Rethinking Education


Throughout history, Aristotle has been idealized as the perfect tutor.  He was the best scientist and philosopher in the ancient world and had a deep understanding of almost every subject known to the ancient Greeks.  As a result he was hired by Philip II of Macedon to tutor his son, Alexander the Great.  Unfortunately, this ideal model of hiring the most intelligent and knowledgeable person of the age to personally tutor your child was not a feasible teaching model for mass education programs that began during the industrial revolution.  As C.G.P. Grey elucidated in a recent YouTube video there are a) not enough humans on earth for every child to have a personal tutor, b) even if there were, that would be horrifically expensive and c) not every tutor can be as good as Aristotle.  Furthermore, in contemporary times no human can know all there is to know about every subject.  The amount of knowledge our global civilization has accumulated is so vast that even experts in one very specific sub-field have a difficult time knowing every single aspect of their field of study.

As a result of these limitations early mass-education models attempted to structure education in the same basic way all other mass-production was being structured.  Children were organized by age cohort and made to work their way through a one-size fits all curriculum structure.  There would be one instructor for each subject and lots of students in every classroom.  Actual class time would be used for passive learning with an instructor telling you what s/he knows about a given subject.  Problem solving would be reserved for ‘homework’ when you are away from your instructor and fellow classmates.  At every stage of the standardized curriculum children perceived to be excelling would be streamlined for higher education and children perceived to be falling behind would be streamlined for working sector jobs.

This early model may have been the best that the 19th century had to offer future generations, but 200 years later we should be able to offer a better educational structure.  The traditional education structure is inherently problematic and is not conducive to maximizing learning potential.  However, as stated above, we cannot all have a “personal Aristotle” so what is the solution?  Many new educators are proposing some form of “digital Aristotle”.  New technologies have created new media and a new way to learn.  In the future, our education systems may be completely redesigned.  The architects of this future education system have been working on it for several years now.

Efforts like Project Halo and Khan Academy are focused on completely restructuring education.  Project Halo is a multi-staged effort to create an application that will possess the world’s scientific knowledge and be capable of tutoring and instructing students in the sciences and assisting scientists with their research (Friedland et al. 2012).  Khan Academy on the other hand, has already had a transformative effect on education.  It is a non-profit educational organization created by Salman Khan that offers thousands of free online video tutorials of subjects ranging from mathematics, biology, history, economics, computer science and more.  As I’m writing, Khan Academy has delivered more than 200 million lectures and over a million students a month are watching the site.

The Khan Academy believes that with online video students can learn at their own pace by pausing and repeating the videos as much as they need to.  Salman Khan has released a new book titled The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined arguing that the Khan Academy model can flip the classroom.  Currently, school is organized so that students go to class and passively learn.  However, under the Khan Academy model you would listen to online lectures on your own time and at your own pace, and go to class to problem solve.  This removes the one-size-fits-all curriculum model and allows students to get more out of the classroom experience.  Instead of having 30 plus students passively listening to a lecturer, you would have an environment where students could work with other students to solve problems.  Additionally, instructors could spend their time helping students solve problems instead of explaining the material in a rigid curriculum.

There are a few more interesting YouTube channels that reflect the Khan Academy philosophy as well (e.g., Crash CourseVeritasiumMinute Physics), and they are being used in schools more and more to change the way education is structured.  However, these videos are not designed to be personal tutors.  If the Khan Academy is used properly or efforts like Project Halo become realized, students would have access to computer programs that tutor students individually by pulling from a library of videos.  The program would adapt to the way the student learns and would progress at the pace which that individual needs to be successful.  It is possible that everyone will have their very own digital Aristotle, and there is no reason why it needs to be restricted to the classroom or the traditional schooling process.  It is entirely possible that everyone will have their Digital Aristotle with them throughout life, teaching them what they need to know at age and time appropriate intervals.

Education has long been in need of an overhaul.  The idea that we can re-structure our system and better educate the next generation of professionals is not a new one.  However, new technologies make re-structuring a real possibility in a way that was impossible before.  At the moment the industrial model remains intact.  How long before it falls to the relentless progression of increasingly personalized 21st century computer technologies?


Friedman et al. 2012.  Project Halo: Towards a Digital Aristotle.  AI Magazine, Vol. 25



About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email:

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