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Effective children education

by kotrfa2 min read3rd Jun 202029 comments


ParentingEducationPracticalWorld OptimizationRationality

I am trying to find out what are the most cost-effective ways of (early) education. I have a 4-year-old daughter and that gives me about ~2 more years to figure this out and I am trying to put together as much material as I can. Given the age of my daughter, I’d like to “solve” something like K-12 for now, but I guess some things may be applicable at any age.

I am familiar with Bryan Caplan's main theses formulated in the Case Against Education or Robin Hanson's Elephant in the Brain arguing that education is mostly about signalling and stuff. I therefore partly understand what's wrong and I am now trying to make my findings actionable and unsurprisingly, it seems pretty hard. I also do realize that there is very little research indicating that specific parental choices have much long term impact.

The important attributes of the ideal solution:

  • comply to rationalists mindset - understanding and applying basic CFAR-like style of reasoning or at least knowing and applying a 5-year-old version of how beliefs work, bugs-are-for-solving idea
  • follow scientific/experimental approach (I know it's overlapping), not being afraid of finding the right explore vs. exploit balance
  • the educators should grasp at least basics about how to learn and teach effectively, such as Learning how to learn related concepts or even as little as this post
  • not to waste the time of my kid (like on signalling, or studying things just to forget them after "exam"), generally trying to reduce the stupid parts about the current education system as much as possible
  • make students excited about the real world (I love Joy in the merely real)
  • convey what it is like to be a human (like, emotions exist and you can learn about yourself from them or deal with them)
  • convey important concepts about the world (for example altruism, cost-effective analysis, probability, or even markets or signalling)
  • teaching students things that are actually useful on the job market
  • not-USA-specific - we are living in Central Europe. It's of course still good to point to things that work well somewhere as an inspiration for replication locally.

I do realize it’s a lot to ask, but I don't aim for perfection. I believe the current system is so badly broken and inadequate (seems that almost everyone agrees on this fact) that even with a little effort invested we can get better outcomes after a few months of preparation. 

For example, one of the solutions could be starting a small home-schooling group with good tutors (Blooms 2SD problem hints towards this direction). I know it sounds ambitious to find someone satisfactory given the requirements but I believe I am in a good position in finding people who are half-way through and with some training, we would get there. I realize that K12 is not only about education but also about things like finding a peer group, which could be supplied via other channels (like afternoon activities) or switching into a regular school for some time. All these options are on the table, the goal is to find the most cost-effective solution. (An interesting discussion from a public-spending perspective on slatestarcodex)

The questions I have:

  • Do you know about anyone trying this (successfully or not, small or large scale, ...)?
  • Do you know about any relevant resources or programs for younger kids (e.g. something similar to this, or research similar to the already mentioned Bloom problem)?
  • Would you be interested in researching this or do you know anyone who would be willing to do so? (I am happy to pay)
  • Any idea if there are any attempts to put together such a curriculum?
  • Any good prompts to ask, such as “How much are you able to pay for a 10% increase in happiness for your daughter”?
  • Do you think it's dangerous? Should I really, really not forget about some aspect?
  • Anything else comes to your mind?


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4 Answers

B2D shows clear superiority of 1-1 over 1-many but I think it neglects something even better: 1 to self. IMO, issues with 1 to many teaching result from high semantic distance: teacher is either too far ahead of student or are teaching things the student already knows. Thus, they're always stuck either frustrated or bored. 1-1 teaching eliminates that because a tutor knows what the student does or not know; they can teach with continuous low semantic distance that isn't frustrating.

I think 1-self teaching goes beyond tutoring because:

1. you know what you don't know so if you need some preceding information you can find that for yourself (in large part thanks to the internet)

2. teaching is centered around the idea that a teacher knows what you should know better than you do. In many cases, I don't think this makes much sense. If I want to learn how to make x thing, getting a general education on the field x falls into (field y) doesn't make sense. Learning a bunch of useless things in field y is a waste of my time. If I'm deciding what to learn by myself, I can make sure that I'm not only learning things efficiently but that I'm choosing what to learn effectively.

As a result, I think prioritizing large behavioral spaces where your daughter can make mistakes and figure things out by herself is better than any rigid system forcing her to learn things she doesn't want to. (Note: you might think that having her educated in depth on some topic and having lots of knowledge is useful. Free learning leads to higher coherence which in turn makes knowledge more applicable and better retained. No matter how well your daughter is taught trigonometry, if she learns it independent of her own desires the ability will likely stick to being useful only for useless math problems.)

