Tablets won’t revolutionize education. It’s way past time for a real reform

The education system has always been a pain in the ass for me. And yet I’m always hungry to know more things. I just don’t like to be told what I should or shouldn’t learn. I live in France so here I’ll talk about the french education system, but from what I know in the United States and around the world, what I’m going to say applies there as well. My experience with the education system has been, and still is, quite ugly; or I should say: ugly as fuck -like ugly to the point of being seriously depressed – despite the fact that I  am a good student (like, top of my class or not far from it since elementary school). I’m now in college, and it’s still bad.

I’ll recall my experience from age 8-9 to this day (I’m 18) and I’ll make comments on how to improve the education system from the point of view of a student who still has fresh memories of what school is. So it’ll be quiet different from what you can hear from teachers’ unions who want to improve the education system only if it doesn’t affect their benefits (disclosure: both my parents are teachers), or from tech companies like Apple or Google (another disclosure: I’m a Google and Apple fan, but their discourse “give kids iPads and they’ll be happier and learn better” is plain bullshit – tablets are useless if we don’t change the curriculum and the very way schools work and students learn).

I have little memories of the 1st to 4th grades. My mom told me I enjoyed going to school. I remember having good, sweet teachers, I learned to read, write, count without any problem, I found school quite nice and I still think learning to write, read and count isn’t really “funny”, it’s something you have to do, and frankly, when you’re 5, 6, 7, or 8 years old, you don’t really think too much about it. My parents told me I needed to learn these things, and they helped me. I think the problem today with kids having troubles to read and write and count is because of their parents who don’t push them enough. There’s nothing really wrong with education between the 1st and 4th grade. If your kid has troubles learning to read or write, don’t blame his teacher, blame yourself – you have to infuse the appetite for learning in your kids, school alone isn’t enough.

The only year I vividly remember from elementary school is my 5th grade. It started really bad. Most of my friends were a year older than me, so when I reached 5th grade they were off to Junior High School, and I was afraid of being alone, and I was quickly bored by the required curriculum. It was way to simple and I would finish most exercises well ahead of everybody else and would have to wait before correcting them with the class. But hopefully, I had an amazing teacher who quickly realized I was bored. His name is mister Bruno Sidoli. Probably the best teacher I ever had. He asked my parents if he could get me to do more things when I finished exercises before the rest of my class. He let me choose what I wanted to do. I decided to prepare exposés about scientific subjects for my peers ( subjects were up to me).
When I finished an exercise, while the rest of the class continued to do it, I’d sneak into my teacher’s office and reach for his computer and would look for material to prepare an exposé. It would take me a week or two to find books, articles I wanted to use and to write a poster about the subject. Mister Sidoli printed what I needed, and most importantly, he asked the good questions: “should you trust this source?” “do you have any other source for this part of your exposé?”. He taught me to be more curious, to dig deeper in the subjects I wanted to talk about, to question things. I’d then present my poster to the class, with my teacher letting me moderate questions, etc. I learned a lot of things by myself under his guidance, it was a pure delight.
He was an amazing teacher who knew how to explain things, to entertain his students with very diverse activities and projects: a very high quality school journal run by pupils, science projects, etc.
Mister Sidoli didn’t always follow the assigned curriculum – (which allowed all these side projects) and as far as I’m concerned, he taught me how to learn by myself. My curiosity derives primarily from this teacher, who got me interested in so many different things, and I’ll never thank him enough for that.

Then I got to Junior High. Met a bunch of new people; some stupid as fuck, some who are now amongst my best friends. However, my four years in Junior High completely killed my motivation for education (but not for learning, these are two different things). There were absolutely no possibilities for side projects, you just moved from class to class, from La Fontaine to Pythagoras and then to Louis XIV. The relationships with teachers were far less personal, they knew much less about you and were not able to understand your personality and what you were eager to learn.
The Junior High building in itself felt like a prison; it was really closed, you were assigned to a classroom for a certain period of time, you couldn’t do anything else, you had to be there or you would be punished. It felt really claustrophobic to me. High school was a bit better at this level, and college now is just fine.

