A girl views a new iPad tablet computer – Reuters-Luke MacGregor

Let’s imagine that I am a fourteen-year-old boy. (Some of us never really grow up!) I am sitting in class, feeling sleepy (as always). My eyes droop. It’s after lunch, and I would dearly like to take a nap, but naps are not in the curriculum. The teacher rambles on. Or the video rambles on. Or the pages of the book I am trying to read float together. I am fighting to retain the information, drifting in and out. What did I just learn? I don’t entirely remember. This lesson is boring. Or it’s too hard to comprehend. Or it’s taught in a way that seems strange to me. I want to learn, but I know that I won’t remember half of this information. Worst of all, I can’t hit the replay button. Now the bell rings, and my time has gone. The information has gone. I’m going to flunk the class, or I’ll have to spend a lot of time catching up on my own.
This isn’t purely imaginary; it is the reality that students in schools everywhere around the world live daily. There are few institutions as inefficient and broken as the traditional education systems of the world, because we treat education as an industrial good, a unit of knowledge served up to the masses in a one-size-fits-all box. We have made some attempts at personalization, but they have remained marginal at best.

In schools today, teachers must teach to the median—or, in many cases, to the lowest common denominator. Students must learn on a schedule and from a curriculum taking no account of their capabilities or preferences; some students may take twice as long to learn differential calculus but half as long to learn Spanish irregular verbs. The root issue is that the default units of education—the classroom, the class, the school year, the period, the semester, the quarter—are all arbitrary distinctions dating back to the earliest days of industrialized education.

My future school is the backyard of my house, and my classroom is a digital tutor with a virtual-reality headset. Or, if I do not have a backyard or a house, my classroom is a bench in a park or the shade of a tree in a rural meadow, say, somewhere in the Shimla. My avatar instructor is Clifford; my educational coach, Aparna. I am learning geometry via a videogame that teaches how the Egyptian pyramids were constructed. Knowing that I love the pyramids, the A.I. algorithms that guide my avatars deduced that pyramids would be an effective way to engage me in core topics in this critical field of mathematical knowledge.

Clifford has been with me for several years. He knows how I learn, what I like, and what turns me off. He speaks in a British accent that, when I created my avatar profile, I chose because I liked the sound of it. Clifford is always on duty, a button-push away. He doesn’t need vacations, bathroom breaks, or lesson-preparation time. And he is more in tune with what is going on inside my mind and with my feelings than any teacher ever was in my actual youth.

That’s because he has access to almost unlimited amounts of information about me and the world. He can use the powerful sensors in and around me (in my contact lenses, in my iPhone, embedded in the walls, and woven into my clothing) to gain intimate, highly useful knowledge about my physical state.

For example, Clifford recognizes when I am tired, by noticing differences in the dilation of my pupils and color differences in my skin that indicate lower oxygenation of my blood. He also notices when I get excited about things, by watching my eye movements closely and sensing my pulse rate. Clifford’s vision is far better than any human’s eyesight. He can interpret the subtle changes in my tone of voice that indicate whether I am understanding subject matter well or grasping at straws. He also learns to match my physical reactions to lessons with actual outcomes, in a constant feedback loop that leads him to improve over time as my teacher.

When I am sleepy, Clifford may suggest that I take a quick nap or go shoot basketball for fifteen minutes. When I am confused, he recognizes my lack of comprehension and doubles back to review the lesson with me, or he changes the exercises that I am working on in my tablet, to try engaging a different learning style. Sometimes it is videos; at other times, games or books; at other times, holographic worlds. Clifford communicates closely with Aparna for my geometry class. He is not in a hurry. There is no bell, no duration of a period.

Clifford doesn’t have to worry about whether my classmates are bored or sleepy, because he has only me to teach.

Aparna is a human being. She’s my coach. She never lectures, or scrawls facts or equations on a blackboard. She is there to listen and help. Aparna asks me questions to help steer my thinking in the right direction. She recommends reading and exercises to me, answers my questions, and teaches me how to work best with other children.

She is charged with making sure that her students learn what they need, and she helps guide us in ways in which Clifford cannot. She also helps with the physical side of projects, things I make out of real materials rather than in my mind and in a machine. Aparna also explains to me the value of innate skills such as perseverance and empathy and focus.

