Some Thoughts On Education

Being in education systems from some time after I could write my own name until present, i.e. about 26 years and counting1, having experienced different education styles and structures in different countries, including actively contributed to discussions about education and providing some "transfer of knowledge sessions" myself, I do have a couple of comments on all this.

I distinguish three different important aspects:
  1. Structure of education systems, like the widely known Anglo-Saxon system used in countries like the USA, UK and Ireland and others that are implemented on mainland Europe (especially the Dutch, because it is in stark contrast with the Anglo-Saxon model, although the so-called Bologna process is supposed to harmonise the education systems across the EU)2.
  2. What is taught. This specifies what is, or should be, deemed important and valuable matter by legislators and other people who make up a school or study curriculum.
  3. How it is taught. There is more than way leading to Rome: how teachers do, or do not, get the message across in the most effective way.
This page is an attempt to address those three areas, and even though how much I would like to go in the direction of a well argumented extensive analysis like Boris Sidis in his Philistine & Genius, I will limit this writing to comparisons and an analysis of the situation at present (comments are added in the Notes section at the bottom of the page3).
Or you can jump right to the conclusions.

Structures of education systems

The layperson who is reading this page may, but more likely may not, know that not all countries implement a structure in their educational systems as everybody sees in the movies or reads in more or less scientific education material or on the high-IQ web pages discussing "effective" education. That system is also known as the Anglo-Saxon model and summarized in Table 1. As an example for an entirely different set up, the Dutch model is shown in Table 2.

primary school high school College/University work/PhD
Table 1. The Anglo-Saxon model

primary school
LBO - 4 years mostly practical, learning for a job like electrician work
MAVO - 4 year general education, emphasizes on learning by heartMBO - Diploma level third level education (3 years)work
HAVO - 5 year general education, learning by heart + some theoryHBO - BSc/BA level third level education (4 years)work
VWO - 6 year general education, more theory and less learning by heart University - MSc/MA/MD level third level education (4-6 years)PhD/work
Table 2. The Dutch system.
Over the last couple of years secondary school has been adapted to converge with the Anglo-Saxon education model in that the first 3 years at secondary school general level are together and only the last 1, 2 or 3 years have "their own level"; this is not included here because it blurs the view of the essential difference.

The Dutch model is not as straightforward, hence I shall give a brief summary. At the end of primary school you do a test (the Cito toets4), and that result combined with the almighty wisdom of your primary school teacher in the last grade determines your admission to whatever level of secondary school is appropriate. More often than not, they are geographically entirely different schools, so that when you get a "MAVO" advice and appropriate Cito score (around 540), you will not be allowed to go to a higher level school. The same for counts for colleges (Bachelors) and universities (Masters). It is possible to swap on the vertical ladder during secondary school, but if you want to move from a finished BSc to an additional MSc there is a high probability you will have to pay that entirely yourself due to cuts in the budget of the Ministry of Education.

Essentially it boils down to the fact if you want to recognize that children do not all have the same intellectual capabilities, or treating everybody equally (though there are geek groups in the Anglo-Saxon schools, so some are apparently more equal than others after all).

But what is, or would be, best for society? What type of adults do you need to keep the world go round?
And after that is defined, what type of system would fit best to educate children to become what you just have defined you want to see the next generation to do with society?

To be able to answer the first two questions, you are probably a couple of dissertations down the road and some day I will write more on that topic. But for now, the service-oriented Western societies at present (2002), there is no need for a whole generation of average mutts, also known as office clerks in their cubicles. Of course, they are necessary, but so is the carpenter, electrician and researcher (generalist and specialist). Does an egalitarian school system promote this required diversity? I think not.