In 6th grade, I arrived as motivated as someone could possibly be. I found the new organization to be really great at that point (having different teachers, etc) and I was happy to learn new things. I created along with a friend a science club with my biology teacher. My 6th grade was great overall, I participated a lot in class but I got a bit bored by the end of the year. The summer holidays were welcomed.

In 7th grade, I invested myself a lot in biology class, I lost interest for most of the other classes, except for the French one, where I had another great teacher, mister Baranger. A writer himself, I was fascinated by his very complex personality. I wanted to become maybe a novel writer at the time, and he gave me amazing advices. I had two pupils in my class who were troublemakers and had big difficulties writing and reading french. I’m pretty sure one of them is in jail now or will soon be. But mister Baranger got them to do grammar exercises and writings by giving them texts to study that they liked. Texts about gangsters, Scarface’s screenplay, etc. And it worked. In the other classes they were either doing nothing or disrupting, but in his class they were working, not a lot, but they were working. Because they studied things that they liked. The subject interested them, so learning some grammar lesson out of it was kind of an accident, but still, they were learning a grammar lesson. Mister Baranger had an amazing general culture and knew many many things – he knew how to find great topics and original exercises for us-.
Except in Biology and French courses, I participated less and less in class as I was more and more bored.  I selected the classes I wanted to work for, and didn’t give a fuck about the others (while still maintaining high marks).

8th grade was a pivotal year. I didn’t have mister Baranger anymore, I was bored by everything we were supposed to learn (even biology because I was ahead of the curriculum), so I wasn’t participating. I didn’t give a shit. So I chatted with my friends and even if I had pretty good marks, that was not to the taste of my teachers. At the end of my second trimester, I received a “behavior warning” because I was distracted in class. Of course I was distracted. It was boring and there was no way of doing anything interesting.
After this stupid behavior warning, I decided to try to get interested in what we were doing, and to work a bit to have even higher marks so that I’d receive the congratulations of the class council at the end of the third semester. I studied harder, did my best to participate in class and shut the fuck up, but it just didn’t work. I raised my average by nearly two points (I was into the range of marks where you can be given the congrats of the council), and yet I didn’t get the slightest encouragement from the class council. I was really disappointed, and angry to have worked on so boring stuff to get nothing in return, not even congrats (and certainly no intellectual satisfaction)!
That’s when I decided to stop giving a fuck about school. I stopped working on anything I found boring. It didn’t seem to change a damn thing whether I was working or not anyway.
I hated Junior High so much it hurt. I was so bored I slid into a deep depression – I’m not even sure I’m out of it as of today. Physically, my claustrophobia made me feel like I was going to throw up the minute I walked into a classroom. I was so bored it made me sick. It got to a point where my doctor made me stop going to school two-three weeks before the end of the year. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was deeply depressed during the summer holidays but it got slightly better just in time for 9th grade.


For my last year in Junior High, I decided to speak up about anything I thought was wrong. Like, if I was confronted to a rule I hated, I would say to the adult in front of me enforcing this rule that it was pure bullshit – it got quite tense sometimes as I would yell at anything I found ridiculous, including the principal of the school, who knew me quite well by that time. 9th grade was kind of a liberation to me. I was still bored, I still hated getting up every morning to do pointless things, but I spoke up. By making jokes mostly. It was a way for me to make the class less boring by entertaining everyone. In my 8th grade I had remained silent, taking everything until my body just said stop, so in 9th grade it was time to release all this pressure and anger.
As you can imagine, it didn’t went very well. I still had very good marks, but my jokes were sometimes misunderstood, especially by my english teacher, who thought, and I’m sorry about this, that I made jokes to disrupt her class. No, not at all. I made jokes so that it would be less boring. She wrote in my report card “Pierre préfère briller dans l’art du commentaire en tout genre” (roughly “Pierre shines at the art of making all sorts of comments”).
A typical day for me would be boring but punctuated by jokes and sometimes very heated discussions about punishments and arbitrary rules inside my school. As I had stopped worrying about boring schoolwork, I spent all of my free time pursuing my passions – entomology at that point. I had plenty of time. And I mostly learned english by chatting in forums about entomology, by discussing with contacts all over the world, by reading scientific articles in english. I learned a lot about geography also. I learned many many things via my passions, much more than I could hope to learn with the present education system.
You see, when you have something you’re interested in, if you dig into it, you’ll always learn something. It’s inevitable. But the fact is, the education system doesn’t care about your curiosity, it doesn’t care about intelligent, good students – every single initiative to improve the education system is to make it better for below average students. Good students can’t have any troubles right, so why should we care about them, their well being and their intellectual development?