I highly recommend reading any of the articles in I would never send my kids to school; particularly the ones you find yourself disagreeing with the most.

I would also check out Sudbury or democratic schools, which are schools with high behavioral space and very low in coercion.

The people at the bottom here mentioned in further reading could also be helpful.

I'm vaguely trying to work on looking at 1-self learning as a means for solving B2D (thanks for the acronym by the way) better than 1-1 learning. I have no formal science background but I've started talking with a professor who found it very interesting. Hopefully we can find something concrete though I have no idea how we'd test it right now.

Unfortunately, I'm too confident in my own views and there are a lot of priors I'm guessing we don't share that might make some of this not make sense. Please bring them up and I will try to answer them though most answers could probably be found in some way on supermemo.guru.

When our firstborn was in kindergarten and had trouble with his peers, I was very worried about how he would fare in school. I was considering setting up a homeschooling school. Not real homeschooling because Germany has mandatory schooling but using a legal construct that uses a private school as 'adapter' between multiple co-home-schooling parents. I had already researched the requirements and written (parts of) the application. But it turned out that our son had no problems in school—quite the opposite. Part of the reason probably was that he had an extremely experienced and caring teacher who also allowed me to offer some activities in the class (I was the "fried of numbers" in the class).

Anyway, your idea of a teaching community sounds quite like what I had in mind with my homeschooling school (though regulations would have set significant parts of the curriculum). I understand that you want to teach the 'valuable' parts of the curriculum like active reading and writing skills, math, and the scientific method plus some more useful stuff that is left unspecified.
Over time, I have discussed multiple times how education can be improved. We have taught our kids many things that are not part of the school curriculum, and I have made clear which aspects I judge to provide little long term value. Talking about the process with my kids (my oldest is now in 10th grade) has also informed my views. He has his own opinions on it. Now, with COVID19, he had the opportunity to study more self-directed and enjoyed it (and invested much more effort in some school projects than before).

My conclusion is that there is no simple answer. Do we understand why school is the way it is? Is it some Chesterton's Fence? I think so. Especially after a lengthy discussion, I have concluded that school reproduces more than knowledge. It reproduces culture. It does so partly by creating a shared experience, a shared vocabulary, and shared methods of working together. And shared social networks. Sure, a big part is signaling. But the structure that the signaling supports - fitness for work in the corporate world - is highly interconnected with everything else. Can we get rid of it without breaking a lot of things? Maybe. It is worth a try for sure. Let's experiment and learn.

The other aspect is that you and I might have good ideas about which curriculum would be best. But that is informed by our predisposition - which our kids may or may not share. The world is evolving fast. We may be well-adapted to the current state (hopefully, after not too painful learning experience). But that doesn't mean that passing our tools on to our kids makes them well-equipped for the future also. The jobs we have now didn't exist when we were kids (at least mine didn't). Many of today's well-paying professions didn't exist before the age of the internet. At least not in the form we see them now. As usual, the future arrives with leaving things superficially unchanged - but things did change. And they will do so in the future too. Maybe even faster.

I talk a lot with my older son about how I do not know which future job will be best for him. I can only provide ideas and support, and he has to figure out most of it. I'm not worried. He is so rational and seems to take up many of my suggestions quickly. I am more concerned about his younger brother, who watches YouTube videos without end. But who am I to judge? When I was his age, I was reading copious amounts of science fiction. Many would have judged this a waste of time. And I played around with these computer things (that was in the 80s). Who knows? Maybe his fluency in these memes and the English he is picking up from it will be useful for him. I think his older brother will benefit from the rationality skills too. But I can't force the tools. I will keep talking with them. Talking helps.

How neurotypical is your child? Do you have someone who can spend 10-40 hours a week educating them (depending on the first answer), or the cash to hire someone for that amount of time?

1-on-1 instruction for the (child-dependent) sufficient amount of time each week can be applied by anyone with 1SD above average intelligence and a little bit of "how to teach" education. This is the simplest way to ensure someone learns all the key skills (Arithmatic, Algebra, Reading to learn, Writing to communicate, basic facts about history & science)

Once they are old enough to attend High School classes, if you have access to a large (400+ per grade level) school they can get some good specialized classes that would be harder to do with general tutors. Junior college classes are also an option, depending on maturity level.

I am very interested in this topic and I admire you all taking the time to share your detailed thoughts.

I think there is a massive opportunity in creating a k-12 home schooling version of Lambda School but targeted at general knowledge. Why not start by work together on it?

Let me know if you'd be interested and I would love to collaborate!