Share and discuss this blog

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why do we still have schools? Part 2

Part 2: What should we teach students?

 It is very difficult to think about replacing sacred institutions. The only way I know how to think about it is as a thought experiment. Just imagine that we live in a different world, maybe a colony in the 1st century, and ask yourself how we might educate our children in this environment pretending that schools are the one thing we cannot build for some reason. As we think about this, we need to bear in mind that we must also not assume that what we teach in schools now needs to be taught in some other way. We simply need to ask: what should one teach children? while making no assumptions that we have been teaching today is the right thing.


To put this another way, the right question to ask is what do we need to be able to do, in order to function in the world we inhabit? The next question is, of course, how would we teach children to do those things?


Now admittedly I am prejudicing the answer here by simply leaving out the word “know.” The usual question is what should children “know?” It is this question that leads crazies to make lists of things every third grader should know and allows school boards to create lists of facts students need to be tested on. So, let’s leave that word out of the discussion and see where it gets us.


A good place to start is to ask what a highly functioning adult can do and moreover has to be able to do in order to live in this world. While we ask this question the phrase “21st century skills” will not come up. Every time that phrase comes up somehow the answer turns out to include algebra and calculus and science, which, the last I heard, were 19th century skills too.


In fact let’s not talk about particular centuries at all. To see why, I want to diverge for a moment into a discussion of the maritime industry, a subject with which I have become more fascinated over the years. What did a mariner from Ancient Greece have in common with his modern counterpart in terms of abilities?


The answer is obsession with weather, ship maintenance, leadership and organization, navigation, planning, goal prioritization, and handling of emergencies.


Effective mariners from ancient times would have in common with those of today is understanding how to operate their ships, the basic laws of weather, tides, navigation and other relevant issues in the physical world, and an ability to make decisions well when circumstances are difficult. They would also have to know how to get along with fellow workers, how to manage those that report to them, as well as basic laws of commerce and defense.


In fact, the worlds they inhabit, from an educational point of view, that is from thinking about what to teach and how to teach it, would be nearly identical except for one thing: how to operate and maintain the equipment. Their ships were, of course, quite different.


So, let’s re-formulate this question that seems to haunt every modern day pundit on education (usually politicians or newspaper peoples). What are 21st century skills? can be transformed (for mariners) into what does a 21st century mariner need to be educated about that his Ancient Greek counterpart was not educated about?


The answer, it seems obvious to me, is 21st century equipment and procedures: Engines, navigation devices, particular political situations, computers and so on. But, and this is an important “but,” none of this stuff is the real issue in the education of a mariner. The real issue is decision making. What one has to make a decision about is secondary to the issue of knowing how to make a decision at all.


You can learn about a piece of equipment or a procedure by apprenticeship. Start as a helper and move on gradually to being an expert. But this is not what school emphasizes.  School typically attempts to intellectualize these subjects. Experts write books about the theory of how something works and the next we know schools are teaching that theory as a prelude to actually doing the work. Scholarship has been equated with education. You do not have to know calculus to repair an engine. You might want to know calculus to design an engine, but that is no excuse for forcing every engineer to learn it. Similarly you do not have to know theoretical physics to master the seas. Mariners do know physics of course – practical physics about load balancing for example, but they do not have to know how to derive the equations that describe it.


What I am saying here about the shipping Industry holds true for every other area of life as well. 21st century skills are no different than 1st century skills. Interestingly, Petronius, a 1st century Roman author, complained that Roman schools were

teaching “young men to grow up to be idiots, because they neither see nor hear one single thing connected with the usual circumstances of everyday life.” In other words, schools have always been about educating the elite in things that don’t matter much to anyone. This is fine as long as the elite don’t have to work.


