Rethinking Education

Dedication: This essay is dedicated to my daughters Aila and Sumay. Your creation of, “WEquil.School”, during the coronavirus outbreak inspired me to share my deeply personal story in hopes that it may help more kids learn to love learning.




Dear Friends,


I failed Kindergarten...and was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) shortly after. Most of my childhood I thought I was dumb. This was my big secret...but sometimes life presents opportunities to share our secrets in hopes that they may help a greater good.


As I write this essay, schools across the country are shut down, and parents are being forced to juggle work and educate their kids. For many parents...this is a struggle. But for many kids...it is the first time they have the opportunity to pursue their interests and experiment with learning in whatever way comes most naturally.


In this essay I share my own experience struggling through the traditional public education system, a system that has not changed much since the industrial revolution. I then provide several reasons why I believe that our new digital, personalized and creativity driven economy requires a rethink on how we learn.


My hope is that my story can inspire others who felt or feel like failures. I want them to see that the most successful path in front of them is to embrace what makes them unique...and to learn to love learning.

Picture: Baby Sumay


Childhood


My parents broke up when I was four years old...the same year I started Kindergarten. Memories are hazy, but I do remember the fights. My brother and sister and I would play games while our parents argued. They loved us very much. They still do! But for reasons I won't get into we kids were sometimes left without much supervision. The night before my parents broke up I remember playing in a sandbox...alone in the dark. I don't think I know a single letter of the alphabet.


Shortly after my parents split up I was told I failed Kindergarten. We kids moved to Iowa to live with my Mom’s parents in Winfield Iowa. New school … new rules. My grandmother, Betty Wittrig (Momow) loved telling me a story of what the principal told her upon hearing that I had flunked Kindergarten. She said, “Your new school doesn’t believe in flunking kids...they believe in helping them”. My face widened and I yelled out, “Yippee! I’m part of the world!”


Today they would call my extra help class “Special Needs”. There were only five of us. Most had been diagnosed with learning disabilities...as I would a few years later. My teacher was an angel. She helped kids like me because she loved making a difference. She reminds me of my sister, also a Special Education teacher. Most of those kids wouldn’t have a chance without people like them...and yet they remain some of the most underpaid and under appreciated professionals in the world.


By second grade I had graduated out of “Special Edu” and even scored at the top 99% for math on a standardized test! But my success was short-lived. We moved again...this time with my Dad and Stepmother, Albina, before I started the third grade. New school … new rules … and theirs were less forgiving. The hardest part was making friends and fitting in, problems that my wife never had to contend with in China ...


China


My wife went to an elementary school that was a literal concrete bunker with a hole. inthe ground for a toilet. One day a child accidentally fell in the hole and her teacher had to fish him out. Kids didn’t have books. The schools could only afford one book...so the “lecture” consisted of the teacher writing the text on the blackboard for the students to copy. You were tested on your ability to remember what had been written.


She went to school at dawn, riding an adult-sized bicycle starting at age four. They learned math, Chinese and English. Unfortunately, their English teacher didn’t really know English, so conversational English was largely skipped over in favor of memorizing words.


Gym class primarily consisted of running followed by playing PingPong on concrete tables. Lihong’s classmates studied all day until dinner...with the only break being a short power-nap around noon. She would typically fall asleep with a book in her lap before waking up the next day to repeat the same schedule six and a half days a week...all year long. Such a rigorous schedule seems unhealthy to many western readers, but Lihong did not find it stressful. Kids knew what was expected of them, and that was to study.


With so much time dedicated to studying there was almost no time for friends or interests. Quite the opposite of her husband, Lihong skipped Kindergarten and was always at the top of her class. On one occasion she decided to draw a picture instead of listening to her teacher review the answers to a test she had Aced. Her teacher walked up to her and hit her over the head with a wooden ruler. That was the last time she ever lost focus...until she met me.


Disabled


Third grade was hard for me because it was the beginning of social pressures. Kids spend a surprisingly small amount of mental energy on studies in America's elementary and middle schools ... because most of it is taken up by anxieties of fitting in and trying to be "cool". This was especially true for me being in a new school district in a living in a family still trying to piece itself back together. Unlike many growing up in China, there were a lot of distractions, and I had a hard time paying attention to my studies.


That is when I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). A specialist sat me down and asked me a few questions. We bounced a ball back and forth for about five minutes. After that, he told me I had ADD and wrote a prescription for Ritalin. Momow told me later that my doctor said he, “had diagnosed lots of little boys”. That was why she did not trust him, and that's also why I never took any.


