Crowdsourcing childhood education

January 9, 2009

The current enthusiasm we see everywhere for crowdsourcing and peer production—encouraging each person to bring his individual expertise and viewpoint to a common cause—seems ripe for application to pedagogy. Although “It takes a village to raise a child” is a cliché, all the elements for success seem to be present:

Most educational reform efforts focus rightfully on the direct point of contact between teacher and child. Many of these reformers suggest that we could create better teaching by turning subject-matter experts into teachers with minimal background in the field of education. But this course is risky, because it takes training to maintain the focus of twenty or thirty children—modern, easily distracted, and gregarious, many with learning disabilities—while delivering information at a level they can understand.

I don’t subscribe to George Bernard Shaw’s notorious maxim: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” Let’s put this insult in context: Shaw had a low opinion of just about all the professions (except for musicians, whose value to society was incontrovertible). Many teachers have a lot to impart, and most non-teachers would not want to be full-time teachers even if pay were hiked substantially.

But many practitioners would enjoy spending a few hours a week in a classroom, especially if they can prepare and deliver a module that is based on their own work and expresses their own passion. Here’s what a crowdsourcing approach to childhood education could look like:

  1. Employers provide a day or two per week of time off, covering four or six consecutive weeks, for employers volunteering in the schools. This could be supported by tax breaks or other incentives. Employers may also be persuaded of benefits to letting employees teach a project, because they may come to understand their own work at a deeper level.
  2. Volunteers prepare a stripped-down version of some project at work, or some other project of interest to kids, and divide it into lessons that fit the four-to-six-week schedule. Trainers can help them prepare the materials. As the practice of volunteer teachers spreads, such preparations will become as well understood as writing a paper for a journal or creating a presentation for one’s manager.
  3. Volunteers lead classes in this hands-on project, with specific practical and educational goals.
  4. Teachers become facilitators. They help students work on the projects between volunteer visits and help students find supplementary learning materials. During volunteer visits, the teachers give extra support to children with disabilities or special needs, and keep order generally.

Volunteers can be drawn from a huge range of professions—and they don’t have to hold PhD’s. Children can learn a lot of math from laying out plans for a construction project and a lot of physics and chemistry from car repair. There may, however, be a certain age range where children are old enough to concentrate on a large-scale project while young enough to learn basic concepts and skills from hands-on work.

I’m aware that this kind of project imposes huge logistical requirements, ranging from scheduling to criminal background checks. Technology can help with some of these problems, which arise naturally when a formal organization like a school system tries to reap the benefits of an open culture.

It’s also important to note that, although hands-on projects have become the rage in schools, colleges, and even graduate programs, “learning by doing” is not enough. When John Dewey suggested the concept, he saw learning as a synthesis between external materials and the understanding a learner has within. The more you have within, the more you can learn by doing. But such learning can also motivate the student to make the most of what a traditional teacher can offer.


Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media. This article represents his views only.

Author’s home page
Other articles in chronological order
Index to other articles