Nikhil Goyal wants to scrap the entire educational system as we know it and rebuild it from scratch. Enough with boring old textbooks taught in stuffy old classrooms by windy old teachers. The world should constitute the classroom and students should be free to learn without constraints in their own way and time. Information is readily available online, so there's no need to carry around 10 pound textbooks. Teachers are not the ultimate experts in their fields, and with electronic communication readily available, students have direct access to the experts. Teachers should step aside into a guiding/facilitating role. "Innovative disruption" can turn the practice of education on its head.
Ah, to be seventeen and know more than your elders! I remember those days. I too wanted to change everything in the world that those near-sighted, misguided or just plain stupid adults had screwed up. It's funny though how much smarter my elders got once I graduated and began facing the real world. And, remarkably, the older I get - and the deeper into the real world - the smarter they continue to get.
I suppose I should back up a bit. It's not exactly that I think Goyal is wrong. I am a 42-year-old mother of two young daughters and I'm quite progressive for an old woman. My older daughter is just starting out in a progressive school (her sister will join her in two years) that practices much of what Goyal preaches. The school utilizes very hands-on, project-based, student-centered, collaborative learning methods. Play and exploration are heavily emphasized. The students themselves have a powerful voice in even basic matters of curriculum, and they are encouraged to use that voice to develop a healthy, vibrant, democratic community of learners. So you see, Goyal and I have much to agree on.
But in the exuberance of youth, I believe that Goyal goes too far in his efforts to sweep away education as it exists. There are many reasons why formal education has evolved the way it has, and not all of those reasons have to do with churning out students as work products for an industrial age. There is a place for formal schooling, and whether kids like it or not, the basics - even the boring stuff - needs to be learned.
Goyal is fond of quoting John Dewey, but even Dewey didn't envision education as quite the free-for-all that Goyal does (a common misperception, by the way). Dewey defines knowledge as the collection of all past experience. It's great to let kids explore and experiment, develop their own problems and work out their own solutions. But at some point, students need to learn existing knowledge - it would take too long for every kid to rediscover, say, all the laws of physics the way they were originally discovered over the course of thousands of years.
Knowledge can be transmitted through books or through explanation by experts, or at least knowledgeable people. Textbooks, while not always the best learning vehicles, are systematically organized in ways to present the fundamentals of what is known about a particular subject matter so that students have the grounding to pursue further study from there. In the case of knowledgeable people, first of all, the top experts are not always available, being as they tend to be busy actually doing the things that experts do. That's why we have teachers. Also, lectures are the most efficient vehicles for the transmission of information to large numbers of people. I don't know about you, but if I'm taking a knowledge based course such as physics or chemistry, I would be annoyed if the teacher or professor divided the class into groups to do project-based presentations. I'm paying for access to the teacher's knowledge and expertise, not the opportunity to learn from people who don't know any more than I do. Finally, while the internet is indeed a great source of information, it is also a great source of misinformation. Students need careful guidance and training to learn how to sift out the credible information from the vast mines of information available. For all these reasons, students needs to be prepared to learn how to learn from a variety of sources, including boring old textbooks, lectures and repetitive exercises.
Goyal makes a number of sweeping statements and generalizations. He claims he "hates" school. He's never learned anything useful in school. School has been non-stop boredom, which has "crushed" his enthusiasm for learning. Furthermore, university level schools of education are largely at fault for this state of affairs because most of what they teach aspiring teachers is "crap".
The surprising thing is that Goyal attended high school in the affluent town of Syosset, New York (and moving there was, according to him, his idea - Goyal apparently had a much stronger voice in his family than I ever had in mine). I find it rather hard to believe that not one teacher in affluent Syosset uses any student-centered, project-based, experiential learning methods. And I find it hard to believe that a young man who wrote his own book has been "crushed" educationally. I think he doth protest - or at least exaggerate - too much.
I also found the book to be a bit thin and shallow, if broad. Goyal leaps from topic to topic and does not delve too deeply into any one of them. Also, much of his text is quotes from like-minded people and some pithy sayings and clichés. It would have been nice to see some more in depth analysis of what Goyal's reforms would mean and how they would play out.
With all of that said, there is much to agree with in Goyal's work. We need smaller class sizes. Teachers need the opportunity to get to know their students as individuals and the freedom to teach in individualized ways. We need to end, or at least greatly reduce, standardized testing and other "competitive" forms of learning in favor of collaborative, project-based and cross-disciplinary learning. Teachers should certainly never be evaluated on the basis of their students' test scores. Every child deserves the kind of education that Sasha and Malia Obama are getting at Sidwell Friends School.
But all of that can happen within the traditional public school system while retaining elements of that system which are effective. We don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we just have to shift the paradigm from education being about producing productive workers to education being about producing responsible citizens of a truly democratic nation. From such a view, a certain amount of conformity and uniformity of information and presentation is necessary. As fellow citizens, we need to have a common understanding of the core goals of our government and society, we need to hold certain ideals in common and we need to learn to respect each other rand learn to work together to accomplish those goals and ideals. There is still plenty of room within that framework for developing and promoting individuality and innovation.
As a final note, which I hope will be taken as gently chiding and perhaps even humorous, I really must suggest that Goyal have his work thoroughly copy edited. In addition to some grammatical and usage issues, Goyal often amusingly selects words that don't mean quite what he might think they do. My favorite was when he described young children getting "skirmish" during standardized testing. Perhaps standardized testing will come down to a skirmish some day (if not an outright war), but for now I believe "skittish" will do.
Please note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.