changing the entirety of it as well, so I welcome any type of criticism and anyone who holds different ideas to challenge me on whatever is written here.
For centuries we have been stuck in the same system, one in which teachers and professors hold the knowledge and transfer it to classrooms filled with bored students. Students who would rather be anywhere else than there, students who see little to gain from listening to a monotonous middle aged man or woman explain a concept they will find little use for in their future lives. For centuries, universities and schools have hardly changed. They have gotten more modern, sure, now most classrooms come with projectors and other devices aimed at making the “learning experience” a breeze, but despite all of the modernizations, the methods continue the same. We are still sitting, facing professors, asking ourselves why we are not doing other things, asking ourselves why we have to memorize fuzzy concepts by heart, asking ourselves if there is a different, better way.
I propose a renaissance. I propose a different approach to education in which both teachers and their “pupils” are seen as students. I propose calling teachers and professors by a different name. Those words already have too strong connotations with them. They already carry too much weight. Those words already make us, students, take on a passive role. Let us change those words to “facilitators” instead and call that their job: facilitating. Facilitators are not teaching, they are showing us the way. We are not only learning, we are all teaching each other and ourselves. The world is changing, and we need education to change with it. We need new methods, but we also need a new methodology. We need to get updated and look at the world with the eyes of the 21st century. We need to expect more from our institutions and we need to expect more from ourselves. We can all be self learners, we can all reflect on experiences we have gone through and transmit them forward. We should not take a passive role in our education and instead should all treat it like the job that it is, because knowledge means little if we are not able to transform it into skills and attitudes to take into our lives. I propose a new method of education that is focused on transforming the information we come across and experiences we go through into practical wisdom.
In the following paragraphs, we will explore a different approach to education. It’s an approach that is very far off from what we see happening in these mammoth institutions nowadays, but it will motivate and give hope to those of us who have little interest in just listening to someone explain a concept. It will instead enable us to utilize those concepts and truly understand them.
In 1984, David Kolb published a work on a seemingly simple concept for how we can learn called experiential learning. Dubbed “Kolb’s learning cycle”, the process starts with an experience, which will be observed, abstracted, experimented, and experienced again, thus building upon itself. Sounds confusing? Let’s make it clearer.
I decide it is a good idea to spend two weeks in Spain. On arriving I hear noises, noises I can’t make sense of (experience). Those people on the streets may be speaking a different language (observation). I get to my hotel room and ask myself if this is common, if people speak different languages in different countries (abstraction). On my next vacation I go to Germany and realize that those sounds are also not similar to English, but they are not similar to the ones I heard in Spain last year either. Having realized that, I can go “up a level.” Maybe this time instead of “thanks,” I’ll try to say “danke” (experimentation). The hotel receptionist smiles at my reaction (experience). I spoke his language (observation). Back in my room I start wondering if people feel different when a tourist speaks their language (abstraction). So next time I go out for a coffee, I will try saying “einen Kaffee, bitte!” instead of “a coffee please!” (experimentation).
The best part is that this progression feels very natural, and if only we could utilize it consciously whenever we are asked to teach someone something, chances are our “students” would remember everything much more clearly. We would not be working with abstract ideas anymore, we would be working with an experience and would build the knowledge on top of it. The facilitators are not there to give definite answers, they are there to ask questions and stir the discussion in the right direction. They are there to create the experience and help the participants through the course of observing and abstracting. But more on the role of the facilitator later.
In contrast, the methodology we see being used nowadays omits the experience and many times the observation. We are simply presented with an abstract concept and (often, but not always) experiment with it. In math we are often presented with a concept and asked to use it. In history, literature, and other humanities we often simply sit there as the teacher explains, and eventually we are asked to hand in assignments. There is no interaction, we are just listening.
The way we put this new methodology into practice is through several different methods. Those can range from a simple presentation or a facilitator explaining a concept (as we are accustomed to see in schools and universities), to a role play in which the participants have to play out a situation which is then expanded on, evaluated, and interpreted with the help of the facilitator and his questions. Input-heavy methods should be avoided as much as possible. When a concept needs to be explained or worked on, it is much better that the facilitator prepares an outline and with the help of visualization techniques presents it and guides the Students in explaining a concept themselves.
If, for example, a facilitator is to explain this learning methodology, he would prepare an activity and go through each stage with the Students. He would then start a debriefing of what happened during the activity, abstract it by presenting the arrows outlining the learning cycle and help the participants explain what just happened, which stages they went through. Further experimentations are then up to the students themselves.
