Teaching Like a State

No teacher had a bigger impact on me than Miles Chen. 

He was my high school advisor, teacher, and golf coach. He was famous for his love of pork buns. Everybody talked about the restaurants he took us to and the Chinese food he brought to school. But people outside our golf team never experienced Miles’ wisdom, his appreciation for Asian culture, or how the games we played on the golf course laddered up to a galaxy of life lessons. 

Miles did his own thing. He cared little for norms. Unlike other teachers, he recognized that the bond you build with your students is more important than any material knowledge you impart to them. In class, he created his own curriculum, so his teaching was less predictable than a Cardi B interview. He rarely gave tests and reluctantly handed out grades at the end of the semester. Even though he was a triple major from UC Berkeley — painting, physics, and astrophysics — he wasn’t trapped down by rigid educational norms. He taught with the magic wand of humor, as opposed to the bureaucratic seriousness of his colleagues.

To date, Miles was the only teacher who made math feel like more than symbols on a page. Through his teaching, the universe came to life as his equations twinkled like stars in the nighttime sky. 

Now that I’m a teacher, I want to be more like Miles. Actually, I want our entire school system to create teachers like him. 

When Rigidity Goes Wrong

The federal government has tried to improve education by imposing rigid top-down standards. The education system has stagnated because of increased standardization. Standardized grades. Standardized tests. Standardized curriculums. 

And yet, educational outcomes have not improved despite the increased standardization. As Tyler Cowen showed in The Great Stagnation, there has been no significant improvement in the average reading score for 17-year-olds since 1971 or the average mathematics score since 1973¹. Despite flat test scores, America doubled its per-person education spend during that time frame. Americans are losing ground, even on standardized measures. Two out of three children don’t meet reading proficiency standards according to a test administered by the National Center for Education Statistics. Worse, 20% of American 15-year-olds still don’t have the expected reading skills of a ten-year-old. Teachers are teaching to the tests, but students still can’t pass them. 

Worse, the emotional side effects of modern education are worse than the disease itself. Kids aren’t meant to be locked in a classroom for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 12 years of their lives. That’s not education. That’s criminal. I’m reminded of a story about Sarah, the 12-year-old daughter of a family friend. Sarah’s always struggled with self-esteem. To cope, she attends weekly therapy, takes an antidepressant called Prozac, and when the weight of emotional toil is too heavy to bear, she cuts herself. But Sarah’s mother says she’s been happier since the Coronavirus quarantine began. Without school, she’s rediscovered her love for learning. As her mother said: “Traditional learning environments can be very stressful for anxious kids. I just feel blessed within the chaos, an emotional break is good for my girls.” 

Sarah isn’t sick. The system is. 

We design our schools to drive children mad. But instead of questioning the system, we medicate children and double-down on the system that makes them miserable in the first place. In that way, we’re like pill-obsessed doctors who ignore the field of preventative health and prescribe medications faster than activists hand out flyers. 

Why Brasilia Failed

When considering the problems with education, I’m reminded of the failure of Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil. As James Scott described in his book, Seeing Like a State, the utopian project began in 1957. 

The genesis of this top-down view begins with modernism, the idea that rational design would make rational societies. Modernism grew out of the order of World War II military units. Straight lines. Sharp, right angles. No room for randomness. 

Designers believed the modernist style would eradicate the miseries of the human condition, from hunger and disease to tyranny and inequality. In architecture, there was no room for the personal touch of a craftsman — the inverse of the Middle Ages when builders had independence and didn’t have to follow top-down master plans. But the lowly individual would not be trusted under the cold rule of modernism. Only the elites had the technical and scientific training to rationalize society, leaving no room for local knowledge or individual creativity.

Inside Brazil, the modernist-inspired city of Brasilia was known as “The City of Tomorrow.” It was backed by mountains of cash and fountains of national pride. Juscelino Kubitschek, the president of Brazil when plans for the city were conceived, said the city would give Brazilians “fifty years of progress in five.” The city might have shined in photographs, but the infinity highways and sterile apartment blocks were socially lifeless. The perfect city never arrived because Brasilia was built for tower-looking architects instead of the street-walking citizens who actually lived there.

