As we head into 2017, many are feeling a vague trepidation. The civilized world has taken a sharp turn toward incivility. Large populations are abandoning their homeland for something better, only to find that “better” is unavailable to them. Meanwhile, technology speeds ahead, leaving unprepared citizens with little access to good jobs or wealth. The rich can afford higher education, but the education they’re getting is obsolete. It’s “zombie education”—not just dead but deadening—at a time when we need to be fully alive and creative.             

In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote a satirical essay called “A Modest Proposal,” in which he suggested that the solution to poverty and overpopulation was to eat our children.

“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London,” he said, “that a young healthy child, well nursed, is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or ragout.”

Three centuries later, we’ve managed not to eat our children. But we have been cannibalizing their future. School reformers have been doubling down on the factory model of education, insisting on standardized courses, standardized testing, and standardized views of human resources. They’re busy producing standardized graduates for jobs that may not exist in a few years, and that offer little in the way of satisfaction, joy, or fulfillment.

If we had set out to pry ourselves from our human natures, dampen our passion, and keep ourselves from constructing a meaningful story for our lives, we couldn’t have designed a better system.

Therefore, I have an alternate proposal, which I’ll offer here in seven steps. 

1. Shut down the factory 

I propose—modestly—that we dismantle or current education factory and replace it with an education garden. Like the best gardens, it would combine both organic and man-made components, be designed to serve the twin goals of beauty and function, and be open to the widest possible public.     

“Why can’t Johnny and Susie read, write, and count?” is the mantra of reform, according to educator Stephanie Marshall. “Why aren’t we at least equally troubled by why Johnny and Susie can’t think, can’t slow down, can’t sit still, can’t imagine, can’t create, and can’t play?” Why aren’t we deeply saddened that they can’t dance, or paint, or draw, or make up a story? Why aren’t we worried that they can’t cope with frustration and conflict?”

Every learner possesses a unique and vibrant constellation of unknowable learning potentials, but instead we find ourselves worrying about which high-priced college our kids will get into. In 1972, according to a recent study, high-income families were spending five times as much on education as low-income families. It said that by 2007 the gap had grown to nine to one as spending by upper-end families doubled. The pattern of privileged families is “intensive cultivation,” it concluded, set against a background of extreme competition.

Meanwhile, fewer and fewer students can afford higher education, and of those who can, many are saddled with so much debt that they have to follow the money instead of their dreams.

In a garden, the gates are open to everyone. There’s a wide variety of learning options. New concepts are cultivated and tested every year. Special memberships and paid events are available for those who can afford them, while the basic entrance fees are kept to a minimum—just high enough to pay for the “gardeners.”

A garden replaces replication with imagination, reductive thinking with holistic thinking, passive learning with hands-on learning, and unhealthy competition with joyful collaboration. A garden is not only more soul-stirring than a factory, it costs much less to maintain—especially if the factory is dolled up with non-functional frills.

2. Change the subjects

Anatole France said, “Let our teaching be full of ideas. Hitherto it has been stuffed with only facts.” Facts are useful when they serve as fuel for the mind, but the problem is that the number of useful facts keeps growing. To accommodate them, schools keep reducing the depth of their teaching. Facts now look like towns flashing past on a speeding train, and courses are souvenir decals on a suitcase. “Rome—isn’t that where we had the gelato?”

This is a “speed grazing” strategy that leaves students with very little to show beyond a diploma. Real life demands knowledge, but rarely in the form or proportions in which the subjects are now taught. With the exception of language and math basics, the subjects we now teach in school are the wrong subjects. The right subjects—the ones that will matter in the 21st century—are what I call metaskills—higher level skills that help you acquire other skills.

Students today should be learning metaskills like social intelligence, systemic logic, creative thinking, how to make things, and how to learn. What we now think of as subjects—sociology, trigonometry, physics, art, psychology, and scores of others—should be used as “drill-downs,” specific disciplines that foster high-order metaskills. By the time a student enters secondary school, the drill-downs should be as flexible as possible, so that students can follow their personal interests instead of learning a general set of disciplines en masse.               

I believe we need to focus on five metaskills: feeling, seeing, dreaming, making, and learning. These are the “subjects” we need to teach if we want a more creative, courageous, and thoughtful society. Flexible pathways through these metaskills would make education more strategic. It would put students in charge of their own learning, and allow them to tap into own interests to discover who they are. It would leverage emerging technologies, including new repositories of factual knowledge (e.g., Wikipedia), and social learning tools that enable interactive, collaborative learning. It would free up time spent on short-term memorization so that it can be invested in long-term pursuits that can leave a deeper understanding in their wake.