At the moment of writing I am in my penultimate year of a named degree (=externally validated) BSc at the Open University UK, which upon completion would allow me to go for another MSc or straight to a PhD, but the level of the courses is below the standard I am used to from studying in the Netherlands4a - please read. Secondary school mathematics and physics are covered if it is brand new study material for students. Further, when I chat with my colleagues (in Ireland), they have never heard of Mendel, his peas and his ideas explained with the fruitfly, that being 5th grade material of my secondary school5. Or a working knowledge of more than only their native tongue (in the Netherlands Dutch, English, German and the French language are the minimum for a variable amount of years6). And it is o so tempting to have a slacktitude when a grade 4 is already a "pass"; that is 40-55% correct, not even or just about half of the material covered in the course/class!!
And what about the other side of the spectrum, students who cannot or do not want to study? Society needs people with good hands-on experience7. But after finishing high school, you still do not have a profession. How can one system fit all?? It cannot.

Arguments supporting an egalitarian education system mention as an important point, that a broad general basis is needed, which will always be helpful during life; children might not directly realize that when they are in school, but that they will learn to value that in later stages in life. Learn to value, ah. So we are taught to be as average as possible, so that later in life we do not know better (anymore) and force the next generation to be as average as possible as well. Hm. And who decides that is best for everybody? The average person. Circle round.
And there is the diversion in the Dutch school system. Not optimal, but at least it acknowledges that not everybody is the same, accommodates to a certain extend for that and still provides a broad basis of basic knowledge that may be helpful in later stages in life. In other words, mentioned argument for the egalitarian education is not a valid one. Is it [the Anglo-Saxon system] easier to maintain? Yes. Is it aiding the child to develop him/herself? No. Could it be the case, that the reason the Anglo-Saxon system is still used, is merely a resistance to change? Or a an unwillingness of the average "normal" person to acknowledge that not everybody is like them?


What is taught?

In the introduction I mentioned "This specifies what is, or should be, deemed important and valuable matter by legislators and other people who make up a school or study curriculum", but that leaves at least 2 ways of interpreting the title of this section: is it the subjects covered in the study books, or the "values"?
I can be short about the subjects being taught, even though there exist quite some controversies like evolution in Kansas or history being rewritten over and over again. In the Netherlands science is deemed important, while the Irish seem to put more emphasis on literature. Thus that depends on the prevalent culture in any given country or state and changes quite frequently, i.e. every couple of years.

What is more important is the overall trend, what the topics have in common. In the early days (even back to the Greeks), memorizing was valued highly. Centuries ago there was not much, or none at all, written information, so being able to remember what was told once was seen as important. This attitude continued to about the mid 20th century. Gradually during the 19th and 20th century when the written information became more accessible to the general public, it was more and more important to be able to interpret that information, meaning the aspect of reasoning and logic. I'm from that generation, but it resulted in a few clashes with my dad during basic physics discussions. He has a Masters in mechanical engineering and at the time I was "just a dipshit doing secondary school". He could remember whole formulas (yeah, like I care!), but during the discussion he was not able to do some decent reasoning, not putting the formulas into context and not capable of a reasoned explanation (shattering my ideas about what a university is supposed to offer, but more about that another time). For school exams, I had a nice reference sheet or book, so we did not need to learn the formulas by heart at school; on the contrary, exam questions consisted of whatever description and it was up to us to understand the problem and to deduce the steps to the solution and which formulas would be appropriate; one does not get points for merely knowing a formula by heart. Quite some exams at the universities were even so-called open-book exams, where you are allowed to bring all the course material with you.

The end of the previous may already have given you an idea where I am heading towards. Having discussed briefly the out of date memorizing techniques, and the emphasis on reasoning and logic, which I think is an important trait to be learned, there is a third one emerging. With the expanding Internet, there is not only some written press, but a huge amount of information accessible just a click away. A click away? some may say. Yes. I will return to this statement in the next section. First, memorizing all sorts of information, being it whole epistles or silly words like Eisenbahnknotenpunkthinundherschieber8 is not relevant: go to, type a word or phrase and more or less relevant pages are returned (and as long as the Semantic Web is "not properly implemented" yet the "exact answer" will not be given in only one web page). The same with any other topic.

