The Kenny Fantasy School System

Copyright (c) 2015 by Kenny Felder

This essay describes some problems I have with our fundamental approach to education, and suggests some drastic changes that I would like to see. I'm going to focus on math for my examples, because that is what I see every day, but I hope to make it clear that my theme is much broader.

A (Very) Typical School Scene

I will begin by narrating a typical scene at the school where I teach. The two characters are myself and "Bob," a composite of many students that I have seen over the years.

Bob is a diligent student. He doesn't like math, and he isn't very good at it, but he does want to do well in school—in order to please his parents, or to get into a good college, or just to do the right thing. So almost every morning he comes to "Math Lab," our optional before-school tutoring session. Today he greets me politely—we know each other by now, from many other such sessions—and opens his book to the section on Sequences and Series, where we begin with the following problem: "Find the sum of the first fifty odd numbers."

We work through the problem step by step. Is this a "sequence" problem or a "series" problem? Good. Is this series "arithmetic," "geometric," or neither? Good. Where in the book can you find the formula for the sum of an arithmetic series? Good. Now, that formula requires us to know the last term in the series...where can you find the formula for that? Good. Now you've got everything you need, so work it through.


Now let's check our answer in the back of the book. We got it right, hooray!

This is not just about getting the right answer; Bob is learning a process. After much repetition he will internalize the process until he can do it without my help. He will do well on next week's test, and then move on to the next topic. If his teacher circles back to Sequences and Series in a few months, Bob will learn it all again. That will help transfer this process into his long-term memory.

If I wrote the scene above correctly, many readers are cheering. However, my goal was to illustrate problems with our current educational system. Before you read further, you may want to re-read that scene with the following question in mind: what are some downsides to my interaction with Bob?

Before I answer that question, I want to point out two math questions that Bob did not ask. You, gentle reader, probably didn't ask them either (but congratulations if you did).

Bob looked up and used two formulas during his solution: an=a1+d(n-1), and S=(n/2)(a1+an). The first question he did not ask is: where did those two formulas come from? Both derivations are relatively easy, and the second one in particular is pretty darn cool. But if I try to explain them to Bob, he will politely ignore me until I get back to "how to get the right answer." The second question Bob did not ask is even more important: who cares about the sum of the first 50 odd numbers? Is there any good reason to figure that out, beyond "my teacher asked me to"?

So here come two very important facts. First: a few students actually do ask both of those questions. Second: the vast majority of students, like Bob, do not. Hold onto those facts, because they are central to my thesis.

Now I'm ready to more directly answer the question I posed rhetorically earlier: what could possibly be wrong with the Bob scene as I described it?

One obvious problem is that Bob hates the whole thing. This may seem so obvious that you wonder I should bring it up at all. Everyone hates school, or at least hates some subjects, and don't we all just have to accept that? But there is a price to pay for making so much of childhood miserable for everyone in our society, and a separate price for specifically associating "learning" with "drudgery." To put this in a more positive way, it would be a huge boon if we could make education something that kids actually look forward to. If you disagree, it's probably just because you think that would be impossible, but I would like to challenge that assumption.

Another problem is that this whole process consumes huge amounts of both Bob's and my time. Bob could be spending all this time learning other things, and I could be spending all this time (which you are paying for, Mr. Taxpayer) teaching other people.

But wait! The time was well worth it, because Bob learned a valuable skill; you said so yourself.

No, I said he learned to use the formula for the sum of an arithmetic series. How is that valuable? It won't help him balance his checkbook, order a pizza, or run a business.

OK, maybe math at this level is not useful in day-to-day life. But it's keeping the door open for Bob to become a scientist or engineer. Those professions need those skills.

I don't think we're giving Bob the training he needs for those professions at all. Let me look harder at what we're actually training Bob to do.

Rote Skills vs Problem Solving

Here is another problem that Bob may bring to me during another chapter in the same year. "A 10-L vat is full of a uniform mixture of 30% alcohol and 70% water. You want to dump out some of this vat and refill it with a stronger solution of 60% alcohol and 40% water, and you want the resulting 10-L mixture to contain 50% alcohol. How much should you dump and refill?"1

It's a fun little problem if you enjoy puzzles, and—crucially—if you've never seen anything like it before. You start thinking about how much alcohol you had, and how much you need, and you set up a few equations and meander your way to the answer. Some kids enjoy thinking through things like that.

Bob does not, but his teacher is ready for him. She has given him a template for solving all "mixture problems." Bob learns how to draw a little table that looks exactly the same for all such problems, fill in blanks to indicate the information he was given, and combine the numbers to fill in the last blank with the right answer. His teacher calls this "structuring for success." I call it "sucking all the math out of a math problem."

Remember that Bob is diligent and conscientious. He will learn how to solve "mixture problems" and eventually he will be able to solve any problem that looks exactly like the ones in the book. In another chapter Bob's teacher will give him a magic formula for "two pipes filling a swimming pool" problems. Then she will teach him that with absolute values "less-than problems lead to AND answers, greater-than problems lead to OR." With dozens of arbitrary rules like these swimming around his head, Bob will pass the final exam.

And it's all a total waste of time. Plugging into formulas by rote—with no idea where those formulas came from, and no underlying thinking process—moves Bob a huge step away from what he might need as an engineer. If he took higher-level classes he would have to unlearn that "skill" before he could make any progress.