From 9th grade on, what is needed is a total change in how education is done. By 8th grade you have the basic knowledge I expect everyone to have. It might be boring (and it surely is in my opinion), but if you have good teachers like Misters Sidoli and Baranger, 1st through 8th grades are going to be just fine, so we should let teachers be much more free to leave the assigned curriculum and work on side projects or follow students’ interests. The rest after that is a bonus. High School taught me not only boring things but also totally useless stuff, mostly. Of course, there were some interesting classes, for exemple a history class on space exploration, or a biology class on neurology, but most of the time it was just boring.

I’m now at University and it’s still quiet boring. You’re still not free to take the courses you’re interested in, you have these stupid required courses. And the model of the magistral lecture is just bad. That’s not how you learn anymore. So, how do we reform education?

From the 1st to the 8th or 9th grade at most, I don’t think we should change much of the curriculum. However, we should give teachers more freedom to go deeper in some topics that they or their students like. Thus the exam between Junior High and High School and the one at the end of the three years of high school should disappear to make room for a more malleable curriculum. If we don’t get rid of them, nothing will change.
On the status of the Elementary School/ Junior High and High School teacher: they should be paid more, that’s for sure. However, they should be fireable easily so that when you have a bad teacher he can be removed quickly from his position.
To learn more about the education reform for 1st to 8th grader, I recommend you read the excellent article Wired published on the subject (“How a radical teaching method could unleash a generation of geniuses“). It describes the experiments of Sugata Mitra, the Brooklyn Free School and many others to let kids learn by themselves (their teaching methods are very close to what I had when I was in 5th grade) and states cleverly that “our educational system is rooted in the industrial age. It values punctuality, attendance, and silence above all else.” What Wired describes should be the new norm in education from the 1st to 8th grade: a change in the methods used, allowing kids to learn by themselves and to have the will to learn – without dramatically changing what is taught, so that kids all have basic knowledge in maths, science, history, literature, etc.
I also have to say it somewhere: education teaches the truth and only the truth. Teaching creationism and other blatant lies from the Bible or other religious pieces of shit is a crime. If you want your kids to believe in these things, take them to the church, but don’t expect schools to transform into churches.
State and Church are and must remain separated. There’s no way any religious teaching can find its way in a school curriculum.

After Junior High or even after the 8th grade, education should be even more different. The internet changed the way we learn. You can nearly all learn by yourself. Teachers should just be guides (like my elementary teacher mister Sidoli). When you want to know how to write a specific word you google it. You don’t need a teacher for this anymore. But someone to teach you how to search, how to question things, to verify sources, to become someone who has some critical thinking, that’s what we need teachers for.

Why couldn't you graduate when you have access to this? (here iTunes U)
Why can’t you graduate when you have access to this? (here iTunes U)

