Thursday, November 29

An Educational Paradigm: Investing

My lifelong goal is to change the world. Specifically, to change the world of education - as it happens in the home, schools, businesses, and everywhere else learning happens.

I want to start by helping parents and others change the paradigm within which they view education... because if you can change a collective vision, the structure will follow.

So here goes - the first paradigm shift.

Imagine that you have $10,000 and there are 5 banks where you can invest your money. Each will give some type of return, but you really aren't sure what. There's no history that you can look up because they're all brand new, & nothing that distinguishes one from another.

Where do you put your money?

According to basic finance, given equal (even unknown) potential, you should invest evenly across all 5 banks. That way you hedge against potential losses if one bank performs poorly.

Fast-forward five years. Bank A has lost all your money. They're more than willing to take more of it, but you know by looking at their investment strategy that the bank will continue to perform on the same level. Bank B, on the other hand, has taken the $2000 initial investment and made a 200% return - grown now to $6000. Banks C, D, and E are growing at about the rate of inflation - 2.3%.

If you know have access to the data behind each bank's decisions, know that none will fail, and have a pretty good guess to the future performance of the bank (that it will match past performance), where do you invest?

A smart investor would put all his money in the bank with the highest return. None in the bank that lost his money, and maybe only keep an account at the other 3 banks. That way, he's most likely to get the best return on his investment.

Switch gears.

Your 7-year-old is going to first grade. It's his first day, and while you have some inkling of his passions, you really don't know what's going to happen when he goes to school. He has five subjects, and you encourage him to do his best in every class.

Fast forward 5 years. Your 12-year-old brings home a report card that looks like many of the others you've seen over the last 5 years:

Reading: B
Spelling: B-
Music: A+
Art: B
Math: D

As a parent, how do you tell your son to invest his most precious resource - his time? Think of it like an investment... because it is. Do you tell him to focus on learning the subjects that give him the highest return - music - or do you tell him to put his resources into subjects that give him a low return - like math?

Many parents in the past would tell their children to focus on math. "Just work harder so that you can get your grades up."

But understanding a new paradigm makes that change.

If you let your son study music, and really study it, he'll eventually need to learn fractions to read music. Mathematics to understand harmonics. As he grows in his knowledge of "pure music," he will realize that learning isn't siloed. Maybe he'll learn a foreign language to sing Le Nozze di Figaro. Maybe he'll go into dance and learn about art, where vector spaces can explain eye tracking and heat maps on the stage.

But no matter what happens, it will happen fast - far faster than if he were just studying physics or science or finance on their own. He will learn far more by studying things he loves and can apply than by studying things he doesn't. And he will learn the most effective strategies to function in life from those subjects, based on his passion.

That's because learning only happens when people feel the knowledge is useful, and because learning in one area bleeds over into others. I'm not talking about memorization. I'm talking about real learning - helping people to change who they are and how they interact with the world. And that learning is accelerated when passion is present.

I know the biggest objections. What about "required learning" - or functional skills like reading? Or having a basic ability to "function in society"?

The reality is that "required learning" isn't often learning. It soothes our conscience when we claim that we have taught students all the same basic core principles, but two years later, none of them remember anything. Which means that none of them learned anything.

Learning only takes place when people believe the knowledge is useful... and it's accelerated if they have passion. Which means that the role of teacher - whether parent or professional - changes to be first a matchmaker. If you can't help someone love a subject, it doesn't matter how you try to make him learn. But when he has fallen in love and wants to know more, nothing can keep him from it.


  1. This blew my mind... I think it's perfect! I think this is an important piece in my educational crisis. Have you heard of TEDtalks? This is a wonderful idea, and others should know about it. Please continue to expound on it.

  2. I agree with your idea that it's most important to study things we're passionate about, but I think there's also value in learning to improve our weaknesses. I would definitely encourage my 12-year-old to study music, but I wouldn't let him drop out of math early or let him think that he doesn't need to try because it's hard. I don't think that math is inherently more important than music (I certainly use my musical talents more often than my advanced mathematical skills), but I think it's good for everyone to work at something they're bad at. Education is different from investment in that sense- you have some control over the amount of return you receive on your investment.

  3. Love to see you giving this as a TEDtalk!

  4. It probably requires more than just grades to tell what a kid should invest their time in (since some are good with subjects that don't necessarily interest them), but this seems like a very good idea. Unknown makes a good point that you can't let a kid abandon all math right out, but under what you are proposing, it makes sense that the student would be shown how math relates to music, making both more relevant... I think I'll try it out on my niece when I get home, or at least see what can be done. This approach would certainly make school a lot more tolerable for many students... it might even make standardized testing worth while (that is pushing it though)...

  5. Hate to address a completely different subject here, but I need to get your attention. Did you (or any readers) watch Doctor Oz on Wednesday? (G)MG, I'd love to see you write a post about this episode or its topic. It's about the ethics of reparative therapy, particularly with young people. I'm very curious what the average Mormon's and your response would be to this episode. Watch the episode here (while it's still online!):

    This is a critically important and controversial topic and we need to talk about it, however one feels about it.

  6. This would definitely require a paradigm shift. Good luck battling government run education. I'd be glad to help in any way possible.

  7. I love everything about this. What a brilliant perspective

  8. Great post! My husband and I just had this very conversation the other night. It doesn't take very many years to see where your children excel, but how then do we find the opportunities that will help their natural potential develop at a faster rate?

    For instance: My 9 year old daughter has a gift for details. In fact, she is a wonderful writer. She loves to use her imagination to write stories and songs. Obviously the creative writing units in school will not help her advance her already age advanced skills. So where does a parent find the extra opportunity and mentoring that will help her hop on the fast track to becoming more than the average writer that the school system produces?

    I actually find myself wishing that there were schools designed to cover the basics that need to be covered, while providing intense learning in specific subjects. Young kids learn so well - if only we could utilize those years in a more compounded way!

  9. Hey David...
    You are right on. We are living proof of what you are talking about. We brought my oldest home for education after his so-so first grade year in public school. Focusing on his strengths has boosted his self worth and he now excels at every subject (and feels socially confident, which was his biggest weakness before). As a passionate mother, I've researched the brain science behind all of time you head back to Illinois, we should talk. (I'm friends with your parents in your home ward.)


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