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A School Made of The World

© 2014
Re-configuring the space of the “school” for a world where learning happens everywhere.
Challenges met with encouragement. Turn the system into the “enemy” rather than the teacher. “this damn game is too hard!!!”
The role of the teacher becomes one of mentor and supporter, of conversation starter. the adversarial relationship between teachers and students is a relic of the old system, rigid hierarchies are the bane of fluid collaboration.
What role does the traditional structure of a school have in the new world?
It becomes a place of enhanced exploration and a safe place to innovate. More college campus than prison.
The learning itself can happen anywhere, but the school can offer unique features that can propel students even further on their self organized learning journey.
So what might education look like? I think it will look a lot like an interactive sandbox video game. Imagine second life if it was itself an AI construct adaptable on the fly.
When the kids show up for the school year (this concept might still stick around, since “summer” is where tons of learning takes place as well) they get freshly digitized to create their educational space avatar.
In a video game, progress is continuously catalogued, it is a purview of the system itself. “tests” are present but not so discrete, they can take many forms and often require quickly synthesized solutions based on prior-presented skills.
Progress ramps exponentially because the world is giving continual feedback and the metrics are clear and pervasive.
In this world data is measured in exabytes, all throughout industry and academia it misunderstood that “Big Data” lets us find elegant truths through the power of immense statistics. Yet despite this we have not applied the bounty of data to education. A handful of tests can show some relationship, but such few data points makes for inherently flawed insight.
The learning environment itself must become quantified. No more breaking flow for a test, instead understanding of performance is woven into the system. It merely takes engaging with it to deliver meaningful data, which the system can use to adapt itself.
the great part of all of this is that there are already solutions moving along this trajectory! It will be a matter of connecting everything together to build a broader education space where the gaps are filled.
“collaboration” looks very different now than it once did. We see it in online MMORPGs most visibly. Now there is an almost infinite set of possible humans and software that one can seek out, or have forced upon them, to achieve a given goal.
There will always be technologies and implementations of technology out of reach, this is where the school itself comes in. 3D printing labs, star caves, virtual reality headsets, these kinds of things can be provided in the space of the school. Fast internet as well, the school can be the physical world conduit that lets students access the broader virtual education space in better ways than they could with their personal devices and personal connections. The school becomes a campus!
The learning takes place anywhere, likely it will happen in real time as the students face challenges, so the campus becomes a place that facilitates that.
In the education space modality, every interaction with the system is being fed back into the system. Each student is evaluated by the system and assigned real-time scores in various skill sets. This can be used to hone what is being taught by the system, the kid plowing ahead in math maybe needs more lessons in reading, and it will also be used to hone what students work with each other.
We won’t make an idillic fairy tail land where all the students like each other. This would be foolish anyway since life is not like that. It couldn’t matter less if the students don’t ‘like’ each other, learning to work with people you don’t ‘like’ is hugely valuable.
But often going through adversity with someone has a way of changing your relationship.
I propose we build an education universe, a vast virtual/physical hybrid world thats purpose is to be an infinite reactive sandbox for learning.
This space, at some level of its implementation, can handle hundreds of thousands, even millions of networked students interacting with each other.
The convergence of physical and virtual reality into one broader hybrid reality is the trajectory, our education should reflect that from the very beginning.
Already we understand that “flipping the day,” that is doing ‘homework’ at school and learning at home, is the better way to achieve lasting education goals. The internet means learning can and does happen anywhere, any time. Now the role of the school becomes that of experimenting space.
The old paradigm of learning, remembering, and utilizing has been fundamentally upended by mobile devices. Now knowledge doesn’t need to be accumulated for every possibility, instead answers or at least directional nudges, are available instantly as problems arise. Yet wise seeking is often required to elicit useful not vapid answers from information appliances.
The school needs to be less of prison and more of a campus, with ample resources available for experimentation and support. 3D printing labs, star caves and virtual reality headsets.
Education in the future will take place in a unified game space that is responsive to the children within it. Not some solitary experience though, this space will allow every school child on earth to learn together directly.
Students access the world at varied levels of engagement.
The nature of “collaboration” is vastly different now that one’s possible working pool of human collaborators is approaching everyone on earth.
There’s much worry, rightly so, about the echo-chamber effects and “filter bubble” problem of incestuous networks feeding the same ideas back on themselves.
clusters of students identified as having a particular bias could be paired with clusters of students who have an opposing bias. these groups can be made to work together to achieve a goal that requires compromise between viewpoints.
In the education space, the emphasis is on solving problems and crossing milestones; just like a video game.
