A Better Way to Educate Kids and Teens
By R. Allen Gilliam
Revised & expanded 3/20/2013
The way we educate young people today is primitive. The model of a teacher lecturing a class at a blackboard goes back to the days when books were too expensive for the kids to each have one. School hasn't changed much in centuries. I think we can do better for kids now by taking advantage of modern technology.
As a smart kid, I was torturously bored through most of my schooling, and my education suffered significantly. Lectures were so slow for me that my mind wandered, and then I'd miss things. I didn't need the amount of practice of other kids, so homework was tedious busywork for me. I'm sure slower-than-average kids had similar, but opposite problems: It was an unpleasant strain to keep up with the fixed pace of the classroom and they weren't given enough practice time. As a self-motivating learner, I found the regimentation of school a constant hindrance to learning. I'd be interested and motivated to learn something, and then have to stop and switch subjects due to the rigid class schedule, an entirely unnecessary and arbitrary contrivance. Rather than just resent my educational experience and complain about what I missed out on, I've decided to try to do something positive: to provide an alternative.
It's no longer necessary for kids to be taught exclusively by teachers. It's insane to pay teachers to perform the same lectures over and over. It's a waste of money, and it makes teaching boring which reduces the quality of the people willing to do it. Lectures should be video recorded. It's a huge waste of the students' time to make a whole class watch the teacher explain something to a single student who didn't understand it from the lecture. Trained teachers should help students individually while the other students watch lecture videos, read on their own, take practice tests, etc.... We should teach the kids how to learn on their own, give them simple incentives, and then set them loose.
What we want the students to learn would be organized into subjects. Within each subject there'd be a sequence of lessons running from first grade all the way to college. Students would work individually at networked computers. The computers would not have to be expensive, state-of-the-art models. Surplus systems from the late 1990's would be adequate. The students would be given a photo ID card that they would swipe at any computer to log in. Then the computer would present them with a list of their next lesson in each subject. They would choose which lesson to learn next, and choose when to try passing the practice tests.
There would be core subjects that everyone would have to learn, and elective subjects. The computers would prevent students from spending all their time on electives by requiring, say, four completed core lessons before another elective lesson could be done. And they wouldn't be allowed to progress more than, say, five lessons ahead in any one core subject compared to the other core subjects. This would give them flexibility in what they want to study at any given time, but keep them from spending all their time advancing in their favorite subject. Students could explore all the elective subjects one lesson at a time rather than being locked into one elective class for a whole term.
Students would learn a lesson by reading a chapter of a textbook and/or watching a video on the computer of a teacher going through the material at a blackboard. The students could pause and back-up the video if their attention wandered or they didn't understand something the first time. These lecture videos could be enhanced with audio and video clips, animation, and still images. Alternatively, students could read the lesson chapter, or a reading assignment such as a novel, from a paper book. If material needed to be rote memorized, like the multiplication table for example, the computer would drill them on it.
Students could get one-on-one help from a teacher or student tutor if they needed it, but this could be minimized by well-designed lesson material. If the school is large enough to have several teachers, and if students can pick the teacher they want to get help from, bad teachers could be easily identified by how often they are chosen by students. Then they could be given more training or be replaced.
When they felt they knew the lesson, students would take practice tests at the computer terminal until they could pass. Then they'd take a test on another computer in a testing room with a proctor watching to prevent cheating. Multiple choice answers would automatically change their order and wording from test to test to prevent passing by experimental guessing. Students would have to get nearly perfect scores to pass. A few mistakes, especially in mathematics, would be tolerable, but the students would have to learn what they were supposed to learn in order to advance. Once they pass the test, students would move on to the next lesson in that subject. There wouldn't be any A students or C students. Instead, the measure of success would be how far advanced they were through the lessons. There would be no need for social promotion.
Each completed lesson would earn the student credits. These credits would be kept track of electronically and would be spent by the student on various privileges at school.
Teachers would grade essay tests, and the student couldn't move on until the pass/fail grade was entered into the computer system by the teacher. The teacher graders could write notes on the essay to help the student. The notes could be added electronically and viewed at a computer, or the essay could be printed out and marked up by hand.
