Over the past couple months I’ve become enamored with watching my two-year-old nephew Mikaia learn the letters of the alphabet, colors, and numbers. Even though he doesn’t have them all perfect, he’s scoring in the high 90% when we quiz him verbally.

Next up, the periodic table of elements?

What’s most interesting is that his mother says she never set out to teach him this information. Rather, he picked it up on his own from watching “little guy” television shows.

Admittedly, the repeated quizzing by mom, dad, and others has helped, but this is a very young child who blasted through the most rudimentary pieces of learning without having any formal teaching, classrooms, or lesson plans involved.

If young kids can learn efficiently through television, what would happen if we moved up the food chain to college courses, and handed them off to television producers, game designers, and app developers to see how they would go about rewriting the material in fun and interesting ways?

For this reason, I’d like to take you on a journey to reimagine the way we learn through a competition, a competition that I believe will change everything.

Africa will probably never have enough physical teachers.

Our Need for Teacherless Education

Throughout history, education has been formed around the concept of “place.” Build fancy buildings, attract world-renowned scholars, and you have a college or university. This model works well in a culture based on teaching. Over the coming years, with our hyper-connected world, we will quickly begin shifting to a leaning model. And while “place” will still matter, it will matter differently.

After my talk in Istanbul in February, I was approached by Cori Namer, an executive from Google who discussed the reason why teacherless education is so important.

“Our team at Google is looking for ways to educate the people of Africa, but very few teachers want to move to Africa,” he said.

The conversation was brief, but he framed the problem very succinctly. There simply aren’t enough teachers at the right time and place to satisfy our insatiable hunger and need for knowledge.

We are severely limiting our learning potential. Teachers become the problem in this equation, not the solution they were intended to be .

Teaching requires experts. Teacherless education uses experts to create the material, but doesn’t require the expert to be present each time the material is presented.

With a wide array of promising tools and techniques that can be used, the possibilities are truly inspiring. The new frontier of a teacherless education system is at our doorstep, and all we are lacking is that yet-to-be named visionary who will take the reigns.

Framing the Problem Around a Competition

Launched in 1996 by Pete Diamandis, the Ansari X Prize was a space competition in which the X-Prize Foundation offered a $10 million prize for the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. The prize was won on October 4, 2004, the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik 1 launch, by Tier One. Their entry, called SpaceShipOne, was designed by Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

A few years ago I had a conversation with Tom Vander Ark, who was, at the time, President of the X Prize Foundation. Since his background included running the education division of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he had a vested interest in finding a way to advance education through competitions.

So far, nothing has been announced, and Tom has moved on to a new position, but Pete Diamandis and his team are still working to solve this problem. Their website lists the “Education Game X PRIZE” as something that will be announced sometime in the future.

For this reason, I’d like to weigh in with some thoughts of how to tackle this problem. As I talk through this approach, knowing my own limitations, I would invite everyone to add their thoughts in the comments about better ways of tackling this.

The Conceptual Framework for the Competition

The X Prize Foundation’s current approach to designing competitions is to first imagine a destination and then to construct a contest that focuses attention on achieving that end goal.

With education, the end goal is not easily imagined, so a different kind of competition is needed.

Starting with a definable piece of learning, such as Econ 101, a class taught in most colleges, I envision a competition to transform an entry level economics course by changing the format and style of the course into one that people can consume quickly, with maximum retention, and an effective way of certifying the results. So the process would involve three distinct steps – learning, retention, and certification.

1.) Learning – Learning is the process for acquiring new knowledge, skills or behaviors. It can be achieved in a variety of ways including the modification of existing knowledge or by synthesizing new information.

People learn through a sensory connection with the information presented to them. Human conversation with a few added visuals is the most common method used today to teach students. Even though some exciting things are happening around the fringes, little has changed in the past thousand years. At the same time, our ability to mold, fashion, and gamify information in new and interesting ways has exploded around us.

