Designing an Education System for the Present (and the Future)

The QWERTY Problem

I distinctly remembering learning how to type. It was hard. I had been a hunt and peck perfectionist up until age 14 when my school provided a computer course focused on the keyboard.

My teacher would shout out commands as we feverishly tried to get our fingers in the right place.

“ASDF!”

“JKL;!”

For a long time, I could still type faster by hunting and pecking. But, as I continued to practice, my words-per-minute count grew, and I was able to type without looking at the keyboard.

By the end of that year, my hunting and pecking days were over. I had successfully assimilated to a QWERTY typist, and never looked back.

Interestingly, I never questioned the layout of QWERTY, or where it came from. I assumed (tend to do that) it was designed for speed and thought this was the best it could get.

Then I came across Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Fooled By Randomness.  In one particular section, Taleb brings up the QWERTY keyboard, and the backward reason for how it was designed:

“The arrangement of the letters on a typewriter is an example of the success of the least deserving method becoming successful.  Our typewriters have the order of the letters on their keyboard arranged in a non-optimal manner.  As a matter of fact, in such a non-optimal manner as to slow down the typing rather than making it easier to type faster.

This was done deliberately in order to avoid having the ribbons become jammed as they were designed for less electronic days of yore.   Once we started to build better typewriters and computerized word processors, several attempts were made to change the keyboard in order to make them more efficient for typing purposes.

All of these attempts failed.  People had been trained onQWERTY” keyboards and their habits were too sticky for change.   This is called a “path dependent outcome” and it has thwarted many attempts at modeling or changing behavior.”

As Taleb points out, in 1874 when American inventor named Christopher Latham Sholes first designed the QWERTY layout, it’s purpose was to keep the keys from jamming, not for speed, accuracy, or efficiency of getting the words onto paper.

Regardless of how the world changed, the QWERTY keyboard never got an update, because it worked “well enough” and people did not want to change.

Designing For Function, Not Change

Sholes used the design thinking process to develop the typewriter, first starting out by looking, listening and learning about current issues with other typewriter designs:

Sholes had been for some years developing the typewriter, filing a patent application in October 1867. However, the original key layout, with the second half of the alphabet in order on the top row and the first half in order on the bottom row, led to some problems. The keys were mounted on metal arms, which would jam if the keys were pressed in too rapid succession.

Sholes then began to ask questions and understand the actual problem before creating a prototype:

Sholes’ solution was separating commonly used letter pairings, such as “ST,” to avoid these jams, effectively allowing the typist to type faster, rather than slower.

Next was a focus on highlighting what was working, and fixing what was failing in his initial design. This iterative process brought about change that was again focused on solving the jamming problem:

He went through several design iterations, attempting to bring the typewriter to market. When he sold the design to Remington in 1873, the QWERTY layout looked like this:

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 – ,
Q W E . T Y I U O P
Z S D F G H J K L M
A X & C V B N ? ; R

Remington made several adjustments, and launched the Sholes and Glidden typewriter on July 1, 1874. Its keyboard layout was almost the same QWERTY keyboard layout we use today, with a few minor differences. 1 and 0 were left out to help shave down production costs, on the basis that these numerals could be produced using other keys, such as a capital I and a capital O. Remington also swapped the R and . keys.

The 0 was added fairly early on, but some keyboards well into the 1970s were still missing a 1.

When this was launched to the world, it took a while to sell, and needed some polishing in terms of the overall product before it hit a fit with the market:

The first Remington typewriter sold poorly (it could only type in upper-case letters, was expensive at $125 per unit, and often broke). The updated Remington 2 typewriter, introduced in 1878, changed this. Not only did it remedy some of the defects of the Sholes and Glidden machine, the launch allowed Remington to sell the typewriter business to three former employees. Bringing marketing expertise to bear, the new Remington Standard Typewriter Company was able to bring the typewriter to commercial success.

However, now in 2017 we still use a QWERTY keyboard. We still teach QWERTY in our schools. And generally, no one questions how it was designed, who it was designed for, and why we still use the 1870 model almost 150 years later.

What Happens When the World Changes?

There are at least six different keyboard layouts that are well-known enough to have a wikipedia page. Of these six, Dvorak is the one that has a small following of people that have run studies and research to show the benefits of this model over QWERTY:

Though Dvorak may sound like another string of letters, it’s in fact the surname of this keyboard layout’s inventor, August Dvorak. The inventor felt, when he patented his design in 1936, that QWERTY was uneconomical and uncomfortable—and therefore wasn’t the perfect layout. Dvorak believed that his layout was more efficient, and studies seem to agree.

People using QWERTY keyboards only make 32 percent of strokes on the “home row” (where your fingers naturally rest on a keyboard). For Dvorak, that rises to 70 percent. And likewise, most people are right handed: Dvorak accounts for that, making more than half the strokes right handed. QWERTY calls on people to use their left hands more. But save for a few eager practitioners, Dvorak is the lesser-known layout.

Regardless of the benefits of Dvorak, people do not want to change when stuck in comfortable habits that work well enough.

We can see a very similar pattern with our education system. Our current model was designed years ago with specific purposes in mind. A lot has stayed the same since that design including:

  1. When we go to school and when we have break from school
  2. Hours learning per day
  3. Subject areas
  4. Grade levels

This list could go on, but I think you get the point. QWERTY was designed for a different world and different purpose, and although it still works fine (as I currently type on my QWERTY keyboard), that doesn’t mean it is the best solution.