But, today the elite has extrapolated from what it learned at Harvard and decided that every single school child needs to know the same stuff. So, they whine and complain about math scores going down without once asking why this could possible matter. Math is not a 21st century skill any more than it was a 1st century skill. Algebra is nice for those who need it and useless for those who don’t. Skill in mathematics is certainly not going to make any industrial nation more competitive with any other no matter how many times our “experts” assert that it will. One wonders how politicians can even say this junk, but they all do.




My own guess is that, apart from the fact that they all took these subjects in school (and were probably bad at them  -- you don’t become a politician or a newspaper person because you were great at calculus), there is another issue: They don’t know what else to suggest.


Thinking about the 1st century will help us figure out what the real issues are. People then and people now, had to learn how to function in the world they inhabit. This means being able to communicate, get along with others, function economically and physically, and in general reason about issues that confront them. It didn’t mean then, and doesn’t mean now, science and mathematics, at least not for 95% of the population.


How do we choose who studies the elite subjects? We don’t.


Offer choices. Stop making lists of what one must know and start putting students into situations where they can learn from experience while attempting to accomplish goals that they set out for themselves, just as people did before there were schools. Education has always been the same: learning from experience with the help from wiser mentors. School has screwed that all up and it is time to go back to basics.














Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Why do we still have schools?

People often find my blog when they ask "should I go to school?" So, today, I thought I would answer that question in depth. The answer will appear as a downloadable paper on my web site as well.

Part 1: What is the problem with school?

People get used to the institutions that have been a part of their lives. This is especially true of institutions that have been around for many generations, and of institutions whose purpose is seen as doing something worthwhile. Add into the mix that the absence of that institution in certain places around the world is always correlated with poverty and you have a situation where no one ever questions the value of that institution.

Nevertheless I will ask a heretical question: Why do we have schools? Instead of answering this question by listing all the good things that schools provide, which anyone can do, I will turn the question around: What is bad about having schools?

Competition: Why should school be a competitive event? Why do we ask how a kid is doing in school? Learning in life outside of school is not a competitive event. We learn what we choose to learn in real life.

Stress: When 6 year olds are stressed about going to school you know that something is wrong. Is learning in real life stressful? Stress can’t be helping kids learn. What kid wouldn’t happily skip school on any given day? What does this tell us about the experience?

Right answers: School teaches that there are right answers. The teacher knows them. The test makers know them. Now you have to know them. But, in real life, there are very few right answers. Life isn’t mathematics. Thinking about how to behave in a situation, planning your day or your life, plotting a strategy for your company or your country – no right answers.

Bullying and peer pressure: You wouldn’t have to have "say no to drugs and cigarettes" campaigns if kids didn’t go to school. In school there are always other kids telling you how to dress, how to act, how to be cool. Why do we want kid’s peer groups to be the true teachers of children? Being left out terrorizes children. Why do we allow this to happen by creating places that foster this behavior?

Stifling of curiosity: Isn’t it obvious that learning is really about curiosity? Adults earn about things they want to learn about. Before the age of 6, prior to school, one kid becomes a dinosaur specialist while another knows all about dog breeds. Outside of school, people drive their own learning. Schools eliminate this natural behavior.

Subjects chosen for you: Why algebra, physics, economics, and U.S. history? Because those subjects were pretty exciting to the President of Harvard in 1892. And, if you are interested in something else – psychology, business, medicine, computers, design? Too bad. Those subjects weren’t taught at Harvard in 1892. Is that nuts or what?

Classrooms: If you wanted to learn something and had the money, wouldn’t you hire someone to be your mentor, and have them be there for you while you tried out learning the new thing? Isn’t that what small children have, a parent ready to teach as needed? Classrooms make no sense as a venue for learning unless of course you want to save money and have 30 (or worse hundreds of) students be handled by one teacher. Once you have ratios like that you have to teach by talking and then hope someone was listening, so then you have to have tests. Schools cannot work as places of learning if they employ classrooms. And, of course, they pretty much all do.

