Timeless Fundamentals of Education
By El Penski, August 20, 2011, Last update February 2013
Reading to Children
Informal Learning is Fun, Photographed in July 1980 by Betty Penski

I decided write this because those of us on this planet are reminded daily that it is necessary to do much more in improving peoples’ lives and saving our planet than governments can financially afford. The basic things we need to do to improve our situation is to increase peoples’ productivity worldwide and thereby improve the global economy; but to do this, we need more and better educated citizens; especially more well educated mathematicians, doctors, engineers, and scientists in addition to creative and responsible people in every job. (Johnston, Alex, What is the High School Solution of the Dropout Crisis, National Journal, National Journal Group, Inc., Washington, D.C., 2009)

I am an old man who all his life has preserved and enjoyed his childlike curiosity and been involved lifelong in education in some way. I have been self-educating myself in many disciplines since early childhood while attending over seven years of college as a young man and many short courses as an old man. My goal as a young man was to become a good physical chemist. Thus, I attended Philadephia University, MIT, and the University of Utah as well as taking a few courses at John Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania. I have been involved in educating children, college students, colleagues, and subordinates, setting up lectures and courses, tutoring disadvantaged students, financing scholarships, and writing research reports and books. I enjoyed every minute of it. As a result, I feel obligated to share my experience, research, and insights on this subject in order to provide some focus, priorities, perspective, and ideas. I conclude this essay with some essential recommendations.

Some of the problems with education are probably as old as civilization. These problems stem from human nature itself; changing cultures, values, governments, and environment; how our education system developed through history; and complexity. An important thing I have learned is that to help advance progress in a field of study, it is essential to first understand the fundamentals of the situation.

Through out the last few thousands years, most education was very practical, in the home, and/or on the farm for nearly all children excepting the very wealthy. Before radios and televisions, families sat around the table after dinner and talked for hours. Children listened and joined in because it was the most interesting thing they had to do. In 1800, 90% of the people lived on a farm, worked as farmers, and educated their own children in the United States. The education team was often parents, grandparents, old brothers and sisters, hired help, and visitors. In those days, grandparents and visitors often were a big help and were welcomed in households. In 1900, the high school graduation rate was about 10%. In 1947, high school graduation rates were about 33% at age 25 years and for people who were 25-29 years old the rate had grown to 51%. ( Education in the United States, Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_the_United_States, Acessed 24 July 2011) In 2003 about 85% were high school graduates at age 29 years.

Now, it’s a lower rate, 70% with educators calling it a crisis. (Bridgeland, John M .and coworkers, The Silent Epidemic, Perspectives of High School Dropouts, Civil Enterprises, Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. ) (Van Roekel, Dennis, What is the High School Solution of the Dropout Crisis, National Journal , National Journal Group, Inc., Washington, D.C., 2009 .) Calling it a crisis is probably justified since the world has become a much more complex in the last century, and our goal of accelerating progress requires a more educated population than we have now. There have always been young people that want to stop learning in boring schools and doing something they consider more useful and more exciting. In 1907, my father dropped out of school after completing the sixth grade and went to work. He said that he regretted it and that he had trouble concentrating on lectures; but millenniums ago, Socrates (466 BC – 399 BC) recognized that dialogues advanced learning better than lectures. ( Socrates, Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Los Angeles, CA, July 2011. ) My father liked to read and taught himself carpentry, plumbing, electric wiring, automotive repair, rebuilding cars, surveying, radio repair and many other subjects. In those days, many people were self sufficient “jack of all trades.” Even in the Great Depression, my father seemed to have no problem finding work.

Academic disciplines tend to focus on narrow areas of skills and knowledge; but most problems of importance require solutions to interdisciplinary problems. The following rhyming couplet, which dates back the 18th century, emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary skills. (Jack of all trades, master of none, Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Los Angeles, CA, July 2011)

Jack of all trades, master of none,
Though often times better than master of one.

Credentialism almost completely eliminates some “jacks of all trades” from consideration for some jobs where interdisciplinary skills are actually required although uncredentialed valuable “jacks’ of all trades” are often found in big corporations. They often find their way to the top in major corporations. Credentials are often not transferable between nations, providences, or even states, causing some highly educated people to drive cabs. Some expensive and hard won credentials often become obsolete quickly due to rapidly changing technologies.

