How our education system ignores problem solving. I don’t really have a question this week so this is a great opportunity for me to talk about education.

And in particular, about how we’re expected to apply what was just taught.

Let’s start with a gaming example and then I’ll tie it back into the problem with problem solving.

You just started a new adventure game and the opening scenes set the mood. Either your village was just attacked while you were away, or your character gets dragged into a situation that you have to escape, or your character finds out some secret past history that starts interfering with the current life. Whatever happens, the character is now the hero and there’s only one path forward. The first few obstacles might include a giant rat or two or a simple puzzle. You have everything you need right there on your computer screen.

And that’s the problem. Each challenge along the way is designed to get slightly harder and always seems just within the hero’s skills.

This is probably the biggest reason I like games that are open to explore. I don’t feel locked into some predetermined growth path. I just wish that they would be more consistent. If a high level hero can walk down a forest trail and encounter an ancient dragon, then the same thing should also be possible when the game is just starting. After all, it sort of spoils the immersion when the world adapts to the hero. I’d much rather play a game where the hero had to carefully select the challenges and avoid any that are too difficult at first.

And this brings me back to our real world education system. In many ways, it’s just like this broken gameplay. Only this is our real future we’re talking about. This is not a game anymore.

In the real world, your manager doesn’t just walk up to you and give you a task that conveniently is only slightly more advanced than your previous task. A task that uses techniques that you just learned at a seminar last week. Yet this is exactly how we teach kids in school. And I think it does a poor job of preparing them for their future.

Let me ask you, did you ever once, just once on all of grade school, just once in all of middle or high school, just once in all of college ever take a test that made use of everything you were expected to know up to that point? A test that covered logic, history, art? A test that required both creative and analytic knowledge? And I’m not talking about a college prep test that just has separate sections for literature, math, and science. I’m talking about a test that has questions that need you to apply all of your abilities to solve each one.

Instead, you probably took tests designed to gauge your level of understanding of just the last chapter. Everything was about that chapter and nothing else. Maybe the midterm of even the final exam would claim to mix things up by requiring you to apply all the techniques learned in that one single class.

Once you take this context away and kids get out in the real world, they’re lost. They no longer have the knowledge of what techniques to apply to solve their problems. And they have some major problems. I’ve been there. You know what helped me the most? I describe how I avoided this without even realizing it at the time. Just listen to the episode or read the full transcript to find out.

Transcript

And in particular, about how we’re expected to apply what was just taught. And why not throw in some gaming examples too? Sure. Let’s start there.

You just started a new adventure game and the opening scenes set the mood. Either your village was just attacked while you were away, or your character gets dragged into a situation that you have to escape, or your character finds out some secret past history that starts interfering with the current life. Whatever happens, the character is now the hero and there’s only one path forward. The first few obstacles might include a giant rat or two or a simple puzzle. You have everything you need right there on your computer screen.

And that’s the problem. Each challenge along the way is designed to get slightly harder and always seems just within the hero’s skills.

This is probably the biggest reason I like games that are open to explore. I don’t feel locked into some predetermined growth path. I just wish that they would be more consistent. If a high level hero can walk down a forest trail and encounter an ancient dragon, then the same thing should also be possible when the game is just starting. After all, it sort of spoils the immersion when the world adapts to the hero. I’d much rather play a game where the hero had to carefully select only the challenges and avoid any that are too difficult at first.

And this brings me back to our real world education system. In many ways, it’s just like this broken gameplay. Only this is our real future we’re talking about. This is not a game anymore.

In the real world, your manager doesn’t just walk up to you and give you a task that conveniently is only slightly more advanced than your previous task. A task that uses techniques that you just learned at a seminar last week.

Yet this is exactly how we teach kids in school. And I think it does a poor job of preparing them for their future. I’ll explain more right after this message from our sponsor.

Let me ask you, did you ever once, just once on all of grade school, just once in all of middle or high school, just once in all of college ever take a test that made use of everything you were expected to know up to that point? A test that covered logic, history, art, a test that required both creative and analytic knowledge? And I’m not talking about a college prep test that just has separate sections for literature, math, and science. I’m talking about a test that has questions that need you to apply all of your abilities to solve each one.

Instead, you probably took tests designed to gauge your level of understanding of just the last chapter. Everything was about that chapter and nothing else. Maybe the midterm of even the final exam would claim to mix things up by requiring you to apply all the techniques learned in that one. single. Class.

Once you take this context away and kids get out in the real world, they’re lost. They no longer have the knowledge of what techniques to apply to solve their problems. And they have some major problems. I’ve been there. You know what helped me the most?

Back when I was in high school, my school had a vocational department and I knew for a fact that I was going to study electronics. The class had a structure to it but it was minimal. I was able to cruise right through at my own pace. And I completed the whole course within the first 6 months. And I mean both years worth of work. Every single homework assignment. Done. Up to a year and a half in advance. Then, I was free to explore. It was like being dropped into the best open world adventure game ever.

I no longer had any guidance about what techniques to use for the things I started exploring. I tried everything I could think of. And when I completed one project, I’d ask my instructor for something else to work on. He guided me without a curriculum because I’d completed that long ago. There were no more tests. I’d completed those too. I got to decide with his input when I was ready for something else. That’s education.

I get asked sometimes if I have a curriculum for my weekend classes. Not really. I mean, I know what things my students need to learn and make sure they’ll eventually learn those things. But there’s no fixed path. Because life just doesn’t work the way school does.

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