We already see the immense potential of seamless rewarding learning. Minecraft represents an environment that can scale elegantly and exponentially from creative adventure to serious learning tool. A player can go from building log cabins to simulating 8-bit computers all in the same space, with the same tools and paradigms. Many players then take their interaction with the game further, learning how the game itself works and modifying it.
From simple fun beginning to earned grasp of skills, that is the trajectory that the education space will take. Unlike mine craft, for which such a trajectory is not always followed, the education space is designed specifically to work in this way.
Computational biology has shone that given more complex environments, more complex life systems emerge. The education space follows this paradigm, presenting ever more complex environments based on the system’s real-time understanding of its students’ knowledge and skills.
In mathematics instruction, the assignments can transcend meaningless busy work to become applicable and tangible. Instead of talking about tangents of an angle, the challenge is to figure out where the asteroid will hit on the virtual world.
The rigor of the physics could adjust dynamically. A young student doesn’t know calculus so the world reflects her knowledge, until it doesn’t. Once the system sees her solving its problems with triviality, it can throw in curve-balls (literally and metaphorically) Just as in a video game, education becomes series of finely attenuated tutorial levels where skills freshly learned are then honed and pushed to their limits before new skills are introduced.
The space allows subjects to be taught beyond their individual limits. Instead of talking about theoretical suspension bridges in one class, then social science in another, then design in another, and economics in another, the education space can merge them all together into unified challenges.
A project becomes: “design a suspension bridge that will fit x amount of weight, and will generate x amount of revenue from collected tolls.” Each student team builds their bridges using principles they learn from semi-interactive lectures at night and experimentation during the school day. the bridges are all lined up and a collection of same time-zone schools is brought online in the education space. One class and its student teams load up their bridges in the space then have to advertise to get their peers to walk over it. Each group will take a different approach
Another assignment could be “build a sustainable government.” Groups of students then need to build systems to manage ‘societies’ of other students in the education space. Groups that approach the problem from different political angles can then be paired together and tasked to create and manage a coalition government.
Other groups of students can be the ‘citizens’ tasked with finding loopholes in the newly minted frameworks. Then the dynamic is flipped with citizens becoming leaders/policymakers.
These are then more than just school lessons, they are experiments in infinite permutation. Real-world governments can learn from the ways kids organize themselves and what loopholes they find. Imagine the immense potential for natural experiments, groups can propose “challenges” to immense pools of students. The kids will get learning and the organizations will get results.
there will be different levels of collaboration. Some “assignments” will be solo, others will involve thousands simultaneously. that is the space of the world now, education should reflect that.
The relationship between “real world,” higher learning and k-12 level needs to be tightly woven together.
There are tests nested in tests but all of it is tangible. Nothing is more engaging than actually building something, yet building bridges or creating government systems in physical space is not even remotely feasible. In the education space though it is.
In the education space, groups of students of varying sizes from individual to entire time-zones, can explore and experiment in ways that are structured but ultimately unique.
After each day’s adventure, students then engage each other, regaling them with tales of their adventures and how they solved their obstacles. (just like real kids do with video games already!!) “oh when I got to the meteorite impact part at first everything worked fine I used tangent rules and i predicted really well, but then everything started getting wonky i was off by a lot!” “oh ya we had that happen too, but Tim had made it to the calculus stage on his home slate and he said we could try some of that, it totally worked!” “really, show me what you did!” “can’t now my model just finished printing i gotta go see it. but lets chat tonight then your group should come with mine tomorrow and we’ll play that level together. we couldn’t figure out all the impacts so maybe you guys can help. tim told us all to listen to the calculus section tonight you should see if he’ll shadow collab with you through the lesson.
Collaboration is now integral to success in the world, so students need to be intimately versed in how to work as teams and gleam insight from many areas.
Some get concerned that unsupervised children working together will just horse around, but I say let them! Their actions in the system are all quantified and known, they won’t get out of hand. Teacher-atar can watch everything that’s happening and swoop in to address the issue. In messing around, kids will learn valuable unstructured lessons. Then having them discuss their adventures presents ample opportunities for cross collaboration and learning.
Think how we all already play video games “that one time I did this awesome thing “wait how did you do that!? “let me show you”
if the game is education think how powerful that feedback loop is.