But lots of other “little boys” were being put on medication so they would “calm down” and "act like everyone else" as I had grown accustomed to hearing from my teachers. I don't really blame teachers though. Teachers valiantly trying to keep order in a classroom of 30 kids can’t really be blamed for what is now widely regarded as an overdiagnosis of ADHD, especially for young boys. If you type word “overdiagnosis” into Google and the first suggestion is .


In history class they don't teach kids the history of education...but they should. Humans never evolved to sit in a chair for hours a day ... learning by memorizing things and taking tests. Humans always learned by doing ... until the late 1800s when industrialization drove up demand for labor off the farms and into factories. But never-mind that manufacturing is largely being done by robots now.


Thankfully my parents never gave me any medication, and I’m thankful for that. Many people need medication. I have many friends that have battled depression or other mental conditions. My point is that when kids are given "labels" and told they need medication it can have profoundly negative impacts on their mental health.


One reason why I seem to get along with kids so well is that I remember what it was like ... but the reason why is because my childhood was full of some rather traumatic experiences. I remember, vividly, being told I had a disability. Only later as an adult did I see more clearly how much was being driven by family struggles at home, lack of friends at school, addiction to video games...but in walks this “Doctor” saying I have a disability.

In short...I thought I was stupid. What I really lacked was confidence. And telling me I was disabled only made the problem worse.


Hope


But a seed of hope was planted in the Fifth Grade. My teacher gave us all a pre-exam to assess where we stood in understanding percentages. I aced it. Mrs. Wunch walked up to me and asked, “How do you know this already?” I just sat there ... wondering if there had been some kind of mistake. She told me I would be bored for the next two weeks given my results so she offered to let me do a project!


That was the first time I ever got to have a say in what I did at school. I walked home stunned. My mind was racing. What did I want to do? I hadn’t ever been asked what I wanted to do in school before. I had no practice thinking about how I could use my strength in math to actually do something. So my dad gave me the idea to conduct a survey!


My teacher gave me a hall pass so I could go conduct a survey of students around the school. I was in my element...and learned more about myself, the value of numbers, and public speaking during those two weeks than I probably learned that entire year.


… then it was over.



Teaching


All kids in public education are told they are students. They are told to learn from their teachers. Unfortunately, they are not told that the best way to learn is to teach. I had to wait until college to figure this out for myself.


--


Iowa State University (ISU) accepted me into their forestry program, one of the best in the country. I grew up on a tree farm so it was a natural choice. It also looked easy...no foreign language requirement and no higher math. There were a few classes, like Economics, that looked a bit intimidating to me...so I enrolled in that right away to get it over with. But given that I already knew so much about forestry I figured college would be a breeze.


Dr Brent Kreider taught me Economics 101. You could tell he loved teaching, mixing in concepts with stories from his own life. He taught two back to back courses to a crowd of more than 200 freshmen, and each day I attended both...in the front row. I loved his lectures the way many of my more religious friends loved sermons. The language of economics spoke to me … and I was hooked.


Economics provides a framework for rational decision making. It’s a framework that my wife, who got her Ph.D. in Economics from ISU, and I use every day. Sumay wrote an introduction to economics for WEquil.School. She did a better job of explaining it than I ever could.


Dr. Kreider held a “Supplemental Instruction” course led by a graduate student named William Rock. I attended even though I already knew the material so deeply that it was beginning to transform the way I saw the world. After William finished his prepared remarks I went around the other tables and helped teach the other students.


That first day … teaching my peers economics 101 … was the moment I realized I wasn’t stupid.


A month later, William told me that he was going on vacation for a couple of weeks and asked me if I would take over his Supplemental Instruction course while he was gone. I accepted. In my sophomore year, Dr. Kreider offered me a job previously reserved only for graduate students, teaching in the Economics Help Room.


My wife Lihong and I met in my junior year. She was a brilliant first-year Ph.D. We met in the help room where she sometimes came to watch me teach. I took that to mean she was into me, but she actually had no romantic interest in me until she saw me at church ( a separate story). Turns out...she was really just trying to practice her English.