What should we learn from Brasilia?  

We should not assume everything important can be measured and only what we can measure is real. The view from a map cannot capture the culture of a city. Much of what makes a culture thrive looks messy and purposeless on a map. Humans need chaos. Not everything important can be understood, so decision-making should happen at the local level. 

Look at a map of Amsterdam and Brasilia, and you’ll see stark differences. Amsterdam was born in the 12th century when fishermen living along the River Amstel built locks to protect themselves from floods. The name Amsterdam comes from the former name of the settlement: “Aemstelredamme,” which means “dam in the river Amstel.” Since those first settlers arrived 800 years ago, the city has evolved gradually. The city never had a central planner so the lines on a modern map of Amsterdam are hard to follow. So are the streets, where cars, cyclists, trolleys, and pedestrians compete for space. Today, tourists get lost in the labyrinth of narrow roads. 

Brasilia is the opposite. On paper, the lines are straight and elegant. Boxy buildings intersect with boxy parks and boxy roads. Architects who use rigidity and uniformity to organize a system like a city or a school to appeal to order often destroy what appeals to the heart. That’s why, despite its theoretical perfection, Brasilia lacks life while Amsterdam buzzes with energy. 

Source: Apple Maps. Nice how chaotic Amsterdam’s streets are. Inner Amsterdam was shaped as much by the canals as it was by its citizens, and the criss-cross of streets indicate the lack of a central planner .

Source: Apple Maps. Nice how chaotic Amsterdam’s streets are. Inner Amsterdam was shaped as much by the canals as it was by its citizens, and the criss-cross of streets indicate the lack of a central planner.

Source   : Note how straight the lines are and how long the roads are, two signs of a centrally planned city built for cars instead of people. It looks like an airport map. From the perspective of a map-maker, Brasília is much cleaner than Amsterdam .

Source: Note how straight the lines are and how long the roads are, two signs of a centrally planned city built for cars instead of people. It looks like an airport map. From the perspective of a map-maker, Brasília is much cleaner than Amsterdam.

In my own Write of Passage course, each student is matched with a mentor and a small group of students. Like neighborhoods in a city, each small group develops its own culture during each cohort. Some students start Slack groups. Others write together in weekly Zoom calls. All of them develop a shared language of inside jokes. Students who live in the same city take the course offline to meet for drinks in-person and edit each other’s essays. 

As a teacher, I want my course to feel less like the empty plazas of Brasília and more like the vibrant streets of Amsterdam. 

The Issue With Federal Standards

Miles’ class never had a textbook. He clashed with other faculty because he never followed a traditional or standardized teaching style. Other teachers rolled their eyes, but Miles didn’t care. As a co-founder of my high school, he couldn’t be fired. Perhaps because he was safe in this way, he was able to reject the one-size-fits-all style of lectures and tests. 

Unlike other teachers, Miles taught with a playful style. Most teachers taught in droning lectures and measured what we learned by our ability to memorize what they said. Borrrrringgg. But Miles’ classes were fun, so I tried harder in them. Of all the astrophysics projects he assigned, my favorite was a to-scale map of the universe running from our classroom in San Francisco across the entire United States. According to my model, the outer stars stretched beyond New York City — 14.5 billion light-years away. Until then, I had never grasped the immense, ever-expanding scale of the universe. 

He didn’t teach astrophysics to prepare students for college. Instead, he worked to make us appreciate the vastness of space and the wonders of the nighttime sky. He made the subject material come alive. He never assigned more than three questions of homework every night, so I had time to engage with each question. Out of all my science classes in high school and college, Miles’ class was the only one I got an A in. 

Standardized testing is to school as Brasilia is to architecture. A top-down architecture with noble intentions but lifeless results. These top-down standards stop students and teachers from taking risks. A friend and former educator says AP teachers in some school districts receive a $50 bonus for every student who receives a score of at least a “3” on their subject’s AP exam. Students at the Success Academy charter school systems in New York score high on standardized tests at the cost of creativity and independent thinking. Their students are trained to be bureaucrats from a young age. The dogma: Follow the rules. Listen to your elders. Don’t take too many risks. 

