The School Of The Future

TLDR: The current education system is not efficient enough, and does not provide an equally high level of education for all students. YouTube and similar systems can be used to significantly improve it while making the best use of teachers’ time and skills. The teachers themselves will also gain from this change.

Every educational institution – whether elementary school, middle school, high school, or even university – has great teachers, and mediocre ones. I’m not trying to insult or otherwise hurt the teachers’ feelings, or to suggest that there’s something wrong with the way teachers are hired or trained: rather, I’m stating a simple objective fact – or in other words, this is how the world works.

Take a thousand athletes: obviously, some of them will be great and some less so. Take a thousand scientists: some will be good, some less. A thousand painters? A thousand chefs? same. This phenomenon even has a name – ‘normal distribution’- and is most often represented by a graph reminiscent of a bell. The excellent teachers, those whom all the students would have chosen if given the opportunity, are on the far right of the bell curve – and hence they constitute only a minority of all the teachers. Again, this is not a result of some hidden systematic failure: this is the ‘normal’ distribution, in the sense of “this is the way of the world”. Some teachers are really bad (i.e. the left margin of the graph), most will be mediocre – and a lucky few are truly excellent.

The classic Bell Curve of Normal Distribution. Poorly performing teachers are represented by the left end of the curved shape, while excellent teachers are on the right end.

If you’re looking for tangible evidence of this phenomenon, I suggest a brief tour of the Technion classrooms. In most schools, students don’t have the option to choose the teachers who teach them – but at the Technion (and perhaps also in other higher education institutions) the students have such a choice. And the result? In almost every academic course there are one or two lecturers whose classroom is absolutely packed with students – while the rest of the lecturers teach in front of half-empty classrooms. why? Because everyone wants to study with the good teacher, of course. I’m pretty sure that if high-school students were allowed to choose their teachers, the result would have been quite similar.

I’m sure all of us, parents and teachers alike, would have been happy if we could make all (or at least most) of the teachers in the education system successful and great. How can this be achieved?

Are Better Salaries The Answer?

One option is to improve the way we select and train new teachers. But how does one go about doing this? Does anyone know how to take a random person and make him or her excellent – in any given profession? Is there a soccer school whose graduates are all as good as Messi and Ronaldo? Is there a music school whose graduates are all virtuosi? No. There is no such thing – not in football, not in music, and not in teaching. Of course, a good school will produce better graduates on average – but not everyone will be great.

Another idea that often comes up in discussions about improving the level of teaching is raising the teachers’ salaries to attract excellent candidates to the education system. I think this is a great idea: the education system is vital to the future of any country, and we must provide it with the best people we can find. But will raising the teachers’ salaries result in all (or at least most) students having excellent teachers? No. The reason is simple and practical: not only will this place an exceptionally heavy burden on a country’s budget – it’s also more than likely that there are not enough such excellent teachers in the world. Why? because as the Normal Distribution dictates, only a small percentage of the general population will be great at anything.

If this is the case, and our education system is mostly populated by mediocre teachers – why are we willing to accept this situation? The answer is that until recently, this was the best and most effective way to educate large numbers of children and provide them with a basic level of education. In the pre-industrial revolution era, only very affluent families could afford to hire a private tutor to provide a good education for their children. The modern education system sacrifices the quality of teaching in favor of providing reasonable education for all children, poor and rich alike.

The Wisdom of Crowds

But today we have a better option. I shall name this option “YouTube” – although I’m not necessarily talking about Google’s well-known website, but the basic idea behind it, as we shall shortly see.

There are billions of videos on YouTube ( 300 hours of new videos are uploaded to the site every minute! ). You can find thousands upon thousands of videos on any given topic: from linear algebra to remodeling antique cars. Here, too, the bell curve does its job: some of these videos will be of low quality, most of them will be mediocre and only a minority will be Great. Fortunately, YouTube’s engineers have developed a variety of methods to identify and highlight the best videos. For example, viewers can ‘Like’ or ‘Dislike’ a video, share a video they liked, comment on the videos or add them to a ‘recommended videos’ playlist. YouTube’s automated systems know how to weigh all these signals, and highlight the better videos, the ones that are worth paying attention to.

The bottom line is that if we enter ‘how to solve a quadratic equation in the search bar, we’ll most probably find a video that explains this topic beautifully: a video that has been ‘recommended’ to us by millions upon millions of previous users. This is true for all topics, from history to makeup to programming. In other words, we have successfully found the far-right edge of the bell curve: the best teachers for the given topic we were looking for.

