Education and The Red Queen Effect: Is it Time to Worry?

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Innovating an old system in a world playing a new game.

The push to innovate how we educate kids hides a simple truth. What we teach is outdated and doesn’t address many skills needed in the digital age. Many education innovations reinforce the growing education bubble. A workforce filled with skills that don’t apply to available opportunities. Training in obsolete skills produces the opposite goal of education. A reduced quality of life for standardized employment paths.

But how could this happen?

It’s simple, we’ve optimized our education systems for industrial era needs. And we’ve done a great job at it. You go to school and you learn skills for a blue or white collar job. You go to college or you enter a service or trade industry. But these skills are becoming obsolete. As technology advances, societal needs are evolving to require different skills for digital age work. This change is like the Red Queen Effect popularized by Alice In Wonderland.

In the novel, Alice and the Red Queen run in place faster and faster without making any actual progress. It shows the importance co-evolving with the surrounding environment. Ie: the world changes and we must adapt to the changing world or get left behind.

Our education systems are now trying to fit a square peg to a round hole. We are using learning solutions optimized for past societal needs not the requirements of a modern digital workforce.

At the root of the problem is our standardized and outdated learning objectives. Should all students learn the same things? And is it optimal for each student to be taught the same way? If not, then how can we best deliver alternative paths towards a quality life?

Why We Need A Change

Emergence of New Types of Social Classes

After WWII, social class divides split by blue and white collar labor. But as the internet arrived, it created new types of occupations and a set of class divide. Location-based work versus digital and increasingly remote work.

The needs of these two social classes are different from previous generations. As an example, businesses now outsource work to areas of the world with cheaper labor. Location-based work suffers from this globally connected economy that can undercut their cost of living. The emerging digital class however, is becoming location agnostic through their ability to work remotely. This provides digital workers with leverage to extract more value from society.

The recent Presidential Candidate, Andrew Yang wrote of another example of changing social issues in a NY times OP-Ed. Job elimination by automation. The key is that digital technology and automation disproportionally impacts location-based workers. Adding to the class divide is that the digital workforce is designing and implementing these initiatives impacting other groups of people.

In a global and technologically progressive world, location-based workers face significant life disruption. And this social class is becoming less resilient to these changes.

Societal change is happening but curriculums aren’t being altered to address these changes. We’ve been struck by normalcy bias.

New Innovative Tools Frequently Support Outdated Needs

The COVID-19 pandemic broke the traditional education delivery model. In-person education is now unsafe and the future of traditional schooling is indefinitely uncertain. We’ve turned to using new digital tools like Zoom to deliver education online but it doesn’t work well.

The teachers are poorly trained for this setting and student engagement is inconsistent.

Inconsistent and Bad Learning Outcomes

Many students don’t even have access to the same equipment at home. In fact, nearly 20% of students don’t have reliable ways to connect to online learning. One study indicates that there is a significant learning loss associated with online education during COVID. Ie: students are more likely to forget what they learned than they otherwise would. This creates an uneven experience.

“Preliminary COVID slide estimates suggest students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year.”

Higher Education is Breaking Under the Weight of Debt

Student debt from college education is above $1.5 trillion. As classes move online during the pandemic, many students are questioning the value of higher education. Many colleges were already under pressure from ballooning student debt and negative job prospects.

As job opportunities fall, students struggle to pay down their debt over their lifetimes. This is a more severe issue during a recession and the pandemic. Combining these facts with the push to exclusively online class format, the college path may no longer be desirable by many.

Experimenting with New Skills & New Education Formats

So what are the alternative options? The standardized education process doesn’t work for everyone but there are alternative ways of building skills. The new digital class is separating from the industrial era class structure. This group is characterized by it’s shifting preferences based on the ability to conduct digital work from anywhere in the world.

Here are some examples of alternative models already in progress.

HomeSchooling Pods

One new method of teaching is a type of homeschooling sometimes called homeschooling pods or microschools.

These schools are building workarounds for students to get good in-person instruction. But laws are inconsistent across states and many of these laws weren’t built for the reality of schooling during a pandemic. “In the DC area, for example, laws in Maryland make it illegal for homeschooling parents to hire someone else to teach kids, but not in neighboring Virginia. “

Microschools present an interesting opportunity to alter curriculums and avoid online instruction. But they may not scale well and there is a fear that they offer advantage to wealthy families over low income students.


Lambda School is another interesting method of teaching digital age skills. This program teaches programing skills through a remote learning curriculum. The goal is to provide students with the necessary skills and experience to get an entry level programing job.

It also empowers students of all income demographics to participate through it’s unique Income Sharing Agreements (ISA). Tuition is deferred until course completion and in the event a student cannot afford the tuition, they can pay a percentage of their future incomes.

One drawback to this model at scale is that it does not provide a well rounded education. It focuses on providing the skills needed for a specific subset of jobs. This is significantly different from traditional models of well rounded education. Lambda School also does not currently provide early childhood or high school level educational opportunities. The program is intended to retool adults.

Certification & Vocational Programs

Organizations are launching their own education programing. Examples include Google’s recent certificate program in partnership with Coursera. The program offers IT Support and Automation with Python certificates.

There are also vocational and apprenticeship style programing similar to Lambda School but without ISA’s. One example is Drone Forward, a unique vocational program partnering with drone organizations to teach technical skills required for professions in the industry. Through the program, students as young as 10 years old can participate remotely to learn core business concepts and technical skills through real business projects.

Certifications and vocational programs are frequently industry specific although they frequently provide a well rounded education.

The Bottom Line

Many people are operating as if our educational needs are going to stay the same forever. This is illogical. We cannot assume that the skills students to learn now will be the same 10 years from now. The COVID-19 pandemic presents the ideal opportunity to implement drastic change. The reality is that we cannot assume that the parents won’t seek to provide an alternative education for their children to maximize their future success.

So I pose a question: can we use the pandemic to experiment with what we teach and how we teach it? Providing multiple options: some in the form of standardized education from the state and some tailored towards individual tools available for self education. Or hybrid models of both.

The common argument against allowing experimentation is lack of fairness and equity. But this is a moot point because none of the current students are experiencing a fair and equitable opportunity under the given circumstances. Should all suffer?

There is no one size fits all approach

School districts must take a rational approach to education under an indefinite pandemic and changing societal needs. Governments should focus on building systems that allow parents to make the best choices for their children. Simultaneously they should free up resources to provide additional support to lower income communities.

Taking a one size fits all approach is a methodology that is breaking. Instead, we should assume sovereign individuals will take personal responsibility for their education and support them in making the best choices. For those not able to do the same, governments should focus on solutions that support them in making a better life for themselves.

Instead of pushing harder for an average and uniform outcome, we should push harder for ideal individual outcomes.

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