Education is ‘F’-ed Up!

Justin, Chad, and I are all together again in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Lately we have been talking a lot about education: The problems, the much needed solutions, the role of technology, and how RealLife can make a bigger impact on how people around the world are educated.

See, we now have over 20 years of combined experience in English as a second language (ESL) education in several different countries, in addition to our personal experiences growing up with the education systems of Australia and the U.S.A.

Listen to Us Talk About This on Our Podcast

People are stuck in old ways of thinking that do not prepare new generations for an ever-evolving, globalized world. Most people think that this problem is restricted to their part of the world, but in virtually every country, there is little innovation in learning.

More than ever, the world is ready for a big change in the way we learn. We need education that cultivates a global perspective and prepares the next generation to work together, despite national and cultural differences, to solve big, worldwide problems.

Arguably, this will be easier than ever as the Internet penetrates developing countries in the next several years, giving spread to new, different ways of looking at the world.

In order to move forward, we first need to recognize the existing problems in the educational system.

That’s exactly why we’ll be diving into this topic today.

Failure: What schools are teaching us wrong

The name of this article is a pun (play on words).

The F in the title is referring to the grading system (in the United States). Those who do not pass an exam, class, etc. receive an F, which stands for ‘failure’. This isfucked up,’ (i.e. wrong, inappropriate, broken).

kenAs children, we are full of creativity and curiosity, but because of how education is evaluated, students develop a deep fear of failure at a young age.

Accepting failure as a part of the journey is CRUCIAL if we want to be successful. Grading should not punish failure, but rather reward genuine learning. We’ll talk more about grading later.

Failure (like mistakes) is a good thing! It’s an opportunity to learn and improve (I highly recommend reading more here). But when everyone is evaluated the same, it’s impossible to not leave some students behind.

The “One Size Fits All” Model

Did you ever hear the Animal School fable? If not, take a few minutes to listen to it now:


This gives a very interesting metaphor for how most education systems work. In order to make education “efficient,” we standardize it, that is, we grade everyone on the same subjects regardless of their individual skills and passions.

Without a doubt, there are certain skills that everyone needs to succeed in life. But schools place more value on some subjects due to practicality. We’re told not to study a subject like music, because it is unlikely that one will be a professional musician, and that math and science are ‘more important’.

And because schools aren’t valuing individual skills, most students don’t find their passions while they are at school.

You can probably think of personal examples. For me, in high school I was advanced in mathematics, but I disliked it and knew that whatever I chose to work in would not involve advanced math. However, despite already being at a much higher level than most of my peers, I had to take the same amount of math credits as them. And this was time that I could have instead used to advance my skills in something more interesting to me.

This system does work well for a minority. About 30 percent of students have an aptitude for academics (like the valedictorian eel in the fable). In fact, most teachers come from this small group of students, and thus struggle to understand and make classes engaging for the majority that are not academically oriented.

All of this leads to students looking at school as a boring requisite.

As children, we are full of curiosity to learn about and experience everything. But the way the education system currently works does not cultivate this inquisitiveness. I mean we have to measure attendance at school because students don’t want to be there!

So it makes sense that when most of us finish school, we feel drained of our passion for learning.

Exams: Memorization & Regurgitation

We can all recall some not-so-fond (not pleasant) memories preparing for exams.

They are usually exceedingly stressful, making up a huge percentage of our final grade. The problem is, normally we spend hours, even sleepless nights, memorizing everything we have ‘learned’ during the course in order to pass the big exam, then we forget almost everything we studied in the days and weeks following.

To make them more efficient for teachers to grade en masse, tests are standardized. They don’t evaluate us based on our individual learning styles, but rather reward those who are best at memorizing facts.

Exams usually don’t give a fair representation of whether we have mastered the subject. And students are segregated based on their performance on exams, which can badly determine or motivate one’s future success (for example, where you go to university, where you can land [acquire] a job, etc.).

The era of the standardized exam has passed because memorization has lost much of its importance. At any time, if we want to know something we can pull out our smart phone and Google it. And yet, schools, governments, and businesses are largely stuck in traditional (and less effective) ways of doing things.

Grading does more harm than good

More and more studies are being conducted on the effectiveness of the grading system.

It has brought up a valid question: Is grading the focus, or is actual learning the focus?

The problem is that grades reflect compliance with the system, not learning.

This is like in the Animal School fable where “average is acceptable.” We’re not just giving students a fear of failure. Many are becoming contented [happy] with getting through school with average grades, instead of being exceptional at one or two subjects that they are passionate about.