“real world” experience is woven in to education itself, it doesn’t get tacked on later.
assignments in the space structured discussion led by teacher of groups’ successes/failures negotiations for
The school is where the education space is accessed in its full nuance, but outside of school parts of it are still available
By freeing the education day from the drudgery of rote learning, students will be free to work in a world like they will be doing in their actual lives. The education space scales from safe Kindergarten paradigms to real-world hihg-school physics simulations
Even the tiered nature of education will be upended. huge swaths of age groups will be able to mesh together seamlessly. “hey steve, you gotta check this kid I found him in the space the other day he knows how to talk with the gatekeeper that’s blocking our path! I saw him just talking with it, I think it liked him!! “he ran off though when I tried to say high, jane can you come with us tomorrow, you’re really good with kids, i think I scared him off”
The space can teach collaboration not just with humans but also between humans and machines and even machines and machines. One “lesson” the space might introduce a obtuse AI that gives an answer required to proceed (passphrase or something) yet requires that the question be phrased in a unique way. This phrasing could tie into lessons in semantics or logic, maybe even statistics or mathematics. The point is that a “lesson” is being presented in the form of a challenge, and once it is overcome the students will have internalized some of the solution. post-lesson group discussions organized by the teacher will help the students understand how they achieved the goal and be introduced to broader applications of the lessons from the goal.
Standardized testing is no longer required since the education space is universal, it is essentially a MMORPG. It presents the same basic lessons, but packaged in unique ways depending on numerous factors. Just like in life, no two things happen quite the same, by making the space present different specificities it will encourage story telling and collaboration as students share their unique trials and tribulations.
kids are mean! I don’t think this is so. The rabid devotion to success ABOVE others fosters the unhealthy competitive nature of humans. If the entire nature of education shifts from competition with peers to tightly-knit collaboration from day one, I think we will see huge changes in attitude. kids will still be kids, but then the best way to learn about the world is through experience.
In solo explore time where the system has a given glass of students in its space but is hiding them from one another, the teacher might decide that it’s time for a little forced bonding. Two kids who are “moral enemies” are then made aware of each other and given a challenge to overcome that requires both of their skills. they will likely try to do it many times as individuals and each time fail. Yet finally, faced with the terrible bitter taste of defeat, they will work together and overcome the goal. even if they don’t become friends, such scenarios are what the real world is made of. You don’t get to work with your friends, you get to work with whoever you get to work with. Forced grouping becomes a way to break cliques and smooth rivalries.
When I was going through middle and high school, AIM was the collaboration tool of choice. We would all go home and at around 8pm we would all fire up our chat clients. From there we would collaborate with each other to complete whatever boring wrote assignment was given. Since the assignment was uniform across huge swaths of students we solved it trivially, often just exchanging the answers. If our network got lucky, someone’s older sister had done the assignment years ago and we would simply distribute the file. We made mince-meat of any assignment because we weren’t solving it alone; why the hell would we?! Future assignments and projects have to assume that every student is talking to every other, and indeed encourage it. Future assignments must have a level of variance so that kids can’t take short-cuts and miss the core concepts they are supposed to learn. Future assignments need to be challenging but also applicable. Doing worksheets of math problems means nothing, but finding the trajectory of asteroids hitting a world so you can evacuate inhabitants, that means a lot!
There is one thing I know: kids are dangerously smart they find the limits of every system. Now every kid with a cheap tablet has more knowledge than a head of state did 15 years ago. Education needs to scale to meet these realities. If they are given no structure at all, they will educate themselves regardless. It’s just that they might not be learning things that are most beneficial to their success. The job of the education system must be to build frameworks that kids fill in themselves, but that guide them towards broad goals.
Set the bar high and kids will strive to reach it, the higher you set it the closer they will get. Even if no one ever hits the bar, trying to hit a high bar and falling short is a better success then setting a low bar and achieving it.
We consistently underestimate kids, we shelter them, we say they won’t understand. This is cowardly, what are we afraid of? Kids don’t even know what they don’t know. If you give them an exponential learning space they’ll learn exponentially.
I think that by turing education into a game, we can shunt the social tensions between students toward the software, the space of the game. If the “Us” is all students and the “them” is the game itself
Making kids work together will cause massive tensions, there will be fights and slights, and name-calling. Ultimately though, those things are part of life. We can’t insulate kids from reality, instead we should immerse them from day one. You’ll need to work with your peers to achieve goals in the world, the same will be true of your education. Then teachers step in and become mediators and mentors.
The system “teaches” but the teachers are the guides.
This will avoid the huge gulf between academic experience and real world. Right now the sterile environment of academic education serves to create a conceptualization gulf. The real world is messy, it doesn’t have a clear answer, there’s no instruction manual.
let students have access to broader net, the system logs what they accessed and the teachers can decide if that resource or a similar one should be added to the presented knowledge base. Some kids will explore the broad net some won’t, the extra-eager researchers’ contributions can be fed back into the system to strengthen the up-front knowledge base that the learning system presents as its starting point.
