Scott Langille

Why Education

People often ask me why I care so much about improving education. My unwavering interest in this problem is seemingly irrational—but the same could be said about all passions.

Bill Gates and others have poured billions into this problem with little to show for it. Edtech is notoriously challenging to execute on. And new technology like phones in classrooms seem to make teaching more difficult, not less.

But there is hope. Khan Academy exists. Good teachers exist. And each student is born with a bright light of curiosity that could power pursuits previously unforeseen that might change education as we know it.

I hope to be one of those students.

Growing up, it was easy for me to see the failures of the education system. Most of my time in class was spent in boredom or annoyance. It was difficult for my teachers to control a class of 20 or 30 kids who didn't want to be there. Sitting through it all, I dreamt of what a better education system might look like.

I did my learning outside of school. With LEGO, my brother and I told stories and built the worlds of our dreams. Online, we did the same with tens of thousands of others while playing games like Roblox and Minecraft.

Other kids were less fortunate. They never picked up LEGO or computers the way I did, or had less encouragement from parents. I watched as their dreams were culled and their curiosity drawn away.

Our learning environments, including the people and culture we embrace, have an outsized impact on our outcomes. I have seen it in my own life: when I surround myself with friends who are equally curious in places where learning and ambition are valued, I tend to accomplish things I didn't know were possible.

Most attention in education is towards learning content, but I strongly believe that I can make an impact on the way that learning is facilitated.

In 2023, learning content is mostly trivial. Content creators make it every day as videos, podcasts, books or blogs. The top universities have made their lectures and curricula public. There is so much to learn from.

"I think the most depressing fact about humanity is that during the 2000s most of the world was handed essentially free access to the entirety of knowledge and that didn’t trigger a golden age." (Erik Hoel, Why We Stopped Making Einsteins)

Here are two unfortunate truths I have come to realize:

First, reading a self-help book does not bestow you all the powers written within. It may contain valuable knowledge, but knowing something and being able to do something are two different things. And we're more likely to forget things we know but cannot do.

Second, while many books and videos inspire us to consume more, they rarely go so far as to motivate people to learn. By learning, I mean behaviour change. It must be measured by how we act, not by what we know. You haven't learned something if you behave the same as yesterday when given the same conditions.

So how do we motivate actual learning?

I'm not sure yet. I think it starts with curiosity, which ought to be kindled, not extinguished.

Curiosity, as it is intrinsically-driven, is minimally compatible with extrinsic motivations. It's hard to tell students to "follow their curiosity" when grades and degrees are held over their heads.

Next comes passion. By working hard towards an interest, love for the work can be developed. This only works if curiosity is sustained long enough in the first place.

I suspect that the ideal learning environment is quite unlike the modern classroom. In today's classes, students enter with a strong distrust for the education system and thus pay more attention to their phones than their teachers. They are often lectured at, which is boring in comparison to most videos they could watch on the same topics.

With experimentation, I hope to determine which variables in our environments are most conducive to learning. What if we change the people involved? The way they interact with each other? Use physical space in a different way than a grid of desks? Set expectations differently? Let students speak more?

Most of edtech is focused on the wrong problems. They believe that further digitization and monetization of learning content will somehow shift education.

I believe that with a radically different approach—a focus on the learning environment and facilitation of intrinsic passion towards work—that students will no longer be held back from exploring all that the world has to offer with a passion similar to what I developed just by following my curiosity.

My work on Atelier and Socratica is an effort towards developing passion through curiosity-driven learning.