Deep down, in all likelihood, Bob's teacher knows that. But she is creating a system in which Bob can be successful, at least in the short term. He can get the happy feeling of progress, feel like math isn't so bad, and get reasonable grades in her class and on the all-important standardized tests. She can see visible, easily testable progress. Everyone wins, as long as everyone is comfortable betting that Bob will never have to face higher-level problems.

I believe that's a good bet, and here's where I alienate many of my readers: Bob won't face those higher-level problems because he is not going to become a scientist or engineer. His skills and his interests lie in other directions. He knows it, and his teacher knows it.

You heartless elitist, you're giving up on Bob.

Not at all. There is another way to educate Bob—better for society, but also much better for Bob, in both the short and long terms.

Well, you're giving up on him as an engineer much too early.

This whole story so far has been an attempt to convince you that Bob, and his teacher, and our system, have already given up on that option. If Bob really wanted to be an engineer, his teacher would have to start over and go much more slowly. She would have to talk less about rote templates and more about open-ended and ambiguous problems, less about formulas and more about thinking processes. They would both find the process frustrating and painful.

Our current system is designed to give up on Bob's math while maintaining the illusion that we haven't. We teach him a bunch of skills that we know are useless and we know he will forget, but that superficially look like math. Then we can point to our compassionate educational system and when Bob later becomes (say) a high-level advertising executive who never uses math, we can say "He made that choice after high school."

Today's School

When I walk into a classroom, I see three types of students. To picture that third type of relationship, imagine that you go to a ski instructor or a golf pro. If he's really good, you are thrilled to have access to an expert in the very thing you want to learn. He doesn't waste either of your time trying to make you learn; instead, he figures out how to best help you learn.

I really do have students like that, every year. Sometimes they aren't the "best" math students, in the sense of having the best developed skills or most natural aptitude. (Sometimes they are.) But they aren't trying to outwit me or get around me; they're trying to get as much as they can from me. They get a whole lot, from me or any other teacher.

I'm sure I would find the same three types of students if I were teaching about the first world war, or the plays of Shakespeare, or almost anything that we force all kids to learn. So I would like you to consider, just for a moment, a world in which all these classrooms are filled with only the third type of student: students who actually want to learn that particular subject. This teacher never collects or checks homework, although he does answer questions on the homework. Actually he spends most of his time answering questions.

I know, your mind immediately fills with a million reasons why it's impossible. But before we dive into those, just give yourself a moment to imagine it. Wouldn't it be amazing? Wouldn't teachers teach a lot more, and students learn a lot more? I call this the "Kenny fantasy school system," and you may already feel that the name is all too appropriate, but I think we could get a lot closer to it than we are. Let's see briefly what it looks like.

The Kenny Fantasy School System

First, some basics. There are some skills that every adult in our society needs. That list includes the ability to read and comprehend a reasonably complex document: say, a five-page paper on the American conflicts in Iraq. It includes the ability to write something coherent: say, a page-long request for funding. It includes enough math to pay your bills and taxes, divide up a restaurant check, make change, and—beyond that—make sense of the stream of numbers that is continually flowing at us from advertising and political sources. In the Kenny fantasy system all children would be forced to learn all these things, just as they are now.

All children would also be forced to get a good taste of real math, of real science, of real history, of real literature, just as they are now. (Also by the way of art and music and philosophy, all of which are considered optional now.) Enough exposure to figure out if these things interest them.

But beyond that, people would have a lot more choices. The vast majority, I believe, would choose practical and vocational skills. Many of these would become apprentices rather than school students. They would fix cars, maintain computer networks, and run businesses. Their motivation would be the traditional motivation for apprentices: "You work so you can eat."

Much of what we call "academia" today—Shakespeare and Henry Clay and Plato and the quadratic formula—would be reserved for the weirdos who actually like that stuff. I happen to be one of those weirdos, and you may be one also. But it isn't horrible elitism to suggest that we are in a small minority, my friend. On the contrary, the true elitism may lie in insisting that the rest of the world should learn the things we value, whether they value them or not.

I think the advantages of this system are obvious, and I've listed many of them anyway. Students would be much happier learning things they either care about, or can at least see the value of. Teachers would be happier teaching motivated students. Education would be less onerous, less expensive, and a lot more efficient and productive.

But I'm also aware that most people will reject my system. I don't actually expect to convince most of you, but I do want you to know that I am aware of, and have thought about, your objections.

Objection: No kid will learn anything if you don't make him.

Sorry, but that is just objectively not true. Lots of kids learn math and literature and history for fun. Every year I teach Precalculus to a group of eager volunteers: they do homework twice a week (although I never check the homework), take tests (strictly on the honor system), get grades, and in the end receive no credit for doing this whatsoever. It does not appear on their high school transcripts. I have kids lining up for this opportunity; I have to turn some of them down.

Of course most kids don't do those things for fun, but most kids are not going to do them when they grow up either. You, gentle reader—who I am assuming for the moment is a 30-year-old account executive at a Fortune 500 company, just to have a specific picture in mind—you don't want to do those things, and no one is making you. Why make your kids?

But please remember that I'm not against making kids learn. I want to make all kids learn the basics, and then I want to make all kids learn a trade. I'm against making kids learn pointless crap. And I actually think they will do better and enjoy it more, in general, when they are learning useful stuff.