There are many schools and districts that are moving away from a “traditional” education experience. In pockets across this country and the world, things are changing, yet the majority of our schools function eerily similar to a 19th-century model.

In the design thinking process, there is a piece that we often forget to continue with after launching it out into the world: iteration.

If we don’t consistently iterate, we will consistently fall behind.

After launching to the world it brings us back to a place where we can look, listen and learn again.

The QWERTY keyboard was developed for a mechanical device that had problems with keys getting stuck. We don’t have to worry about that problem anymore with digital devices. So, let’s look and learn about possible solutions to make it a better process.

Our educational system was developed for a time period of agriculture lifestyle and industrial growth. We are preparing the majority of our students to work in fields or in factories anymore. So, let’s look and learn about possible solutions to make it a better process.

What are your thoughts?

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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Feel free to share student work on the QWRETY (although they did uncover researchers who debunk the design to keep keys from jamming theory).

  • Kevin Young says:

    I agree with the premise of what you are saying, but was hoping you had concrete suggestions of your own regarding what to change in education or how to convince people to make the change (I apologize for not looking around your blog–you probably have suggestions elsewhere). As a biologist I like to compare education systems to a “fitness landscape,” which is a way to compare particular genetic combinations and their reproductive success. Basically all the different possible solutions end up looking like peaks and valleys. If you are in a valley, then going towards any peak means you are increasing in your measure of success. If you are already on a peak, however, you are at a “local optimum,” meaning that regardless of which direction you go (which other options you try), you would be going downhill. There could be taller peaks around (better solutions), but to move towards them requires first going down from where you are (enduring a period of reduced success, like a typist whose words per minute go down significantly while learning how to use the Dvorak keyboard). Hence, there is strong selection pressure to stay at local optima even though they may be very suboptimal compared to what is possible.

    The other reason I like to think about this in terms of evolutionary fitness landscapes is that there is no optimal solution for all measures of success or all conditions. These are theoretical models where “fitness” roughly translates to numbers of offspring successfully raised, but one set of traits may work very well in a mountain climate but do very poorly in a desert climate. In the case of schools we tend to use national test scores as our measure of “fitness.” First off, that seems a terrible measure for the success of a school, and secondly, what works as an optimal solution to get high test scores in Boston may be useless on the Tex/Mex border.

    The most important thing we can do is determine what measures of success we really want to use (maybe you say “innovation,” but how will you measure that so you can compare different schools, or different classes across time?). Perhaps we want to optimize a set of success measures (maybe a measure of student/teacher/parent happiness; maybe a measure of high school retention rate; maybe let students & parents select a set of 3-5 things that matter most to them among things like reading, speaking, drawing, math abilities, acting abilities, sports abilities, etc). Either we try to optimize for the same measures everywhere (this seems very presumptuous to me), or we allow schools to specialize and optimize for different criteria (and allow students to move into the programs they desire). We also need to reward/encourage schools for moving towards what they think are the very best solutions, even if it means moving through difficult periods where their measures of success go way down for a while.

    • Diann Espinoza says:

      I love the biology analogy! If only our districts would realize that when something new is implemented it needs time to work. If the data shows that students aren’t successful in the first few years, don’t switch things up too soon. It takes more time for the results to go back up to the optimum and surpass it.
      I also like the idea of using a locally agreed upon criteria to measure success. Our diverse population and immense geographic area does not lend itself to one size fits all expectations.

  • Kim O'Bray says:

    Hi A.J.!

    I enjoyed this article – interesting topic. The keyboard thing was new learning for me, and I can definitely see the connection between that and current educational practices. Great practical analogy!

    In the last paragraph, did you mean to say, “We aren’t preparing the majority…” instead of, “We are preparing the majority…”? (Just thought I would check!)

    Thanks!

  • I agree. Students access information differently from their pre-Internet “fore-students”, and the possibilities for what most people would consider a successful life are broader than in an agricultural or industrial society. In addition, course and graduation requirements reflect certain biases about what is important, biases that are often not aligned with student (and adult) interests and realities. I know, for example, that my elective music classes (band and choir) have had a far greater impact on both my personal and professional lives than the algebra II course that was required.

    One of the arguments for some courses, especially the math courses, is not their practical applicability but their more intangible benefit of “teaching students to think”. My question is, “Do math courses teach thinking ability, or teach it in such a way, that another course, one that a particular student finds more engrossing, could not?”

  • Kurt Hangle says:

    I look forward to reading any ideas challenging our current education systems, and I really like the metaphor used with the antiquated typewriter keyboard lay out, but was I ever shocked when there was no Dvorak comparison! Thanks to Mr Young and Mr Harrell for offering up direction and thoughts for discussion.
    Early on in a program while working with at risk youth, I often wanted “The System” that would work and solve life for all students. I quickly learned that this was not going to happen as all students came in from different backgrounds, with different learning styles, and habits, and with different futures planned…and the list goes on. This program is just a microcosm of our larger high school with 0ver 1700 students. I appreciate the direction offered up by the aforementioned gentlemen, as I see a much more fluid approach to the current realities of student learning and success.

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