An old model for education

We have many problems in education, and too often the response is to look to at technology and say “Oooh Shiny!”. The excitement over Khan academy being a great example. Yet Khan academy to me has little to do with education. It is fantastic at putting information into people’s hands, but cannot give them the skill to recognise what they need to know. In this it resembles the internet itself.

Think about the internet. Sitting here in bed, without moving, I can go out to a massive chunk of humanity’s knowledge. It is a profoundly different fact that today a kid in Africa lucky enough to have a computer can access more knowledge than a professor travelling round the world’s best research libraries could when I was that age. This should have a huge impact on education. In the face of this sea of information every fact you learn in school, if it is not wrong, is useless.

Yet good education and good teachers have never focussed on facts. In addition teaching is not a technical problem that can be solved by clever young thinkers. The gap between theory and practice is very large. Teaching is about performing magic in someone else’s head. Changing the way that they think. Sometimes that requires a positive approach, encouraging the person learning. In other cases it involves telling someone that they should do better, violently rejecting good work as something great is possible. A great teacher will know the time to sit back and let someone bash their head against a problem, getting lost and frustrated. Then find the exact time to ask the question that reveals the crack that allows them to open up the whole thing for themselves. As Dan Meyer says “Be less helpful”.

Yet a great teacher will also get these things wrong, probably most of the time. Remember you are trying to change someone’s mind, that is never a simple act. As a teacher you might not even know if you got it right or wrong. As a student you might not realise how right your teacher got it until years later, if at all. This does not mean that we should not try to measure and observe learning, but does mean we have to be careful. Great theoretical models and shiny ideas might work well only in what we can measure or just in theory.

To take education forward, let us look at the old models, from school and university to appreticeships and martial arts training. Let us consider how Sushi chefs have tradionally trained, how farmers pass on their knowledge of the land to the child who must care for it one day and how clowns are introduced to their world. Let us approach these old models humbly and see not how we can disrupt them, but how we can enable them. Learning their lessons, wisdom and failures as we bring to bear our clever new ideas.

(Also posted on my blog)


Hi Edmund,

Wow, this is new approach… what you are saying is that even though processes of learning change and opportunities expand, teaching as profession shouldn’t or doesn’t change in the normative sense? actually you are nuancing a little what other Edgeryders have said and experienced digitally, about the whole internet learning mirage. Anybody here who has taken an online class, Alberto, Bridget, Karl, has mostly praised it,  but at least the first two are not in their twenties and have a strong critical ability, and do recognise (even argued in favor) what they wanted or needed to know. Maybe that’s not the case for younger people?

It can be the case that people studying digitally can actually feel a real feedback: Karl says “Having studied at both a brick and mortar university and the Open University I would say that, perversely, I received more tutor contact and feedback from the OU” Can that be exceptionally?

I can’t disaprove with your point of view, but need some time to inhale it…

I just have a hard time understanding how looking at old models could work at this critical point when there is so much frustration and disappointment with educational systems. Yes, we all had a couple of teachers that new how to perform that magic (consciously or not), but they can be counted on one hand fingers. And those are not saving one’s whole learning experience.

Finally, do join the learning session for the meetup next week, we are prepating in teams, and that’s one of them:

Urgently, but not too fast…

The fact that we are at a critical point is precisely why it is time to look at old models. I want to emphasise that I mean this far more broadly than just schools. My personal favorite is the instruction style of traditional martial arts, which is often built upon awesome pedagogy.

My fear si that we throw out the system and end with something worse. Kahn academy is not that far from the direction that text book manufacturers want to head. They already provide testing materials and even lecture notes in the US when a university signs them up as the textbook for a course. If you have looked inside the textbook industry this should scare you.

I actually dispute the claim that good teachers are rare. My personal belief is that it is actually the school teachers who are keeping the current system working at all, despite heavy pressure both from students (who do not want to be there) and the system that they must work in.

One important distinction though, I am talking more about teaching and pedagogy rather than schooling (the systems of schools, classes, exams etc) Though I do believe that hear too we should not throw everything away I do believe that there are fundamental problems that have been getting worse over the last 15-20 years.