Objection: What do you mean, "pointless crap"? This stuff is important!

What stuff? Do you, adult reader, remember who Henry Clay was? Do you remember the plot of any Faulkner novels? Can you factor a quadratic function, or balance a chemical equation? How many of these skills are important in your career or your home life?

Objection: The specific knowledge is forgotten, but kids learn how to think and solve problems.

As I described above, I think most of our math classes teach the exact opposite. We teach them that thinking is frustrating and rarely rewarded, and rote plugging into formulas is a lot easier. We teach them that you can't have a square root in the denominator, because I said so.3 If you wanted to deliberately weaken the critical thinking skills of the next generation, most of today's math classes would be a great place to start. And the more we focus on standardized tests, the more we move in that direction.

Remember also what I said at the very top: although I am focusing on math for my examples, much of what I am writing applies to most of school. Science classes, even history and English classes, can be made formulaic in a way that specifically works against true critical thinking. And this is often done with the best of intentions, which is that it provides a pathway to successs for kids who have absolutely no interest in the subject matter.

Objection: You lost me when you said that Bob was not going to become an engineer. Maybe he won't, but he doesn't know that and you don't either. These kids are too young to close doors.

No one can predict the future with 100% certainty. So this devolves into everyone's favorite self-righteous incantation: "If we put a hundred kids through a totally useless five year program, but in the end just one kid discovers the potential he never knew he had, it was all worth it for just that one kid. Excuse me while I wipe away a patriotic tear."

By that logic, perhaps, we should force all thirty-year-old math haters to attend engineering school. I'll bet a few of them would surprise you and themselves. It's a big country.

But you won't find that compelling, I suspect, because 15-year-olds are not 30-year-olds. They were born much more recently, after all, and that fact seems to carry tremendous moral weight. So let me try two arguments that may have more punch.

  1. I argued above that our current system has already given up on Bob's math. If you seriously want to hold out the possibility that Bob will become an engineer some day, then you're going to spend two weeks teaching him how to solve "mixture problems" instead of two days. He will hate it and so will you, and you will cover far less material, but you will at least have a chance of bringing out his untapped potential. (Now multiply the cost of that by the number of children in the system.) But throwing out formulas for Bob to memorize is the most cynical kind of posturing: it pretends that you're still training him for some future potential while actually doing the opposite.

  2. Against your "just one kid" who surprises everyone with his late-blooming math aptitude, I want to weigh a hundred other kids who don't. In the current system some of those kids drop out of high school and never end up in good jobs. Others slog toward lives and careers they hate. In my system they would pursue their passions and their skills to lives that they would enjoy much more in the short term, and quite possibly more productive careers in the long term. There is a human cost to my system, but there is a human cost to the current system too: it sucks a lot for a whole lot of people. Below I will describe some specific experiments I would like to see to test my theory that my system would be overall a drastic improvement.

Final Thoughts

Politicians are falling all over themselves, during the past few decades, to stress the importance of college. What used to be an optional enrichment program for eggheads has become the mandatory next step for all Americans. And the reason is clear, whether you listen to politicians on the left or the right: it's so those kids can get jobs. College is important because it's vocational.

Ironically, that doesn't seem to be what the colleges think of themselves. They are introducing more and more entirely non-vocational majors such as Southern Culture or Queer Studies. They want to teach critical thinking and diversity and identity.

The perpetual lie, from elementary Common Core rhetoric right through the university system, is that these two goals are so close that we can accomplish both at once. When we teach a kid to read Shakespeare or solve quadratic equations we are helping him enrich his mind and explore the world, and also preparing him for the job market. Two birds with one stone.

I want to dare to ask the question: "How's that working out for you?" My theory is that it isn't working very well for the vast majority of kids. My theory is that we could do much better. I'm honestly not suggesting that we overhaul our educational system overnight, but I would love to see some controlled and finite experiments to test my theories.

I don't actually expect any of this to happen. It's too radical, and it's too against the American grain. But I do think if it did happen, the results would be conclusive. And if we changed our system based on those results, twenty years later no one would even consider going back to what we do now.


1Some of my readers will break into hives just reading that question. Some of these same readers will still insist that "I went through it long ago, and my kids can go through it now, and it's good for them." I want to force such readers to solve a hundred logarithm problems, just to watch them squirm.  back

2They want to get into medical school. They become...doctors. Even the ones who hate Biology want to become doctors. This is depressing to me year after year, but that's a topic for another essay.  back

3Yeah, that's a particular pet peeve of mine. Sorry. See Math and the Obvious for a more specific discussion of how I think math in particular should be taught.  back


From: Jay Shin
September 20, 2015

It's kinda scary, because you articulated pretty much EXACTLY what I think about education, and I couldn't have said it any better. But I just have one question. You said that "All children would also be forced to get a good taste of real math, of real science, of real history, of real literature, just as they are now." Unfortunately, the cramming of what you call "useless crap" is kinda ingrained with what we call "a good taste" or the backbone of our education. Assuming people adopt this education system, is it going to be up to the schools themselves to decide what is deemed fundamental to or a "good taste" of the child's education? Where do you draw the lines between barely skimming the surface of these elementary studies and simply giving these kids a "taste" of the subjects schools should inherently teach? I'm just curious to see what you think.

