Parenting  •  November 19, 2015

How Would You Design a School?

Touring a middle school for my daughter inspired me to think about how I would design a school. Given that I’m an introvert, and was thoroughly bored all the way to high school, I would design one specifically for introverted students. Before describing my vision, let me explain the motivation behind my design.

Peeking into the classrooms today, I realized why I never learned anything in school. A classroom is a hostile environment for introverts. We, introverted people, are highly sensitive to sensory data, so we must spend a lot of effort in shutting them out, which is what makes us crave solitude. For introverts, trying to learn in a classroom is like ordinary people trying to learn in a nightclub with half-naked people dancing, disco balls spinning, and loud music blasting.

This is also why speech is a bad learning medium for introverts. In speech, especially in person, there is too much irrelevant sensory data; like facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, clothes teachers are wearing, hair, makeup, etc..  Extracting what we need to learn by managing this sensory overload is tiring and unproductive. For us introverts, it would be much easier and quicker if the teachers can just write down what we need to learn.

Extroverts have the opposite problem. Their sensors are dull, so they need lots of sensory stimulation to stay engaged. This is why they prefer face-to-face environments with emotionally engaging and entertaining teachers. This world is biased towards extroverts, so practically all schools are designed for extroverts. This is quite unfair to introverts.

Here’s how I would design my school.

The students are encouraged to study at home from 9 am to 1 pm on their own. But for those who do not have an environment conducive to studying at home, the school also provides private cubicles where they can study quietly on their own. The school would look like one of those co-working spaces (like WeWork).

The students and the teachers rely heavily on the Internet. As much work as possible is shared online so that the teachers can remotely review and advise their work. Interactive and real-time tools like Google Docs are used often. Reading and writing are the primary modes of learning, and very little speaking is involved.

The students come to school every day from 1 pm to 3 pm to play and learn subjects that require physical demonstration, like sports, art, music, dance, acting, and cooking. It’s very much like a typical Summer camp. They are not pressured to do anything specific.

The students are not grouped into classrooms or by year. They can play with and interact with anyone they want at school. Each student has an advisor assigned, but this assignment is flexible. One advisor can advise the same student for many years, or they can switch as often as needed. The primary focus of these advisors is students’ emotional development. The academic issues are addressed mostly by the teachers online. The teachers who review students’ work online do not need to be working at the school. They can do so remotely from anywhere. They just need to be certified by the school.

We have a system that keeps track of students’ academic progress online (like Khan Academy). Since the progress is monitored continuously, there is no need for exams. The students have no idea how other students are doing academically because they are never together in the same room while studying academic subjects.

Here are additional thoughts behind the design.

A typical classroom situation does not encourage students to work together; it encourages working against each other. When we are given a specific task, or problem to solve, at the same time in a group with an authoritative person who already has the answer, we are forced to compare ourselves with others. It’s like a lab experiment where you control for everything except for one metric. Whether intentional or not, measuring the difference becomes our primary focus in such an environment.

When there is an authoritative person in a room, we naturally would want to win that person’s approval. It inevitably sets up a competition. Even as an adult at work, if we have a problem that we want to solve, and nobody in the room has the answer, what do we do? We try to work together to solve it. But what if there is a person in the room who already have the answer? It turns into a competition of who can arrive at the correct answer. So, teachers in this way become a distracting force.

With my design, because superiority or inferiority cannot be observed publicly, there is no pressure to outdo others, or be embarrassed or feel shy about being behind on any particular topic. Even if the superiority is apparent between two students, they are unaware of where everyone else is for any given subject. Everyone’s progress would be different for different subjects. There is no easy, singular way to compare anything.

I have nothing against competitions but competing and learning are two separate issues, and competition in school is a big distraction for those who actually want to learn something.

If everyone studies independently at their own pace, without a central authoritative figure, you can remove the competition out of education, and I believe it would encourage collaboration. For instance, if you are my friend, and if you are ahead of me in math, it would give me a good excuse to hang out with you to learn from you. No need to feel embarrassed or inferior. You would not be a threat to me.

What do you think?