I believe I have signed up for the learning session, though I do not find much discussion yet.

What does the title in your comment above mean?

My personal belief is that it is actually the school teachers who are keeping the current system working at all, despite heavy pressure both from students (who do not want to be there) and the system that they must work in.

My mum is a high school teacher, so knowing what she and others go through I fully agree. After 20 years of work she earns more or less like someone at the entry level in McDonalds, and after 1-2 years of work, the McD. employee already earns more than a teacher. But that’s maybe because this is Eastern Europe, so not to generalize. Even so, I believe keeping the system going in this case is more about integrity and doing your job as good as you can given the context, not about being an exceptional teacher, or excell in pedagogy…

The rest of your points seem to make strong cases, if I knew more about instruction styles in martial arts I could argue :frowning:

Also, reading Keeghan’s piece now…

It was a little last minute…

…but the title was meant to highlight that the fact that we need to think urgently about education we should not rush into it.

It is hard to comment on particular systems as the variation from country to country is immense. I have had personal experience of the systems in the UK and US. I agree on integrity, but think that the people doing that are also often doing more. If we want education for more than the elite in society the important thing is to enable good teachers, rather than just deal with the exceptional ones. By definition they will be rare!

Sensei does not scale

Hello Edmund, thanks for this. I agree that the Khan Academy (although my experience with it is very limited to the test drive I did of it for Edgeryders) is probably not very good at telling you what it is important to study. It is a fair point, and I think you are the first one to bring it up in this discussion. Thanks!

But let’s be fair here: schools are also famously bad at telling you what it is important to study. If your school system is modelled on Napoleonic France, you would have a centrally decided national curriculum, decided perhaps in the 1930s and tweaked around with a couple of times. Sorting the stuff that gets in from the stuff that stays out is an incredibly arbitrary, ideologically loaded and messy operation. So, for example, you get taught history from a very national point of view: students comparing history notes in Britain and France feel like they are living in alternate realities. In the 1980s, in school, I was taught Latin. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great subject in itself: plus Latin  was really the European connecting language in the Middle Ages, and if you did not speak and read it you’d be cut off from the action. But I have yet to see a convincing case for Latin to stay in the curriculum. If you want to teach me metalinguistic structure, why not Chinese? All in all, I’d take the random exploration over the national curriculum commission of fascist-era Italy any time.

And yes, of course we all yearn for a wise sensei that will not just teach us stuff, but will make us better women and men, helping us to reach our full potential. But there are not many of those around: this education model seems fundamentally aristocratic to me. A development economist once said to me: “there are too many teachers for them to be much better than the average.” So, any viable education system has to assume normal people doing the teaching. They will typically care about their own well-being more than they care about yours, some will be passionate, some are just looking for any job, some will be smart and some will be stupid, or evil. Same as everywhere else.

Sensei does not scale. You are a mathematician: well, Dr. Khan’s videos are pretty much the best shot at access to an outstanding math teacher I have ever had - and that’s after science high school and two degrees in economics. And I love math! Only, I discovered that when I was 20, because in school I was taught a caricature of it.

Or does it? Do you have any idea of how sensei might be accessible to all?

Walking drills not sensei

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Alberto, and also for your report of Khan Academy which I found very illuminating.

I agree entirely that schools are not good at telling people what to study, especially in a system with centralised curriculum. Random exploration certainly works well for people like yourself who do have a good sense, and can self motivate to put the hard work in. Our choices on a random path are based on how far we can see. Is that not helped by a guide, and in this case the guide or teacher helps even if they can only see a little bit down the road.

If I were to take one thing from martial arts training, it would be the walking drills.  These are learnt first, they can be taught by students who themselves have only a few years of training, yet they link deep within the art. Walking drills are scalable. They are developed by someone with mastery, but are then passes out as a piece of technology to learn. They are something that you have to do yourself, and yes you could get them from a book or video. On the other hand with people around, even those who are just ahead of you, you can get advice and be told your mistakes. You are on your own random path, but you have guides who can help you go further and faster.

