Cultural Design as Educational Innovation

There are many examples of teen YouTube stars who have entirely taught themselves skills to an extraordinarily high degree of virtuosity. Consider, for example, Jeong-Hyun Lim, a self-taught Korean known as Funtwo, who taught himself guitar and became a YouTube guitar celebrity with tens of millions of views. If a teen wants to learn something, with the resources available online today it is impossible to stop them from learning.

Note the cost of this education system—once a child has access to a smart phone and internet access, the cost is zero.

What would it take to transition to a world in which young people learned not only excellence in guitar, but excellence in other valuable skills by means of such a system? Of course, many are already learning a solid foundation of coding via Minecraft and other game-like platforms. Last year I met a 10th-grade software developer who was managing a team for a startup. One of those coders who reported to him was a Columbia University CS graduate. He had been a Minecraft fanatic when he was younger and gradually learned to code in several different languages. Thus this world of “learning valuable skills for free” is already happening.

Joseph Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success explains how the global dominance of Homo sapiens is not due to individual cognitive powers but rather due to social learning. We are distinctive among all animals in our ability to learn through culture, the practices and behaviors of other human beings.

Young learners all the way up to adults … automatically and unconsciously attend to and preferentially learn from others based on cues of prestige, success, skill, sex, and ethnicity. From other people we readily acquire tastes, motivations, beliefs, strategies, and our standards for reward and punishment.[1]

Given such an efficient system for learning, embedded into our physiology and cognition through millions of years of evolution, one might have thought that we would have developed an education system that is aligned with these genetically programmed mechanisms.

Instead, thanks to the Prussian belief in the state brought to us by Horace Mann, the public choice ratcheting upwards decade by decade, refined into the impersonal bureaucratic machine we have today, we have an education system which ignores the natural human mechanisms of learning. It is a vivid example of “seeing like a state,” in James C. Scott’s terminology.[2] Legibility of bureaucratic systems trumps the real needs of human beings to learn socially.

Our biologically programmed learning mechanisms are especially focused on the behavior of peers, especially during puberty. As Judith Rich Harris notes, a focus on peers makes evolutionary sense because they are the cohort with whom we are likely to find our mating opportunities and with whom we compete most directly for status.[3] As a consequence, adolescents are acutely focused on cues of “prestige, success, skill, sex, and ethnicity” (Henrich notes that “ethnicity” is not race, but rather shared cultural cues). They have less of a biological need to focus on adults, especially those far from their cohort. While an 18-year-old may be interested in the behavior of a 22-year-old, and a 14-year-old in the behavior of an 18-year-old, a 14-year-old is not much interested in the behavioral norms of a 50-year-old (unless that person has a significant degree of prestige, success, etc.)

Is it possible to deploy peer and cultural mechanisms aligned with our biology to achieve learning outcomes that are more effective, less costly, and more aligned with the needs of individual children?

This is definitely the frontier we should be exploring. Those families and educators who are deliberately exploring the frontiers beyond the limits of statist schooling are de facto the Jobs and Wozniak, the Gates and Allen, of 21st century learning.

In 1970, IBM was the third largest corporation in the world. It and a handful of other mainframe manufacturers set the standards for computing at the time. Teenage boys, some of them hanging out with the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley, changed the world.

Meanwhile the dominant government schooling system sets the standards for curriculum development, testing, textbook development, teacher training, student information systems, and so on. This dominant standard, designed with the legibility needs of the state in mind, is far more powerful than IBM was in 1970. We need many thousands of families and educators to gradually create a higher quality, lower cost, more highly personalized model of education for the next billion young people of the world. These families and educators will craft subcultures of well-being and excellence that are rooted in human biology, featuring modeling and peer cultures more than “teaching.”

Because human beings learn automatically and well when their cultural cues tell them to do so, given global access to technology we will be able to provide a superior education to anyone at no cost. The challenge is to design cultures in which positive learning outcomes reliably take place. Thus the real “edtech” revolution will be in cultural design, not technology per se.


[1.] Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

[2.] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

[3.] Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. New York: Free Press, 2009.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kerry McDonald says that those who care about liberty should give unschooling a look. Structured education with a fixed curriculum and standardized testing is the product of a bureaucratized system. But children are spontaneous learners, says McDonald, and they do best when adults give opportunities and support rather than structure and evaluation.

Response Essays

  • Kevin Currie-Knight is a libertarian. He also likes unschooling. But, he says, it’s a mistake to conflate them; either view should stand or fall on its own—political liberty for adults might be the best choice, but this doesn’t imply that unstructured learning is best for children. And unstructured learning may be best for children without implying much of anything about the adult world of politics. While his personal answer to each of these is “yes,” the two are independent questions in his view.

  • Corey DeAngelis discusses the complicated relationship between unschooling and school choice. While he finds the evidence for school choice persuasive, and while he is also open to unschooling, he sets out several reasons why the two initiatives may not be wholly compatible. He recommends Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) as potentially flexible enough to offer meaningful help for unschoolers.

  • Michael Strong considers what society would look like if we schooled less and educated more. While he is supportive of unschooling in principle, not everything of that name is equal, and he cautions that we still have much to learn about learning itself. One thing that seems unlikely to work, though, is spending more and more money on traditional schooling.