Rethinking Education for the Digital Age

What if I told you that the entire education system is built on a false assumption that permeates every facet of how we teach and learn. It is so widely accepted that we hardly ever notice it — analogous to a fish having to describe what water is.

Yet, this false assumption is a main factor that drives many all too familiar problems:

  • Students fail to understand content. This is especially true in STEM subjects and is worse in higher year groups.
  • Students struggle with independent learning. They require continuous instruction and guidance by their teachers.
  • Teaching is highly inefficient. Multiple repetitions of the same content are needed to consolidate student knowledge.
  • 30% of teachers leave the profession after 5 years. Becoming a skilled teacher takes years of teaching under very high workload.

The false assumption I am talking about is this:

Knowledge is best taught in a linear fashion.

In this article I will (a) explain why this assumption is utterly false, (b) what consequences it has on how we teach and learn and (c) how a new technology could help us achieve a paradigm shift in education where students can learn complex topics independently and where teachers raise their teaching quality without burning out.

Table of Contents:

  1. Background
    a. The structure of knowledge
    b. Knowing vs. understanding
  2. Problems
    a. Textbooks vs. students
    b. Textbooks vs. teachers
  3. Solutions
    a. Knowledge Graphs
    b. Restructuring the curriculum
    c. Six use cases
  4. How to join ZenTeach

Did you know that using the hyperlinks on a Wikipedia page will get you (on average) to any other page in just 3 clicks? That’s pretty amazing considering that there are more than 6.2 million articles, all interlinked in a giant web (you can use this fun tool to find the shortest path between any two Wikipedia articles). Knowledge is highly interconnected. If mapped out, it forms a large network:

The ZenTeach Chemistry GCSE curriculum

Our brain is organised in a similar fashion. Brains use neurons (a type of brain cell) to store knowledge. Physical links between neurons establish the relationship between difference pieces of knowledge. Cognitive Psychologists call this a schema, Computational Neuroscientists know them as neural nets and Computer Scientists refer to them as Knowledge Graphs.

As a teacher I have often made the observation that students memorise facts, but fail to understand their meaning. For example, a student could recite a definition of heat (“heat is the amount of kinetic energy that a particle has”) without understanding what kinetic energy is (i.e. movement energy). Recitation is proof of memorisation, but not of understanding.

Understanding emerges from how we relate knowledge to each other. First, the student must know what kinetic energy is. Only then can they can begin to understand the definition of heat.

Understanding involves placing knowledge into a sequence where already acquired knowledge and understanding forms the basis on which new knowledge and understanding is built.

Unlike Wikipedia, which relates knowledge to each other without any directionality, knowledge in our brains is partially hierarchical. It builds on itself so that basic knowledge becomes the foundation on which more complex knowledge is constructed. For example, a student won’t understand how vaccines work without knowledge of how genetic translation works. Calculating the third angle in a triangle is impossible without knowing that all three angles must add up to 180 degrees. Understanding is what emerges when knowledge is organised into a sequence from basic to increasingly complex knowledge.

My students find some topics more challenging than others. Some examples include protein synthesis (Biology), electrolysis (Chemistry) and magnetic induction (Physics). This is because these topic rely on a very large knowledge base that already needs to be in place in order to fully appreciate these more advanced topics. The blocks at the top of a house of cards depend on the card layers on which it rests. In other words, complex knowledge requires a larger knowledge base than simple knowledge.

This in turn means that, as the required knowledge base grows it becomes increasingly likely that students will have knowledge gaps that prevent them from reaching an understanding of the complex knowledge. As teachers we find ourselves constantly revising the required base knowledge so that a new topic can be built on top. In my experience, going back to the basic can sometimes make up 50% of my lesson time!

Problems

Textbooks are a terrible way of presenting knowledge. In essence, textbook authors take the network structure of knowledge, cut out a large chunk of relationships and draw a single chain of knowledge through the network. The chain is then divided into chapters and topics.

Textbooks remove direct links to base knowledge.

As students progress along the chain the knowledge becomes more complex and the amount of base knowledge that is connected indirectly increases. As a result, if a student gets stuck somewhere because they forgot some of the required base knowledge it becomes more and more difficult to track down the missing link in the chain.

A list of all base knowledge necessary to understand how aluminium is extracted from its ore.