As Aaron Swartz said:  “Seriously, who really cares how long the Nile river is, or who was the first to discover cheese. How is memorizing that ever going to help anyone? Instead, we need to give kids projects that allow them to exercise their minds and discover things for themselves. Instead of stuffing them with ‘knowledge’ we need to give them the power to find out what they want to know.”
By the time you’re 14-15 years old, you should be able to start your own projects: research projects, engineering, art projects, etc. For example, if you’re passionate about novel writing, start writing a novel! Your french teacher (if you’re french, of course) would be your guide, would recommend books you might want to read, he would explain to you difficult grammar rules. Your history teacher could help you do some background research or check the historic coherence of what you’re writing.
If you’re passionate about biology, why not start researching? Building experiments, reading articles in foreign languages about your research topic, then, why not, writing and publishing an article with your results? High school would be a totally free place: students could walk from class to class freely (there wouldn’t be any real class anyway), come at any time from 8 a.m to 6p.m, or work from home. It wouldn’t be the kind of prison I knew. No more claustrophobia. Instead, couches, laptops, labs, a theater, and motivated teachers here to help you discover what it is that you want to learn. The only requirement being that you do what you love, and that you actually do something. As Joshua Davis explained : “Einstein spent a year at a Pestalozzi-inspired school in the mid-1890s, and he later credited it with giving him the freedom to begin his first thought experiments on the theory of relativity. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin similarly claim that their Montessori schooling imbued them with a spirit of independence and creativity.”

The same reform applies for college. You would only get even more serious in college. You would have access to top notch researchers and professors and expensive lab material amongst many other things.

There’s only one thing I want to do in my life: research (in neurosciences and entomology). It obsesses me to the point of not working my university courses if they do not relate directly to these topics. So why wouldn’t my university let me drop out and become a researcher?
In his book “Who Got Einstein’s Office?” Ed Regis reported that Abraham Flexner, founder of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, believed in the creation of a university where teachers and students would work together to “advance the frontiers of knowledge, to explore the unknown” – that is, to do research together.

Working on your own projects in college would be a much better way to find a job than a degree. If you want to become a journalist, do you really need an English degree? Don’t you need to start learning how to research a subject and write about it very early on instead? If you want to become a biologist, does it matter if you took the required math course? Or isn’t it better if you’ve been doing research for years? Aaron Swartz had the same idea “If I wanted to start a more effective university, it would be pretty simple. Hire the smartest people and accept the smartest students, get them to work on projects that interest them … organize a bunch of show-and-tells and mixers, and for the most part let them figure stuff out on their own.”

The advantages of this new method would be numerous: first, it would create an appetite for learning (which has disappeared in my peers, I’m saddened to realize). Second, it would give students the key to a successful professional life, giving them first hand experience of what it is like to be an engineer, a scientist, a businessman, etc. Third, it could unleash geniuses: imagine letting someone brillant in high school do some research on cancer therapy for example. With the economic protection the school offers him (he doesn’t have to worry about grants, etc) he can try many many things, and will certainly fail. But what if he succeeds at finding a molecule, a gene, which has curative effects? Jack Andraka had access to Johns Hopkins’ oncology lab. That’s the kind of opportunity we should offer to students interested in oncology. Even if they’re only 15.

7 thoughts on “Tablets won’t revolutionize education. It’s way past time for a real reform

  1. “education teaches the truth and only the truth.” I’m guessing from your writing style that you are a digital native, under-30, and really not that well-read. Nor reasoned, for that matter. Mitra is interesting, at least at first glance, but his methodology is susceptible to corruption by the corporate forces now unleashed on public education. Have you read ALL of Swartz writings? They’re quite interesting…

    1. I like Mitra’s experiments, but I don’t think they’ll become a sustainable education method. Plus, as you said, corporations entering the “education market” as they say can be quite frightening. In teaching the truth, education must be independent from religions, states, but also companies. Everything Swartz has written is great – though I probably missed some of his works.

  2. Si les élèves étaient libres de suivre les cours de leurs choix ne penses-tu pas qu’une grande majorité ne ferait rien au collège et au lycée ? À part ceux poussés par leurs parents et les intellos, les autres préfèrent jouer à la console et sortir avec leurs amis, surtout à 15 ans. C’est pour ça qu’il faut un cadre solide pour éduquer les masses et sélectionner les individus en fonction de leur réussite au sein de ce système, il y a ceux qui vont dans le bâtiment ou en CAP coiffure et ceux qui vont à l’X, HEC, ENA, ENS.

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