Changing the course of traditional education isn’t an easy task. Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard, once likened the difficulty of reforming a curriculum to the difficulty of moving a cemetery. But it’s possible if you begin at the edges, in the crevices, or at the bottom, where traditional education can’t reach.

3. Flip the classroom

Salman Kahn had been tutoring his young cousin Nadia with fairly good results. But when he moved out of town, his only option for continuing to teach her was with online videos. Then he asked himself an interesting question: “How can an automated cousin be better than a cousin?”

The answer turned out to be the Khan Academy. Kahn’s website, launched in 2009, now offers thousands of free 10-minute videos, spanning a wide range of educational subjects from math to history and science to English, to anyone who cares to access them. His simply produced tutorials have been watched an average of 20,000 times each by high-school and middle-school students as a supplement to live teaching. Sure, it’s free, but since when did free education ever inspire such fanaticism?

There are four good reasons for Khan’s success, all of them suggestive for the future of education.

1. Sal is a charming presenter. He knows his stuff, and can infect students with his passion. He can also attract other knowledgeable presenters to his mission.

2. The videos are accessible round the clock, not just during daylight hours, so students can learn whenever their schedule or energy permits.            

3. They can learn at their own pace, repeating lessons or parts of lessons as many times as needed.

4. And teachers can direct their students to the Khan Academy to help them work on problem areas, or even build a course around the videos.

This last benefit has triggered a phenomenon called “flipping the classroom.” With this approach students listen to the “lecture” on YouTube at night, freeing the teacher to help them with their “homework” in class the next day.

With the old model, the classroom lecture was a waste of collaboration time; students sat in their seats quietly taking notes, straining to stay awake and up to speed during the monologue. In a flipped classroom, teaching time is given over to activities that allow individual mentoring, communal learning, and even physical movement around the classroom. The students who understand the material can also act as teaching assistants, giving them another level of learning experience instead of becoming bored and tuning out.

The flipped classroom is not yet the standard, because the cemetery doesn’t move easily. But it’s getting a foothold in the crevices (students who are left behind), at the bottom (autodidacts who can’t afford tuition), and at the edges (schools that want to innovate).

At first glance, this looks like standard obsolescence—teachers being replaced by videos. But it’s actually an opportunity for instructors to stop being “the sage on the stage” and start being flesh-and-blood mentors and coaches. It’s the point at which teaching becomes inspiration.

Charismatic presenters like Khan have the additional opportunity of becoming “superteachers,” celebrated educators who can deliver lecture material on video with memorable performances. Think about video presenters like Kenneth Clark, Carl Sagan, James Burke, David Attenborough, Isabella Rossellini, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Startups like Masterclass are broadening this trail by using celebrity teachers—Dustin Hoffman, James Patterson, Serena Williams, and Aaron Sorkin—to teach specialized skills.

In the future we’re likely to see these kinds of “superteachers” with their own courses, their own teaching assistants, and their own promotional campaigns. They might be syndicated across a number of institutions, and even offer certificates for completing their modules. It’s possible to imagine a professor on the faculty of a traditional university who also derives income from videos and online courses. A world-famous instructor would only be an asset to a traditional institution. 

A final advantage of the flipped classroom is that, with thousands or even tens of thousands of learning modules online, helping a student to follow her special interests in pursuit of a metaskill can become a reality. A single teacher cannot have mastery over thousands of specialized skills, but he can have mastery in guidance, a facilitation, and personalized teaching. 

A while ago, a reporter from NBC was doing a story on a fifth-grade class using the Khan Academy videos as course material. She noticed a fifth-grader doing trigonometry, and sat down beside her. “Do you think this is fifth-grade math?” she asked. The little girl whispered conspiratorially: “No—I think it’s sixth-grade.”

4. Stop talking, start making

In a windowless classroom on the campus of Triton College, 16 girls from 11 to 15 years old are designing and constructing a cat feeder, a candy dispenser, and a music box using various pieces of foam board, fiberglass, metal, and PVC pipe. Antigone Sharris founded this all-girls program, which she calls Gadget Camp. “Not letting children learn the hands-on component of science is killing us as a nation,” she said. “You have to stop giving kids books and start giving them tools.”

Doreen Quinn, a treatment therapist for the New Haven Youth and Family Services in Vista, California, took on the thankless task of helping at-risk boys in gang-prone Hispanic neighborhoods, many of whom had severe emotional problems, learning disabilities, and a lack of English skills. She found it almost impossible to get through. On the brink of giving up, she had an epiphany: Boys learn better on their feet.