Students would get credits for demonstrating continuing physical fitness each week: climbing the rope, running a six minute mile, twenty push ups, sinking seven out of ten free throws... whatever physical education experts recommend.
Students would get credits for learning the rules of chess or baseball, learning to swim, learning to ride a bike, learning CPR, etc... which would all be one lesson electives.
Students would get credits for playing a competitive game, say chess or baseball. The winning student or team would get more credits, but they'd both get some for participating.
The Free Room: It wouldn't cost any credits to be here. The furniture here would be hard and uncomfortable. No student would be forced to sit here unless they simply refused to do any learning, or accidently ran out of credits. Security personnel would enforce the rules: no talking, no note exchanging, no cell phone use, no drawing, no games, and no reading except from school books. There'd be a couple of computer terminals here for the students who had completely run out of credits. The lockers and main entrance to the school would be here. All the paper books would be here: the textbooks with the lessons and all the reading assignments. They could be taken freely all over the school, and could be checked out and taken home using the ID cards. Students would have to sit here quietly all day unless they make progress in their lessons. Boredom, and watching the other students having fun, would motivate them.
The Testing Room: A free, quiet room with computer terminals where students would take tests to pass each lesson. A proctor would prevent cheating.
The Cafeteria: Free, talking allowed, but open only an hour or two per day. Students would get one free lunch per day by presenting their card. They'd spend credits to get a better lunch than the free one, which would be nutritious, but unexciting and monotonous. The cafeteria would serve lunch from, say, noon to 2pm. Snacks and drinks could be bought with credits from vending machines all day. Only water would be free. Food and drink could not be brought from home. Students selling food and drink for real money would be against the rules and would be punished by a hefty fine in credits.
The PE Room: A free room with a PE teacher who would act as a trainer to help the students develop the physical fitness to complete the PE tasks, and as a test proctor as they demonstrate their physical fitness each week to earn credits. There'd be locker rooms with showers here.
The Studying Room: There would be only a small credit charge to be here. This is where most of the computer terminals would be. Students would have to be quiet. There'd be comfortable furniture, sofas, squashy armchairs, and even beds and pillows. Naps would be allowed, but perhaps limited in length. Nearly all of the students would be able to spend most of the day here except for lunch, recreation, and testing.
The Playground: It would cost more to be here than the Studying Room. A student making average progress learning his lessons could spend perhaps an hour here per day. There'd be the usual playground equipment, dogs to play with, Frisbees to throw. There could even be bicycles the students could ride on an off-road trail. Team sports would be practiced, played, and watched here. The swimming pool would be here, though it may be open only an hour a day since there'd need to be a lifeguard on duty. The PE Room could be closed while the pool was open to allow the PE teacher to serve as life guard. Some pool times would be designated for students to learn to swim as needed.
The Game Room: It would cost more to be in here than the Playground. A student making average progress learning his lessons could spend perhaps thirty minutes here per day. Students could talk and play board games. There'd be video games and televisions with recordings of all the popular TV shows available. Students could play their own portable electronic games. There'd be chess boards, darts, puzzles, etc....
The cost of being in each area and the number of computers in each area would have to be fine tuned.
Keeping track of where students are and charging their credit accounts accordingly would be automated. When they entered for-fee rooms, entered recreational areas, etc... minimum-wage gatekeepers would check their faces and swipe their cards. Automatic biometrics could possibly be used, if less expensive than people, like fingerprint readers or face recognition. Exits from the for-fee areas would be one-way turnstiles. Students would swipe their cards once past the turnstile to open an electronic door and end the charging for being in the for-fee area. If a student stays in a for-fee area too long, his credits could go below zero, but he won't be able to get back into any for-fee areas until he completes more lessons. Some of the kids would spend all day in a recreation area the first day, but then they'd have no privileges for several days until they could earn enough credits to get out of debt. This would be a useful life lesson instilling self-discipline and perhaps immunizing kids against future credit card debt.
