Education starts with a spark

Education starts with a spark.

Back in the olden days, it was slow and expensive to access information. The lucky ones had dozens of encyclopedia books at home and could look up concepts or ideas. But that even sucked for the lucky ones, because it took a while until you got up, walked to the book shelf, picked the right book, and found the thing you were looking for. Often times, it wasn’t even in there. Even if it was, you could never be sure if this information is correct and up to date. Not many people know this, but books don’t have over-the-air updates.

In that time, which lasted from the beginning of modern civilization until about 20 years ago, the value one got from a formal education was much higher than today. In schools, you had access to people who knew a lot and knew how to teach it (also called teachers), and you had access to books and other materials. Sure, you could just go to a library instead. But again, you would need to be lucky to live close to a good library and don’t mind the hassle of going there and finding stuff to learn.

To do anything, people need motivation or incentive. Learning is no different. We know that we learn best if we are genuinely interested in a topic and care about it. Before you can be interested in something, you need to know that it exists and interact with it. That’s what I call the spark. Something that sparks your interest.

Unfortunately, most education systems do not try to motivate students with the spark, but with punishment. In most countries, it’s illegal not to finish your primary and secondary education. If you don’t do it, you (or your parents) are punished. If you suck at school, you are punished by bad grades. If you get bad grades, you might be punished by your parents. Even if you’ve got decent parents that know not to punish you for bad grades, you’ll be smacked in the face by society, because it will be hard to get a satisfying job if you were bad at school.

But this feels like another topic. Let’s get back to the spark.

Where do you find the spark? A good teacher can spark your interest for a topic, so can reading a great book. A parent or a friend can give you the spark. Building model cars, rockets, houses or playing with Lego can do it. Or, as is the case for me and I guess many others, playing video games can be an excellent spark starter.

It goes in the following order: Spark -> Motivation -> Learning

Once you find something interesting, you might develop a motivation for it and want to learn more about it. Nowadays, access to knowledge is ubiquitous and almost free for a lot of people. Thanks to the internet and millions of amazing humans that create content. Once you have your motivation, it’s possible to learn anything you want. No matter if you’re rich, had good or bad grades or your dad knows a Dean of Harvard.

Before the internet came along, even if you had the spark and motivation, you needed access to a great school to learn more. Again, you could of course buy books and go to libraries, but the coordination complexity was so much higher that most people would find it easier to just get a formal education, or do nothing at all.

You see, while formal education’s two important roles were to provide the spark and the learning, the learning starts to become less important, and the spark starts to become more important (relatively to each other).

We need to start changing our education system in a way that focuses on giving the spark. We need to design it in such a way that kids and teenagers have the freedom and creativity to explore and find what interests them. Find their spark.

How do we do this? I don’t have a definitive answer. However, I think that play and creativity are important activities. It’s also important to expose kids to a broad range of things, from science to art, from acting to philosophy. Let them create things and see why what they did is interesting and relevant for the real world.

I think that video games can do a great job at this. I’m pretty sure the game Kerbal Space Program has lead to a shit load of people becoming aerospace engineers. Other creative endeavours such as painting, making music, writing, playing with Lego and building tree houses can also be excellent.

Once somone has found their spark, teach them how to learn more about this topic. Show them how to find good information and knowledge on the internet and how to effectively learn it.

If you’re an entrepreneur and want to make educational products or services, don’t make a gamified way of learning math. That’s just not fun. Make something that kids and teenagers can use to be creative or have fun with in a creative way.

Something that let’s them find their spark.

Join in on the discussion on this Twitter thread.