As we think through the possibilities of how information can be fashioned, shaped and presented, we begin to see thousands of new possibilities:

  • Learning through a movie
  • Learning through an app
  • Learning through our accomplishments
  • Learning through an experience
  • Learning through a game
  • Learning through music
  • Learning through podcasts
  • Learning through virtual world experiences
  • Learning through smells, tastes, and sensory involvement
  • Learning by using a combination of all of the above

However, finding new and interesting ways of presenting the information is only part of the equation. Creating a process for turning it into a long-term, usable piece of knowledge is just as important as our initial exposure to it.

2.) Retention – Once the initial learning has taken place, how long does it stick around?

We have all heard stories of college students pulling an all-nighter to cram for a final exam. As they do this, they have one goal in mind – to pass the test.

For them, the immediate hurdle is to complete the course with a passing grade, and whether or not anything penetrates the neurons long-term is strictly secondary. But having the information somehow take root in the cranial cavity is just as important as learning it in the first place.

There are many techniques for improving retention that I won’t go into, but devising a process that insures greater retention, and the ability to demonstrate its effectiveness, should be part of the overall competition.

3.) Certification – The final piece of the equation should be certifying that a quantifiable piece of learning has taken place, and assessing its level of influence. Traditionally, the certification of learning has involved some form of testing, but far better systems will likely emerge in a competition like this.

One possible solution I’ve written about in the past is confidence-based learning. Some experiments in this area have demonstrated a far greater retention and a significant reduction in learning time.

Distinguishing between a person guessing correctly, and one who answers correctly with confidence, can have a major impact. This assessment process not only validates knowledge but also the confidence with which it is presented.

Again, there are hundreds of possible solutions and any competition like this should somehow find a way to certify that the person has indeed gained new knowledge from the experience.

Judging the Results, Picking a Winner

Unlike some competitions that specify the criteria for winning, this should be a contest with enough latitude to allow for some very creative entries to be presented.

The judging process should involve actual students, taking the courses, going through the process, and rating their experience, with official judges on hand to determine the winners.

Possible judging criteria might also include:

  • Overall learning time – Speed of learning, start to finish
  • Degree of engagement – Was it an enjoyable experience? Would you do it again?
  • Repeatability – Can it be repeated with other subject matter such as courses in psychology, computer science, mechanical engineering, etc.
  • Cost-to-benefit ratio – Can this new form of learning be replicated efficiently?
  • Intangibles – Does it require some new piece of equipment? Does it require the learning take place at a certain time, place, or under certain conditions? Or is there any piece of the process that will slow implementation?

Rinse and Repeat

Once the first competition has been staged, thinking about the second one would need to begin.

Finding a new way of educating the masses should be an iterative process, using the results of the first competition to establish a higher bar for the second year, and so on.

Within five years, with the right sponsorships and participation, this kind of competition would radically rewrite the rules for teacherless education.

Final Thoughts

If we work within our existing system for education, the best we can hope for is a few percentage points improvement. The system itself becomes the limiting factor.

By creating a new system, we remove those limits.

Since we can’t envision the best possible way to educate people in the future, we need to unleash the creative minds of the world, and somehow incentivize them to participate.

My hope in writing this column is to inspire others to move this conversation forward. I certainly don’t have all the answers, and perhaps no one does. But with a little work, we might be able to create a process that can uncover those answers.

So let me know what you think. The conversation starts here.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

21 Responses to “Teacherless Education and the Competition that will Change Everything”

Comments List

  1. <a href='http://confidential' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Dr. Larry Pate</a>

    I have been thinking for years about the question you propose. I have a solution for developing the best content, distribution of usable content anywhere, and standardization of evaluation and testing results globally. All this is on a non-profit model. I will not discuss these openly until it it time, but I am working on them seriously. I would be happy to discuss them in person and privately if that becomes something that interests you and is possible.
  2. Jim Blackman

    Hey Tom - absolutely,inspired and right-on! Should enlist a great many qualified cohorts for framing it all into being??!! Looking forward - onward and upward! Jim
  3. Holly Hart

