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Posted: April 25, 2012

Teacherless education…

...and the competition that will change everything

Thomas Frey

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 percent 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 re-imagine the way we learn through a competition, a competition that I believe will change everything.

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.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

Little kids are "learning machines" - so amazing and wonderful. They have to be: walking, talking, social interaction, dressing, hygiene (toiletting), etc. Works with every little kid, pretty much because everyone around them, in whatever setting and culture, knows that's what they have to learn and generally facilitates their learning. If only it were as clear on what else little kids have to learn. That changes, always, but the pace of change picked up dramatically. Kids come pre-wired to be up to the task, I think. If - and when - there is similar clarity about the things that have heretofore been "taught" to little kinds, parents and educators and society could, and I hope would, do much better facilitating these amazing little learning machines to learn those things. So they can be our fellow citizens. By DRS on 2012 04 25
A mid-step to the education system described would be to train our upcoming teachers in how to be the catalyst for learning, the guides rather than the instructors. We have instructed the "creativity" out of our society. We box our children in to grades, topics, test scores, etc. Poor and rural schools would be a great place to implement teacherless education. Their finances make them a prime target to implement a system that can save them money in labor/benefits. I like an open classroom concept, kids learning at their own pace, allowed to pursue what interests them. Core subjects are needed as the foundation so they can learn about their true passion. Teachers, well versed in the subjects, are there to assist and guide. To ingnite curiousity and open doors to more knowledge. Maybe your 2yr old nephew will solve the energy crisis or cure cancer. By H. Sanchez on 2012 04 25
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