We most of our time together in her office studying. Many times a week, one of her Chinese classmates would gently knock on the door. Lihong would come and answer. They would speak in Mandarin for a few minutes before her classmate would graciously thank her with a “xie xie!”...the only part of the conversation that I followed. One day I asked her why her classmates kept coming by her office. She said, “to ask for help.” Later, Lihong casually mentioned to me that she received the third-highest college entrance exam score in the whole of her province.


During my senior year, I took over the Help Room and gave lectures to the incoming graduate students on strategies for teaching Introductory Economics. Our final year at ISU we both won the Graduate Teaching Excellence Award. In the years that followed I continued to work with ISU through my Major Professor, dear friend, and personal hero … Dr. Peter Orazem.


Peter helped me see the power of learning by doing ... creating things of value for other people. He is always writing, researching, and paying forward "Favor Tokens" to the next generation. Since the moment I met him, he has relentlessly given himself to inspiring young. I’ve never met another human being with a more beautiful mix of humor, intelligence, and passion for making a positive difference in the world. He nominated me for an Outstanding Young Alumni Award in 2018...and I was accepted.





One-Size-Fits-One


Primary and secondary public education still revolves around a classroom setting in which, usually just one teacher lectures to around 30 kids. Teachers present curriculums to their students based on standards set by the state and federal government. Students are tested to assess their comprehension of these lessons. Those who pass move to the next level.


My experience was no different.


Little has changed since formal education began around the dawn of the industrial revolution. Yes, we have better schools, technology, and many wonderful teachers ... but we still rely on a system that at its core is roughly the same as it was 130 years ago.


Why?


Everyone is unique. Parents and teachers have the responsibility to teach all children core skills. Without reading, writing, and basic arithmetic a child has next to no chance of career success. Kids often need to be pushed to learn core skills like writing before they are good enough to enjoy exercising them on their own.


So how do we do this?


There are broadly two approaches:

  1. Make all kids to learn the same things, at the same time, in the same way.

  2. Help kids learn to love learning by leveraging their interests to do real things.

The first is what kids do in public school ... a place many kids are eager to leave.


The second is what kids do at WEquil.School ... a place where kids are choosing to join.


Deep Learning


Elon Musk created a school for his five kids ... with just two principles:

  1. Cater to each kid’s unique talents and interests

  2. Teach to the problem … not the tool

These two principles are antithetical to the traditional education system.


By asking our children to all follow the same curriculum we implicitly (albeit unintentionally) tell them that their individual interests and talents are irrelevant. We squander the opportunity to inspire them by connecting their voice and inspirations with ways they can add value to the real world.


By teaching tools instead of having them solve problems, we force them to memorize theoretical concepts without helping them link these tools to practical applications. Mathematics is an obvious example. Mathematics provides a tool to represent our infinitely complex reality into a simple and universal language of measurement. If more kids were taught the problem instead of the tool we would have more scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs willing to dig deeper into the subjects most helpful for a brighter future.


By making teachers the sole arbiters of value...through grading systems bound between 0% and 100% we fail to show our kids that value is subjective, and there is no such thing as perfection. We, the people, are the true arbiters of value, and only by letting our kids share their creations with the world can they learn the meaning of value. Grades are a false representation of success and failure...which is determined by time, effort, and the thousands of iterations necessary to make something useful for the world.


In short...our traditional education system tries to teach knowledge, but inadvertently teaches many complete contradictions to the unique nature of our children and our new technology and creativity-driven economy.


We expanded on Elon Musk's school with a list of five principles. We call the process Deep Learning ... and it is so powerful that we use it as the core foundation for what we do across WEquil Group.


Conclusion


A journalist picked up on the many in which our daughters are using a mix of technology and their own unique talents to create value for others today. The title is, “From Consumers to Creators: How One Parent Leverages Technology for Productivity. The articles focused on their blogs, schools, and apps, but there is an infinitely more important story that needs telling...


A journalist picked up on the many in which our daughters are using a mix of technology and their own unique talents to create value for others today. The title is, “From Consumers to Creators: How One Parent Leverages Technology for Productivity. The articles focused on their blogs, schools, and apps, but there is an infinitely more important story that needs telling...


All kids have unique gifts ... and naturally love to learn. Parents and teachers can help ... but sometimes we forget how. At WEquil.School we help them love themselves by embracing their strengths instead of criticizing their weaknesses. We help them grow their curiosity by giving them a diverse and passionate community with whom to collaborate.


We help them prepare for the real world by doing real things.


That is why our kids love to learn.

Sincerely,

Joe WEquil

CEO of WEquil Group


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