    Application seems to be a missing ingredient. Repeated use of learned information in more and more complicated applications would be an interesting methodology.
  4. <a href='http://nextfiles.wordpress.com/' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Raymond</a>

    There is an Apple app for the periodic table available through the NPR web site. It is amusing watching young minds soak up knowledge. Another great post! Raymond
  5. <a href='http://www.market-engineering.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Gary Lundquist</a>

    Tom et al, Almost all people misunderstand education. No matter what teachers may say, their job is to develop compliant citizens. NOT to educate, but to instill agreement to the current idea of a citizen. We cannot say in any way that we seek optimum learning and ability to learn on one's own. What we have is optimum conditioning, each nation to its own. I must excuse three teachers from that list. 1. My home English teacher in 7-9th grades. He taught how to think. 2. In high school, I had chemistry in 11th, physics in 12th. Contrast Chemistry: (do it my way or you will fail.) with Physics: Think about it. Then rest and think about it some more. Argue with it. Find the weaknesses. 12th English. Ask any question at any time for any reason, but state your question clearly and with elegance. She taught me to trust myself over the norms. >> Thanks for the update. Worldwide, we need drastic changes to teach how to think, not just how to add 2+2. Gary
  6. <a href='http://www.engagingchange.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Michael Cushman</a>

    Hi Tom BTW, did you ever read Fred Keller's (1968) "Goodbye teacher"? http://www.teachingtech.com/Library/GOODBYE,%20TEACHER.HTM He might have been able to make it stick back then if he had computers to do the assessments. As for myself, being one of the names on the patents for Confidence-Based Learning, I have a few thoughts on the topic. :-) But I'm too excited about the possibility of a contest!!! Bring it on. The software is already almost there, so a contest would bring in the capital to take it over the top. Lets GO!
    • admin

      Michael, Thanks for pointing out Fred Keller's article. Very interesting. As for the competition, yes, let's make something happen. The potential is huge. Thomas Frey
  7. <a href='http://www.professionalparenting.ca' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Judy Arnall</a>

    Teacherless education has been around since at least 1921. It's called Unschooling.
  8. N. Mizushima

    Thomas, this is a great idea. The contest needs to to be as open and flexible as possible since we don't know what the solutions will look like. Assessment is a very important part of the learning process, not just for contest judges but also for the students themselves. Learners need easy self-assessment tools along every step of the learning experience. Please keep in touch - maybe I'll have an epiphany.
  9. Laura Leighton

    Hi Tom, My company is doing this for kids 5 to 9. It is in the form of an app, with movies, games, all around a body of knowledge. I've been building the concept for years, starting in school classrooms, all the way to iterating for handhelds.
  10. Samantha

    Hello Thomas, What a great topic! However, I feel your challenge needs to be spread out into more categories, and must be more incremental. You can't address a college student's learning and retention unless you first address their early childhood educational experience. You have to back way, way up. I strongly encourage you to look into what the experts have to say on childhood development, starting with Jim and Yvonne, the two teachers at Our School Preschool in South Boulder. They are exceptionally qualified to discuss how kids learn best. Some of your assumptions are still highly didactic in approach, and while I understand that might be necessary to bridge the gap between mainstream education and taking things to where they need to be- both for this country and the developing nations of this world- but I think you need to look more deeply into early learning habits and biases in order to improve higher education. From preschool ages, what is much more important is that we need to care more about increasing critical thinking skills, adaptability, creativity, fearlessness in the face of experimenting (there is no failure, only learning opportunities), and nurture a love of learning, and the joy that spawns personal discipline and self-learning. That will better prepare kids for the future, which continues to point towards faster rates of change, and a greater demand for flexibility and learning new skills on the fly. The kids in their teens and 20's that I see today who were raised with these values (many homeschooled or even no-schooled) don't even need teachers to intervene- they are so self-motivated that they learn it on their own, or attend college and fly through it, taking the initiative to get the most out of their resources. They have found their passion by then through exposure to mentors, first-hand experience, and having more free time to explore new topics. How people learn in a classroom setting versus a non-classroom, with or without mentors, with or without financial resources, will all determine the formula that works. Maybe there should be categories of implementation? Maybe a master vision, but have it break down into commonalities that can then be addressed for specific portions of our world population? This is a big, big topic. It might need to be undertaken in smaller steps to achieve the full and proper revision that is required. I'd be happy to discuss this further. I'm very interested in helping move things in a better direction. Sincerely, Samantha
    • admin

