Nathan Hwang


I not-so-recently (remember, I’m working on writing in a timely manner) finished a stint volunteering with the educational charity Citizen Schools, which matches volunteers with classrooms in low income communities to offer middle school students contact and training with professionals, hopefully changing their career trajectory. A choice framing quote by a student is “I didn’t know I could be good at science”. It’s a solid, illuminating volunteer experience, especially if you’ve only seen the American education system from the perspective of a student.

The program obviously has faults, being implemented here instead of on the platonic plane. This teacher of the year would likely frown upon the centrality that the Expanded Learning Time concept has taken in Citizen Schools, and Salman Khan might be distressed about the trappings of broadcast teaching carried over from traditional education paradigms. However, I am not interested in debating the all the merits and faults of the program to determine whether it is ultimately helpful, because in my case charity is not about helping (a la Robin Hanson). If it were, teaching students for 3 hours a week instead of working overtime and donating the cash to the Against Malaria Foundation (saving a statistical life, figured on the back of an envelope) would be the wrong decision in the same way thatsaving a painting instead of a thousand statistical lives is the wrong decision. Instead, I’ll be talking about why I was personally dissatisfied with the experience.

There was one fairly large component to the dissatisfaction, which involved reinforcing the regime ofguessing the teacher’s password. Looking back at my time as a student, it was clear that the immediate rewards for finding the right series of letters and numbers to put to paper were greater than those for attaining a deep understanding about the why. This meant learning Punnett squares without the the game theory behind evolutionarily stable strategies, learning the scientific method as a laboratory tool instead of a general-purpose knowledge discriminator, and glossing over the helpfully contextual process by which scientific paradigms succeed each other. The end goal isn’t knowing for the sake of knowing, but leaping to the position of the fox with many models and being in a position to apply them to diverse domains, instead of having a large stable of memorized rules only applicable to narrow contexts (cough standardized testing cough). This is the difference between choosing physics as a major because you got good grades in AP physics and found Newtonian physics interesting, and choosing physics because the academic niche physics occupies is not flooded with students, you’ve found physics is your competitive advantage after experimenting with many different fields, and you find the current attempts to break the standard model intriguing.

But much like this erstwhile English teacher in Japan, at the head of my own classroom I learned just how quickly things could get out of hand, even with amazing teacher/volunteer to student ratios. Merely eliciting the right “password” from a student was a hard-won victory. But with the variance in knowledge/conscientiousness present in the class, there were students that could start probing deeper into the foundations of our knowledge, past reciting “electricity!” in response to “how do motors run?”. But education is not about learning, and while I might have been able to explain the internals of a brushless DC motor to one student within a 2 hour period, it was only possible in the sense that broken cups could theoretically spontaneously reassemble given the number of students that needed help learning how gears turning one way would turn meshing gears the other way.

As an aside, this does not mean that Citizen Schools is doing bad work: given an overarching educational system that does not care about deep understanding (perhaps because it is difficult to measure) in favor of creating partial Chinese rooms able to pass the SAT and go through an expensive credentialing process, making sure more Chinese rooms have a fair chance at getting those expensive credentials is a worthy cause. Thinking that leveling the field will have positive effects, though, does not preclude me from thinking that we should be playing on a completely different field.

At this point, one might expect me to propose a pet theory that explains a process for reliably instilling deep understanding of any subject matter into every student so we can continue beating the Reds/make Ingsoc great again/go back to the Moon in 10 years, oh and by the way here is my Kickstarter to make it happen. If only I knew how to do it! I do have hunches on partial solutions that might work, like intensive individual mentoring on subjects academic and not, supplementing a real academic challenge (if the student needs one) with making sure the student picks up tools for confronting cognitive challenges. Or perhaps software that takes advantage of digital flexibility in ways beyond textbooks while dodging the bleached bones of attempts that have come before.

However, these hunches haven’t been fleshed out or, most importantly, been subject to the real world and iterated on. In the meantime, I can use them to guide my search for exciting and existing education charity opportunities. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found one that seems to meet my (admittedly ill-defined) criteria: as examples, iMentor has extremely long commitments antithetical to fast iteration, SPARC is too badass for me to contribute to (for now!), and Salman Khan’s vision of the future of education still seems to be sitting on the drawing board.

Of course, these are only 3 organizations and ideas out of the vast sea of thought already poured into the subject of fixing education, which means there is plenty more scholarship to do! However, with all this other work to consider, I won’t be doing another stint at Citizen Schools. Thank you, Citizen Schools, for a great semester and for helping clarify what I’m looking for out of my volunteer experience, but I won’t be volunteering with you in the future. No, it’s not you, it’s me.

(Thanks to Cecilia Schudel for reading drafts of this!)

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