what would an einstein-inspired school be like?


Einstein’s school life is… very interesting, to say the least. I find it quite fascinating to know that despite his incredibly troubled high-school and college life, he is one of the most popular geniuses of our time, known for his contributions in quantum physics and the theory of relativity. Even more interesting is his talk on his opinions about schools and learning (you can read a transcript of it here). So I’d like to talk about it. (talk about jarring transitions, haha)

Einstein says that there are three main things that can motivate someone to learn: fear and administration, want for competition and admiration, and genuine love and interest to learn and understand. He argues that while the first two can certainly motivate someone to learn, the “pleasure in work, the pleasure in its results, and the knowledge of the value of the result to the community” is the most important out of all of them. While fear can only be temporary and easily be seen through, and ambition can drive a person to act as a danger to himself and to others, the innocent desire to work is the most important, for it is what drives people to keep pushing previously impossible boundaries.

Einstein also adds that a school that focused on cultivating this form of motivation also requires teachers that understand this desire fully well and embrace it. The teacher needs to be, in a way, an artist; someone who has taught themselves for the love of something. This teacher must also be free to educate his pupils in a way that they see fit.

Lastly, he also says that a school need not to focus on what subjects and methods of teaching, and are of less importance when compared to fundamental skills and knowledge. He is also a very big opposer of specialization, saying that it is “objectionable to treat the individual like a dead tool.” He argues that what is more important is to set a groundwork of skills, for everything else will smoothly follow along when that is done.

Those last few parts reminded me of things that I have learned when I was thinking of how to improve on a game that I was invested in (haha, yeah). It goes something like this: Imagine that you had a sandbox and a bucket of sand. Let’s say that you want to build a gigantic sand castle, but you’d need both a bigger box and a larger amount of sand. What would you try to do first, get a bigger box or get more sand? Let’s say that you did get sand first. Right now, you only have a bucket and a sandbox, so where would you put all of that sand? Sure, you can put the sand in the sandbox first, but how long is it gonna take before the sand is too much for the sandbox? Not only is the box too small, but you don’t even have enough sand!

Now, let’s say that you started making the box bigger first. That’d most likely take more work, seeing that you’d have to go to a store and buy a new one or try to extend it yourself. And after that, all that you’d have is a box and nothing to work on! Wouldn’t that be a waste of time too? I’d say not. First of all, not only do you have more than enough space to put your sand in, but if you keep making the box bigger, you’ll also have the chance to make something even bigger and better than a big sand castle. The point is that without a base, you’re limiting yourself to what you’re capable of without giving yourself a chance to expand your potential.

If all you’re gonna make is a small sand castle, then by all means, get the sand first. A sand castle is still a sand castle, after all, and it’d be pretty cool to make one even if it’s not grandeous and absolutely ground-breaking. But if you want to remove your limits for potentially more freedom to choose what path to take, then I’d say that’s the more worthy thing to do.

Alright, so here’s a quick recap: - the desire to improve and work because of a want to learn and understand is the greatest motivator of all - teachers must be knowledgable and passionate about what they teach, and must also have a want to share that feeling to their students - fundamental knowledge and understanding is more important than specialization

So how would one make a school inspired by these ideas?

One can say so many things about how to make a good school. “Let students pick their own subjects! Use gender-neutral uniforms! Employ better and passionate teachers! Install state-of-the-art facilities around the school to ensure that students can learn without being limited by their financial or social status!” But, in my opinion, these are not what makes a “good Einstein-inspired” school. Would Einstein ever say that expensive equipment and overqualified teachers be useful? Einstein wasn’t a very rich and privileged child, after all: his family’s factory business closed down and forced them to move cities, and he was thought to be mentally-disabled by his teachers because of his inability to read and write “elegantly” and the age of 9. What would it even mean to pick your own subjects? What about unpopular subjects, would the school administration have to transfer excess students to those subjects, thereby completely nullifying the need for choosing? A similar situation happened last year where some electives were so popular that they had to move students to other electives. There was a slight backlash at the time, but now people seem to be fine about it. While you could use that as an argument against what I said, saying “if people are fine now with their electives, then people would also be fine eventually if they had to switch subjects,” I could say “What if it’s not? What if the person really does dislike the subject so much? And if they don’t like it (which should mean that they need to improve on it, then why even let them choose?” The point is that much discussion needs to be done with these ideas, and to get anywhere useful, we’ll have to go into the root of how we educate students of all ages.

The education system that we use is divided into four: pre-elementary school, elementary school, high school, and tertiary education. The main purpose of these are to prepare a student/learner for the next stage, where tertiary education prepares you for adulthood and work. Let’s try to create an Einstein-inspired high school by discussing these one-by-one.