Some educators advocate that businesses not be able to hire people who have not graduated from high school to encourage graduation. Also, some schools systems do not let students play sports if they do not do satisfactory work in school. I feel somewhat that is equivalent as a school saying to students, “You cannot take your favorite subject, mathematics, if you do not get a satisfactory grade in social studies.”

While work and sports are not academic subjects, they still have very great educational value. They teach team work, discipline, following directions and rules, how to avoid trouble, human relations, motivation and many more subjects not taught otherwise in schools and colleges. I have never known a good athlete who had trouble finding a job. On the other hand, it appears to me that the child labor laws on the books are rarely enforced. They should be enforced so all school children have sufficient time to sleep and study. This might help preventing working high school students from dropping out.

A number of times in my life, I have been asked roughly the same question by young people, “Why does everybody tell me that education is the key to success when the most rich and successful people have little education?” I have always answered that the most successful people often were blessed by inquiring minds and one or more of the greatest kinds of education possible – self education, dedication to a skill, and work experience.

The following people obtained their education by self efforts and hard work.

  • President George Washington was mainly self-educated and taught himself surveying, military science, and governmental science. He was County Surveyor at age 17. He talked and corresponded with many well educated people.
  • Abraham Lincoln had less than a year of formal schooling because he was compelled to do hard farm work as a child. He was almost totally self-educated. Lincoln taught himself to be a lawyer by reading borrowed law books.
  • Thomas Edison went to school for only three months, but read widely and started experimenting at age nine. He started publishing a newspaper and had a retail business at age twelve. He was working with electricity as a telegraph operator at age 16. He founded the first industrial research laboratory in the USA.
  • Orville and Wilbur Wright never finished high school, but conducted research in aerodynamics and materials science, and developed flying skills that were unparalleled, at that time, in the world.
  • About two and a half centuries after George Washington, Steve Jobs was Chairman, CEO, and cofounder of Apple Inc., the largest corporation in the world by market value in August 2011. He finished high school and completed only one semester of college. At age of 19 he had great curiosity and started attending meetings of a computer club and working as a computer technician. From his experience and boldness in talking with all kinds of people: customers, engineers, scientists, executives, educators, and artists; he made himself into an interdisciplinary wizard and irreplaceable executive. He was extremely dedicated to a long term vision of quality and innovative products.
  • In 2010, Maria Sharapova was named the highest paid female athlete in the world. She attended high school online. One might dismiss her example by saying she is very beautiful, but there are hundreds of very beautiful women in professional sports.
  • In 1999, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was chosen as one of the top ten most widely admired people in the 20th century. She was delegate to the United Nations for seven years and one of the main authors and promoters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She was tutored at home until age 15, and at age 18, she started teaching the poor.
  • In 2011, Richard Branson was estimated be worth several billion dollars by Forbes. Dyslexic Branson attended school until age 16 at which time he started a successful magazine.
  • Bill Gates, Lawrence Ellison, Sheldon Adelson, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg, and Ted Turner are a few of many billionaries that dropped out of college.

Educators invariably dismiss the above facts by saying that these people were geniuses, but I believe they were not exceptional, just fearless and fortunate for finding a great educational path to their goals. Even if a genius earns a few PhDs, he still has to work hard and has to self-educate himself constantly in order to push back the frontiers of technology, science, business or any field. As a result of my studying the lives of many successful people in modern technology, science, and business; my conclusion is that the first objective of general education should be to get the students to the point where they love learning and can start self-education, thereby assuming responsibility for their education. The sooner students love self-education and work, the better they will do in formal education and life.

We are shaped and fashioned by what we love. Johann W. von Goethe (1749-1832)

For most of the 18th and 19th centuries, most schools were voluntary neighborhood, one room schools where one teacher handled several grades. In the one room schoolhouses, the older students had to learn to take more responsibility: carrying water, chopping wood, managing stove fires, teaching younger children, and working independently. I have met people who taught or studied in one room schoolhouses who told me they were better than present day schools. In public schools, I have noticed that the most effective and relaxed teachers delegate as much as possible of their job to their students.

