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.














1 comment:

Character Education said...

Well Brother this is really a very serious issue. i have one thing is that if we give proper Character Education to the children they can improve their self.