Naturally, these are not “real” teachers: most of these YouTubers don’t teach at schools. Yet they do teach, and they have probably invested many hours in creating their content and are skilled in explaining difficult ideas: we know this to be true because although there were millions of videos created about the topic we searched for – their’s was the one most recommended by YouTube’s users. We might say that their successful videos are the web’s version of a packed and crowded classroom, full of students who have chosen the teacher they like the most.

These online videos have another important characteristic: they’re available to everyone, everywhere, and at any time. It doesn’t matter if you were born in a remote village or the middle of Manhatten, and it doesn’t matter if the said video was shot five or even 15 years ago: everyone with a screen can take advantage of these excellent learning materials, free of charge or at a relatively low cost.

And that’s not all. As I mentioned earlier, I’m using the word ‘YouTube’ as a stand-in for all types of online content that have the same two basic characteristics: a) content that was filtered and recommended by millions of users, and b) is available to everyone, everywhere and at any time. This might include everything from blog posts to podcasts to VR experiences.

This fact enables another important aspect of The School Of The Future: personalized learning. There’s no reason why a student should be forced to learn about the Civil War from a book or in the classroom if he or she prefers learning from a video, a blog post, or a podcast. The media they choose is irrelevant: it’s only the content that matters.

A New Era For Teachers

Lastly, this new way of teaching will benefit the school teachers themselves. Yes, I know this sounds a bit strange: wasn’t I just advocating for replacing teachers with pre-recorded materials? No – actually, I wasn’t. We will still need teachers in The School Of The Future, but their roles in the classroom will be different. 

There are some things that online content cannot do. Answering questions is one of them. Solving exercises and offering emotional support is another. Because education means more than just teaching: It is also about helping the students learn how to learn, broadening their worldview, igniting passions inside of them, providing them with a role model, helping them overcome difficulties, and even providing emotional support when times turn bad. 

Future teachers will provide all of these benefits for their students. Instead of wasting many hours explaining stuff that has already been explained a thousand times over by other – better – content creators, they can now concentrate on particularly difficult issues that students need help with. They will also be able to afford the time to create deeper, more meaningful connections with their students. In other words, they can become better Educators, not Teachers.

So, How Will It Work?

The bottom line is that if we transition from the current system, where a single teacher stands in front of thirty students, to a system where each student learns from online content recommended by many other users, we’ll benefit in several ways:

  • Every student will have a chance to learn from the best teachers on a given topic.
  • Every student in the country, no matter where they live or how much money they have, can enjoy the same (excellent) level of education.
  • The cost of such an education system will be minuscule, relative to our current one, because fewer teachers will be needed, and
  • The teachers will be able to concentrate their efforts on activities that are now being somewhat neglected due to time constraints. 

Let us now tie all these loose ends, and envision a typical day at The School Of The Future.

The teacher enters the classroom. “Hello, class,” she says to the students – both the ones who are physically present and the ones whose faces are projected on the wall in front of her. In The School Of The Future, it doesn’t matter if you’re at school or at home (at least when it comes to education – there might be a difference when it comes to socializing with fellow students, but that’s another matter): everyone has access to the same learning materials.

“Today we’ll be learning about Christopher Columbus. Please open the links I’ve sent you.” The students open their smartphones or laptops. One link directs them to a YouTube video with 10 million views, which tells Columbus’s story via amazing animations. Another link directs them to a prize-winning podcast episode, and the third link takes them to a series of blog posts written by a witty Ph.D. student (from India, naturally).

For the next twenty minutes, each student watches, listens, or reads about Columbus in the media they feel the most comfortable with. During that time, the teacher walks around the classroom, answering questions and talking to the students. One of the boys, she sees, seems gloomy and troubled. She sits next to him and asks him what’s wrong. It turns out that the boy’s dog has gone missing. They talk for a while: Columbus can wait – the boy can watch the video at some other time. The teacher encourages the student, giving him ideas on how to find his lost dog. When they’re done, the boy is visibly better, the teacher feels a deep sense of content and joy in being able to help him – and they now share a deeper and warmer human connection between them.

“Ok, phones down, kids,” She says. “Now, who can tell me at what year did Columub leave Spain?…” The teacher and the class spend the next half an hour talking about the new information learned, taking quizzes, and answering questions. It’s just another day at The School Of The Future.

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