Now the education system is very complex and bureaucratic but not necessarily superior. In the United States, education is compulsory for children and chiefly made available by local government with control and funding coming from multiple sources: foundations, courts, unions, parents, independent boards of education, dozens of committees, contractors, and federal, state, and local governments – a very complex matrix system with dozens of dimensions and very high overhead. It is to be expected that parents, teachers, and students feel alienated from the system and sometimes fear the system. It is not rational to expect everyone to love such a system.

Tons of "hope" is something that most children are born with. When I coached children's sports, some of them that were small, weak, slow, and uncoordinated, but they thought they were great athletes and had hope that they could be successful. To maintain reasonable hope throughout life, every child needs to talk to a wise adult, who knows them well, one on one, to be aimed in the right direction. Most people can succeed if aligned toward their strengths and kept away from self-destructive activities. Success grows out of realistic goals, good values, hard work, achievement, and a sincere aspiration to do great in the real world not a fantasy world. If a child wants to be a great President, a good place to start is cleaning toilets, mopping floors, farming or the dirtiest hard labor job. Most great leaders learned early how to tackle tough jobs and learned how not to be frightened by big problems.

In many cases, the most important factor for parents, mentors, and teachers in education is motivation of the child. In these times, parents, mentors, and teachers face some daunting competition for the child’s attention: video games, TV, socialization, social media, drugs, nonviolent protests against all authority, concerts, religions, music, and other factors. Video games are very compelling, addictive, and expensive in time and, sometimes, money. Probably the best approach for parents is to substitute educational shows and games for gangster shows and games and limit the time such shows are watched or games are played. Teachers and guidance counselors should be prepared to counsel parents and students on all forms of education. When I was in school, teachers often suggested movies we should see and books we should read.

Socialization of students with peers is more of a severe problem than teachers, administrators, and parents seem to realize. Socialization among classmates is where students learn how to build bombs, buy fireworks, where to buy drugs, where to get sex, extremism, animalism, or worse. Socialization with fellow students is where bullying, disagreements, pressuring, violence, and various enormous social distractions from school work are found especially in the teen years. I recall one time in elementary school encountering some bullying after which I handed in a blank test because of inability to focus on it. I was thereafter scolded by the teacher causing more inattention. This problem probably has become more severe in recent decades with some teenagers getting no physical activity in schools to work off the effects of stressful social interactions. Another complication is that education is encouraged by most religions but discouraged or banned by others.

Parents should promote socialization with responsible adults as much as possible. Numerous studies show the more time children spend with adults the better the outcomes. In the teen years, children are confused by our increasingly complex and distasteful competing cultures and start having more doubts about themselves than when younger. Teenagers need repeated reassurances and interactions with kindly adults and must be gently encouraged to resist the negative pressures from their “friends.”

When my children got to the age of 4 to 7, I started to hear some strange politically incorrect words, rhymes, and sentences spoken by their friends that I remember from my early childhood but had not heard for about three decades. I was greatly surprised and started to wonder what the source of the words were. After some thought, I decided that there must be an early childhood culture that is continuous through the generations of children and completely separate from any adult culture. This was confirmed when I observed children in that age range uttering old but outrageous sayings while their parents scratched there heads at the same time and saying, “Where in the heck did that come from?” I would recommend research on unending children’s underground cultures, but our society is changing faster and faster and needed formal research on education seems to take decades to complete and verify due to political considerations.

When I was a child, my parents, teachers, and I read the same newspapers and the same few magazines. My parents and I talked for hours. I heard many times from adults that "You can learn from teachers, adults, or reading, or you can learn in the school of hard knocks." Now, in August 2011, most of world leaders are learning about international economics in the "school of hard knocks," concepts they should have learned in school before age 14.

I recall early in my childhood hearing the following quotation:

The child is father of the man - William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

As a small child, I was very impressed with that quote and interpreted it to mean what I did as a child determined what kind of a man I would become. I decided that I wanted to be smart and strong. Accordingly, I decided to read everything, and I tried; but oddly, I never decided that I should take school more seriously until I was 15. In my eyes, school was the adults' foreign territory.

