Dear School, Please Teach My Son How to Fail

Tom Waits: “My son is older than me” (1:37 in the video)

This year my son turns five and with the earnest naiveté of a rookie father, I began to visit various elementary schools in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Hillsborough, and Los Altos a few months ago. I was quickly introduced to the confusing array of choices in front of a parent – public, choice, Montessori, Waldorf, Academies, schools for the “gifted & talented”. The last one is particularly mysterious – the school in question actually tests your five year old to determine if they fit that definition.

As I visited these schools and asked for in-classroom observations vs. hearing a pitch by a teacher or administrator, I could not shake a deeply unsettling and sinking feeling every time I saw teachers engaging with children. As I have thought more about it in recent weeks, it is clear that there is a fundamental fracture in the approach to education and the needs of this generation for the next few decades.

By the time this generation of elementary school kids is ready to go to work (2027-2045), their world will change at a faster pace than ever, multiple career changes, and multiple technology changes will happen. Our own generation has seen a very rapid pace of change occur in the past two decades and the rate of change is only going to accelerate I believe.

Sobering thought – schools (elementary, middle, high, university) will not change fast enough as our kids grow up. I don’t really expect to see changes in structured education in the next ten years. As a result, helping the kids learn these skills is how the parents can complement whichever stream of learning the kids are going through.

Examining the various approaches to education against this realization makes it clear that what’s required is not identifying and pushing just one aspect of education – we have to ensure our kids learn how to learn.

For this generation, the key skills will be:

Creative learning. Creativity is not just an outbound expression of our thoughts. It is also the way we receive knowledge and learn to appreciate all aspects of an experience.

Social learning. Group learning is often undervalued in our current systems of education though if we believe our kid’s world will be dominated by needing to learn things not yet in organized curricula, it is clear that group or cohort dynamics will matter a lot more than they have in the past. Communicating learning and imparting lessons learnt to others in the cohort is a key part of learning beyond the boundaries set by institutional education. Each member of the cohort needs to be a teacher and co-learner. Your child’s cohort will curate their learning constantly.

Flexibility. Cross-disciplinary learnings and applying lessons learnt in one domain to others is already yielding amazing results in diverse fields. As an example: doctors of tomorrow need to know Information Theory as well as how to code (CS) in order to decode the mysteries of our genomes and genomic systems. Probability is not just for information theory and macro-economists, but for designers, psychologists in addition to scientists and engineers. Anyone who has read  Kahneman can see lessons in that field of study influencing consumer behavior online.

Failure as a fundamental ingredient of success, not an outcome to avoid at all costs. The vocabulary around failure needs to evolve and change over the next decade of their life. This one is clearly the skill they will need the most. Multiple career changes will be the norm and even within a career, failure as a key tool for learning will be invaluable to learn fast. Curricula and courses (structured education) will not keep pace with innovation and they will have to learn their craft by themselves with fast iterations, fast failure, and fast learning.

The schools I have visited in the SF Bay area seem rooted in the philosophies of US zeitgeist of 50s and 60s and it is clear that most teachers today were in their formative years in 70s and 80s, when the pace of change for them did not include the degree of connectivity we have today. Clearly, teaching the lessons of 90s and 00s hasn’t happened yet but it will be required for the current generation of children entering schools.

A personal example – at engineering school I studied fundamental sciences and various “engineering” courses including Acoustics, Tensors, Microwave Theory, Televisions & Transmission Theory as part of the EE curriculum. Through the 60s-70s-80s, this education would have trained an engineer for a lifetime at Bell Labs or Bell Northern Research or GE. Today, other than Fundamental Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics (Tensors ftw), 3 out of 5 years worth of specialization have not survived. Even the stellar courses of my grad student life – signal processing, optical transmission, networking, lasers are obsolete within 10 years except for the foundational courses of Probability Theory and Information Theory.

For our children, everything they will “know” is wrong – in the sense it won’t be the primary determinant of their success. Everything they can learn anew will matter – forever in their multiple and productive careers.

Beginning with fundamental science (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Computing), this new generation will require a ‘lean’ way of learning. As a rookie parent, I believe this is where schools can help them learn creativity, flexibility, and a lasting love of failure as a tool.