The Ideal School

School is fundamentally broken, far beyond what most people believe. A radical new school could be an order of magnitude more effective at helping students learn and be happy. I know this is possible because I learned as much from Scratch (plus the passion for code it inspired within me) as I did from my entire middle school and high school experience combined.

To recreate the life-changing experience I had with programming—originally initiated by Scratch—in school, that school must do the following:

  1. Create tools that allow students to be designers, inventors, and artists. Scratch is a great example. The tools must be easy to start using without any instructions, but they should also be very powerful for students who learn to use them well. Ideally, these tools should serve as ideal mental models for thinking.

  2. Create an environment in which students have access to a wide variety of these tools. Give them the freedom to explore the space. Ideally, this would take place in a physical building where students can interact with each other. In the physical space, tools should not be grouped by type. Instead, they should be scattered around so that ideas cross-pollinate between different subjects.

  3. Provide an easily-searchable library of resources that allow students to look for solutions to the problems they encounter while building things. (It might also be valuable to have in-person instructors who can guide students to resources that they don't know they need.)

  4. Allow students to publish their work and receive feedback. In most cases, this would mean sharing work with other students in some publicly-visible forum. Hang artwork on a public bulletin board. Build an arcade machine that only plays games created by students. Project a continuous slideshow of student photography. Allow musical performances by students, and encourage other students to attend. In every case, make it easy for students to give each other feedback.

    When possible, enable students to share their work with the outside world. Ideally, this would mean that students are solving real-life problems and assisting the community. Only do this when the external interaction is genuinely useful for all parties involved. Students are smart, and will see through any mock "helping". Save the simulations of usefulness for within the bounds of the classroom, and interact with the outside world only when it is valuable to everyone.

This radical shift away from the traditional school model would be vastly more effective for K-12 students. Giving students the freedom to explore fundamentally changes their outlook on education. ("Learning is fun and enables me to tackle interesting, important problems.") Of course, radical change is scary, and people will have some lingering questions:

How do you force students to learn particular things? You don't. You provide high-quality tools in the subject areas worth understanding. Students choose to specialize in what they are interested in. (A few choose to "specialize" as polymaths.) Students are continually exposed to new ideas and work from their fellow students, but they do what they enjoy.

What if nobody chooses to learn a particular skill? There are two possibilities:

  1. The subject is being presented poorly. Fix this by providing tools which are easier to use and more powerful.
  2. The skill isn't actually useful and students know it. Good job kids.

School has the opportunity to set students on track as learners for life, but right now schools are structured to squander that chance. It is imperative that we restructure school around giving students agency and encouraging them to solve problems. Our futures all depend on students growing up to do great things. Giving them an environment that enables learning is the least we can do.

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© 2020 Josh Pullen