To be honest I find your comment that Sal Khan is your “best shot at access to an outstanding math teacher” deeply saddening at many levels. I do agree mathematics education is a caricature, and spend a lot of time thinking about how this might be improved. As an example, here is one model that I wrote up with Vinay Gupta. The most worrying bit though is the “outstanding”. He is a good math teacher, but I have met several math teachers just here in North West Arkansas that I would consider better. I would not mind betting that some of the teachers you passed under were a good or better. On the topic of his teaching do not take my word for it, here are a couple of people I believe to be outstanding teachers discussing him.

Dan Meyer

Frank Noschese

Yet I believe that Khan has certain unfair advantages that are seriously skewing the debate. The first is that his students are generally there willingly, in their own time. The second is that there is a pause button. The importance of this does present an important lesson in how to teach maths. Finally many of his students who are driving the debate, like you, have already discovered a broader view of mathematics before they come to him.

Don’t get me wrong, I think what is presented on his site is wonderful, but also think that mistaking it for outstanding teaching is worrying. The central reason is this: textbook companies. I talked about the dangers in my responses to Noemi.

How would I personally try to improve things:

  1. Have more faith in average teachers.

  2. Free teachers from constraints of too specific curricula.

  3. Try to give teachers time, space and funding to explore the good ideas of others and come up with their own.

  4. Help teachers talk to each other, and develop regional communities.

More practically in the short term a lot could be done with a large number of small grants available to any teacher who has a bright idea. A couple of million euros would get you a couple of hundred 1000 euro grants.

True, but not unfair

Dr. Khan’s advantages as you describe them are there. But why do you think they are unfair? All teachers could have the pause button if they chose so. If they insist on the classroom technology well, then they think its advantages outweigh its disadvantages. Choosing to relate to students who want to learn math, rather than engaging with the shool-is-boring-but-you-can’t-leave-so-listen narrative, is also, well, a choice.

Anyway, you have more experience than I do. I am sure there are better teachers around. My (like everybody’s) dream math teacher is Paul Lockart - present company excluded :-)! But you know what? Lockart - like Meyer, and Noschese - is not there for me, while Khan (and Andrew Ng at Stanford on some linear algebra stuff that I need, like PCA) are. I would certainly encourage teachers to go ahead and have a go, make their own video. Maybe that would morph in low-grade media stardom: we have “Iron Chef”, why could we not have “Math Wizards”? And that would be good, it would create a culture of good teaching, a demand for it, a widespread ability to tell it from not-so-good teaching. My comments as a learner might seem unsophisticated to a professional teacher like you, but remember: when I was in school no one even asked us “what do you think of the teachers”? We were not allowed to sit in other teacher’s lectures instead of our own, etc. How am I supposed to even know what a good teacher is?


I agree with everything you say, though feel that a lot of the problems you mention have more to do with problems of schools rather than teachers. I agree entirely that the video tech brings up interesting possibilities and certainly brings good quality instruction to people who look. I think that Sal Khan has done a great job of that (as have several others). I do think that he crowds and dominates the market a little, but that is the nature of the world.

As I said at the start, however, Khan Academy is a good implementation of what the internet in general represents. Others can, and will, go online and provide information, over time we will hopefully see an increase in quality of what is there. This is fantastic, but does not address the full breadth of education. To extend the metaphor from Lockhart’s lament, can you imagine a world where people only learnt music or art from videos?

If we want more from education, my feeling is that in the large body of teachers we have a massive potential resource. My question is how do we enable and activate this potential?

Outstanding Math teacher?

A couple of math teachers discussing one of Khans videos. Their topic is carefully chosen, multiplying positive and negative numbers that is a very important, but tricky topic, needing a subtle approach.


I can see your point,


I can see your point, although day after day I realise more how much educational systems (and this is an international fact) fail! I don’t know what the result or the evolution will be but I know that something is needed to be done!