A student’s pre-elementary days are meant to ensure that a student has a basic grasp of the most basic ideas and elements that are deemed necessary by most subjects. This includes memorizing the letters/symbols of their language, memorizing the 10 base numbers and learning basic addition and subtraction with single-digits, ability to identify objects through their senses like color, sounds, and feelings, and basic cultural customs and gestures like bowing to a stranger when talking or the steps of praying. Einstein has a very fierce hatred of rote learning (memorization through repetition.) It is also known that rote learning is an ineffective tool for mastering a complex and advanced subject, since rote learning hinders actual comprehension of a topic. However, at this age, most of what children are learning are foundational knowledge, and are so simple that the cons of rote learning are negligible. Buuut, since this is an Einstein-inspired school, we’ll give Einstein some chance and we’ll mix in a bit of spaced repitition (an example is through flashcards, where new and difficult cards are shown more often while old and less difficult cards are shown less frequently). Personally, I can’t really decide whether one year of kindergarten is enough or not, since I’d just be going with my opinion here. We can only really say if it’s good or bad through test scores, which is a bit lacking in the Philippines, especially with the recent pandemic which could’ve worsened the knowledge of students even more.

This is kind of unrelated to the pre-elementary period, but I’d like to talk more about tests. I think that it should be seen less as a barrier you have to climb and more of a simple assessment. Grades can be used as motivation for a student to keep studying, obviously; if a student feels like learning is completely useless in their case, then why even bother studying anymore? (hmm, I wonder where I’ve seen this before) Too much pressure on a student is something that Einstein is completely against, seeing as how he argues that nurturing the love of creating in a student is more important than simply telling students that they need to study. Parents and adults should stop putting their children up on a pedestal and expecting them to never fall. Tests should be more naturally scheduled, instead of being put together in a HUGE, BIG DAY that encourages students to cram (“if I can remember what I studied last night long enough, then I’ll be safe”), and tests should be seen as something that can be improved on (why not have multiple quizzes about a single topic? wouldn’t it be more satisfying to see your scores start to get better the more you took tests that are related to that topic?)

Next is the elementary period. This stage is seen as, well, preparation for high school, but at this period students should be expected to be well-mannered and fluent in their language and mathematics. Commonly, the first and second grades are “mini-preparations” to the third to sixth grades, where students sharpen their foundation even further. After that, students should start branching out to more specific topics like geography, history, arts, music, and so on. At this age, it is crucial to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of students in these specialized subjects. A student could be excelling in mathematics, but hit-or-miss with arts and languages, and another student could be the complete opposite. What is also just as important as that is to make sure that the strengths of a student are not ignored. That student may need assistance with arts and language, but that doesn’t mean that you should bring down their talent in mathematics. Like Einstein said, the foundational skills of a person is incredibly important, as it is the base for an infinite amount of possibilities for what to create. The greatest minds and artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Einstein, and so many more people are capable of creating so many things that, when they combined their separate skills and knowledge into a creation, they have created age-old art, pushed the boundaries of beauty, and even start a historical period (or end it, because of their unimaginable influence on it.)

After that is high school. At this point, students should have a good grasp of the world around them and a good understanding of their capabilities. Students should have more freedom than they used to have with how they choose to study and spend their time. Senior-high school was created to fill this gap, but in my opinion, it is unnecessary to add 2 more years to high school. Well, if students are not up to standards, then 6 years of high school really would be necessary, but I think that if our education followed what we’ve been previously talking about then it doesn’t make sense to add senior-high school anymore. Just like before, tests are the only real way to properly analyze this, and I’d only make my conclusion after proper tests and studies have been made to assess students. Finally, for college, well.. I don’t really know. I think that my knowledge right now is too limited to make an assessment or even an assumption, so I’ll just shut my lips instead.

The only thing left that we need to discuss are the teachers. Remember that Einstein said that teachers should learn in a school similar to this ideal school that he has in mind. But thinking about it, who will teach those teachers? …Teachers? And who would teach those?… so on and so forth. This would mean that this school of ours wouldn’t even be a school at first; it’d have to start out small and a lot more personal, more similar to tutors. Of course, tutorships already exist, but if we really do want to create this Einstein-inspired school, we’ll have to go even farther than that. Actually, all those other things I said would probably take a very long time. Culture and traditions are hard to get rid of, and might take years or even decades to fully bear fruit. If everything does go well, a lot of people would never be able to experience for themselves the fruits of their labor. Would it be worth it? Of course it is. If our actions can influence the future in a positive way, even if it’s still quite far away, then it’ll be worth it any time.