Back in 500 BC, when Confucius was running around in sandals instilling virtues and the iPhone was still a few millenia away, teaching happened privately, or in small groups. Wealthy families in ancient Asia and Greece would hire individual teachers to instruct their children. Lessons in reading, writing, archery, or wrestling would be led by an experienced guide, and students would learn firsthand, instead of from some old dusty textbook. Whatever level they were at, the teacher would meet them there, and plot a route towards mastery for them. In short, the education model was perfected, people ate grapes while lying down, and everyone lived happily ever after.
Compare that to today, where 30 students sit together through mind-numbing boredom while their teacher rattles off roll call (“Bueller? Bueller?”). After a lecture about ionic bonds that somehow takes longer than the known universe has existed, someone in the back farts, and there is a bit of comic relief. All the students are thinking precisely the same thing: “It’s no wonder they call him “Gassy Jack”’.
Okay, schools aren’t that bad. Literacy rates were only about 1-2% in ancient Greece, as opposed to today where it’s 90% globally. In terms of equipping students with basic skills that society needs, the current education model does prettayyyyy, pretty well. B+, maybe?
How about for advanced subjects: calculus, chemistry, creative writing, interpretive dancing? Not so great. A lot of students lose all motivation. Let’s say a generous D+.
But it turns out that the educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom discovered in 1984 that another method of learning is better. A lot better. Two standard deviations better, to be exact. The average student using this method performed better than 98% students in a traditional classroom.
What is this revolutionary learning method that can disrupt the traditional classroom model? It’s called…
Why hasn’t it caught on like wildfire if it works so well? Because, economically speaking, it’s hard to provide one-on-one tutoring to 2,000 high school students in eight different subjects. You would need hundreds of teachers per school. Or, perhaps just one really smart, time-traveling teacher…
Benjamin Bloom called this discrepancy between classroom learning and individualized learning the two sigma problem. He asked educators to see if they could find any alternative to tutoring that produced the same results. They couldn’t. They still can’t. When it comes to learning difficult skills quickly and efficiently, individual tutoring is both the bomb and the bee’s knees.
Which brings me to my main point:
Classroom teaching is a functional (albeit suboptimal) way for lots and lots of kids to learn basic human skills (reading, writing, arithmetic, punctuality, obedience, staring off into space) at a steady pace, while being socialized in groups. When it comes to specialized skills (chemistry, entrepreneurship, crypto, wizardry) there is no substitute for individualized instruction.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that great teachers can’t make a difference. Engaged, passionate teachers can captivate students and inspire them to make discoveries in areas that they had little interest in previously.
However, the marketplace rewards those with rare and valuable skills. For the most part, classrooms are not the place where those skills are cultivated. If we want to solve the skills gap, one-on-one tutoring is a great place to start.
The Third Model
There is another model that is underexplored in educational contexts. The coaching model is one that allows the student (or coachee) to take the reins of their future and plot a course towards goals that they have identified for themselves. Instead of following a prescribed curriculum, the coaching model allows for the coachee’s individual interests and aptitudes to take center stage.
Life coaching can help to establish accountability and self-discipline. It helps individuals to recognize their strengths, and how they can use them to generate value for others in an ever-changing global economy. It can help people truly become “themselves” and fulfill their potential, which is surely one of the most gratifying human experiences possible.
Here’s an idea: what if students had a learning coach, who met with them once a week (or twice a month), and helped them design their own learning goals, related to their own inclinations. Students would identify steps they could take towards their learning goals, and make progress at their own pace. Students would own the process each step of the way: planning, design, implementation, and revision. This might just prepare them for the world outside of school, where drive and initiative are sorely lacking.
I’ll be here looking for pies in the sky if you need me.