Why would you learn anything if you can check the details in an instant?

Ugh! First, you need to be able to place whatever question to be answered in a context. That context most likely needs to be taught. Imagine somebody waffles about a hamlet and you don't know what it is. Do a search, and yes, Shakespeare will turn up in the hitlist, but maybe also a bunch of links to obscure little villages you have never ever heard of. In other words, people will need to have a basic framework to be able to define appropriate search criteria, narrowing down or re-interpreting the question: the how to search for information. Secondly, the aspect of where to look. Occasional surfers and so-called AOLusers make attempts with sites like AltaVista or, but have to wade through irrelevant links and still do not find what they are looking for (arguably, could be the search criteria). There are many ways to store information on the world wide web, with some more accessible than others and an occasional search engine apparently uses better algorithms to store and retrieve information, like google (yes, I used my meta tags for this page, but apart from that, no fancy semantic markup). Bear in mind here that I already took the step and have gotten that much used to the Internet that I find it hard to imagine when I would have to live without it. Of course, one can buy encyclopaedia books regularly, but there are convenient DVDs as well - way easier to search what you want, including text, pictures and animations.
Third, when you know how to search and where, assume you have your relevant pages (being it the DVD, book, www, where-ever). Then what? Try to understand it and grasp the concept! For this to be able to do, you most likely need some analytical skills and reasoning capabilities. Information is only a mere set of data if you can't put a meaning to it.

Returning back to the heading of this section, "what is taught". Currently that is some learning by heart, which is relatively outdated9, and in higher education the emphasis is more on theory, reasoning and analytical skills. Is that adequate for future generations in the "information age"? No. I am of the opinion that the skill of how to organize data into information and an understanding of how and where to find relevant information will be much more important. In this view, analytical skills are still an important factor (I might write something else here in ten years). But what is definitely important, is that schools would need to include in the curriculum a way to teach children how to cope and find their way in the vast amount of information available nowadays. And this is not addressed sufficiently at the moment.


How it is taught

This may seem closely related, or even the same, to what is taught in which education system and entirely depending on your target audience. Not so. Taking the previously acknowledged differences and a changed requirement of what should be taught, being information management and analytical skills, into account, I will first discuss briefly the current situation and then move on to options on how teaching can be done as well.

Ok, most of you who made it till here reading the page, probably will have passed a large part, of not all, of the standard education track, and most likely will be used to the standard teacher drumming up his list, and more often than not, repeats what is written in the course books already anyway. Other people than him/her have defined what the child/student should know for the exams and they are merely puppets emphasizing the importance of the dull course material. And that's it. Plus a lot of holiday days. Why on earth did they ever become teachers?

Outside the mainstream education, there are the Steiner and Montessori schools and the likes, who position the "development of the child" as a central focus, as opposed to the straightforward "learn your maths etc" of the standard schools. Supposedly it stimulates the child's interests and adjusts the pace of leaning to what the child indicates s/he is interested in. That that approach does not really fit in the "real world", does not mean it is per definition wrong. I have my doubts if aiming for a well-balanced happy person in the holistic universe is sufficient for achieving self-actualisation. What can be said is, that there is less emphasis on reasoning and logic in such education methods, and a major problem is that not all children realize that when they are young that knowledge and information is also a requirement for seeing things in perspective10. Once you are lagging behind in learning such knowledge it is hard to make up the difference later in life.
On the other hand, actively trying to awaken curiosity and stimulate children to try to find answers and solutions themselves instead of having it served on a plate can be more motivating than blindly taking up some information like a dead sponge absorbs water11.