Today ( I already posted it everywhere ) there is a huge story in Greek media, when in a TV show panel they were one member of the Nazi Greek party, one of the Communist party and one of the Leftwind party. At one point, when the conversation went out of control, the Nazi guy (and almost member of the parliament) threw a glass of water in the face of the Leftwind member and started to hit and panch the Communist girl… The only thing that came to my mind is that 1. SHAME and 2. it s obvious the lack of a good educational system where people are taught the real democratic and non violent values. If I remember correctly they were times (specially in my country) when teachers used severe punishments to students in order to “learn” and I think these methods are present in their adult lives.

Of course, I suppose you are not talking about this kind of “old education”, but more about “Teaching is about performing magic in someone else’s head.”  still we need to keep the good old stuff including the new technology and make education a tool for a forwarding society.

I don’t know if you have already read Giacomo’s story about Broke Education. It will be interesting to see and compare these different opinions …

Thank you for making me think

Maybe its our expectations?

I atcually think school, or something did a great job for Giacomo, it made him realise he had to do it all himself. I think we have to be realistic about what education can achieve, while being idealistic about what our goals are for it.

I would say it is important to get your metaphors right. If we regard teaching as a factory trying to get a certain product out of the door (perhaps maths ability, or manners, or even self-learning students). Then we will just get into trouble. If instead we regard it as farming, providing the right conditions for something to happen, then we will have more luck. Though we must also accpet that there will be, through no fault of our own, some crop failures.

The trouble is that as we focus on what schools “should” do we also go towards the factory model. Thus the reaction to schools being broken can often be to break them further.

Interesting article and good points.

I went to a fairly old fashioned high school where I was basically studying the same curriculum as the boys had two hundreds years before. Maybe a bit more biology and science, but I chose the classical department of my high school which meant my focus was on latin, ancient-greek, and classical literature, arts and philosophy. Those subjects were taught by very old fashioned methods. My latin text book was one made in the 1920’s, the translations of the Illiad I was to read was from the 19th century and my ancient-greek teacher appeared to old enough to remember Homer himself. That was not the only thing on my curriculum, but also danish, french, english, Icelandic, math, biology, linguistics, geology and chemistry.

It was an interesting combination of subject, but not only that, also how they were taught. In latin and greek we were to learn by heart translations and grammar. It was not about understanding, we never read a book in those languages without translating every single word and we never had a test questioning our understanding on the subject addressed in said text. It was precise, you knew exactly what you had to study in order to pass. You could just learn it all by heart. In that way it was easy, but learning Cicero’s speeches or Ceasar’s accounts in De Bello Gallico is not very fun. It was very demanding and required that you’d sit down in a library for ten hours straight and just learn.

In the modern languages the focus was on understanding and critical thinking. The textbooks were colourful and pictures that would distract us from the subject. It was not as scientific as the old languages, but still, somehow we managed to learn how to say basic sentences in french. Somehow. It was merely a guess and good luck rather than based on scientific knowledge on how french grammar works. In modern languages they were afraid to teach us rules or tell us how things works in the languages with a scientific approach. The classes were fun, we approached the material in different ways and as a result, I can somehow manage to ask what time it is if I ever get lost in Paris. I don’t know if that’ll help though.

I got to know the old traditional approach to studying and the modern way of gaining knowledge and passing tests. The difference is that I learned how to sit down and actually learn with reading Latin texts and translating greek philosophy. It was clear what the teacher wanted and you’d either get it right or wrong. The modern way of teaching was more focused on critical thinking rather than being able to recite the material by heart without thinking. To be able to gain knowledge with just listening and not even reading the book. To be a consumer of the information, but not really learn it. I think the modern way of teaching is right in some aspects. The old way too. That’s why I find it important to try both. It’s a different approach and while sometimes it may be necessary to be critical and express yourself, then at the same time it’s really impotant to be able to sit down and study in an old fashioned way, which is something that modern day teaching doesn’t really focus on, in my experience.

Take what is good from each…

…when teaching becomes dogmatic it usually becomes bad. Even good practice can change from one teacher to another depending on their ability. We need to find the strengths of many systems and built several more. Your experience really shows some of this.