I often think back to the movie School of Life, where a new teacher is called to a school and approaches teaching with a very different methodology. Instead of simply standing in front of the class and explaining, in one of the scenes he tasks the class with role playing the civil war. In another he comes dressed as a native American. The possibilities are endless. A teacher explaining three dimensional vectors could simply take pieces of string to the class and involve the students in the process. The idea is that whatever we do, it should be interactive.
For more inspiration I highly suggest watching this TED Talk by Cesar Harada called “How I Teach Kids to Love Science”
The students and their posture
In an ideal world we would all be students. Every single person on Earth. Not the type that goes to school, does the homework, and studies the material. In an ideal world we would make our life’s purpose to study and learn. It is our job to take the reins of our education, to question and to look for answers.
We will be responsible for our education and treat it like the job that it is. To quote G.H. Lorimer, “You’ll find that education is […] about the only thing a fellow can have as much of as he’s willing to haul away.” In such an era as the one we are living, we are completely free to spend our free time (the amount of which continues to increase, as research shows) in any way we like. On top of that, it has never been easier to come across information. If I, as I am writing, for some reason want to know how manta rays communicate, chances are I can find that information in just a few clicks, and if I want to get deeper into it I can search for books and scholastic articles that would provide me with more details. When we are in such a time, it is our utmost duty to take as much of this knowledge as we possibly can. We ought to get informed, but also transform that information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom.
Books, TED Talks, YouTube, forums and internet communities, news websites, quality blogs, it is all there at our disposal and the least we should do is take advantage of the possibilities. Our job is to read, but read smartly. Take notes, review those notes, process the knowledge we acquired and stay on top of it, update it whenever something new comes.
On top of learning and acquiring knowledge, we need to further transform knowledge into wisdom—practical wisdom. It’s nice to know stuff. It’s even nice to have a grasp of the big Truths in the world (and in case you know any, I’m all ears!), but the utmost objective is always to apply our learning to our lives, to rebuild ourselves, our relationships and environment, and to actively use what we learn. And let’s not ever think that subjects like history, biology, (God forbid) philosophy or anything else are useless! We simply need to look for places to apply the knowledge from those subjects. Much of history (if not all of it) is very applicable. Knowing how people went about their failures and successes, their strategies and habits, can help us become better human beings. Biology can give us insights into our own selves. Philosophy is a discipline of how life should be lived. Even something as “useless” as the history of coffee can help us understand how far people will go for a need that they have. It is up to us to find creative ways to apply that information.
Make no mistake, however, because this is not saying that we should study a specific subject or a couple of specific subjects. This does not mean that someone who has no interest in philosophy will never be a “true student”. Much like everything else, in this case what stands at the core is not “what” we do, but “why” and “how” we do it. We can read the entirety of the Bible, Torah, or whichever other sacred texts we can name and we will be no closer to God than someone who has no idea that such texts even exist. If we do not approach education with purpose and intention, all of our efforts are worth nothing.
When we approach our education with purpose and intention, however, it matters little what the education consists of. We are naturally drawn to what attracts us the most, and there is nothing wrong with basing our education on our own natures and essences, as long as we never forget to subject ourselves to new ideas and topics, to constantly seek new interests and stimuli.
The most important skill that students should develop is creativity. We are not treading paved roads here, and if we can’t use the tools at our disposal effectively in ways few people thought of, we might as well turn around and look for a more friendly road. The road of education is one big unknown full of self-sacrifice and hard work, and we should be aware of that. We must be willing to rebuild ourselves when others are comfortable in their old skins. We must be willing to take off our masks and armors and walk, to expose our skins and souls and surrender all of it to the unknown, to admit to ourselves that we know nothing, but are willing to work and learn. As Elon Musk said, “You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.”
A student’s behavior should always be full of humility. Students should be certain of what they know and not be afraid to argue for their knowledge. They should stick to their ideas until they are proven wrong, but they should also keep their minds open when discussing any of the ideas and behaviors they hold. They should not be attached to those things, and instead they should only be attached to finding what is true. Their goal is to be “less wrong.”The only way to reach this truth is by being proven wrong countless times.
When confronted with a different—or opposite—point of view, students should not become emotional. They should remain detached, discussing calmly and with composure. Students should ask questions and listen attentively for the answers. They should not be afraid to change their minds, and, in fact, that will happen multiple times during the conversation. Ideally, both parties in the conversation will reach the truth somewhere in the middle of both views, although definitely higher up.