With Clifford as teacher and Aparna as coach, I don’t even realize that what I am doing is learning. It feels like building cool stuff, playing video games, and living through history. And maybe a bit of learning about how to be a better person.

When Clifford found out that I love the Egyptian pyramids, for instance, he devised a lesson plan that used the pyramids to cover the geometry of different types of triangles, and the mathematics behind those ancient structures. We start with a guided virtual-reality (VR) tour of the pyramids, with augmented-reality overlays to connect the abstract geometry to the physical world. In this way, I can solve geometric problems that use rooms and facades of the pyramids to illustrate them. I feel that I am in the middle of history and following the minds of the Egyptian builders, the geniuses who planned and constructed these massive timeless monuments.

I take a lunch break, and then it’s time for group fieldwork. Two of my friends from the neighborhood come over, or I go to their house. Clifford posts a holographic specification for building a pyramid with tongue depressors. We sketch out the design on our tablets, doing the mathematics and planning its construction. Once our plans are set, our little group spends the next two hours painstakingly building the structure. The small pyramid comes to life before our eyes, a bridge to the greatness of Egypt.

The next day, Clifford starts to teach me some classic mathematical relationships bearing on triangles and pyramids. To translate these into a useful form, I write a computer program to calculate the mass and average pressure at its base of any pyramid given specifications including the dimension of the tunnels and chambers within it. I post my program on line.

Other students and teachers grade the code’s precision and structure (and whether it actually works). An A.I. system also tests my code and makes suggestions on how to improve it. As a final class project, my workgroup friends and I design a pyramidal play structure for a nearby playground.

On that final pyramid-design project, we work with our teaching coach, Aparna. She answers any additional questions we have and guides us through the project without telling us what to do. We build a model of the play structure as a reality check. Aparna tells us we may need to add safety nets on a section that is too steep for little kids. Although adolescents are smart and savvy, they may lack adult judgment and emotional sensitivity.

And that’s what Aparna can teach us. Aside from a pittance for the tongue depressors, we pay nothing for this pyramid exercise. Clifford, having come into being in the same way that the free applications on our smartphones have, comes without financial charge. Aparna’s coaching is part of our public-education package—funded in the same way that today’s teachers are. We use free Autodesk software on our tablet to capture a 3-D file of our creation so that we can turn it into blueprints for other cities and towns to use. And we enter the blueprints into a competition with the entries of thousands of other student groups designing play structures. The exercise is fun, functional, and educational, and results in a real finished work that might even have artistic and architectural merit. Most important of all, education ceases to become a chore or work and becomes a true joy, as it should be for everyone.

Children play a game on a mobile phone at slum area in New Delhi, India July 4, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi – RC1AF2E8E9D0

Back to the Future of Education

Surprisingly, this learning experience recaptures an ancient approach. Teaching started out, way back in time, as a one-to-one interaction between a guru and a chela. Then we moved toward the idea of school, class, and education, and it became a one-to-many process. In ancient Greece, this was a Socratic process, whereby a teacher guided students through the learning process by asking them questions. Back then, too, education was a privilege reserved for the elites.

Through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, education remained a privilege in the West, but the process of learning became more rote, with more memorization. The church broadened access to education, affording many students of lesser means the opportunity to study in exchange for entry into the religious orders. Indeed, church stewardship of books of learning during the Dark Ages preserved invaluable knowledge from Roman times.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a much broader swath of students took to the chalkboards. This accelerated with compulsory education in the United States and India.

But the model of one-to-many moved further toward rote learning, and teachers’ primary function became broadcasting information to the class, and an industrial education complex steadily emerged. Standard textbooks were constructed, pending approval from centralized school districts. Creative projects were minimized in the school system. Subjects such as arts and music, though essential parts of life, failed to make the grade in this industrial education system and were largely removed from the learning track beyond light nods in the general direction of fine arts. Schools were constructed and schedules set up that required students to sit in a chair for six or seven hours a day to receive the same lesson—regardless of their ability or learning style. They then went home and did largely the same homework as their peers, working from the same textbooks. Although this process did standardize education, it also failed to take into account the reality that not all humans are alike. And India adopted the worst practices from the British, focusing on rote and memorization rather than the learning and enlightenment that were its tradition.

The spirit of the guru and chela has largely been lost in the field of education—but can return with AI-avatars.

Vivek Wadhwa | Distinguished Fellow, Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley. Former entrepreneur. Syndicated columnist for Washington Post.

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