My parents and I shared the same primary culture, but there was a separate culture that I shared with other children but not with my parents or any adults. I thought if they knew about it, I would have not have been allowed to have any playmates as was the case with some neighborhood children. Some of my friends did not read and thought there was nothing to be gained by education. Others thought education was an unnecessary spinning of wheels. There were students who thought drinking beer, pranks, and sex were the main reason for attending college and cheating made no difference because they would get on-the-job training when they went to work. Now, there are many thousands of websites, TV channels, blogs, magazines, etc., representing different cultures. Today, I suspect that children, parents, teachers, politicians, and school administrators are buried in cultures that are in no manner comparable or compatible. I believe that every child wants to meet the expectations of his preferred culture, but some cultures do not recognize formal education as necessary. Some students probably have reasons for their negative attitudes – for example, feedback from highly frustrated adults who never learned to love education. An old Columbia University professor was recently quoted as saying, “Going to graduate school is a suicide mission.” (Deresiewicz, William, Faculty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education, The Nation, The Nation Company., N.Y., NY, 2011.)

Teenagers are usually incapable of revealing their inner selves to adults. Since some students routinely give more weight to facial expressions than words, young people frequently detect numerous negative vibrations from educators, but students usually misinterpret them and are incapable of verbalizing all their negative thoughts and feelings. Thus, problems in education now are mostly about communication with extremely individualistic and confused students. Even the language we use can lead to dangerous misunderstandings. For example. the simple statement "She is hot." can have the following meanings: she is beautiful, she running a temperature, the police are looking for her, she is talented, she is angry, she is excited, she is ready for sex, etc.

Furthermore, some students may even feel that schools have an evil purpose. Some entertainment cultures seem based solely on glamorization of rape, alcohol, crack cocaine, violence, suicide, heroin, crime, and sadism. Entertainers, who openly brag that they want to mess up a young generation’s minds, use dramatization to do their evil work – dramatization is the most effective form of communication that should be used more by educators with potential dropouts and students with learning problems.

In order for public education systems to work; foundations, media, courts, unions, parents, independent boards of education, publishers, contractors, and federal, state, and local governments have be part of the same team. The advantage of self education, online education, home education, and small private schools is that the teams are much smaller, and it is easier to get everyone involved onboard the team. On the other hand, large public schools have more excellent and extensive facilities, teachers with more expertise, and more diversity for those few students who are properly motivated, dedicated, and tough enough to be able to take advantage of the benefits of large public schools.

Distinguished educators frequently advocate that parents’ involvement in schools is important for successful students, but most principals and guidance councilors admit that the only time they talk to parents is when their children get in trouble. My experiences as a parent, at parent/teacher conferences, are that many teachers are very good at monologues but generally are not competent at dialogs and feel threatened by questions. When I talked to teachers, I often felt like a parent trying to talk to a rebellious teenager. A main reason students give for dropping out was that they missed too many days of school and most of their parents were never informed of their chronic truancy. (Bridgeland, John M .and coworkers, The Silent Epidemic, Perspectives of High School Dropouts, Civil Enterprises, , Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.) Recently, school systems make attendance records and other information available to parents on the websites, but some teachers do not update the websites promptly. Most dropout students found school boring. I talked to a high school graduate of a public school who claimed he went through high school sleeping on the front row with no complaints from teachers or notification of his parents. Thus, better communication is indispensable.

I have not had a boring moment in my life, and I feel there are thousands of exciting things in life like: exploring the universe, exploring the deep oceans, robots, new technology, people, and so forth. I hate to think that teachers are having problems coaching young people to enjoy the pleasures and excitement of learning, exploring, creating, and work. Education should not be about transferring information which you can do by handing a student a book or CD, it should be more like handing a child lost in a forest an axe and matches with which he can chop wood and build a fire to warm his friends and family and light up the darkness. Schools have to enhance the connections between schools, parents, knowledge, and work, make students feel safe, and make schools more interesting. When I was in school before going to a very small college, I never sat down and had one-on-one conversation with a teacher. In my last few years in high school, I often visited the guidance office where I read their literature, chatted with guidance counselors, and got some good friendly advice and assistance. I never saw any other student in the guidance office.

Through my life I have observed that at the extremes, many students and teachers are very perilously isolated while some are dangerously over socialized. Some students go to school and go straight home without speaking to anyone. At home they go to their room and watch TV and play video games again without speaking to anyone. At the other extreme, there are students with dozens of friends for whom they are the lone acting counselors, psychiatrists, and even material supporters. In trying to help, these generous students take on very heavy burdens, all the severe problems of their many friends, and thereby sometimes put themselves in psychological danger, legal jeopardy, and financial difficulty.