From: Kenny Felder

Great question, Jay! I deliberately left that ambiguous, because I don't know. I would love to see that question also settled by doing actual experiments, controlled and rigorous, instead of guessing. What I'm arguing for here is just the principle that the "right amount" is giving the kid enough exposure to determine if he might enjoy this sort of thing.

From: Michelle Williams

Whatever the "right" answer to Jay's question is, it will involve active participation by the students. A "good taste" of each of the real sciences, for example, includes experiments: developing a theory, testing it, analyzing and reporting results. I'm not necessarily talking Science Fair projects—you can do dozens of one or two class period experiments in a school year.

The point is that a "good taste" isn't composed solely of listening to 45 minute lectures. (You knew that and didn't claim otherwise. Just pointing out the obvious.)

From: Vanessa Lopez
September 20, 2015

If you did begin a pilot program at the high school level, I'd send my kids! One question... Given your comments regarding universities, I'm curious what you would say if one of your children expressed a desire to not attend college.

From: Kenny Felder

I certainly wouldn't force him. I might try to talk him into it, but even there, it depends on that particular child's interests and aptitudes, and also on what he wanted to do instead.

From: Vanessa Lopez
September 20, 2015

Oh one other thought. From my point of view, one of the main problems with the current system is teachers themselves. I think you are in a minority of teachers who actually want students to ask questions. I think early education has to be done in a way that allows questions and encourages them if we want students to ask them at your level. I could write a whole long essay myself about that!

From: Kenny Felder

I'd love to see yours, Vanessa! I wrote a pretty short one on a similar theme, originally as a radio commentary:

From: Vanessa Lopez

I like your 2 suggestions but I don't see them happening in a world where education is provided / monitored by the government. At least the federal government for sure. Sending education back to a state issue would be a great step in the right direction

From: Kenny Felder

I confess I've never understood that point of view. I understand why some people believe in private enterprise over the government, and I agree in some cases and not others. But why trust bureaucrats in Raleigh more than bureaucrats in DC? Is there really something that NC students—from big city Charlotte, from mountainous Asheville, from beachfront Wilmington, from egghead Chapel Hill, from small-town Hillsborough—have in common, that other US students don't?

From: Vanessa Lopez

Yes! I think it's an issue of culture and economics. Teaching a kid from rural west Virginia should not equal the same things that teaching a kid from San Francisco California does

From: Vanessa Lopez

And I only suggest it be a state issue as a compromise due to the fact that public education requires use of public funds. Politicians in Raleigh are not equipped to make decisions about students everywhere but they are most certainly able to do a better job than politicians in DC. That's what I meant by "a step in the right direction ".

From: Felicia Bridges
September 20, 2015

I think this describes something similar to what my friends who homeschool do. Their kids learn the things that must be mastered to pass tests to prove they are being taught and then, knowing their children's strengths and interests, they work together to pursue specific interests. The result is mostly kids who do very, very well in life, some via college and others via trade school or business. And who can problem-solve and choose their own path.

From: Kenny Felder

I've heard that a lot, Felicia. I've also heard less positive stories. One thing I haven't heard, that I would love to, is any statistics.

From: Felicia Bridges

There seem to be lots of websites for stats:,,, and pop up immediately.

From: Kenny Felder

That's great! But the stats are not incredibly meaningful unless they are controlled for socio-economic background.

From: Felicia Bridges

I didn't have time this morning to review them, just listed the first four to pop up on Google search.

From: Michelle Ristuccia

There are a lot of stats out there, but interpreting them is quite another matter. Homeschooling itself is selective because not every one can manage the logistics of one income or other compromises to allow a parent to homeschool. I wouldn't be surprised if the average income of a homeschool family was more than the national average. Then, many surveys for homeschoolers are skewed towards (or limited entirely to) a group of homeschoolers and then further limited to people who will actually fill out such surveys. But then, these kinds of problems aren't much different than other statistics you can find on, well, just about any thing else. Politics comes to mind.

From: Felicia Bridges

You've described exactly why I am skeptical of stats in general regardless of the topic. It's all in how you ask the question and who you ask. And even if you approach it with no preconceived intent to skew the data, the statistician's own bias is likely to creep in either in subtle or not so subtle ways.

From: Cheenu Tiwari
September 20, 2015

Ever since I heard about overjustification, I've definitely realized that students overall focus on grades more than about learning the material itself. I know you mentioned that in your accelerated exploration classes, there would be a very diminished focus on actual grades. I'm very curious about this matter because at some point, you have to have a standard that, in some quantitative (or qualitative) manner says, "Student X was more capable than Student Y in his engineering class." At least the way our job market is structured, employers need some measure that can weigh the competency of different applicants. On the other hand, if you have such a gold standard in place, students will end up focusing more on topping that standard rather than actually learning. I personally like the Exploris model, where kids got personalized feedback from year to year rather than actual grades, but I'm curious as to what your thoughts are on the matter—what should the role of grades be in this school system, and how would students be made aware (or not) that they are being evaluated by some standard?

From: Kenny Felder

Good question! In general I'm in favor of grading. I like giving a student a concrete measure of how well he's doing. I like colleges (or even honors classes) having a quantitative way of selecting students, although it should be balanced with more qualitative measures. And I don't think a grading system will inevitably lead to the attitude "I only care about the grade" if the students do in fact care about the content.

