Education’s Future: What Will Replace K-12 and College?
willfulness were all shaped by natural selection to serve the function of education (here). So what do we do? At great expense (roughly $15,000 per child per year for public K-12), we send them to schools that deliberately shut off their educative instincts–that is, suppress their curiosity, playfulness, sociability, and willfulness–and then, at great expense and trouble, very inefficiently and ineffectively try to educate them through systems of reward and punishmentthat play on hubris, shame, and fear.
Research shows that for far less expense, and with joy rather than pain, we can facilitate, rather than suppress, children’s and teens’ natural ways of educating themselves with excellent results (see here and here). Ever more families are becoming aware of this and are finding ways of removing their children from imposed schooling in favor of Self-Directed Education (here).
Most of my previous writing about education has to do with the years that we unfortunately think of as “the K thru 12 years” (as if education is or ever could be a graded thing in which learning is staged along an assembly line). I have written about how doing away with the whole graded system and letting young people do and learn whatever interests them at any given time, in age-mixed settings, works so well in schools such as Sudbury Valley and the many other settings that have been developed to facilitate Self-Directed Education (e.g. here and here).
But what about those years of schooling that we call “higher education,” especially the four years toward a college degree? Many young people, because of family and societal pressure, see that as essentially compulsory, too. For them, college is just a continuation of high school—grades 13, 14, 15, & 16. And those years of schooling are even much more expensive than the earlier ones, which expense must generally be paid by the parents or through loans that can saddle a person for decades. Moreover, there is growing evidence that very little is actually learned in those years. Fundamentally, college is a socially sanctioned system of discrimination. Here’s how one college professor, Shamus Khan, who is critical of the endeavor he is part of, has put it: “I am part of a great credentialing mill. … Colleges admit already advantaged Americans. They don’t ask them to do much or learn much. At the end of four years, we give them a certificate. That certificate entitles them to higher earnings. Schools help obscure the aristocratic quality of American life. They do so by converting birthrights (which we all think are unfair) into credentials (which have the appearance of merit).”
Recent studies have documented the paucity of actual learning that occurs during the years of college. Because of the way we structure it, education in college is that commodity for which people try to get the least they can for their money. This was true even when I was in college decades ago, and it is even truer today. Research shows that average study time per week for college students has declined from about 25 hours in 1960 to about 12 hours now and that students commonly avoid courses that call for original writing or considerable amounts of reading.
College administrators have long argued that the main benefit of college is a gain in critical thinking, but systematic studies show that such gains are actually quite small overall, and for approximately 45% of students they are non-existent.  I’ve so far been unable to find any evidence that critical thinking improves over four years of college any more than it would have, in the same or similar people, if they had spent those four years doing something else. In a recent survey, by PayScale Inc., 50% of employers complained that the college graduates they hire aren’t ready for the workplace, and the primary reason they gave is lack of critical thinking skills. The rote ways of learning, which are endemic to high schools and involve little or no critical thinking, are increasingly the ways of college as well. My own observations suggest that critical thinking grows primarily through pursuing one’s own interests and engaging in serious, self-motivated dialogues with others who share those interests, not from standard classroom practices.
I don’t know just how or how fast the change will happen, but I think the days of K-12 and four years of college are numbered and sanity will begin to prevail in the educational world. I envision a future with something like the following three-phase approach to education:
Phase I. Discovery: Learning about your world, your self, and how the two fit together.
The first fifteen to eighteen years of a person’s life are ideally, in this view, years of self-directed exploration and play in which young people make sense of the world around them, try out different ways of being in that word, develop and pursue passionate interests, and create at least a tentative plan about how they might support themselves as independent adults. This is what happens already with young people educating themselves in schools or learning centers designed for Self-Directed Education or in home-and-community-based Self-Directed Education (commonly called “unschooling”). In my vision for the future, publicly supported learning-and-recreation centers will enable everyone, regardless of family income, to educate themselves well in these ways (here).
Phase II. Exploring a career path.
One of the many problems with of our current educational system is that even after 17 years of schooling, including college, students have very little understanding of potential careers. The only adult vocation they have witnessed directly is that of classroom teacher. A student may have decided, for some reason (maybe because it sounds prestigious), to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a scientist, or a business executive, but the student knows little about what it means to be such a thing.
In the rational system of education that I have in mind, students would spend time working in real-world settings that give them an idea of what a career entails before they undertake specialized training for that career. For example, the person interested in becoming a doctor might work in a hospital for a period of time, maybe as an orderly or a medical assistant. Maybe it would be an official apprenticeship, with a bit of course work as part of it, or maybe just a regular job. By this means, the person would see and interact with doctors in their real-world practice and experience directly some of what it is like to be a doctor, which would enable him or her to make an informed decision about this as a career path. Do I like being in hospitals and around sick people? Do I have the kind of compassion and fortitude, as well as thinking skills, required to be a good doctor? If the answer is no, then it is time to try out a different career path.
The same is true for any other career. The person interested in law might work in a law office; the person interested in being a scientist might work as a lab assistant or field assistant; the person interested in becoming an engineer might work as an engineering apprentice. In this way they would further their education and gain real world experience while drawing at least some income rather than accumulating debt. In the process, the person would get to know, and be known by, professionals in the realm of his or her potential career, who could write recommendations that would help in applications for further training or advancement.
Already many companies, recognizing that a typical college education doesn’t prepare people well for their kind of work, have apprenticeship programs. According to the US Labor Department, the number of apprenticeships available in the United States rose from about 350,000 in 2011 to about 450,000 in 2015 and is continuing to rise . As examples, BMW has an apprenticeship program in Spartanburg, SC, for training engineers (here), and at least one commercial insurance company offers apprenticeships in claims adjustment and underwriting (here)—jobs that formerly required a college degree.
Phase III. Becoming credentialed for specialized work.