Why is it that business high-flyers like Bill Gates are drop-outs? Or people who did the full education track and made important scientific contributions can remember one single person or teacher that "did the crucial thing" to awaken interest and motivation to subsequently pursue their goals with enthusiasm and dedication?
Smart yet a drop-out, soit, that can be easily explained: you just do not want to waste your time ineffectively and see other, more fulfilling, opportunities than that "magical" degree paper.
But what then, are the characteristics that trigger interest and motivation to search for more knowledge? I still have not met my motivator, so this question is a bit harder to answer. But I still do remember one course during my first year at the university. Going to class was optional, but during the full 13 weeks the aula was packed with more than 300 students during class, not enough seats for all of us, even students who did not even intend to do any more courses in microbiology, yet everybody was all ears and that course was known across the whole university. He taught with passion about his little beasts, how brilliant they are, the importance of micro-organisms in evolution and daily life12 and even managed to interact and involve students in his talks. Another very positive experience was the eager MA dissertation supervisor, who from the day I indicated my research interest got all excited and could not seem to wait until I handed in my main chapters because he was interested in the topic (applying game theory to terrorism - more about that here).

Why don't mainstream teachers put a bit of enthusiasm in their lectures?!

Admitted, if I have to talk 40 years about the same, or similar material, I would be bored out of my mind too. Therefore teachers should be taught new information continuously. New stuff is interesting and who does not want to share some hot topics? That covers the first part: enthusiasm about your own field of research. If you as a teacher are not interested in what you have to tell, you cannot expect a layperson to become automatically interested in something that is apparently totally boring according to the "expert". Secondly, children and students are not morons, so let them think for themselves first, guide them only when necessary instead of forcing everything through their throats. Third, interact with them, not against them as if in a one-to-may relationship. Fourth, teachers are supposed to encourage and motivate children, not put them or let them down, being it either children or students who have trouble keeping up with the speed or children/students that are, or want to go, ahead on their own. 13



My thoughts on education written down here were mainly focused on the negative aspects in the current situation, especially the egalitarian education system, emphasis on memorizing and analytical skills and the demotivating way the topics are taught.
I highlighted options for improvement with a more diverse education system acknowledging not all humans have the same intellectual capability. That system should be more directed towards teaching information management and analytical skills. Ideally, this should be taught by enthusiastic teachers who guide and motivate the children and students so that they will be able to think for themselves.



1. Primary school, secondary school (VWO), MSc Food Science at the university, Diploma in Interior Design Studies, BSc IT and Computing at the university, 8 IT courses with certificates (ASE, MCSE, ITIL etc.) and some random stuff. Update 30-10-2004: and a BSc in IT & Computing, an MA in Peace & Development Studies, and enrolled on a PhD programme.

2. I considered including the profitable market of the quick-fix certificates but decided not to. Often they are not more than a couple of days training and/or 2-4 months self-study, but they are not (inter)nationally recognized as being of sufficient content and value to count towards diploma or degree-level education. Sometimes they are reduced to propaganda by the supplier.

3. As if any comparison or analysis is ever objective... not. See also the essay "Master of Arts, what's in a name?"

4. This Cito toest is rather pathetic, and if you score badly but the teacher likes you, you still can go to a higher level education than the test would allow you to. Then again, it also works the other way around: if your score is good but the teacher thinks you are a looser, you still will be accepted on a higher level school. There are countless examples for both the Cito score being a wrong indicator and the primary school advice missing it completely (not just me with a score of 550 [the maximum] and a "HAVO" advice. And I am not going to tell you my IQ or percentile, because I am taught it is inappropriate to brag about it (...) but I scored >99% with quite a nice margin).