From: Michelle Williams
September 20, 2015

Yay—a new essay from Kenny! Yay—it's about education which is pretty much my favorite topic to hear you go on about! grin emoticon


Something I didn't get a lot of in school that I would like to be added to your fantasy school: fact or source checking. When I was in school, our history or civics teacher would have us bring in an article from a newspaper and share it with the class. I think the goal might have been to help us understand that the conflicts we were studying in history had modern day implications but that part never really came across. I think also that the assumption was that, if it made the newspaper, someone had fact-checked it and it was basically true. People no longer get their news from newspapers and, even if they did, it can't be assumed that the info is reliable. Most people could use some instruction on how to find alternative sources and views.

Yes to art, music, etc! Also shop and home ec. Sports. Languages. With such variety, you're more likely to find something you're good at to help offset the insecurity that comes from not being great at the 3 Rs.

One thing a "good taste" involves is multiple different teachers. I've had math and art teachers (the two subjects I always considered the most fun) who would have turned me off from those subjects if they'd been the first or only teachers of those subjects that I'd had. (Your plan for attracting great teachers and getting rid of bad ones is awesome. Meanwhile, though, we need to plan for that not to have happened. And even a terrific teacher can have a personality conflict or something that makes them not ideal for every student. Also, as you say, 15 year olds are different from 30 year olds. They're also different from 10 year olds. So perhaps scatter exposure across time and comprehension levels a bit.)

Your description of your voluntary PreCalc class makes me want to cry for joy. And, yes, people learn all sorts of things voluntarily all the time. You're right that we'd likely do more of it if the joy of learning weren't beaten out of us in school. tongue emoticon

In your experience, do most "Bobs" have something they do like? (Do you get to know them well enough to know?) I wonder what percentage of students approach all of school with, "I just need a good grade" never asking why in any subject. Ideally, that number becomes minuscule with your plan but I'm not sure what to do with those kids.

BTW, I'm not certain that many businesses hiring think that college is necessary for having prepared you for an actual job at their company (depending on the job) but it's a way to filter résumés by people who don't understand the actual criteria for the job and because your average résumé says NOTHING about the applicant. Now that so many folks have college degrees, additional certifications are becoming more and more required as an additional filter. Which is another whole essay I could write.

As always, I love what what you wrote, look forward to the resulting conversation, and can't wait for the next installment.

From: Kenny Felder

I agree completely with all your points. Yes, I do think the vast majority of people have things that interest them. But I also strongly believe that those who don't—or who just haven't found it yet—will still find it much more motivating to learn a useful trade than a useless collection of facts. On your final point, I think that businesses would much prefer to have someone with several years of useful experience than a college degree!

From: Michelle Williams

Yes, yes we businesses would prefer that! As a student, I would have been less terrified of leaving school and entering the real world if I'd had that experience, too.

From: Anne Worth
September 20, 2015

You've put into words my inchoate feelings about the school system as my kids are experiencing it. I agree that you can apply these conclusions to fields other than math—my particular pet peeve right now is history. One of my kids is brutally frank about how quickly he forgets what he has "learned" in history class. He remembers stuff as long as it takes to pass tests. But when we went on a trip to England and certain things caught his attention, he remarked on those facts months later. Because he found it interesting! It pains me to think of the time wasted spent "learning" material that will be forgotten as quickly as possible.

I do wonder what it would be like in an alternate universe where we homeschooled. We were torn on whether to homeschool when Evan entered kindergarten, and very nearly made the decision to do so. Sometimes I really wish we had.

From: Michelle Williams

My sister always enjoyed history more than I by many orders of magnitude. Going to England with her was AWESOME in much the way you describe. smile emoticon History was the ONLY class where I asked, "how will this be relevant to me after graduating?" It was way more relevant than some classes but sure felt like a waste.

Don't second guess yourself, though. You've raised some wonderful children who are perfectly capable of filling any necessary gaps in their own knowledge as necessary over time.

From: Mark Minie
September 20, 2015

Have you followed the Kahn Academy and the subject mastry aqpproach they take? Have read the book on this? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this approach to learning.

From: Kenny Felder

I have played around with the software a bit, and I'm impressed with its potential. I have not read the book. I would love to see this approach used, for instance, to replace all several-hundred-student lecture classes.

From: Mark Minie

The book is very good...especially as it documents the history of education and also provides actual studies (some going back to the early 20th century) with hard data on what actually works in public education and what doesn't work...and the tragedy is that we have for brief periods of time actually implemented known solutions to our education problems until they were shut down by politics...

From: Eric Grunden
September 20, 2015

Research Triangle High School is experimenting with the first steps of personalized learning right now. It does not go as far as you suggest, but that is in part because of the system we have to work under.

From: Kenny Felder

I am super excited to hear that, and I would love to hear more some time. And believe me, I understand that many of the changes I advocate in this essay cannot be implemented on the ground without a lot of air cover.

From: Joshua Sokol
September 20, 2015

I do think that education focusing on deep engagement within a field has its own cost even for the weirdos, though. Mastery in one thing is always a sacrifice in something else. What if a student wants to try out the facts, formulae, and basic canon of several things to see what they like? What if they need the grades as a well-rounded generalist to get into the college that will best help them specialize? Getting to the real meat of anything is taxing; getting to the real meat of several things at once is really hard; doing that or making a choice to narrow one's options down the line between the ages of 14-18 while also meeting the expectations of parents and culture and American capitalism is... asking a lot.