      Samantha, Thanks for weighing in on this. You have some great insights. You're right, this is a very big topic. But the existing education system is also heavily fortified inside a virtually impenetrable system. My impression has been that Colleges are far more open to experimentation and would be an easier entry point. I understand your point of first understanding the core essentials of how we learn before experimenting with new formats, but I'm assuming the participants will have already done that research prior to entering the competition. Since many college courses have already been ported into the online world, a shift in format would only represent an incremental change in the user experience. Once colleges land on something that works well, the ideas can begin to flow down into the earlier grade levels. Not being part of the system, I can only offer an outsider's perspective. I'm sure I'm wrong on at least 25% of what I'm suggesting, but I don't know what 25% it is. Thomas Frey
  11. Marianna McKim

    This idea is being developed in different ways, by Khan Academy, among others. http://www.khanacademy.org Some powerful funders are already taking note. The questions of acculturation and accreditation do need to be addressed. We still wish for and need mentors for learners, especially younger ones. Unschooling, self-paced learning, and differentiated learning all recognize the benefits of a guide in the learning process. Sincerely, Marianna McKim
  12. İhsan Ceyhan Solak

    Dears, it was a great opportunity for me to read this article now and start thinking deeper for my 3 and 1year old babies.. Will design it further in my mind and hopefully share the results. Cheers. İCS.
  13. <a href='http://www.margueriteoconnor.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Marguerite O'Connor</a>

    I am inspired & motivated by this topic & I am working with one of my former instructors towards a solution based contribution. With gratitude for Thomas & all of you "at the table." Keep thinking, communicating & sharing.
  14. M. D. Williams

    Very interesting article! John Holt came to much the same conclusions as Thomas Frey. His books, How Children Learn and How Children Fail (and others) inspired me to choose homeschooling for my family. At first my husband was resistant & we decided to take it year to year. As the children continued to thrive we saw no reason to stop. I used no packaged curriculum. All 3 are now grown adults with successful careers. One is an electrical engineer (dh & I both have degrees in music). The current government-funded & top-down-controlled bureaucracy school system has not been able to adapt to ever faster-changing technology. This is sure to keep changing at an exponential pace. We should face the fact that public schooling is a dinosaur. We should be encouraging smaller, more adaptable private schools where parents have freedom to choose which facility best fits each child's learning style, needs and interests, as well as values (including whether it be religious or non-religious) - & also encourage homeschooling for those who are willing to try. Many parents find being with their children very rewarding (though certainly not always easy). The benefits of homeschooling in the early years have long-lasting consequences. Children are born knowing how to learn (if they are not brain-damaged or stifled). Institutional-type programming often gets in the way of allowing children to be creative, or to have time to absorb what is being taught. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink! For more info, readers might be interested in visiting The Alliance for the Separation of School and State: http://www.schoolandstate.org/home.htm
  15. Brian Vass

