The Silicon Valley vision of education

In a Tim Ferriss Show podcast episode, Peter Diamandis, entrepreneur extraordinaire, answers a listener question: How can we disrupt our education system? I think it’s articulate and representative of the typical “Silicon Valley Vision” for education, so let’s dig into it.

First of all, education’s got a couple different parts. There’s the part of socialization, of getting to know kids, getting to know people, how to be a good citizen, how to interact with people socially. Then there’s the part about learning.

I will stick to the “learning” part, as much as that division is legitimate.

And the challenge with our education system, and you know this, we all know this, is, it is 150 or 200 years old. And it just sucks. I don’t know how else to put it.

I’m not here to talk history either, but I recommend The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’ to get a richer perspective on the “education is old and broken” talking point.

In any classroom, half the class is bored, the other half of the class is lost, and even the best teachers can only teach to the median. As classroom sizes grow, our ability to provide personalized educations just isn’t happening. So for me, the ability to scale is the use of technology.

I agree with this critique of classroom learning in general. Tutoring, on the other hand, is something like a gold standard in the research community ever since Benjamin Bloom’s 1984 study that tutored students performed at the 98% percentile level(!) of a control group (Bloom’s 2 Sigma Problem). I don’t believe the 98% has quite held up in replication, but I do have a strong belief in the power of personalization.

For better or worse I’m going to base my position on an analogy to medicine. Like the illnesses we see a doctor to treat, the misconceptions, lack of knowledge, or motivational breakdowns that hinder our academic performance are issues in the realm of teachers and schools. At least both occur mostly within our fleshy membrane.

Just like we wouldn’t want to be treated for an illness in a room of dozens of our peers, we would likely benefit from a masterful teacher that could work individually to diagnose our missteps and provide the right “treatment” (maybe an item of knowledge, but perhaps a motivating example, practice maneuver, or perceptual cue) to advance our learning.

You may or may not agree that this is a more desirable state but I think we can all agree that we (the American public school system, or any system of K-12 education) don’t have the resources for anything like this — enough individual attention for all students to learn all the standard curriculum.

The Silicon Valley Vision is that technology-based education can provide education that is not only better than one-on-one human teachers, but can also scale to accommodate every student, up to and including, yes, the poor African villager.

Big goals.

I always ask the question, how do you dematerialize, demonetize, and democratize different systems. In the case of education what I believe is going to happen is that we’re going to develop artificial intelligence systems, AIs, that are using the very best teaching techniques.

Let’s establish some common ground.

First, it’s not clear to me what it means that the AI is “using teaching techniques. Is the AI selecting and sequencing some pre-existing content, or is it actually constructing pedagogic material and enacting the delivery on its own (whether through generated text or Siri voice or even a robot)? The former is more realistic in the near term — for example, it’s the role that Knewton plays for the content of publishers it works with — and seems hinted at by later answers, so let’s stick with that.

Next, I don’t know how these “best” teaching techniques are determined. If these techniques are known, what has stopped us from applying them already?

I’ll give the Silicon Valley Vision the benefit of the doubt here: the “best teaching technique” is highly context dependent, and except perhaps for our imagined individualized 2-sigma teacher, the only practical way to map from context to technique at scale is with automated technology. That leaves us with one question: can technology do that?

An AI can understand a child’s language abilities, their experience, their cognitive capabilities, where they’ve grown up, even know what their experiences are through the days, and give that individual an education that is so personalized and so perfect for their needs in that moment that you couldn’t buy it.

Diamandis starts by enumerating of these contexts for personalization. In our medical analogy this would be like asking for a piece of software we switch on that tells us everything that could be wrong with us. Instead, we have countless scans, tests, and measurements that give hints at what could be going on. Is there reason to believe that the mind is more scrutable? I haven’t seen one.

Our state of the art in learning “diagnostics” is to hand-code the units of knowledge for a particular domain, ask tons of assessment questions, and infer a small amount of information of from each of these about how likely the student knows of each of the units of knowledge. For a typical case, a multiple choice question, the information content is very low — there’s already a 25% chance the student just guessed the right answer — for maybe a minute of the student’s time. That isn’t nearly the information bandwidth that a good teacher achieves, even working with a large class. (Don’t get me wrong, there is cool work that is building domain and student modeling in environments like games or inquiry learning, but the point is that this progress is incredibly slow — for example, a block stacking game that has been individually designed, programmed, and modeled over several years.)

And the beautiful thing about computers and AI is that it can scale at minimum incremental cost. So you can imagine a world in the future in which the son or daughter of a billionaire, or the son or daughter of a poor African villager, have equal access to the best education. We’re seeing that today in knowledge, right, because Larry Page, founder of Google, has access to the same knowledge and information that the poorest person on Google has. It’s a flattening of this capability.

Let’s ignore the issues of access to technology for now, that is, assume our villager does have internet access (uncensored and not prohibitively slow). Do they choose to access the knowledge? When they access the knowledge, do they have the background to understand it, or the means to put the knowledge into action? Sometimes, yes, and the whole project may be worth it for those cases, but when we’re talking about education being solved and done for everyone, there is no precedent here.

So AI for me is the answer to global dematerialized, demonetized, and democratized education. We have to separate learning things from actually socialization and being inspired and so forth. Humans are going to be part of that — always will be — but AI is going to be the way that I learn something. Or an AI can really deliver the information in a way that’s compelling and meaningful. In fact we’re going to have a situation where an AI may be watching my pupilary dilation or how I tilt my head or asking me questions to really understand, did I understand that concept, or was I just faking it by nodding my head. I mean how many times are you speaking to someone and they’re trying to teach you something and you say, “Yeah yeah yeah”, and really in the back of your mind you’re going, “I have no idea what this person just said.” I think education driven by neuroscience and by artificial intelligence will know that you didn’t get it, will back up to the point where you lost the idea, and then bring you step by step so you really do learn these things.

By now our picture in the medical world is rather comical. Imagine an personalized medicine system that, upon checking your vitals and determining the effects of the medication aren’t taking hold, retracts its robotic arm, refills the syringe, and injects you again, over and over, hoping one of these times will work.

If this AI vision doesn’t just mean repeating the instruction at the point of (detected) failure, then is there a map from the context that technology could infer to something “more meaningful” for the student? That’s a challenge for a fully empathetic human who knows the life story of one of their students. Well beyond Turing test level.

I think we’re really going to transform education very quickly. And it’s a huge and critically important part of our society, so as the father of two four-year-olds, I am personally passionate and excited about solving that challenge.

The language of “solving that challenge” sums up what’s most flawed in the Silicon Valley vision of education. There is no “education solved” checkbox. To the extent such a solution is envisioned, it is well beyond the grasp of the foreseeable future in the science of human learning or existing AI-driven technology in the field.

I do think there are tremendous opportunities for technology in education. If our goal is to provide a better personalized education, that means we need to be better at diagnosing and treating deficiencies in knowledge and skills. Just as there has been no disruption of medicine by the use of technology, there won’t be for education. But we can get better practice by practice, and tool by tool.