Sunday, August 31, 2014 · 3 min read

I have gone to a lot of schools. I have gone to schools where you can ace an English writing test be memorizing an essay the teacher gives you, and reproducing it on the test. I have done art classes where you spend every period copying a poster into your notebook (graded on accuracy of the reproduction). I have taken computer classes where you’re encouraged to use as many font and color variations as possible, to ‘display your knowledge’, and so end up with yellow italicized comic sans on a red gradient background. My English teacher plays a vocabulary game, where the first person to miss a word has to bring in a snack the next day. I’m currently in a French class that uses a Reddit-esque Karma system to monitor class participation, which is directly translated to a letter grade.

What do all these things have in common?

All these schools are trying to solve the same problem: how do you quantify learning? A district needs to know how well a school is doing (hence standardized tests), a school needs to know how well a teacher is doing, and a teacher needs to report a quantitative measure of how well a student is doing.

Of course, doing well isn’t quantifiable, so teachers manage by introducing various ‘objective’ measures. And any form of objective measurement becomes a game. Your GPA, for example, is something you can maximize. Tests are memory games. Any system where you can influence a number becomes a game.

Without grades, we have no way to quickly analyze a student’s performance. But grades don’t offer much insight into that, either. As a student, knowing someone has good grades tells me that they are good at the game. They work hard, consistently finish their homework, and study for tests. More importantly, they know what a teacher wants to see to give them good grades. They know that they should do well.

Only the student and the teacher can really know a student’s status. For a student who really needs help coming up to his or her goals, this turns out to be disastrous: any third party would first judge them by the numbers, and getting help becomes hard. Students end up working hard, not to reach their goals, but to improve their numbers. This is a problem, but that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about the opposite end: students who don’t have trouble keeping up. If you aren’t struggling, several parameters change. You’re now learning because you want to. This means you don’t care about the numbers that measure the learning. It’s blissful.

Well, it would be blissful, except that courses have already been designed, over decades, to guide you towards an objective test. And so even if you want to learn for pleasure, you’re being pushed through an objective, rigid ‘curriculum’.

This happened, for instance, in my AP Computer Science class last year. Almost every student there was far above average, and exceeding all expectations at school. It was the perfect environment for them to learn freely—and our teacher encouraged this—but they had to spend hours studying for the AP CS test.

Honestly, studying for the AP CS test isn’t very different from studying for the Spelling Bee. It’s just memorizing and practicing. It isn’t learning.

I propose, as an intellectual exercise, a different course format, for students learning for pleasure. The course is not graded. Instead, it simply connects students with teachers, who guide them in their learning. There is no curriculum.

The inspiration for this comes from my adventures trying to teach myself computer science—often, the hardest part is to choose something to study, and to decide how much detail to study it in. When a student is paired with a competent expert in a field, he has someone to ask for guidance.

Again, this program would only work in certain districts—those with the resources, interested and capable students, and competent teachers. Almost every school has much higher priorities, bringing every student to a strong level in core subjects. But for those few schools with a large mass of accomplished students, I feel gamified education is not the right answer.

◊ ◊ ◊