What follows such a conversation is a review and a change of attitudes and habits. Merely knowing is worthless if this knowledge is not practically applied to one’s life. How this is done is up to each person and each subject separately. Students should not be constant. They should be acquainted with change and welcome it whenever it knocks on the door. Students will ideally always look back to the past year or two and see someone they do not recognize. Improvement in all areas is their focus.
Much like in an ideal world we would all be students, we would also all be facilitators. Nothing should stand in the way of a 12 year old who wants to organize a workshop or lead and moderate a discussion. Initiative should be encouraged. Having initiative is one of the things that society values the most and the sooner we can start encouraging that, the better we’ll be. The sooner we can get people to think about what they do or know well, the more quickly we will progress in the long run.
As the name implies, the facilitators should do nothing more than that: facilitate. Facilitators should be students themselves with a little more experience than the others in the room, but they should never pretend to be the only ones who know anything. Facilitators should be adept at visualization techniques to show concepts and they should brainstorm ways to create real experiences for the room. They should engage and not sit behind a desk. They should be open and expressive. Ask questions, but speak little. The opinions and points of view the facilitators hold are valid, but should never be phrased as the one right answer. Facilitators should not ask questions that can be answered with yes or no and should not be afraid to admit that they do not know something.
From the very start, facilitators must act as students as well, as equals. They may be a little farther ahead on the topic, but they do not hold the absolute last word. Facilitators should be flexible in matters of time and be open to explore concepts further if the discussion heads a specific way. This way of education is not about abstract lecturing and rote memorization, it’s about discovery and finding things that can be used in everyone’s lives.
Experienced facilitators will realize with time that different groups still tend to come up with similar answers. They should always be playing a “chess game” in their heads, thinking about what they can ask that would take the conversation in a certain direction.
When asking questions the facilitators should, as a rule of thumb, start with the words “how,” “what,” and “why.” Their main job is to inquire and get behind the first answers given by the students. “Why do you think that?” “What makes you say so?” “How do you think it would be if…?” are questions they should be asking the most often.
Students should be renaissance men and women, meaning the knowledge should be as broad in the number of topics as it is deep in a few of particular interest. Students should have a basic understanding of all that drives the world, as well as a deeper understanding of what is necessary for their work, life, and of course, personal interests. The breadth is important, as a student should constantly be seeking new topics to read and get informed on. Only with varied stimuli does it becomes easier to come up with creative solutions, and it’s always possible to use the things you learn in many aspects of your life. Nothing we learn is completely useless and it is our duty to look for unexpected and creative ways to use it. “Hooks” are our allies here, and we should constantly look for them. Look for ways to apply the knowledge of one topic to another, and you’ll learn more quickly.
Let’s use language learning as an example. Someone who only speaks English will have a hard time learning his second language. His brain is used to thinking in English, words mean what they mean in English and sentences must be structured in “the English way” to make sense. This person decides to learn Spanish and suddenly, after a few months or years, he gets used to expressing himself in Spanish. The road to get there was full of obstacles, of course. He had difficulties pronouncing words, tried some idiomatic expressions that did not make sense. He made mistakes. Now he decides to learn German. German is completely unrelated to Spanish. He finds himself faced with a completely different sentence structure, where verbs are sometimes placed at the end of the sentences, but since he already accepted and internalized that not everything has to be like English, that it is normal for some things to be phrased differently, that “direct” translations might have a different meaning, or carry different cultural baggage, everything becomes easier.
It’s then possible to use this knowledge to study sociolinguistics, or translate it into sociology itself. Speaking foreign languages might make us see that a lot can be lost on translation and look at some books and texts in a different light. If we really press our luck here we can even apply those hooks to mathematics, seeing it merely as another language waiting to be decoded as we move on to more and more advanced “vocabulary.”
On factoids and knowledge
I should preface this by saying that I love fun facts as much as the next guy. I could go on and on about the most random things when an opportunity opens and my inventory of “useless knowledge” is vast. I am not proud nor am I ashamed of this inventory, it’s just what countless hours mindlessly surfing the internet (especially websites like reddit) did to me. I’m not, however, professing such factoids out and thinking I am more knowledgeable than someone who does not know nearly as many, and neither should anyone else.
Knowledge comes from processing information, and recounting fun facts is not helping us do that. Factoids are not inherently bad, it’s just not what your education should consist entirely of. They are entertainment and should be treated as such, much like TV, video games, and certain types of books. Fun facts are fun, that is what they are. And as patronizing as it might sound, there is little fun in the road to knowledge. We must love the road and the path, we must love the changes we go through, we must love inching just a little closer day by day. This progress is fun, but not the same fun we get from reading jokes, watching sitcoms, and reading run-of-the-mill young adult fiction.