    When my son was 3 and a half, he was the guest speaker at Toastmasters (http://vimeo.com/24778444). When he was 10,(1998)he designed a Power Point Presentation for my Masters Degree in Distance Education to deliver to a group of teachers. When he was 14 (2002), I retaught him his Math course (9th year)in an hour and a half. He was virtual schooled at the time and his mother (his math coach, who is a math major (teacher)) could not get him past a great deal of frustration and failure up to the final exam. He passed with the highest mark in his class, after our session. I started an online math tutoring company that year, and started teaching middle school math online. After working with students for a year or so I told my wife,(and everyone I knew) "Kids can learn this stuff (Middle School Math) 10 times faster."She said, "Please don't tell people that . . . it sounds crazy." When you said it might be possible for kids to learn 10 times faster in your 2006 Education Article Thomas, it helped my case a bit. In 2006, Michael Gerber said, "Brian will transform the education systems of the world." Well, I have been working at "How kids learn" and I just get more and more into the idea. I am hoping to launch an online program this year for Middle School Math students called an "Accelerated Path to Honors Math". The thing about the system is that it works for any subject. I have just been working on the Math solution for 10 years, so that is where I am focusing at the moment. In 1997, I saw that the future of education was online and enrolled in one of the first Distance Education Masters Programs in Canada. Now I see the Future of Education is "Learning 'How to Learn'", faster, with natural learning tools, natural thinking abilities, with the whole brain and with an assessment system that shows individuals how to find a maximum state of well being and connectedness. This has been my passion and work for the past 10 years. This is a topic I LOVE. Thanks for letting me weigh in, and forgive my verboseness. Brian Vass
  16. <a href='http://falooka.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>wikibi</a>

    Some really great comments. I somehow recall first reading this article in 2011... or perhaps one similar to it by you Thomas. I completed a seven year project called falooka dot com and definitely learned a few things. My biggest surprise is that most learners are not self motivated easily... even if the materials are simplified. The "social" plus "game" element might prove critical to counter this problem. Furthermore, through feedback and observing users they seem to need "structure." In other words daily/weekly assignments for them to undertake. Even though the students directly contributed to the materials they still needed hand holding. We used 200 students to create our materials on falooka. But it seems the point of this article is to avoid the hand holding by building a brilliant platform that creates the incentive to self explore. These past two years I like to think I am moving more towards understanding the relevance of user testing while building to attempt to design a valid learning platform. Words that come to mind while imagining a learning platform that might work are: confidence based learning, minimalist & clean (hiding distracting additional features), small increments of information as opposed to scroll down pages, cumulative, social, game-like, multimedia, and immediate feedback. I designed a prototype in 2011 after being inspired by Thomas. (I envisioned one the the biggest obstacles with CBL was that it was not fun. Nor would the users easily understand its value). May I share this work as an attachment? Since I am playing with the idea of undertaking a kickstarter campaign - looking for feedback by email or phone. Thanks a lot!
  17. Pranay

    I am quite late for this post but here goes.... A very good starting point could be having assessment check points in School eg. Grade 1 (6yrs), Grade 5 (11 yrs), Grade 8 (13 yrs.) Grade 10 (16 yrs.) and Grade 12 (18 yrs.). Allow anyone of the appropriate age-group to get assessed at the nearest center/school. You shall definitely see a reduction in the number of students going to schools. Unless and until school education, especially school based assessment, is made non-compulsory, such practices will remain mere experiments and demonstrations. Make these check-points compulsory, not going to school. Also ensure that the check-points test understanding, application and skill and not memory.
  18. <a href='http://www.textacy.org%20not%20updated' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Tumelo</a>

    Awesome ideas... I'm an educator who has reached the time to try implement such. I googled teacherless learning and.came upon this. I do not think we need.to go back to primary education. That is the illusion of linear progression in thinking. When it is more circular. The answer is into tapping into your element. In ones element we process.and.learn anything as long as the info exists around us. The expert should create the environment with a trail to the info. The trail must be in the form that connects with ones 1 of 7 or 8 intelligences (Howard gardner). But these r non existent. There is no song that teaches logarithms. Or a dance that teaches factoring equations. We need to build these up first. All education caters for the readers and math minded best. But these texts r written for adult learners to explain to young learners, not for young learners themselves. Else you could leave a textbook with a child.n they would know it on their own if linguistically inclined. . . That is the theoretical.answer. I've done work on teaching math via plays poems n currently games. The field is just underdeveloped but it.can be created.

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