Grades: Any professor can tell you that students are pretty much concerned with whether what you are telling them will be on the test and what they might do for extra credit. In other words, they want a good grade. If you tell them that 2+2=5 and it will be on the test, they will tell you that 2+2=5 if it means getting a good grade. Parents do not give grades to children and employers do not give grades to employees. They judge their work and progress for sure, but not by assigning numbers to a report card.

Certification: We all know why people attend college. They do so primarily to say they are college graduates so they can get a job or go on to a professional school. Most don’t care all that much about what hoops they have to go through. They do what they are told. Similarly, students try to get through high school so they can go on to college. As long as students are not in school to get an education, you can be pretty sure they won’t get one. Most of our graduates have learned to jump through hoops, nothing more.

Confined children: Children like to run around. Is this news to anyone? They have a difficult time sitting still and they learn by trying things out and asking questions. Of course in school, sitting still is the norm. So we have come up with this wonderful idea of ADD, i.e. drug those who won’t sit still into submission. Is the system sick or what?

Academics viewed as winners: Who are the smartest kids in school? The ones who are good at math and science of course. Why do we think that? Who knows? We just do. Those who are good at these subjects go on to be professors. So those are certainly the smartest people we have in our society. Perhaps they are. But, I can tell you from personal experience that our society doesn’t respect professors all that much, so something is wrong here.

Practical skills not valued: When I was young there were academic high schools and trade high schools. Trade high schools were for dumb kids. Academic high schools were for smart kids. We all thought this made sense. Except that are a lot of unemployed English majors and a lot of employed airplane mechanics. Where did we get the idea that education was about scholarship? This is not what Ben Franklin thought when our system was being designed, but he was outvoted.

The need to please teachers: People who succeed at school are invariably people who are good out at figuring what the teacher wants and giving it to them. In real life there is no teacher to please and these “grade grubbers” often find themselves lost. When I did graduate admissions, if a student presented an undergraduate record with all A’s I immediately rejected him. There was no way he was equally good at, or equally interested in, everything. (Except pleasing the teacher.) As a professor, I had no patience for students who thought that telling me what I just told them was the essence of academic achievement.

Self worth questioned: School is full of winners and losers. I graduated number 322 in my high school class (out of 678). Notice that I remember this. Do you think this was good for my self-esteem? Even the guy who graduated number 2 felt like a loser. In school, most everyone sees themselves as a loser. Why do we allow this to happen?

Politicians in charge: Politicians demand reform but they wouldn’t know reform if it hit them over the head. What they mean is that school should be like they remember rather than how it is now and they will work hard to get you to vote for them to give them money to restore the system to the awful state it always was in. Politicians, no matter what party, actually have no interest in education at all. An educated electorate makes campaigning much harder.

Government use of education for repression: As long as there have been governments there have been governments who wanted people to think that the government (and the country) is very good. We all recognize this tendency in dictatorships that promote the marvels of the dictator and rewrite history whenever it is convenient. When you point out that our government does the same thing you are roundly booed. We all know that the Indians were savages that Abraham Lincoln was a great President and that we are the freest country on earth. School is about teaching “truth.”

Discovery not valued: The most important things we learn we teach ourselves. This is why kids have trouble learning from their parent’s experience. They need their own experiences to ponder and to learn from. We need to try things out and see how they go. This kind of learning is not valued in school because it might lead to, heaven forbid, failure, and failure is a really bad word in school. Except failure is how we learn, which is pretty much why school doesn’t work.

Boredom ignored: Boredom is a bad thing. We drug bored kids with Ritalin so they will stop being bored. All of my best work has come when I was most bored and let my mind wander. It is odd that we keep trying to prevent this from happening with kids. Lots of TV, that’s the ticket.

Major learning by doing mechanism ignored: And last but not least, scholars from Plato to Dewey have pointed that people learn by doing. That is how we learn. Doing. Got it? Apparently not. Very little doing in schools. Unless you count filling in circles with number 2 pencils as doing.