From: Michelle Williams

When/where I was in high school and college, I was lucky enough to have a lot of choices for electives. If I hadn't been forced to continue to take classes that I didn't really want to take, I'd have had more time for some of those electives or other classes. My example would have been to skip yet another year of covering history through WWII and add an additional language, programming, or art class. Or to take trig the same year I took Algebra 3. One of my best friends went on to be a writer. She might have skipped all of the math past Algebra I and added more English, History, and/or Philosophy. She still would have been able to balance her checkbook but would have gained greater exposure earlier to writing techniques and examples that helped her in her career.

Kenny's idea wouldn't necessarily be cheap but my high school managed it by having the core subject teachers also offer electives in areas where they themselves had some expertise or interest. (E.g. The Physics professor also taught programming back when PCs were new. He didn't know how to code but wanted to learn so win-win. Those of us who were interested went on an adventure of discovery together.)

You're right that a balance is needed. I think it's very achievable.

From: Michelle Ristuccia
September 20, 2015

Following / focusing on a student's passion is an acknowledgement that people learn best when they are internally motivated and play to their inherent strengths. Right now, teachers are forced to teach the same material and to too many students at once. Ditching the drudgery of the current curriculum doesn't mean that you don't expose students to new things or stop encouraging them to learn more. It means that you have the space to respect the fact that, hey, this student really doesn't care for, say, algebra 3—maybe they'd much rather spend their time teaching young children to read. You'd be surprised what students want to learn. We live in an amazing age where so much information is available at their fingertips through libraries and the internet. And even if "math" isn't their thing, one day they're going to want to learn finances so that they can mange their own. Human beings want to learn the basics so that they can function in society. They are not going to grow up here in America and not want to learn how to read. Yet we assume that even grown up college students don't know what's good for them and have to take all these general classes... Well, maybe if so many grown ups are acting that way, it's because that's what we've been telling them all their lives when we cram down all this generalized knowledge just long enough to pass a test.

From: Mark Minie

Nonetheless, in order for the individual to function effectively in society, they must have a common understanding of certain specific subjects...they need to be able to read and write in English no matter where they are in the world as that is the language of science, business and many other fields (like flying) and is the de facto international language, they need to understand math up to and including basic statistics and calculus, they need a fundamental understanding of history-events, dates and details, they need a strong understanding of science and technology, they need a fundamental understanding of great leterature, film and TV etc...while I agree that we also need to allow students to explore their own interests as well, for their sake and the practical needs of society there will need to be a common core of knowledge taught...

From: Michelle Ristuccia

I disagree. Even if we assume that a basic curriculum is needed, you could pare it down to fluent reading/writing a 1 page essay, math up to division, and how babies are made. wink emoticon Of course, you want to expose them to those other things. Once a person can read and do basic math, the world opens up and they don't just stop learning. There are plenty of books on geography and basic history of the world. What's good literature? Film? Plays? Operas? Or how about the basic electronics involved in making a digital clock? Maybe everyone should have to take childcare and childhood psych classes in case they have babies. It's a standard question of where to draw the line... I think that the real answer of where to draw the line has to do with student age and maturity. Of course, maturity would be hard to standardize, haha! When do we stop treating a student like a toddler that can't know what they need and start treating them like adults? Maybe before college, you know?

From: Mark Minie

In the real world, it is highly unlikely the majority of individuals would meet the minimum necessary knowledge mastery needed driven by their own curiosity and interests-nothing is stopping people from doing this now, and no one could successfully argue that the majority of people in the US understand statistics and biology well enough to see and understand the dangerous and socially destructive flaws in the arguments made by anti-vaxxers (such as the ones made by GOP candidates in last week's "debate"), for instance, or understand the actual meaning of the US Constitution (again see the entire two GOP "debates"). Few would learn to read at the 12th grade level on their own, and virtually none would learn to think critically and communicate effectively all by themselves w/o advanced English composition classes...only a small handful of driven and likely predatory geniuses might do these things on their own, but then we'd all fall prey to them and society would collapse (much like what we are now seeing) practice, libertarian approaches such as you propose which depend on a population peopled by supermen and superwomen above just don't work...we all have to pass our driving tests before being granted a driver's license and the right to safely and properly drive a car, and if you can't meet the minimum standards for that you can't be given the keys and freedom to take off in your Maserati...