One former teacher told me she was shocked at the level of anxiety students had when she asked them to choose their own essay topics because students follow directions so they can improve test scores. 

Far-away bureaucrats are too involved in the lives of our children. Even if their intentions are strong, the results have been disastrous. Curriculum decisions should be pushed down the ladder as far as possible. Otherwise, we’ll end up with the same one-dimensional system that’s led to rising costs and stagnant test scores. 

Grades: False Indicators of Learning

Grades destroy curiosity. Too many kids learn for the sole purpose of raising their GPA because that’s what the system incentivizes². From an early age, I observed that my success in school depended more on my grades and less on how much I learned. In college, even though I wrote essays on my own and worked as an intern in New York City for companies like Skift, I was almost kicked out of my fraternity because my GPA was below 3.0. Likewise, my college counselors evaluated me on two metrics: grades and SAT scores. Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: “When students cheat on exams, it’s because our school system values grades more than students value learning.”

Our standardized curriculum forces us to think too narrowly. I see this first-hand running a Write of Passage summer camp for 9-12-year-old kids. Students come from countries like Brazil, Panama, Argentina, Canada, India, and Pakistan. Instead of telling kids what to do, we encourage them to identify a problem and explore their own interests. During a recent cohort, they made comic books, top motion videos, games out of recycled materials, YouTube videos to raise awareness about animal cruelty, cooking tool prototypes, a scratch animation on recycling, a newsletter to save dogs in Panama, and a recipe for healthy smoothies that actually taste good. 

Trusting kids to express their individuality yielded the same unexpected charming diversity that makes a city like Amsterdam so special. Reflecting on her learning experience, one student said, “The stuff we learn in school has little to do with our real life. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is we pass the test so we can go on to the next grade.” 

In traditional school, by narrowing our focus to an incomplete but easy-to-measure optimization figure, grades distract us from learning itself. Kids are discouraged from diving down rabbit holes because they aren’t on the syllabus. But as any passionate learner will tell you, your curiosity will help you learn more than any syllabus ever will.

For an example of an independent learner, consider Nassim Taleb, the author of five best-selling books including The Black Swan. At the age of 13, he set a goal to read for 30-60 hours per week. “Only the autodidacts are free,” he says. Choosing to learn on his own prevented him from becoming a “swallower” (somebody who “swallows” school material and whose knowledge is limited to what’s on a curriculum). Instead of fighting his ADHD, he ran with its tide. His natural craving for stimulation drove his scholarship. When he got bored with one book, he moved on to the next one. That way, he could get bored with a specific book, not the act of reading itself. 

In contrast, school taught me to hate reading. Studying Shakespeare hurt my brain, and I had no interest in Paradise Lost. But during my junior year of college, after I experienced the joy of Twitter, I stopped taking school seriously and started learning on my own instead. If a book was boring, I stopped reading it. If an assignment didn’t interest me, I did the bare minimum. Good grades became an afterthought, but my pace of learning exploded. And yet, I couldn’t prove my accelerated learning speed. My slight GPA improvement hardly reflected my newfound love for ideas.

My passion for learning wasn’t the problem. Tests were. When I needed to ace an exam, I prepared not by engaging with the material but by downloading a QuizLet set and memorizing flashcards in the library. The process was so mind-numbing that Adderall pills were worth their weight in beer during finals week.

More frustrating than my own scores was watching kids who spent most of their time partying receive better grades on tests. Those students were sometimes the “best” students and were often the ones who least wanted to engage in intellectual conversations. Ideas served a utilitarian purpose: getting good grades. Getting a 3.5 GPA was the benchmark, and if you hit it, you could drink guilt-free on the weekends and tell friends you were crushing it like a red Dixie cup. 