She hurried down to Lowe’s and bought some wood, glue, nails, paint, and simple hand tools. She laid them out next to a plan to build a birdhouse. The boys were transfixed. They became fascinated with the problem of building their own structures, suddenly paying attention, cooperating, and asking detailed questions. Her conversations with them began to flow naturally, giving the therapeutic process a chance to unfold. Not only that, building a birdhouse, or anything else, requires skills such as reading (plans and instructions), math (measurements and geometry), economics (budgeting and buying), and interpersonal skills (cooperating and collaborating).     

Quinn’s success led New Haven to found a tuition-free public charter school for kids with learning challenges, called North County Trade Tech High School. Trade Tech now has 28,000 square feet of classroom and workshop spaces, and harbors a dream to expand into a community college, adding specialties such as auto-tech, the culinary arts, and sports and recreation hospitality.

While most people assume trade school is the end of the educational line, Quinn has found that many of the kids go on to traditional colleges. Along with real-world technical training, they learn core academics, including math and English. A daily fixture of the curriculum is a 30-minute, campus-wide period of “sustained silent reading” (no comics allowed), and students are required to write “reflections” about what they’ve learned or how they might solve a particular problem. She calls this kind of education “back-dooring.”

But what if the back door is really the front door? What if project-based learning is superior to subject-based learning in the post-industrial age?

Technology innovator Ray Kurzweil thinks it is. “The best way to learn is by doing your own projects,” he says. Project-based learning, also called problem-based learning, has become a hot topic. It was discussed with excitement at a string of European conferences in 2009, as part of the European Year of Creativity and Innovation. In China, a country long thought a bastion of non-innovation, educational reforms are underway to extinguish the drill-and-kill teaching style and replace it with problem-based learning. 

Problem- and project-based education is a dynamic process that reconnects students with their emotions, with their senses, with their concept of what’s possible in life. Instead of only taking in, they’re asked to give out, to contribute something new. Creative achievement requires an act of courage, which in turn builds character. It fosters hard work, integrity, self-control, honesty, and persistence, virtues that have been eroded by our culture of easy multiple choice.       

I once had a college instructor who would shout: “Shut up and design!” He knew that if your goal was to learn something, there was no substitute for making something.

5. Engage the learning drive

Why can’t Johnny and Susie sit still? Ken Robinson, well known education reformer, noticed that attention-deficit disorder had been spreading in lockstep with standardized testing. It showed up more in places where schooling was the most regimented. He now believes that ADHD is a “fake disease.” Not that there aren’t legitimate cases of it, but that the cause of most hyperactivity and lack of focus is not an outbreak of learning disabilities, but the obsolete nature of our schooling.  

He draws a sharp contrast between two kinds of learning experiences: aesthetic and anaesthetic. An aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak, when you’re in the moment, when you’re fully alive, when you’re resonating with the excitement of what you’re learning. An anaesthetic experience is one in which your senses are deadened. He believes we’re getting our kids through school by anaesthetizing them with Ritalin and other interventions. “We shouldn’t be putting them to sleep,” he says. “We should be waking them up to what they have inside themselves.”

When a child has to ignore his kinesthetic and perceptual world to learn about things “out there,” he has to disassociate from himself to do it. As a result, an understanding of aesthetics never develops. To appreciate any kind of art or skillful achievement, you need to relive or “mirror” the making of it. If you’ve never played a sport, it’s hard to appreciate it the physical and mental inputs that make it remarkable. If you’ve never played music, it’s hard to appreciate the intricately layered sounds or the tradition that gave birth to them. If you’ve never written a story, it’s hard to appreciate the rhythms, symbols, and structure of someone else’s story.

Hands-on, minds-on projects can make the difference between shallow learning and deep learning. In a typical textbook lesson, like memorizing word pairs or historical events, most students can only recall an average of 10 percent of the material after 3-6 days. The other 90 percent goes away. In contrast, hands-on learning has a way of sticking around much longer, since it engages students at a deeper level, the level of emotions and personal interest.

Shallow learning results from a reductionist use of rational drivers such as memorization, extrinsic rewards, objective truth, formulas, observation, reason, skepticism, and expertise. Deep learning comes from the addition of emotional drivers such as imagination, intrinsic rewards, experiential truth, aesthetics, intuition, passion, and wonder. When you mix these together, you can achieve a kind of spontaneous combustion—an explosion of questions and creative activity that makes traditional learning seem tame by comparison.

