The article we could read this week criticises our education system, saying it focuses on teaching instead of learning. I have to assume it is an excerpt from the book written by Dr. Ackoff and Mr. Greenberg (their book is mentioned in italics, but everywhere this article is just referenced as a “Knowledge@Wharton” document, so I hope I’m attributing the quotations below to the correct authors).
Some things I completely agree with, including the idea that students shouldn’t be segregated by age when we want them to learn things, and that one purpose of industrialized education was to develop a standard curriculum and training for all.
But that wasn’t the only purpose.
If we take the points made in the article to their logical conclusion (and logic is all the authors have here – I saw no evidence that wasn’t anecdotal), then students should not have to learn (or rather, be taught) basic mathematical calculations or factual information. They should also be able to learn (not be taught) what they’re interested in, and teach it to others.
“Why should children — or adults, for that matter — be asked to do something computers and related equipment can do much better than they can?” ask the authors.
Is that supposed to be a rhetorical question? Did these handy computers and equipment fall from the sky? No, they were invented and developed by educated individuals. Alan Turing stayed in school, although his teachers said they wished he’d become educated rather than focusing on those science things he liked so much. (I can get anecdotal too.)
We should all know how to do basic math. Computers and calculators can do it for us, but we wouldn’t know what to put into the machines nor how to use the answers if we didn’t know basic math. My paycheck is automatically deposited at my credit union, and handled by computer. How can I check the work of that machine if I don’t know basic math?
We should all have some factual knowledge, because you cannot know what to look up if you don’t. You’ll also have trouble knowing how to research something using keywords and verbal relationships if you don’t have a good vocabulary. Yes, you could get a good vocabulary only in the areas you’re interested in, but that wouldn’t help when you do research in any other area.
To follow only ones whims, even for Alan Turing, would be to miss the larger picture. Education, to me, isn’t about either teaching or learning so much as it’s about awareness of the larger world and ones place in it.
“One might wonder,” say the authors, “how on earth learning came to be seen primarily a result of teaching.” Perhaps because it often works that way? Tribal societies show their young how to hunt or make baskets. The children learn at the side of adults, and they learn through both observation and instruction. Even the article itself presents the medieval university model as a good thing, because students chose which teachers they wanted to listen to.
But here’s where we must get back to the reasons for industrialized schooling. Yes, schools were set up to manage children and help create an industrialized workforce. But they were also, in the 19th century particularly, places to put children instead of making them work in factories. Publicly funded education was especially important in this regard, as were mandatory education laws. The purpose was not to enslave kids and turn them into automatons, but to make it possible for them to learn things in a place dedicated to learning. Many parents objected, because they wanted the children working in the family business, or in the fields, or bringing home money from a factory job. Now many parents are utterly dependent on public schools as society-funded day care.
So when the authors promote the idea that students should be able to go where they want to learn what they want and not be force-fed “content” by “teachers”, I want to remind them that for centuries any sort of education was a luxury experienced only by elites. Those supposedly self-led medieval university students weren’t there because they wanted to learn — they were sent by their elite parents to advance the family’s goals. Most of them spent too much time drinking and making trouble in the towns.
I do not want a world where the student’s wishes determine the curriculum. There are sets of facts that are important, and it’s highly instructive to everyone to continually argue over what these are. But the model I’ve seen presented — no wait, there have been no real models, only complaints from both right and left about our education system. The model being implied would mean less opportunity for our poorer children to experience any level of education, because taxpayers simply won’t fund a system that doesn’t provide an equivalent chance to all. It’s a foundation of democratic and progressive thought for 100 years that all people deserve the same opportunity for education.
I do not like being an apologist for a system I don’t agree with in so many ways. I too am sorry that the format is not everything I would like. I don’t like segregated classrooms or standardized tests used as a measure of either teacher or student achievement. Test scores don’t show education; they show training. I would like to change these things. I would like to have a choice between a “day care” style public school and one that allows more home-schooling, practical opportunities for real-world learning, and book learning for the same credit. I would be happy to support both with my taxes. I’m also not interested in instant “accountability” — I don’t think you can say much about the success of a particular educational system until the children you’re messing with have grown up, and sometimes not even then.
But I’m not willing to give up the egalitarian nature of public education to allow for a system that serves only “voluntary listeners”. Industrialized education came about because there were too many people that society wanted to educate, and their parents couldn’t do it because they had to work (lower class) or didn’t know enough (upper class). This hasn’t changed. I would prefer that societies and governments invest far more funding in making smaller, better schools with mixed ages, mixed pedagogies, and mixed curricula. We aren’t doing this — funding is so low across the board that it can no longer be used as either a guarantor or preventer of success. So let’s take what we’ve got and fix it. That doesn’t require turning everything upside down.