Grades and the Goodhart’s Law Trap

Goodhart’s Law states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Two famous examples come to mind. In one rat-infested city, the local government offered a bounty for rat tails. But instead of killing rats, enterprising individuals followed the incentives of the system. They captured rats, cut off the tails, released the tailless rats to breed, and turned in the tails for cash. Over time, the number of rats increased³. 

More famously, Soviet factories were rewarded based on the number of nails they produced. Factory managers responded by producing tons of tiny, useless nails. Before adding an explicit production inventive, factories saw a strong correlation between the productivity of a plant and the number of nails it produced. But once the target for more nails became explicit, the correlation between the productivity of a plant and the number of nails produced disappeared⁴. 

As with all clever concepts, the Germans have a fancy word for the phenomenon: Verschlimmbessern — to make something worse while trying to make it better. 

In a system where students don’t pursue grades as an end state, grades are a strong proxy for learning. But just like the rat-infested city and the Society nail factories, students who focus solely on grades won’t necessarily learn the way we want them to. They’ll follow the curriculum instead of their curiosity and build easy-to-quantify skills instead of interesting ones. Students who struggle in school (trust me, I was one of them) will stop trying or label themselves as stupid while smart students study no more than they need to get ace the class. Likewise, teachers stop productive classroom discussions so they can follow the lesson plan. But as any creative person knows, the best ideas come from the kinds of tangents we disincentivize. 

We should avoid designing our school system with the same blind spots that destroyed Brasilia. Our grades-driven, curriculum-dependent school culture assumes that only what we can measure is real and that everything real can be measured. All this direction destroys the chaos that is vital to learning. 

Where Messy Systems Thrive

As we’ve seen, the top-down obsession with cleanliness has predictable failure modes. Even if it’s hard for humans to see, messy designs are often more intelligent than orderly ones. 

For example, computer-generated AlphaZero chess algorithms can control the board in ways humans can’t measure. It’s as if they have X-Ray vision while the rest of us see visible light. When I was taught chess as a kid, I used a points system where each piece was worth a given number of points. Queens were worth nine, castles were six, knights three, and pawns one. Computer programs, on the other hand, make more complicated assessments. In addition to capturing an opponent’s piece, they can manipulate it so it becomes less useful over time. The strategy of disabling an opponent’s piece without taking it is hard to measure, but it’s remarkably effective. 

Likewise, a software program called Evolving Floor Plans tried to optimize a building’s floor plan to minimize construction materials, shorten fire escape paths, and provide access to views. The result had none of the straightness and edginess of Brasilia. There were no long hallways. Instead, the more efficient computer-generated designs looked random and chaotic. 

Source:  Joel Simon

Source: Joel Simon

To return to our theme of cities, Jane Jacobs, who is arguably the most famous urbanist in American history, called New York City’s West Village her favorite neighborhood. Based on its steep real-estate prices ($3,500/month for a small studio apartment), city residents agree. Jacobs fought for diversity, density, and dynamism. Her favorite neighborhoods had mixed-use zoning with a cocktail of homes, restaurants, shops, culture, and entertainment. West Village’s maze of streets wasn’t pre-planned like Brasilia. Rather, the fusion of home and business emerged organically, leading to beg-your-friends-to-eat-there restaurants like Bleecker Street Pizza and the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop. 

As I think back to high school, Miles was my most influential teacher because he operated in a West Village style. 

Source: Apple Maps. Like Amsterdam, the West Village has no apparent Central order. Streets intersect in bizarre ways. As a pedestrian, the narrow streets bend in unpredictable ways which lead to all kinds of serendipity.

Source: Apple Maps. Like Amsterdam, the West Village has no apparent Central order. Streets intersect in bizarre ways. As a pedestrian, the narrow streets bend in unpredictable ways which lead to all kinds of serendipity.

Like the chaotic streets of West Village, the best educational experiences are at odds with bureaucratic modes of design. We’ve created a group of high-achievers who don’t have tools to navigate real-world problems. A former teacher once told me her AP students had the highest social anxiety, the least confidence, and were the most naive — even though they were the most advanced. Howard Gardner makes a similar point in The Unschooled Mind: “Students who receive honors grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.” 

