Monday, March 28, 2011

Education Changes

xkcd, brilliant as usual

The short version is to read researcher Peter Gray's The Seven Sins of Our Forced Educational System. Exactly the sort of article I would have described as nutty 10-20 years ago, but now think has many good points.

The long version is to read the rest of this post first, warming you up to the idea that radical educational ideas may not be insane, then reading Gray's article.

It used to be, the only tension was between public schools and religious schools. Prep schools were there, but only for the rich and few. They knew who they were, and their worlds did not touch ours, except when they wanted to rule us.

Radical voices came onto the fringes in the 60's. American education was designed by rich industrialists to create useful cogs for their corporate machines. Which always struck me as a textbook example of stretching reality to an insane degree, highlighting some aspects while downplaying others in order to make some political point. Grading destroys love of learning...rote learning destroys real understanding...competition destroys cooperation... Each of these had enough truth to limp along to the next decade, but obscured more than they explained. Montessori schools were there for those who were determined to go that route, and those were okay, but given the population they drew from, never seemed to provide the value-added for education that was hoped for. (I still like 'em, though.)

Over the last two decades the clamoring for education change has grown more frantic. Conservatives have a lot of people who think that if we just went back to the good old days, even the strict back-to-basics days if not the one-room school, all would be good in the garden. The idea is insane, based on nostalgia rather than true recall and certainly not real data, and I am frankly sick of the argument on conservative sites. It morphs over into core curriculum ideas for highschool and college, which is a quite different subject. (And even that is not quite an honest argument. It is easy to find bad examples in modern course and texts and pretend that things were never like that in the old days. Nonsense.) It starts from a selection bias of the better friends and relatives of online commenters who liked school and like writing about it now. Why, my grandfather had only borrowed chalk, a compass, and two desks for twelve students in their little town, but by golly they worked hard and all of them went on to become civil engineers or neurosurgeons. It's rubbish, every bit of it.

Liberals have their own idiocies, which I'm sure you've seen enough of that I can skip it here. Homeschooling has been a real change, and they have done well at undermining many myths of what is necessary for schooling. Special Ed has been enormously expensive but the old system was to put children away in institutions and just let them waste. I suppose if we don't really value independence and consider relative physical comfort to be a good life, that could be our goal again. Yet now that the mask is off I don't think we could look it in the eye again.

Bigger changes are brewing. Distance learning is growing. Ooh, those awful for-profit schools! Like your school wasn't out to make a nice living for a lot of people off you, just because it had ivy-covered professors? Khan Academy hopes to "flip" middle school and high school, so that the video lectures are the homework and the working of problems with a teacher are the in-class part. The TED lectures in general are filling up with new models for education. We hang back from trying any - we have so much invested in the current model and fear to be wrong - not with our children!

You would think that one such as myself, who values the wisdom of other eras, hates educational fads, and is married to a school librarian would be the last of the big experimenters. But school librarians are often the front edge of cooperative and experimental methods in a school. Plus, adopting Romanians, then acquiring Kyle, has given us a different look at our system in the US. Things at school that only annoy you when you have children able to dazzle with brilliance and adapt out of, become problems requiring solution when that advantage is not there.

But what hit me hardest about Grey's essay was what it described about me. I really was one of those who thought my role was to be amazingly brilliant and wait for someone to discover me. I really did think I was better than most of the rest of you. To see in print that this is what our current system encourages in the personalities of some bright students - and to be ready to hear that - was unpleasant. I use my education to entertain myself and others. The only direct application to my job or any useful activities is my ability to string sentences together - which may come more from reading rather than going to school.

In fairness, I am very entertaining. There is that.

As recently as 15 years ago, Jonathan laughingly reassured me that Asbury looked like what I would consider a real college, because that was still important to me then. I now hope the opposite for most children - that they don't go anywhere near such a place, except for a season to absorb what school "used to be like." I hope Emily and Sarah have already carved out their first employment niche in their late teens and take formal training only as needed, such as for brain research or business Hungarian. With no ivy in sight.


Kitten said...

"we have so much invested in the current model and fear to be wrong"

I've been thinking about this a lot, as the district we moved to recently is coming to the realization that the state and federal money they were (overly) reliant on is gone and not coming back any time soon.

There's been a huge push to raise taxes and cut services but the main goal is to keep the framework the same and I'm not sure it should be. This _isn't_ the way things have always been done, just the way they've been done for the last 60 years. The quantum change to the current system was in response to both changing needs and resources. It may be that with, declining enrollment and finances, it's time to once again change the way things are done.

Anna said...

Living, as I do, in a decaying part of the country (more-so than other parts of it), I have noticed that former one-horse towns lose their only horse, whereby the one horse then becomes either the school or the hospital. So the people working at schools like that are going to fight tooth and nail, and bleeding stories are going to grace the news about how people are out of work, and on and on...

Some of those different educational ideas sound great, btw. I like the one of video homework and classroom problem solving. Heck, I would take a class like that now.

Texan99 said...

The controversy over education styles has always struck me as asking something like whether, in nutrition, it's more important to get calories or vitamins. Just try getting along without either! Education will be more effective and useful if the students' will and interest are engaged, but students also have to learn that they won't acquire knowledge or skills just by waiting to be entertained or flattered.

Good teachers figure out how to enforce discipline while firing students up. They challenge without tearing down. They engage the whole person and do a little butt-kicking.

Anonymous said...

My own suggestion for very smart kids, in a perfect world which didn't care about credentials, would be to get a super high school education and then get a job. A superb old-fashioned prep school type of education. That's what happened to me, and then I went to Stanford, where I learned nothing for four years.

Since we live in a credentialed society, and there are only a few of us with the courage to be Steve Jobs, that's not too practical.