Note: I first published this in the South China Morning Post while I was living in Hong Kong. It has been revised slightly from its original version.
Parents in Hong Kong care about the education of their children like nowhere else I’ve ever known. Where else are children as young as two and a half years old–babies, practically–interviewed for entrance into the most “prestigious” pre-schools? In Hong Kong, formal education is seen as the key to a safe, secure, and prosperous life. But there’s an unsettling shortcoming with how schools in Hong Kong, and the rest of the world, approach education. Many of them focus on skills that are already obsolete, while often neglecting perhaps the most essential life skill of all–the ability to educate oneself.
This skill is critical because the jobs 20 years from now don’t exist today, and many of the jobs that exist today won’t exist in 20 years. Those children who learn to educate themselves will be able to cope with the rapid pace of change and secure the most stimulating, important, and lucrative positions. Those who don’t will be relegated to following orders, always at the mercy of those with more initiative and creativity.
Whether a child receives their education in a traditional school, home schooling, or a mix, they must have ample access to four fundamental resources, without which education cannot occur.
The Four Fundamentals of Education
We can depend on children being exposed to certain information simply by being alive. With the most basic exposure and instruction children easily and naturally learn how to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. They learn how to operate computers and smartphones with ease. But there is much of the world they will never discover unless a parent or teacher shows it to them. A child will never educate themself on the Socratic method if they aren’t aware of its existence.
Is your child being exposed to new ideas? How about new people, cultures, and ways of thinking? Are they being exposed to different ideas than all their peers, so they can differentiate themselves in a future job market because of their unique understanding of the world?
The myth is that it is possible for one human being to educate another. – Oliver DeMille
Once a child knows something exists, they will only seek to educate themself about it if they are motivated to do so. They will only truly educate themself if the motivation comes from within. The poet Robert Frost, winner of four Pulitzer Prizes, said, “I still say the only education worth anything is self-education.” Oliver DeMille, author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century, takes it a step further, stating that no other type of education is even possible, but that the individual is responsible for their education. He says “The myth is that it is possible for one human being to educate another.” Children cannot be educated, they can only be inspired to educate themselves.
Is your child inspired to educate themself, or are they just doing what they’re forced to do? Are they learning to love the process of learning, or is the joy of learning being stripped away from their through the memorization of meaningless facts? Are they being trained to be curious, investigate, and experiment, or to take standardized tests, which do little to prepare children for the real world where there are no standardized tests?
Once a child knows something exists and has a desire to learn more, they need access. Thankfully, the entire world is available to children at the push of a button through the miracle of the Internet. Children will educate themselves amazingly fast and well when given adequate exposure, inspiration, and access to the Internet, but interaction with people in natural settings is still critical. The traditional classroom is an unnatural place to be socialized. Where else in the real world do people sit in a room, surrounded only by people their own age, with the environment controlled by an authority figure at the front of the room? For this reason and others, many students leave university lacking basic abilities to interact with anyone other than their own peers, and with a disturbing inability to question authority–a key trait for success in today’s world, and the world of the future.
Does your child have extended access to the Internet, and have they been exposed not just to games, entertainment, and social media sites, but to the wealth of blogs, publications, and tools? Do they have regular access to other individuals of all ages and backgrounds on a daily basis? Are they getting practical experience dealing with others in real-world environments? Do they travel? Mark Twain said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Even if you are not able to travel internationally, does your child go with you to new places that are nearby, or do they spend most of their time at home, in all-too-comfortable surroundings?
4. Free time
Too many children leave for school early in the morning, arrive home late in the afternoon, and do homework until late at night. These children have little free time in which to choose to be exposed to anything but what politicians and textbook companies want them to be exposed to. Where there is no free time there is no time to be inspired. These children may have access to knowledge through a website like Wikipedia, but they have no time to explore. This limits their access, because the process of random exploration and discovery increases access. In addition, a child without free time does not have time to socialize with family or friends in a natural, healthful way.
Does your child have free time every day? Not just a few minutes here and there, but hours of it? Do they have the freedom to discover what they are truly interested in and pursue those interests? Or are their days so cram-packed with school and other activities that they are becoming an automaton, merely following orders about the next activity to be performed?
The Future of Education is Individualized
Not every student learns in the same way. Some learn better by reading a book than by hearing the same words read aloud. Some learn only when they can be physically involved with real objects. Some learn best in a lecture format. Some learn great as part of a group, while others need individualized attention. Some learn by answering questions, others learn by asking questions. That’s why Harvard Business School professor and bestselling author Clayton Christensen wrote in his book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns that the educational systems of tomorrow won’t be one-size-fits-all, but will cater to the diverse and changing needs of students.
It Takes More Than a School
I have good memories of many of my teachers and the experiences I had in traditional schools. While teachers and the schools most of us are used to can serve a positive role in helping our children learn, the most efficient and effective education system may be within your own home. Most students don’t receive as much instruction at school as parents would like to think. For every hour between the time a student leaves home for school and then returns home, much of the time is taken up by transportation (both to and from school as well as in between classes), test preparation, logistics, and organization. While there may be some intrinsic value in these activities, they are not the reasons we send children to school.
Within the focused time that is dedicated to learning, if a teacher has an hour with a class, and there are 20 students in that class, each student will be lucky to receive a minute or two of one-on-one attention, if they receive any at all. Often, it is the most disruptive students who receive the most attention. Standardized tests are necessary in this environment because teachers do not have the time to be aware of where each student is at and what their needs are. With rare exceptions, when a parent is involved in the education of a child, there is no need to spend time preparing for or administering tests because the parent knows better than any test can reveal where the child is at intellectually and what is needed.
I do not have a PhD or any formal training as an educator, but I know my children better than any teacher ever could. I care more about their happiness and success in life than any teacher ever would. The tools are easily available for me to introduce my children to the world. I can inspire them to learn more about it. I can give them tools and resources to help them access the knowledge they want to gain and have the experiences they want to have. I can free their time and keep their schedules from becoming so full they don’t have time to explore the world and discover their passions. I can do all this in a way that caters to the unique individuals they are, based upon the tens of thousands of hours I’ve spent with them. The best teacher at the best school cannot do this for my child, but even as a mediocre parent without training, I can.Liked it? Share it!