Focusing on theory at the expense of action is like learning to drive in an online course. Words like velocitation, which describes the feeling of going too fast on the highway without realizing it won’t help you navigate the roads. But no matter how fast you pass the driver’s education exam, you won’t learn to drive until you put your hands on the wheel, hit the gas pedal, and navigate the chaos of a busy intersection. 

Most learning is hard to define. 

The difference between curriculum-based learning and real-world learning is like the difference between the gym-strength and real-world-strength. The same people who only workout in gyms would lose a neighborhood street fight. As Nassim Taleb writes in Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder

“[Gym-obsessed bodybuilders’] strength is extremely domain-specific and their domain doesn’t exist outside of ludic — extremely organized — constructs. In fact their strength, as with over-specialized athletes, is the result of a deformity… I thought it was the same with people who were selected for trying to get high grades in a small number of subjects rather than follow their curiosity: try taking them slightly away from what they studied and watch their decomposition, loss of confidence, and denial.” 

Rigid curriculums turn students into over-specialized weightlifters. Ask them about business and they’ll tell you the basics of accounting, but they’ve never fought to meet payroll in the thick of an economic crisis. Ask them about literature and they’ll quote Shakespeare’s sonnets, but they can’t tell you what it’s like to edit a sentence for the 30th time and still hate it. Ask them about nature and they’ll tell you the history of Yosemite National Park, but they’ve never seen God paint an orange sunset on Half Dome’s granite face. Ask them about baseball and they’ll tell you Barry Bonds holds the homerun record, but they’ve never experienced the shit-in-your-pants terror of trying to hit a 95-mile-per-hour fastball⁵. They don’t know about real knowledge because that only occurs when you escape the order of the classroom. 

Teaching Like a State

With our current methods of measurement, we will hurt the quality of education if we try to control every aspect of it. Top-down teaching has limited effectiveness. Teachers who know their students are able to anticipate the needs of a classroom better than any faraway Washington suit-and-tie ever will. We should begin by relaxing federally-imposed academic standards. The more we allow top-down planning to influence our schools, the more they’ll resemble Brasilia. Our schools will lack culture and the allure of grades will give students rat-tail syndrome. 

More importantly, teaching like a state is the fastest way to get rid of teachers like Miles. 

After Miles left my high school, the golf team found a new golf coach named Tony. On the first day of practice, Tony mentioned he would not be like Miles. He didn’t mention the invisible things. The long one-on-one car rides, Miles’ peculiar sense of humor, or his glittering passion for physics. Instead, Tony mentioned the most visible element of Miles’ influence: the food. No more Pocky. No more potstickers. 

Teachers thought we liked Miles because he brought us food when it was a small — but visible — perk. We loved Miles because of the larger, but hard to define personality traits that made him so unique. From the perspective of the school, everything is the same. The season still begins in March, kids practice five days per week, and they still play at the Presidio golf course. But to the kids, the golf team hasn’t been the same since he left. The laughs aren’t as loud, the bonds aren’t as strong, and pork buns are nowhere to be found. 

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¹ This is originally from a 2009 report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

² This was an insightful comment from Ana Lorena Fabrega, who I run Write of Passage Summer Camp with: “A lot of what passes for “learning” in schools is really an imitation of learning. Think about it, even students who have done well in class completely forget the course material after completion of the course. Given the system we’ve created, what incentives do kids have to value “learning” over grades? It doesn’t value curiosity or exploration. Kids learn to play the game and figure out what to do in order to pass. This disconnect between a desire to learn and what happens in schools carries over and continues into college.”

³ This story may be apocryphal. I’ve heard many people tell it, but I wasn’t able to find the original source.

⁴ Even the biggest companies are guilty of Goodhart’s Law. For example, IBM is one of the least innovative technology companies even though it receives more patents than any other Silicon Valley company each year. Patents were originally correlated with innovation. But now, the correlation between patents and innovation has fallen.

 ⁵ Yes, this paragraph is inspired by Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting.”

Thank you to Ana Lorena Fabrega, Kathleen Martin, and Zander Nethercutt for their help with this essay.