Unfortunately, these are common labels for the British and American education systems as they stand today, at both high school and university level. High school classes are taught strictly to a tight curriculum, and more and more time is spent on how to pass exams rather than tackling quirky questions brought up by students. While there is increasing social pressure to attend university, prices are rising and the likelihood of reaching satisfying employment simply by brandishing a supposedly relevant degree is not living up to student expectations. At every level, learning tends to be tested by the interrogation model of knowledge demonstration, where the student has to prove their intelligence by answering questions. Great, except that in the real world (disregarding the odd pub quiz) knowledge is valuable only when it can be applied to create something useful rather than simply regurgitated.
Yet with the education systems highly politicised on both sides of the pond, significant and lasting reform is virtually impossible. Ken Robinson is a British creativity expert who challenges our education system, arguing that we’ve been taught to become obedient workers rather than imaginative thinkers. Sir Ken led a 1998 British government inquiry into the significance of creativity in the education system and the economy, and was knighted for his achievements in 2003. He has given several popular TED Talks and written various books in which he argues for the need to replace the British education system with a more personalised approach. Indeed, according to TED, he is a ‘visionary cultural leader.’ He has done incredible work, but essentially, British politicians have not made the radical changes to the system he has long proposed. In the US, rallying cries for educational change also struggle to make headway due to political volatility.
Certain determined and creative entrepreneurs, however, are targeting specific problems and implementing effective solutions. Founded on the philosophy that proof of idea is the best way to demonstrate an argument, they are rejecting politics as a method of change and are finding practical solutions with enterprise.
Here are just a few examples: Unifi Scholars helps students with personal financial planning, as the company’s co-founder, David Helene, states that students often leave school without financial competence. NuSkool aims to target the issue that students don’t feel their classes are relevant to their lives, and its teaching material is based on the objective of sharing the right lessons with the right students at the right time. Nepris helps teachers invite guest speakers into their classrooms in order to make the educational experience more dynamic. 4.0 Schools was founded in 2014 in New Orleans by Matt Chandler, now father to 44 education startups. He created this nonprofit incubator for education-based startups in which he encourages entrepreneurs to define a problem, work out how it can be solved and launch a start-up within three months, thus targeting the structural issue with innovation.
Perhaps the most prominent example is that of Derek Magill, founder and Marketing Director of Praxis. A college drop-out himself, Magill founded this nine-month alternative college program after becoming disillusioned with the system in the US, as he realized it wasn’t helping him live by his libertarian values. Indeed, he calls college ‘one of the biggest frauds perpetrated on young people today’, noting that students are persuaded into thinking they need to go and get a qualification before they are capable of starting their lives as they want. Through this program, he now hopes to help people start their desired lives at a younger age, and even prove the traditional higher education system obsolete. While it’s arguable that relatively few of us know the kind of lives we want at age seventeen or eighteen, and that college gives us time to work this out, his argument is highly relatable: graduates, despite a degree, often lack an understanding of how the workplace functions and the most basic skills needed. University is not necessarily the most economically nor time efficient way to pave out a career for oneself.
Praxis, a practical and customisable alternative, equips participants with relevant workplace skills and a thorough understanding of how to market themselves. It is fundamentally about preparing participants for work: about producing actually useful stuff. After the first week of the three-month training, the participant will have made a personal website. By the end of the second week, they will have published at least three articles on that website. By the end of the third week, they will have created some kind of portfolio project, such as an e-book or podcast. In the second month, they take part in a writing workshop, at the end of which they will have completed over twenty articles. Upon arrival at their six-month internship, the second part of the Praxis program, participants have learnt skills in professional writing, personal marketing, blogging, website creation and the basics of digital literacy all while creating live use-cases for themselves. Flowing from Magill’s college observation that students so easily get caught up in big ideas and forget to bring about their reality, Praxis is an impressive manifestation of the philosophy that creators, not reformers, are the prime changers in this world.
As impressive as these enterprises are, it is difficult to say that they have so far managed to challenge the embedded systems in a significant way. However, with startup societies as an increasing possibility, especially due to the technological and diplomatic advances made by the Seasteading Institute, by 2020 there may be whole new societies in search of fresh educational methods to test. What better place for education startups to test themselves than in a seasteading community, whose very philosophy is the experimentation of new ideas? There is a common saying ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Fabulous, but while politicians snuffle about what may or may not be broken, these entrepreneurs are fixing.
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