An elective subject would be "tutoring qualification." Student's could learn a series of lessons to qualify as a student tutor, and then earn credits by tutoring. They could only tutor students on lessons they'd completed. There'd be a limit on how many credits a student could earn by tutoring. There'd be no need to monitor how well they tutored, since if they aren't good at it, other students wouldn't ask their help. There'd be small, free rooms for one-on-one tutoring by students or teachers so the talking wouldn't disturb others. Student tutoring could be monitored electronically by security personnel to prevent game playing or socializing in these free areas.
There would be an administrator available to the students to resolve credit and rule-breaking disputes, accept suggestions, and answer questions about the system.
Misbehaving students would be docked credits and/or sent to talk with the school psychologist or councillor by security personnel.
There would be a large tote board with bars to indicate each student's average progress in their lessons. The color of the bar would indicate their speed of progress over, say, the last week. Perhaps red for the lower third, yellow for the average third, and green for the top third. It could be a big screen in the central area with a slowly scrolling, continuously updated list. Kids who are behind can quickly change the color of their bars by working harder so they can say they're behind but catching up. Perhaps the biggest problem in education is motivating the students. The social pressure of having everyone know how well you're doing should be harnessed. The idea that kids should be kept ignorant of their intelligence is deeply misguided for two reasons: (1) it subverts their motivation to work harder to learn, and (2) it produces adults who overestimate their own intelligence which increases harmful mistakes from the personal level all the way up to the political.
The greatest advantage is the efficient use of the students' time. No changing classes, no roll call, no waiting for a teacher to explain something to another student, no sitting through lectures on things they already understand, no unnecessary busywork.
There would be advantages for both fast and slow learners. Smart, motivated kids would not be held back by average students. It wouldn't be unusual for the smartest kids to finish grade school years early and then go on to college. This would be very beneficial because a person's ability to learn fades as they get older, therefore it's best for kids to learn as quickly as possible when they're young. This would benefit our whole society. Our quality of life is directly linked to how well educated our people are.
Slower students wouldn't be dragged forward faster than they can tolerate. Forcing slower students to learn at a rate that's unpleasant for them does long-term harm. It emotionally conditions them to dislike learning, to see it as unpleasant and something to be avoided. Consequently, they drop out of school as soon as possible and avoid learning for the rest of their lives.
Trained teachers would not have to waste their time maintaining order, calling roll, and lecturing. This would make their job easier and more interesting, which would attract more highly qualified people for any given salary.
Since there'd be fewer teachers, the teachers could be paid more and could therefore be more highly qualified.
The students would be able to choose to socialize with those their own age, or with those at their level of intellectual development.
Another advantage is that the scheduling of school time can be flexible since there aren't any classes at fixed times. Kids can take the same days off as their parents. The parents who work late can have their kids stay at school into the evening. The school could be staffed from say 6am to 9pm with kids arriving and leaving freely. There'd be a minimum number of hours the kids had to be in school, but it would be flexible. Since the transportation of the students would be more spread out, there could be fewer busses and bus drivers. Smaller busses could make several runs from 6am to 9am and from 4pm to 9pm. Teachers could have shorter hours than the proctors and security people since the kids wouldn't need them all the time. If they need a teacher's help in one subject, they could work on another if a teacher isn't available.
The most obvious criticism of this system is that the slower kids would be emotionally harmed because their being behind the other kids would be obvious. But there isn't actually much difference in psychological effect between being behind in the lessons and making bad grades. And my system is better than leaving students back a grade in three ways: (1) Slower kids will still be able to socialize with kids their own age. (2) All the kids will be at different levels, so it won't be such a big deal. There won't be certain kids who are failing, who had to go to summer school, or who were "left back." And (3) since it's possible for them to catch up if they work harder, they'll still be motivated. Being left back a grade is a fait accompli. There's no hope that working harder will let them skip ahead a grade, so there's no motivation to work harder.
If you find my ideas insightful or thought-provoking, please recommend this page to your friends, family, and co-workers.
I fully realize that this system isn't sufficiently worked out to be implemented as is, so I welcome suggestions and criticism by E-mail.
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All essays copyright © R. Allen Gilliam.