Fun shouldn’t be condemned (nor should anything, really). It’s important, and we should be happy and enjoy ourselves as we learn, but it should be seen for what it is. We should all do things that bring us happiness, but it’s important to see those things exactly for what they are.
It’s still healthy to have a big dose of “fun facts” coming into our lives at all times. They are stimuli that will help us think creatively. The more varied the topics are, the better. Many times those factoids will awake a new interest within us that we can then explore more closely. We can look into those facts, abstract them, and try to understand the general context that they’re in. I always loved historical fun facts, and that probably was one of the main reasons why I now love history as much as I do.
Things to smile about
The situation we are in is not as dark as it might seem and we should not lose hope. No, the current mainstream educational model is not working. But if we look around, we can find several initiatives working to change that, and during my research to write this manifesto, I came across a handful of them:
Montessori Schools – For preschool and primary-aged children, this method of teaching created by Dr. Maria Montessori brings forth the children’s innate desire to learn. Teachers here act as observers and facilitators and do their best not to interrupt the natural periods of concentration that children go through.
Big Picture Learning – Big picture learning aims to cultivate engagement and goes against the standard model we find in most schools. Children are assessed not on grades but on performance, effort, attitude, and behavior.
Sudbury Valley School – The school works from the assumption that human beings are naturally curious and gives children autonomy to start and pursue learning themselves. Engagement is the rule here.
Puget Sound Community School – This school gives each student an adviser who acts as a coach, and the students come up with their own learning goals. It’s a mixture of class time and self-directed study, as well as a healthy dose of community service.
The Tinkering School – This isn’t a school in the real sense of the word, but it offers summer camps and after school programs where children from seven to seventeen years old get to play around, tinker, and build interesting things.
AFS Intercultural Programs – AFS is not a school, but a non-profit looking to promote understanding among cultures. Students go through orientation camps and are then sent abroad to experience a different culture firsthand. Their orientations and seminars are based on Kolb’s learning cycle. Full disclosure, I was a AFS participant and remain an active volunteer.
TradeCraft – Tradecraft aims to help those who have an entrepreneurial spirit, offering a course that lasts for 12 weeks and gets the students to work and lead several projects during the curriculum.
Praxis – For the ones who are through high school but looking for an alternative for college, Praxis offers a program where the student goes through two months of “classes” and is then placed in a company and immediately starts working. Throughout the process, the student is expected to deliver personal development projects every month and a personal portfolio project at the end of the program.
UnCollege – UnCollege aligns what most people do on gap years, traveling, with a possibility to expand on skills and receive coaching and entrepreneurship practice. It starts with a trip to a country where the student volunteers for three months. The student then has access to workshops and finishes the program by going through an internship.
Ultimately what I am trying to expose here, what this entire manifesto is about, is that education is not about reading or passing a test. Education is about living. Even though I’ve already mentioned reading a lot, I’ll mention it once more. But this time as a warning.
If we for some reason get addicted to this overdose of information we get from books and articles, but forget to make practical changes in our lives, we might as well have used our time with other things. All the reading in the world will never make up for a sheltered life. If we are to be students, we must constantly put ourselves out there in situations that will challenge us to grow. The opposite can be said just as well: we don’t have to read if we are constantly putting ourselves in such situations (although it’s always a nice plus).
My aim with this manifesto is not to form an army of readers—I am only partial to that as it is the method that works for me the best. My aim with this manifesto is to instill in people the desire to learn and challenge themselves, to take a step back from time to time and think about what happened, to learn and become better people. It’s said even in universities that the time you are spending there is to learn logic and perseverance, and not necessarily what you will have to do on the job. “Those are things you learn once you actually start working.” Well, I think if that is the case, they are not doing a good enough job of reminding us that we in reality know very little, and that we should be working to change that even after we are through our graduation.
Kolb’s model, if taken at face value, is not applicable to every single subject there is, but some of the principles are. Think back to when your math teacher undoubtedly used a pizza to explain fractions and how much easier that made it to grasp the concept. If our teachers are not able to find real world things to relate the knowledge to, we are responsible for that ourselves.
I want to see education take a turn for the better in my lifetime. I have a dream that my children, when they are born, will be exposed to a schooling system that will help them learn how to think and look for things on their own. I want them to be sel learners and not expect to come across digested information every time, and I believe this methodology is the way to do that.
We can all be self learners, and I hope this manifesto has made that clear. All we need is the will to make changes. Let’s not forget the ultimate goal that every single person on Earth should have in their lives:
To become a better person.