  1. Everyone that deals with children should avoid over-reaction. Over-reaction by adults forces children to hide from adults, keep secrets, and not talk to adults. It is a common block to successful communications.
  2. Teachers should keep parents informed on a daily basis of any problems or changes observed at school. Often children are in denial and hide problems, but parents need to know to take corrective actions, seek medical help, or seek other help. Usually, the sooner problems are dealt with, the better the outcomes. If a child is in denial and/or uncooperative, there is legally and practically nothing or little parents can do after the age of about 14 to18 depending on the laws of the nation and local jurisdiction.
  3. Education needs to be improved by focusing on preparation for self-education, using self-education, and online education thus taking as much as possible of the burden off of teachers and making it a natural part of the students life and enjoyment where they can proceed at their own rate and pursue their own interests and needs within the limits of a curriculum.
  4. Team instruction is essential in many high schools to reduce expensive legal liabilities, reduce violence, class disruption, make students feel safe, improve teacher retention, reduce costs, improve teaching skills, teach students about working with others by examples of teacher-teacher collaboration , and to expose more students to the limited supply of very dedicated and talented teachers. (Goetz, K., Perspectives on Team Teaching, University of Calgary, Canada, http://www.ucalgary.ca/~egallery, 2000.) Teachers that cannot work with other team members probably should be in a role with minimum direct interaction with students. Teams should include 2 or 3 teachers and class size should be between 40 and 100 students depending on how many students have advanced to the self-education approach. Team concepts offer many opportunities for creating valuable synergies like pairing experienced teachers with energetic teachers, combining physics and calculus, or world literature with world history.
  5. Schools should accept responsibility for improving communications between students, parents, effective teachers and teachers with one on one and prescribed outlines of the dialogs (not monologs) between parents and students, parents and teachers, and teachers and students. This should educate parents, students, and teachers about a very personal subject – education. Teachers and parents should guide the dialog, but not dominate it. The conversations should include previous educational problems, bullying, interests, ambitions, resources, etc. Parents and students should talk first going down a check list of subjects. Teachers should summarize their conversations and provide them to school administrators. The one-on-one conversations might be carried out before school starts in the summer. I suspect these conversations might be more valuable for teachers than courses in graduate school or may evolve into a college course. Some few teachers probably never have extended conversations with responsible adults, and Bill Gates says that over 90% of teachers never get any feedback on improving teaching quality. Bill Gates claims "the most critical change we can make in U.S. K-12 education is to create teacher feedback systems that are properly funded, high-quality, and trusted by teachers." (2013 Annual Letter from Bill Gates, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, http://annualletter.gatesfoundation.org/#nav=intro, January 2013.)
  6. In the training of teachers, emphasis should be on subject matter (math, science, literature, and history), communication skills, and modern communication technology. Colleges should make more use of team teaching to train teachers. Less emphasis should be placed on credentials and on teaching skills, and more on love of learning, motivation, and communication abilities.
  7. Highly motivated, self-educating students should make more use of online instruction, reading, and be encouraged to become as independent as possible from the education bureaucracy while sometimes being invited to join teaching teams as role models.
  8. There are many voices of negativity and many grouchy academics influencing students. Thus, it is essential that all students have a little personal contact with people who can effectively convey their genuine joy and love of learning.
  9. Educators should not label any job as a "dead end job." I have never known a known a completely "dead end job." If a person works hard, shows some initiative, reads up on his job, keeps a positive attitude, and proposes some ideas; someone will notice and offer some opportunity for advancement.
  10. Every school system should examine recent technical advances and economics of M-Learning or "mobile learning." With over 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide, UNESCO is excited about M-Learning for the reasons mobile devices could increase and expedite education, particularly in communities where educational opportunities are endangered, limited, or nonexistent. M-education has the potential to create paperless, transportation less, safer, more diverse, higher quality, more individualized, less costly, less environmentally damaging education opportunities.
Please also read my other essays about education and complexity on my website: www.ElsResearchStudies.us.

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