The above example is taken from the chemistry textbook we use at our school. Take a look at how much base knowledge from different chapters has to be brought together in order to understand how electrolysis of aluminium ore works — even some of the physics curriculum needs to be brought in.

Textbooks have to assume that students possess the necessary base knowledge and move on from there. If they had to include all the base knowledge for every chapter, the book would be many times thicker and consist of long footnotes of references to other pages. Students will feel lost, move on to new topics and accumulate more knowledge gaps, which compounds their inability to comprehend the topics at hand.

This is why students require assistance from teachers who can make those connections, but…

30% of teachers leave the profession after 5 years and 75% of them say that high workload was the main factor. The teaching craft is earned over many years of painstaking trial and error. Every topic in the curriculum has to be mentally broken down and structured from base knowledge and presented in a properly sequenced manner. Take the example from above. If a teacher wants to teach their students how aluminium is extracted from its ore they have to make all the links to the base knowledge, which is spread over multiple chapters. Simply teaching from the book would lead to a catastrophe as hardly any student will have all of the base knowledge from various chapters available in memory. A great teacher knows how to reconnect the broken links between chapters/topics and teach from base knowledge.

If it takes years for teachers to reconnect topics to their base knowledge, think of how many thousands of lessons leave students confused because the base knowledge was not taught along with the new topic. I wish someone had helped me construct my lessons properly. My students would have had a better education and I am certain that lesson planning support would also help many teachers stay in the profession!

Solutions

Textbooks were the most elegant solution for translating the overwhelmingly complex and impractical structure of knowledge into a structured and useful form. However, a textbook is a simplification of the underlying knowledge structure. It cuts back on complexity and in doing so makes it difficult for students and teachers to teach and learn complex knowledge. The beauty of the digital revolution is that we don’t have to hold knowledge in a static form like a printed page. We can visualise the entirety of the knowledge structure in a more useful form.

This is the core idea behind ZenTeach, the company I founded.
At ZenTeach, we believe the future of teaching learning lies in ridding ourselves from static textbooks and embracing knowledge in its true form: a Knowledge Graph.

We are currently breaking down the entire Chemistry GCSE curriculum into into thousands of knowledge items (e.g. “electrons have a negative charge” or “carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas”) and then using them as building blocks to build base knowledge structures for the hundreds of topics in the curriculum.

The exciting thing about this is that any teacher and student can select any random point in the network and obtain its base knowledge. All those removed connections in a textbook that prevent students from understanding a topic at hand become available again.

Find any topic using the filters on the side. Building lesson plans takes time, but having a broken down and sequenced knowledge will not only save teachers time, but also improve lesson quality.

We are building resources (worksheets, slides, practice questions) that are specific to a particular knowledge item in the graph. This means our resources are extremely specific and therefore more useful to teachers in class as well as students learning independently.

When students fail to understand a new topic they can reveal the required base knowledge and quiz themselves. If the quiz reveals a knowledge gap they can use the attached resources to study before returning to the main topic of interest. As students are bound to have different knowledge gaps, a customisable approach to learning like this one would allow every student to work on their own knowledge gaps.

Each piece of knowledge in the graph has multiple-choice questions attached to it. This makes these questions highly specific in terms of what knowledge they are testing students on. Students receive a quiz summary detailing specific feedback for each question they answered incorrectly. Teachers can view each students’ data and obtain a class-wide overview, which is very practical when planning future lessons.

Students differ with regards to what they already know. Once the teacher gathered quiz data, they can create custom learning plans for each student. This means every student is picked up where they are at.

The Knowledge Graph can be built by the crowd. Everyone can add knowledge that goes far beyond the school curriculum, expanding the graph in all directions. Students (and teachers) are not limited to what they know or what the textbook contains. The potential to make lessons more interesting and insightful.

Try out ZenTeach

The fancy graph is sadly not available yet, but you can already create quizzes for your students using our question database. We have broken down topics into their knowledge items and attached questions. Simply select the knowledge items you want to include in a quiz and ZenTeach will create a sharable link to the quiz:

Students receive a quiz report that provides feedback that is specific to the multiple-choice option they ticked:

How to join ZenTeach

You can join us at ZenTeach in different ways:

  1. Try out ZenTeach
  2. Help build ZenTeach (as a teacher or developer) — send us an email to info@zenteach.co.uk
  3. Sign up for our newsletter

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