4 Challenges from Naval Ravikant

In today’s piece, we share 4 challenges to the current education system from one of Silicon Valley’s top insiders. Naval Ravikant is the outspoken CEO and co-founder of AngelList, a platform for connecting startups and investors. He’s also an active angel investor who has invested in companies like Twitter, Uber, and Stack Overflow. So why should you care about his views on education? As one of Silicon Valley’s best investors, Naval has spent countless hours with the world’s top innovators and entrepreneurs. And as a result, he’s in a unique position to tell us about the skills and mindsets that our most creative employees (think – our current students) will need in the future.

Naval provided these 4 challenges to the education system in an interview he gave to The Knowledge Project. You can check out a conversation on it here and read the full transcript of the interview here.


Challenge 1 – The current education system is obsolete

In his first challenge, Naval says that we should focus on teaching what’s scarce. Given the power of the internet, knowledge no longer fits that description. Instead, we should focus on encouraging a love of learning and developing mental frameworks that can solve problems across fields. In other words, it’s the desire to learn that’s scarce.

Naval: “There’s no question, it [the current education system] is completely obsolete . . . Colleges and schools and the way we think about them, they come from a time period when books were rare. Knowledge was rare . . . There was no such thing as self-guided learning. I think schools are just byproducts of these kinds of institutions. Now we have the internet, which is the greatest weapon of knowledge ever created. It’s very easy to learn. If you actually have the desire to learn, everything is on the internet. You can go on Khan Academy. You can get MIT and Yale lectures online. You can get all the coursework and get interactivity. You can read blogs by brilliant people. You can read all these great books. The ability to learn, the means of learning, the tools of learning, are abundant and infinite. It’s the desire that’s incredibly scarce. I don’t think that schools matter for self-motivated students.”

Challenge 2 – Memorization is prioritized over fundamentals

Most educators would probably agree with this one. What’s less obvious is that how we sequence subject material can often make the problem worse. Here, Naval explains what happens when a student misses an important part of the math curriculum. In order to compensate, students often revert to memorization to demonstrate mastery. And when this happens, real learning is lost.

Naval: “Much of the current educational system has to have a one-size fits all model. It has to say you have to learn X now and then you have to learn Y . . . An example of this is when you learn mathematics. At some point you were keeping up, you were doing arithmetic, then you were doing geometry, then you did trigonometry, and then you did pre-calc and then you did calc. But somewhere in there you get lost. Somewhere in there, while building the massive edifice, the logical structure that mathematics is, you missed one lesson, you missed one concept, you missed five classes, or your brain couldn’t think a certain way about something that was being explained to you. It should have been explained visually, but it was being explained numerically; or it should have been explained symbolically, and it was being explained in cartography or what have you. You were not able to keep up. The moment you lose that rung in mathematics, the moment you miss that rung in the ladder, you can’t go to the next one. Now the teacher’s like, “Okay we’re done with pre-calculus, now we’re moving on to calculus.” You’re saying, “Wait, I didn’t understand pre-calculus. I didn’t understand how pre-calculus leads from trigonometry to calculus. I missed that whole part.” Now you get to calculus, you don’t understand the fundamentals, and now you’re reduced to memorization. Now you’re like, “DX, DY. When I see the symbol, I do this.” Now you’ve lost the actual learning. You’ve lost the connection to the underlying principles.”

Challenge 3 – We don’t learn what matters in life

In this next excerpt, Naval challenges “what” we decide to teach our students. He says we should continuously emphasize skills that students will use throughout their lives, rather than disparate pieces of knowledge that are easily forgotten. He also provides some ideas about what else our children should be learning.

Naval: I think learning should be about learning the basics in all the fields and learning them really well over and over. Life is mostly about applying the basics and only doing the advanced stuff in the things that you truly love and where you understand the basics inside out. That’s not how our system is built. We teach all these kids calculus and they walk out not understanding calculus at all. Really they would have been better off served doing arithmetic and basic computer programming the entire time.

There’s a whole set of things we don’t even bother trying to teach. We don’t teach nutrition. We don’t teach cooking. We don’t teach how to be in happy, positive relationships. We don’t teach how to keep your body healthy and fit. We just say “sports.” We don’t teach happiness. We don’t teach meditation. Maybe we shouldn’t teach some of these things because different kids will have different aptitudes, but maybe we should. Maybe we should teach practical construction of technology – maybe everyone in their science project, instead of building a little chemistry volcano, maybe you should be building a smartphone.”

Challenge 4 – The future of education will be shaped by innovators, not bureaucrats 

There are two separate ideas being presented here. In the first, Naval presents his views on how true systemic change is achieved. It serves as a great reminder to all of us to embrace creativity and novelty. In the second, he provides a glimpse into how he sees the future of education unfolding. Hint – it puts the student in the driver’s seat and the bureaucrats in the back.

Naval: “I have to believe that we can change the system, but you never change a system by taking the existing thing and reworking it. I’ve been in Silicon Valley and tech business long enough to know that you’re better off changing it just by creating something brand new . . . To that end, what I would love to do is create a very low-cost, very rugged, easily powered, cheap Android tablet that’s hard to destroy and basically distribute them around the world with prebuilt learning applications so that you can literally fire one up and it works with you interactively. It lets you dive into and learn anything you want that will make your life better. It always keeps pushing you. Then you can network in all the teachers of the world. Anyone who wants to be a teacher can contribute. Essentially you could network-connect all of the teachers of the world and all of the students of the world using tablets and do it at the pace and level where it is essentially customized for each child.”