Are kids jerks inherently? I really don’t think so. We assume this by watching kids in traditional education paradigms, but raised from their first moments to be collaborative kids will fit that mold.
Creating “teams” that remain fixed creates divisions, but treating individuals as individuals at the level of the learning itself is important; everyone is different. This means though that everyone brings something different to the table for collaboration.
internet exploration and research needs to be a topic too, but not so discrete. Weave it into the space of the challenges.
Reimagining Education: Values and Goals
I am happy with common core, it is a step in the right direction. However reforming education to work for the 21st century is a long and winding road, mere steps will not be enough. In this time of exponential change, we need education systems and thinking that reflect the new sharp arrow of time we live in. This is a unique opportunity to ask ourselves big questions about what we truly value in society and economy, and how we wish to give the next generations a better life than we lived. The dream is not dead, it just looks different now. A whole new set of skills and modality of thinking is needed that reflects the realities of the exponential world.
In this piece and the following, I will lay out a broad vision for what education should foster and how it might do it. The obstacles to creating a better education system are densely immense, yet never before has such a reality stopped us. True innovation comes of setting a grand goal–a human on the moon, mapping the genome, example–then discovering how to achieve it. We are in the second machine age, a time of exponential and combinatorial growth. If digital technology cannot currently do something, it will be able to soon. Slow shuffling progress has been eviscerated in favor of grand dreams. Computing and the Internet have enabled this world, a world where limits are temporary and innovation flows freely. Our network of networks pulses with ideas waiting to be discovered and combined, but such things do not happen through hope and wish. Innovation is a human construct, a way of thinking. Education in the networked world looks very different than the education we were reared on. Indeed the world we are entering looks very different than the one we were raised in. This is a time for intellectual bravery we need education that fosters life-long learning and builds systems of thinking.
The need for fundamental change in attitude is due largely in part to the grand realties of this age.
The Internet has become a utility. It is now a basic good, on par with electricity or running water. Information is now a commodity. While the debate is still alight with conflict over how best to provide fair access to the network of networks, there is little doubt left that the Internet is something all are entitled to and can benefit from.
Plus, the devices with which we access the Internet are on a continual downward trajectory. Soon entire computers–RAM, CPU, memory, etc–will be available in packages as small as an SD card and commodity costs. Tablets have already crossed the $50 threshold and will continue to plummet. Computing is no longer a specialized thing, it is set to be increasingly woven into every facet of human existence. These cheap nodes grand access to the web where resources abound. Through the internet, supercomputing is now a commodity as well. The landscape of “the cloud” is now chock full of meaningful compute resources and crowdsourcing opportunities. With the Internet and a cheap portal to it, anyone on earth can connect with anyone else, learn anything and solve nearly any problem. Not just the slick environments of EC2 or university supercomputers, but distributed computing clusters, mechanical Turk and other crowdsourcing systems let massive problems be trivialized with application of clever distribution. Getting answers to questions requires only knowing how to phrase them correctly, and even that will become easier with time (self-plug) Now all possible permutations of ideas can be discovered readily, thus a primary limiting factor becomes synthesizing solutions from the noise.
With MOOCs and the broader ability to find answers with the internet we see high profile successes, but the spread is far too vast. Currently, those who understand entrepreneurial and combinatorial innovation are relative outliers. Vast swaths of the population locked out of the innovation garden because they can’t even conceptualize that they need a new way of conceptualizing. We need to provide broad access to the conceptualizations and skills that will enable broader populations of people to succeed in the new world.
In this information age, the ability to self-educate is one of the strongest skills anyone can have. So we need education that is built around this concept. that harnesses inherent curiosity to create lifelong learners who are empowered with not just a thirst for knowledge, but the skills necessary to continuously attain it.
Developed and developing societies alike are becoming increasingly enveloped by ICT. Digital computing and communications technologies are being woven into life at a staggering rate. Billions are gaining access to the global mind and contributing in its development. Where once knowledge was sacred and scarce, now it is free and open available to all. The ability to access information has been throughly democratized, everyone connected to the Internet has access to the same suites of tools and potential. Yet access is only a tiny fraction of deriving meaning and value. In the 21st century knowledge is ubiquitous, but synthesis is not. It has come time for us to fundamentally reevaluate what education means in the post-internet world.
As we enter into the Second Machine Age, we must think carefully about what skills and values we instill in future generations. The goals of education today are vastly different than they were in the 20th century, yet the approach has remained painfully similar. We see it all around us today, millions trained for an old world being left behind by the new. For every splashy success there are thousands more failures. There has been a fundamental shift in the skills and attitude required to succeed in the networked world.