6. Advance beyond degrees

There’s nothing wrong with extrinsic rewards and recognition if they help you focus on what’s important. But if test scores, grades, credits, rankings, or degrees become ends in themselves, they divert valuable energy towards inauthentic goals. Real advancement can’t be measured in merit badges and gold stars.

This is the lingering effect of the Industrial Age on education. Getting a good test score had come to mean progress. Hearing a lecture had come to mean understanding. Finishing a course had come to mean proficiency. And getting a degree had come to mean expertise. As a consequence, cheating has now reached epidemic proportions.

Right from the beginning, we’ve been taught that the answer is probably in the back of the chapter; that there’s nothing important that hasn’t been written down; and that the highest goal in life is to be correct. Donald Treffinger called this “right-answer fixation.” Students who fear mistakes tend to be less creative. They can’t risk failure. But real advancement is measured in mastery, not correctness. As you master a topic, a skill, or a discipline, you can feel your confidence grow. The feeling itself is the measurement.

What does the route from student to master look like? More than anything, it looks like apprenticeship. For most of our history, children have learned skills from experienced workers a very early age. Apprenticing was schooling. But even today, the shortest path to well-honed, finely-tuned skills in most disciplines is working alongside a master. Mastery can’t be reached without guidance and sustained focus. It can’t be assembled it from thin, 50-minute classes spaced apart by days.

Quest University in British Columbia has attacked this deficiency head on. Instead of the usual curriculum of several subjects spread over 16 weeks, Quest uses the “block system.” Students take one course for four weeks straight, no interruptions, before moving on the next one. This means the students are together with their instructor every day for the duration of the course. Instead of juggling, they focus. Instead of grazing, they go deep. Instead of piling up credits, they collect skills, knowledge, and experience.

One day, when David Helfand was teaching a class at Columbia, he asked the students why they weren’t more curious, why they didn’t ask more questions. The answers fell into three categories. Answer 1: “There’s so much to learn, and it’s all on Google anyway.” Answer 2: “This is a seminar; asking questions could be a sign of weakness.” Answer 3: “You have to understand, I’m paying for a degree, not an education.” Soon after, Quest University was born.

I’m not suggesting we eliminate degrees, or the tests and textbooks that define them. I’m only suggesting that we make mastery more important than merit badges by giving students of a taste of authentic joy.

7. Shape the future

Today we find ourselves caught between two paradigms, the linear, reductionist past and the spiraling, multivalent future. The old world turned on the axis of knowledge and material goods. The new one turns on the axis of creativity and social responsibility. To cross safely to the other side we’ll need a generation of thinkers and makers who can reframe problems and design surprising, elegant solutions. We’ll need fearless, self-directed learners who embrace adventure. We’ll need teachers, mentors, and leaders who understand that mind-shaping is world-shaping—who give learners the tools they’ll need to continually reinvent their minds in response to future challenges.

The cold rationality of the assembly line has denied us access to the most human part of ourselves. It has made us believe that if a thing can’t be counted, weighed, measured, or memorized, it can’t be important. It has caused us to narrow our experience of life, leaving little room for feeling, seeing, dreaming, making, or learning.

There’s a theory called “cognitive recapitulation” that says children learn by retracing the steps of human evolution. As toddlers, we resemble nothing so much as monkeys, absorbed with climbing and clinging and touching. By six years old we’ve acquired the cognitive skills of Lucy, Australopithicus afarensis. One year later we’re passing through the world of early Homo erectus, and by eight we’re racing past the genius level for erectus, well on the way to Homo sapiens.

In the 21st century it seems as if we’re straining towards a new stage of evolution. Our “fourth brain”—the shared, external brain we’re building in the cloud—is rebalancing the load so that our right brain can rejoin our left as an equal partner. It now seems possible, even necessary, to reconnect art with science, synthesis with analysis, magic with logic. By taking the gains of the Industrial Age and infusing them with the humanity already encoded in our genes, we can reclaim our humanness and create dazzling arrays of technological wonders. We can begin to lighten our step and lengthen our stride as we make way on once-impossible problems such as sustainability, poverty, war, injustice, and ignorance. 

A clue to our future may well lie in our past. Forty thousand years ago, our ancestors began leaving curious stencils of their own hands on the walls of painted caves. They seemed to understand, better than we do today, that our hands are what allowed us to evolve into fully realized human beings. “I make,” the hand on the wall seems to say, “therefore I am.”

Let’s make a New Year’s resolution to kill off the zombie model once and for all. Let’s redesign our educational system as a garden, so we can grow into the creative humans we were always meant to be. 


Adapted from Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age.