4a. Despite the OU UK being a top UK university (note 30-10-2004: I graduated with a First Class Honours). Another reason for the difference in quality is that the universities in the Netherlands are designed such that one cannot get grade averages like 10/10: the exams are made that difficult that the class average lies around 7/10: this conveys the "educational message" that by principle it is impossible to know everything, which grading systems where 10/10 occur oftentimes, imho unjustly, suggest. Further, there are courses such as "reaktiemechanismen en natuurprodukten" [biochemical reaction mechanism and natural products] that have abysmal pass (at least 5.5/10) percentages of 25% for first-time examinees with the highest grade for all examinees an 8. Requests for dumbing-down such exams to increase the pass percentage consistently were rebutted with a "no, for (bio)organic chemistry, this knowledge is essential; insufficient understanding of the principal mechanisms of biochemical reactions leads to serious deficiencies in comprehension of the discipline and sub-standard researchers, which we cannot allow to happen". In addition, and this is related to the two different kinds of education systems, only people who graduate from VWO (or have a BSc - HBO graduates, regardless the grade average) are entitled to go to the university, whereas it is "open" to anybody in e.g. the UK: in the Netherlands, it is not the grade average that determines to which tertiary education system one goes, but proof of graduation of the 'preceding step': e.g. VWO is not equal to a high school, but consists of course contents that is, more, more detailed, more theoretical, and comprises more years than e.g. MAVO. On the other hand, having a "one systems fits all"-approach requires some way of differentiation between poor, average, good, and excellent students, done through the grading system (one needs a grade 1, or A-grades at the only available, average, level of education).

5. Ok, maybe I am not entirely fair here because I attended the VWO, and if you would equalize the Dutch school system, one would end up with a level somewhere between MAVO and HAVO, and they do not have an extensive chapter on genetics. See next section of the main text.

6. Arguable as well: There is a negligible percentage of the world population who speak Dutch as their native tongue, which leaves Dutch people to learn other languages as the main approach to get along in the world. Besides that, the Netherlands is since day and age a trading nation: to trade "effectively" within a capitalistic system, one needs to expand one's market. If you want to do business with people abroad it is a distinct advantage if you can speak their language.

7. Re-reading these lines, I thought it might be interpreted as derogatory, but it is not meant as such. The vast majority I met was quite happy giving the responsibility for solving problems out hand to the "smart" people, and know that the "smart" people need taxi drivers, plumbers etc. It seems to me that the people at the higher end of the average do not want to acknowledge that not everybody is the same. (Life would be rather boring if everybody thinks and acts similar, wouldn't it?)

8. I learnt that one from my grandfather after numerous attempts. It was at the time when he was in primary school the longest German word. The literal translation of Eisenbahn-knotenpunkt-hin-und-her-schieber is railway-crossroads-backwards-and-forwards-mover, i.e. a person who changes the tracks of the railways for the oncoming trains.

9. I do not only make that statement because I hate memorizing in my opinion futile things. I hope I made that clear in the "what is taught" section. It's more like, ok, I know roughly when the Romans ruled here in Europe and their valuable contributions to language, civilization and technology etc, but do not ask me the exact dates of important battles. I will look it up if you really want to know the answers.

10. Striking example is the racism being justified and taught as "the truth" on some, or all, Steiner schools, depending on the country and region. They clearly did not grasp some concepts of biology and genetics.

11. This is an adaptation of a Loesje Poster: School - I kind of like to learn something - but I am not a stupid sponge. Original text: School - ik wil best wel wat leren - maar ik ben geen dom sponsje.

12. Imagine that penicillin was discovered when Napoleon was ruling Europe, maybe then everybody was using the metric system now! (apparently he had syphillis). Or: about 90% of the students were renting a room in the city where almost none of us grew up (there's only one agricultural uni in the whole country), so isolation can be a problem, but... "you're never alone!"... millions of bacteria are keeping you company :)
BTW, The lecturer, Ad Eegeraat, received a prize for best lecturer of the uni.

13. Am I blaming the kettle? you might wonder. At least nobody ever fell asleep during my talks. The occasional person gets annoyed when I disturb their peaceful passivism, but during and after most of my presentations, the trainees or public attending the talk wanted to know more and get extra information about whatever the topic was, so I probably have induced at least some interest and motivation. A welcome change (though one I had to get used to) are the Italians, who interrupt a narrative whenever they please: at least it shows they are active listeners!