The goal of most teachers is to inspire their students and get them excited to learn. But unfortunately, many fail, usually because of lack of resources and because the system has trained students to be motivated only by achieving the highest grade possible:

“By focusing and stressing grades as parents and teachers, we force our children to believe that the destination is more important than the journey. This message comes across loud and clear to our kids. Many kids feel pressured to cut corners, sacrifice ethics, and take easier courses, all in an effort to achieve better grades instead of better learning.” –Chris Crouch

Such a stringent [rigid] focus on the grade received at the end of the term gets in the way of helping students reflect on what they have actually learned (and how they can apply it). Students should instead set their own goals and feel accomplishment in reaching them (not just pride in the number or letter someone assigned to their work).

Next Steps: Self-Directed Learning

70 20 10Charles Jennings, an expert in learning strategies, carried out a fascinating study. He discovered that about 10 percent of learning comes from classroom or other formal settings, 20 percent from social learning (mentors, friends, social media etc.), and 70 percent from actual experience.

For most of us, this probably makes perfect sense. It is difficult to experience long-term learning from formal settings like lectures because most of us are not great at memorizing information. But when we experiment and ‘get our hands dirty,’ we can usually retain knowledge much longer.

So why is the formal classroom still preferred as the main educational strategy if the way most of us learn best is experientially?

Not to say that formal learning is useless. It definitely has its place. But we should not depend on it for the majority of our learning.

From an early age we develop teacher-reliance (i.e. a tendency to depend too much on the teacher). In general, schools don’t prepare us to be able to learn on our own.

All through school and university, teachers hold our hands. We learn what the teacher expects of us to get a good grade. And those who learn how to play this ‘game’ excel.

Academics effectively only prepares us for more academics, for example, if we want to become a professor or researcher.

However, for the majority that joins the professional world, one is expected, for the most part, to learn and work independently. Most lack the skills to do this and suffer to get their bearings (get oriented and comfortable), and practically start from scratch (from zero).

Experimentation and learning how to teach oneself are invaluable skills to become exceptional at anything. It’s that 70 percent that no teacher, no matter how talented, can directly provide.

A teacher should not be a sort of authoritarian leader in the classroom, but rather, a shepherd. She should guide the students’ discovery and stimulate discussion, not provide ‘important information.’

The problem is that she is educating a future generation, but has no idea of what the world they’ll be living in and molding will look like (in 5, 10, 15 years). The information that is relevant today may not be important later. But skills to self-educate are necessary for survival in an uncertain world.

Not to be pessimistic—some schools are recognizing the importance and are implementing more self-directed education strategies. Some even are letting students take control of their learning. And once this becomes commonplace (the norm) in our education system, we will create a generation much more prepared to work together to change the world.

Some classrooms are also recognizing the power of peer-to-peer education, in which each learner shares his own learning with one another, students hold each other accountable (create social pressure), and discuss and debate discoveries together. This should be included in every modern classroom. It gives students more responsibility, and is more engaging, effective, and fun.

A Future Where Everyone is Passionate About Learning

limit-imaginationThis post may seem critical, but this is nothing again teachers (I mean, I am a teacher). There are many wonderful educators out there, but unfortunately the system often constrains them and doesn’t allow them or show them how to bring out the best of their students’ creativity.

As teachers, we need to recognize that the teacher’s role is changing. We need to support our students and inspire them to become more autonomous learners. Let’s imagine a world in which no one loses that passion for discovery that we all have as children, a world in which our only limits are the limits of our imagination. There is no reason why everyone can’t have the audacity of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.

Students just need motivation and inspiration, which is exactly the spark teachers can provide.

educationWe are excited to be a part of the revolution of education. With RealLife Global, our social learning platform, it is our mission to help learners transcend cultural, linguistic, and physical borders as global citizens. You can join us and be one of the first to use the new RealLife Global by signing up for our newsletter. We’ll even send you useful lessons and articles like this one.


  • Ugo Souza says:

    Very very good to read this article. Our education system needs change. Not only to give us huge amounts of information but give us huge amounts of passion to learn. Be new languages, technologies and others kind of subject. What is needed is passion; learning passion.

    Great job with your position about education.

    See you guys.

    • Ethan says:

      Totally agree Ugo! Thanks for your support 🙂

  • Johanne Reflection says:

    I have a question beside the mark. I noticed for the second time already that ‘a teacher’ is then referred to as ‘she’. Is it a sort of abbreviation (she+he) or due to the fact that most teachers are women?

    • Ethan says:

      Hey Johanne, thanks for your question. In English, unlike in Latin languages, we can refer to a general noun as male or female. It doesn’t matter if you refer to teachers, for example, as he’s or she’s, just as long as you are consistent. I hope that helps!

      • Johanne Reflection says:

        Thank you!