From: Michelle Ristuccia

It seems to me that your approach is the one trying to make super men and super women out of every one. If a college education stopped people from holding unscientific beliefs, then we'd already have a utopia! I wish!!! Unfortunately, the human condition involves the ability to hold conflicting beliefs. I'd argue that reading at a 12th grade level is a low goal, actually, and it's not curing the anti-vaxx movement in any case. Our compulsory history classes aren't fixing our government either, so... wink emoticon Fortunately, humans are also very curious by nature and we like to do things like eat, which is why we learn how to purchase things at the grocery store and a million other mundane things. Libertarian and unschooling ideas such as what I've been expressing do not mean that children receive no guidance and no instruction. What I am saying is that we could benefit from being less hung up on our so-called standards and do less teaching to the test. What I love about Mr. Felder's essay is that he points out that students could spend more time mastering something else that they're actually good at. Of course, none of that would happen if teachers still had 20 students per class. I think that's the number one advantage of homeschooling that we have over public school! Every homeschooling parent I know modifies their "curriculum" to fit their child, even if their curriculum is Classical Education which is more or less what you are advocating. All other things being equal, a classical education is great... for some students. Problems come in when a student doesn't fit the mold, like the student in Kenny's example, and by high school we have a strict mold. Either the student is not interested or learns differently, and therefore requires not only very creative instruction but more hours of instruction. At what point do these increased hours of instruction, and/or efforts to interest the student become silly, ineffective, or impossible? You reach that point a lot sooner when the skill you are trying to teach is something that frankly they will never need AND have no interest in. Now if my elementary age child is not interested in multiplication, well, he's going to have a bit of a problem because I'm going to be explaining to him that he needs that skill in every day life. If later he reads a play by Shakespeare and doesn't care for it, I'm not going to be making him read more. He can spend that time furthering some other aspect of his education. But I couldn't do that for him if I had many other students. They would all be reading the same books and going over the same math problems, because the board of education deemed that they had to take my class! Pah. At the highschool level, a person (sorry, student...) can have a good idea of what they are good at and what is a waste of their time.

From: Mark Minie

So it goes...the Great Fermi Silence awaits...

From: Michael Marsten
September 21, 2015

While we're contributing various ultimately constructive viewpoints on Kenny's fantasy school, I'm reminded of Germany (today, not in the past) where their school system increasingly does just some of what Kenny volunteers for society: If, after completing their equivalent of a grammar school education, you don't score high intellectually and you've been monitored for behaviors inherently counter-intellectual but essentially practical, you're routed into their well-organized system of vocational schools, where you're trained in practical skills guaranteed to build confidence in your ability to find work in a diverse job market. If you do score high intellectually, you're given a choice between schools built on specialized training in those skills which are strongest in you and show the most promising signs of blooming into a life path for you. NOTE: If you end up in the apprentice-type schools, they teach you the job you're working toward FROM THE GROUND UP, meaning all aspects of the job, from what you'll start out doing to cross-training in jobs interfacing with yours so you'll have a well-integrated perspective on how to make the best use of your skills in that field, a kind of education certain to build self-confidence in students. A young visiting German waitress once told me, "Don't get me wrong: I love your country and I love your people. They've all been kind and helpful to me - but I DON'T love your economy and I DON'T love your job market and the way those in power mistreat it. In Germany you virtually never see a help wanted sign warning, "(however many) years of experience necessary." "Experienced applicants only." "Any applicants with less than (however many) years of experience need not apply." The reason you don't find that in Germany is that the country has a far more thoroughly ingrained apprenticeship ethic than that of the U.S., which except within the specialized skills for the skilled trades, has virtually none. Even if you leave school without the experience needed for a job and apply for one, provided you have a good work ethic and a sincere desire to learn, employers accept you and give you thorough training in your job and in all interfacing skills involved because they know the best possible investment they could make in employees is in educating them to be as productive as possible because productive employees tend to be happier, better-adjusted socially and more reliably skilled than ill-trained, unproductive employees." It's a pity so few U.S. companies invest in their employees' education except within a narrow range of specialties. Some companies are learning to revise their outlook on the cost of helpful education versus the cost of ignorance - but too many employers here haven't learned the value of a good apprenticeship ethic mainly because it hasn't been stressed and taught enough in our school system, and because where it isn't taught, it isn't practiced, resulting in a vicious cycle in the market place where businesses/employers are forced to compete within a perpetually narrowing arena of more and more specialized skills until either the company folds or is over-specialized out of the market by ignoring the human factor in education until it collapses of its own weight. While I'm volunteering these facts just to complete the picture, and can't hope to substitute for the nature and goals of Kenny's Fantasy School, Kenny can surely see that his approach already has a fair amount in common with the modern German approach to constructive education and apprenticeship, and if I were in Kenny's shoes (The closest I came to that situation was being several times a test proctor for the Washington Virtual Academy's Annual Measure of Student Performance Exams for middle and high school students.), I'd point out the commonalities as an added useful tool for bringing Kenny's Fantasy School one step closer to reality.

From: Kenny Felder

I hear that comparison a lot, Michael, usually in a negative way: "You're trying to take us to the German system where you take one test at an early age and if it doesn't go well then you're tracked for the rest of your life!" I don't know enough about that system to comment on its strengths and weaknesses, but I do want to point out a few key differences between what I want and what I think they do. First, I'm not talking about permanent tracking from age 11. Second, I'm not simply dividing people into "academic" and "non-academic"—I'm leaving plenty of room for "very academic but not a math person" and many other categories.

From: Michael Marsten

Indeed, academic vs. non-academic is entirely too narrow a way of "tracking", and pragmatically, no school system's perfect, however great the improvement could be, but from the way the young German woman described it, there are, in many cases, adjustments and re-routings for individuals who come into their potential later than when they were first tracked. Keep in mind, I'm allowing for the differences between your school system and theirs. The most important commonality between them is your recognition that it's a most wasteful exercise in futility to try and forcibly cram all students into the same category in the name of "a broad-based education" when that education will have no practical basis in the students' futures (One is reminded of the deathly exhaustedly alienated looks on the high school students' faces in the school scenes from "Ferris Buehler's Day Off"!).