In this piece and the following, I will present a vision of what education could look like in the 21st century. I seek to ignite a conversation about what we really want out of education. Not merely sprinkling in technology as a reactionary measure, but weaving it integrally into the very experience of “school.” Bringing not just individual skills but conceptual understanding that can transcend any singular example. Students of the future will need to be product agnostic, since the pace of change in this the second machine age will far outstrip the ability to rest on laurels. Students of the future need to think with software in mind, with the concepts of a ubiquitously networked world underlying their approaches to problems.
The question for education now becomes: given ubiquitous access to a global pool brain made of humans, computers and software what can be done? The possibilities are as limitless as the boundaries of consideration. Education in the 21st century must be about pushing those boundaries from the very beginning until they reach limits beyond current imagination.
One of the largest disparities between traditional education and the ‘real world’ is its relationship to failure. In education, failure compounds; an F on the test with an F in the homework leads to bad performance in the class leads to less access to other learning channels. In the world though this relationship is not the same at all. A failed project often leads to a new project or broader insights that get notice elsewhere. Among the entrepreneurs that are so idealized in modern society, failure is understood as learning and treated as necessary to success. The great innovations are often results of many failures.
In its mechanistic emphasis on success, traditional education is failing students, teaching them that metrics mean more than insight.
This relationship must be changed or we will doom countless generations to be exiled from the garden of combinatorial innovation. Succeeding with a trivial problem is meaningless for learning, failure with a grand problem is where real innovation emerges.
Rigid adherence to curriculum, a top down approach of dictating what should be learned and how students should learn it, is perhaps the most detrimental part of current education paradigms.
Rigid adherence to pre-determined problem solving pathways is perhaps the most detrimental part of current education paradigms. What does the new generation need to succeed, to thrive, to fix their looming issues? How much can the old guard truly know of this question, their problems were their own solved in their own way; why should we believe that the previous way is the correct way for each new now? Students made to conform to old paradigms find themselves fighting unnecessary uphill battles against the pervasive ignorance that only children can identify in their elders.
Documenting steps needed to re-create results is endlessly important, but being free to choose the steps is even more so. A DARPA grand challenge does not say “this car must run this language on this hardware” it says “this is the milestone, hit it however you can.” This is how powerful innovation arises.
Children are products of their environment. A learning environment where they are spoon fed safe protocols for achieving a predictable outcome creates drones. This was a fine thing to do when humans were the computers, when individuals made up the cogs of grand machines of industry and corporation. Yet now we have replaced ourselves with digital computers. They form better cogs than we could ever be. So why are we still building human cogs?
“If you look at the present day schooling the way it is, it’s quite easy to figure out where it came from. It came from about 300 years ago. And it came from the last and the biggest empire on this planet (the British empire).
Imagine trying to run the show, trying to run the entire planet, without computers, without telephones, with data hand-written on pieces of paper and traveling by ship.
But the Victorians actually did it. What they did was amazing. They created a global computer made up of people. It’s still with us today, it’s called the Bureaucratic Administrative Machine.
In order to make that machine running, they need lots and lots of people. They made another machine to produce those people… the school.
The schools would produce the people who would then become (spare) parts of the Bureaucratic Administrative Machine. They must be identical to each other. They must know 3 things… they must have good handwriting – because the data is handwritten – they must be able to read, and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition and subtraction in their head. They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada and he would be instantly functional.
The Victorians, they’re great engineers. They engineered a system that is so robust that it’s still with us today. Continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists.”
I am not advocating a break from history, far from it. Each generation of students must be scholars of history, but not from the angle that has served us so poorly for the last century. The global brain ensures all human knowledge, from ancient times to mere clock cycles ago, can be known instantly. Teaching with the intent of building up libraries of “facts” is completely irrelevant; no human mind is as expansive as the global mind. Instead the powerful lessons of history are in analysis and consideration. The skills of research are infinitely more important than remembering dates In a world made of data, knowing how to find information is often better than knowing it. Considering motivation, entertaining empathy and asking questions can be enlightening: why did these ancient humans behave in this way? what can that teach us about today? What parallels are there? What is fundamentally different?
History powerfully informs, but ultimately the new is new; historical solutions and historical thinking are guidelines, they do not give discrete answers. The ability to synthesize lessons from the past and apply them to modern problems and situations is the mark of truly powerful historians. Yet at the k-12 level students are encouraged to regurgitate facts. We can ill afford to keep producing pupils who’s relationship to history is one of wrote memorization and regurgitation. One human mind cannot compete with Wikipedia so why are we still playing that game? All of history is at all of connected humanity’s fingertips, the key differentiator now stems from what novel things one can do with this universal pool of facts.
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