Extreme Learning

Yesterday, I went down to the Institute for the Future for a workshop on "extreme learning". There were many diverse people in there, and we spent the day talking about learning, education, and school, and how we as futuristic learners could see things going in 2023.

I had some good conversations, but the thing that struck me the most was how much I felt like I was back in school for a day. There were large- and small-group discussions, presentations, brainstorming assignments--and the young people were taking tons of notes! It was funny to me, because I had come to talk about how bad school had ended up being for my attitude towards learning.

They asked what extreme learning meant to me. It's a bit sad, but to me, it's just learning, but where you remember it later. Naturally I talked about spaced repetition as the antidote for the in-one-semester-and-out-the-other paradigm of education, but I was surprised to be the only one talking about it.

A month's worth of Chinese words I learned to write on Skritter

The highlight of the day was playing Throw Trucks With Your Mind during lunch, since one of the extreme learners, Lat Ware, had brought two laptops and Neuroskies to demo it. I was surprised by how well it worked compared to some of the other bio-control stuff I'd tried. Lat has done his math well.

The second-best part of the day was designing a new educational system for the US. Now, I wasn't the guy who had written a book on the subject, nor have I even read many of the books. But he seemed to like the system we came up with, and I liked thinking about it, so I thought I'd describe it. Hopefully someone will tell me where I can read about a much-more-thought-out version of this, or why it obviously could never work.

Instead of public education funding going almost exclusively into schools (buildings with classes in them, a bad idea from over a century ago), what if anyone who wanted to provide some sort of educational experience could apply to receive public funding? Students (with the help of their parents, for better or worse) would choose opportunities that they found interesting or valuable. Those providing the opportunities would receive funding based on how many student-days they were providing. Opportunities could be anything that could convince funders to okay them, students to choose them, and potential public educators to step up and provide them. Things like internships, camps, trips, sports, apprenticeships, competitions, community projects, rock bands, mentored independent projects, whatever.

The transition to this system seems like it could be, if not easy, at least simple and gradual: open up funding to such opportunities as well as the current funding targets (traditional schools), and leave students free to choose such opportunities. At first, most of the opportunities are still schools. But now there's competition, and the idea would be that eventually schools would have to switch to providing things that were competitive in the market for students' attention and perceived value.

Now instead of the system struggling to control kids who mostly don't want to be there, you get most of the kids doing what they want to do--which is the only time they're going to learn anything, anyway. Sorry, teachers, but the only students who remember any of your subject after the final are the few who like your subject--and meanwhile you've taught all the others that learning is supposed to suck.

Quick and dirty Googling suggests that public education costs roughly $17,889 per student per year, which isn't that much less than the $25,782 it (maybe) takes to pay for a year of foster care. I think there's a ton of awesome opportunities that we can provide to kids much more cost efficiently than that if we don't assume horrific institutional overhead. I mean, you probably wouldn't need to pay me $1490.75 per month per kid to get me to teach some badass programming to a few kids who were into it.

How do you know you're not sending your kids off to some creeps, or some hippies who have hoodwinked the public funders and aren't teaching the kids anything? Well, this is the Future, so prevalent, online, social ratings and reviews are now everywhere, not just in the SF Bay Area and big cities. Couchsurfing, AirBnB, eBay, TaskRabbit, and tons of others are doing great at making trust happen between strangers.

In the past, I've been pessimistic about formal education and have been planning to "home"school my kids (insofar as we actually stay at home) just about as soon as I can have some. I wonder, though, if it isn't too late to morph education into something less about school and more about learning. So what's out there? What are people actually talking about doing to align education with market and student incentives?

Nick

Hacking on CodeCombat, a multiplayer programming game for learning to code. Mastermind behind Skritter, the most powerful Chinese character learning app.

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