From: David George
September 21, 2015

Time for David to chime in with the obligatory "but Montessori schools are already like this!" comment. Okay, that's done. But honestly, the central positions of your essay hold true in Montessori education (at least at our school) which is to say that 1- the student decides (for the most part) what to work on for any day (some stuff like spelling tests are scheduled but they have a huge amount of choice on what they focus on in any particular day) and 2- while they are guided through a curriculum (the basics) they also can dive deep and go further with a subject when they find they are passionate about it.

From: David George
September 21, 2015

I am curious to know this Kenny: why do you teach where you teach? That might be another essay subject. But given that you teach much closer to the mainstream than, say, the Waldorf schools your kids attended, there is maybe a reason?

From: Kenny Felder

I think Raleigh Charter is an absolutely wonderful school. I certainly disagree with some aspects of how it's run—that would be true anywhere, given how iconoclastic I am—but we have wonderful students, wonderful teachers, a wonderful administration, and a wonderful community. I very honestly feel honored to teach here, and to be able to send my own kids here.

From: Zachary Klughaupt
September 21, 2015

Interesting post Kenny. One thing I feel is missing from your "fantasy" school is an appreciation for the fact that "paying your dues" by mastering difficult, boring stuff is often a prerequisite to doing different, higher-level and more interesting things. The theme seems to persist in a lot of different areas of life: doctors need to learn organic chem before they can treat actual patients; corporate lawyers need to handle due diligence before they negotiate big deals; sales guys need to cold call before they get to closing; fencers (the athletes, not the criminals) need to learn footwork before they can handle a blade.

Had I attended your fantasy school I don't think I would have taken Spanish, as I found grammar and vocabulary boring. I would have just decided I'm never going to be a linguist so I should focus on social sciences. And that would have been tragic, because in the long run the grammar and vocabulary meant I could speak Spanish, which led to traveling and building relationships across borders, which led me to becoming an expert in doing business across borders, which is a big part of what I do for a living, not to mention how I met my wife and many of my friends. I think we'd be cheating kids if they got through school without the experience of mastering (or even muddling through) unpleasant tasks in order to qualify for bigger and better things.

From: Kenny Felder

EXCELLENT point, Zach. No doubt every discipline has boring and tedious parts to slog through, and I couldn't possibly purge them, and it would probably be a bad thing if I could. But right now the ratio of boring to inspiring in schools is super, super high for most kids.

From: Felicia Bridges

I also think there is some inherent value in persisting at something that we find tedious and difficult. I wonder if there is correlation between those who fail (or are never required) to persist and those who spend their life wandering from one low wage, frustrating job to another.

From: Kenny Felder

I'm sure of it.

From: Arya Sundaram
September 22, 2015

I love this idea, as I'm sure we've talked about. But I think something that really worries me about this "Fantasy School System" is the cultural response.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that a lot of people who work in professional jobs consciously or subconciously look down upon vocational work. Which brings up the role of parents in this school system. I'm afraid that, as much a a student may not be interested in hyper-intellectual work, they'll be forced into it anyway by their parents or society or peer pressure because being carpentry is "less than" accounting.

Also, let's say this school system is implemented everywhere. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing—but we'd need a MASSIVE overhaul of our college system. How would colleges choose students? Of course, top colleges would want top students—but would there be a quota (whether stated or unstated) for each discipline? Would this lead students who are dead set on some ivy league dream to falsely choose less popular disciplines?

And speaking of the popularity of certain disciplines, as much as I would love it to, I'm not so sure economic need corresponds with individual satisfaction. What happens if everyone really loves English or arts, but not as many as science/math? We can't live in a world with lots of artists and writers, as much as I'd love that. Or what about the opposite reality—what if people don't really pursue what they're passionate about but rather what discipline is most lucrative or will get them in to a top program? I mean, take a look at Raleigh Charter senior year. By that time, seniors have finished a lot of their requirements; you still have to take english and math, but you have 4 "open" periods. Lots of people just take AP chem or physics because that's what looks good on a transcript rather than genuine interest. Granted, lots of people rush to take systems too, but I'm still concerned about the people taking Calc III because "it looks good."

So that brings up the question—how exactly does one measure "interest" in a given discipline? I have zero clue about how to do that objectively, so I'm not even going to take a whack at it.

From: Kenny Felder

I agree that our society values some kinds of work above others, and that is of course reflected in the pay. I'm not actually trying to change that, although it's certainly worth talking about. But it's better to be a carpenter who went through an apprenticeship at 15 than to be a high school dropout. And it's also better to be a history professor if you love history and are great at it than to be kept out of that profession because you couldn't get into a good college because of the math.

I also tend to trust the market to get people into the necessary jobs. Of course the system isn't perfect but I think it's better than any other. In other words, if too few people want to become electrical engineers, then electrical engineers will be paid more until balance is achieved. That's debatable of course but again I'm not really trying to change anything in that space.

I guess the bottom line is that in many ways my system is less revolutionary than I think you're taking it to be. I don't want to make any huge changes in the job market or even in colleges. I do want to add apprenticeships as an alternative-to-school path to many jobs, and I also want colleges to look more favorably on a student whose transcript is strong but less "balanced." And I think that would happen in time. Colleges tend to adapt. They are adapting now, for instance, to Waldorf schools, whose students come out with no AP or honors classes but with beautiful portfolios. The big changes I am trying to make are all in high school.

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