Saturday, September 01, 2007


Time to Reform Education

With the beginning of the school year and the coming debate over no child left behind (NCLB) it seems like a good time to discuss educational philosophy.

I'm going to split this into two sections. What to teach and why teach.

Let's start with the why first.

What is the purpose of education? There seem to be several frequently stated goals. The first reason is that the young need to learn the tools needed to function properly in their society. Let's call this the "3-R's" justification. Exactly what those "R's" are I'll treat in the second part.

A second reason is to teach the young their place in the history and social organization of society. Let's call this the "civics" justification.

A third reason is to teach the rules of morals and ethics. Let's call this the "right from wrong" justification.

Finally, there is the goal which produces the most discord and underlies all the rest. I'll call it the "good citizen" justification. What makes this controversial is that there are two opposed ideas of what a good citizen should be. In the more authoritarian view young people should be taught to obey their elders or leaders. The facts are what are dictated by tradition as laid down by these leaders and the less questioning of them the better a person will get along.

The other (what used to be called "progressive" education) view is that students should be taught how to learn and the actual details of which facts are presented are less important than developing the skills for obtaining and evaluating information oneself. This is the position taken by John Dewey and was the norm for most of the 20th Century in the US outside of overtly religious institutions. This "pragmatic" approach to education has been so successful that no one even discusses it anymore. Everyone thinks it is best to have hands on experiments and to learn by doing. Hardly anyone teaches by rote in the industrialized countries. This is why the contrast with the Middle East is so stark. There the older style of instruction is still the norm in many places.

The last thing authoritarians want is a group of people who don't take their teachings without question. Refusing to accept popular opinions and demanding all the information with which to make up one's own mind is the antithesis of hierarchical social organizations. This division spills over into many areas, from teaching evolution, to the best way to teach reading. The discussions are frequently unproductive because each side doesn't understand the philosophical underpinnings of the other. Dewey emphasized that a functioning democracy needs a well-educated, and questioning citizenry. This is the exact opposite of the design of an authoritarian society. Those who claim to support a democratic society, but act to promote the privilege of the few are being disingenuous. This is as true of conservatives as of libertarians. If you know best and don't trust the general public than you are not a true democrat.

Now as to what should taught.

We see how this division causes the debates between the "progressives" and the "traditionalists". Traditionalists say: "what I learned in school and how I learned it was good enough for me, so why tinker with it?" They feel that the curriculum should be relatively fixed. They are strongly in favor of the testing and rating regime that was formalized in the NCLB program. The standards are set and success is measured by how well students live up to them. There is no place for developing learning skills. The facts are enough.

It is clear that much of the traditional educational path is not working, however. We lack anyone with the stature of John Dewey to renew the debate. So, I'm going to throw out some curriculum changes which could be debated as a way to get people to rethink the curriculum. Other ideas are welcome.

I think that much education still hearkens back to the days of McGuffy's Readers (1836), even if we now use computers and multi-media. First comes the 3-R's. Students are expected to achieve certain milestones at certain ages.

We know a great deal more about how children's brains develop than we used to, but this information is not being used to best advantage. I would start young children (perhaps at three or four) on a second language. This would be taught just like their first language is learned, by conversation. Students can most easily learn languages before the age of twelve, but most schools don't even start instruction until this age or later. We know that bi-lingual early childhood learning works, we have millions of immigrant children who are proficient in more than one language. This doesn't require developing a new group of multi-lingual teachers (something always in short supply in the US), any adult who is proficient in the language to be learned and who can relate to children will do fine. Call it the grandma brigade.

Second, there is a sharp drop in interest in academic learning from about eleven to thirteen. Puberty causes so many sudden changes that sitting still for book learning is the last thing these children want to do. Studies show consistently that scores drop for these age brackets. The solution is to use these years to focus on skills that can be absorbed. This means more physical activity, to help children adapt to their new bodies, it also means more hands-on learning. This is the period where students could be exposed to various trades, from cooking, to auto repair. We have a consistent shortage of skilled craftsmen. Giving everyone an exposure to these options at this age will help those with an inclination or talent to find their calling. The jobs for such skilled workers are not drying up, just see how fast you can get a plumber or carpenter to do a job. Look at the shortages in many industrial trades from driving a fork lift to being a machinist. Health services should not be ignored either. This is the age where children should be exposed to nursing and other allied professions.

During this three year period regular studies would not be suspended, but the percentage of the day devoted to them would be reduced, say, by half. Academic testing for these age groups is also misleading and should be abolished. Whatever traditional instruction is "lost" during this period will be quickly made up in high school when the student's minds are better prepared to absorb the material.

The high school curriculum should be revised as well. Much of what is taught will only be of use to a small fraction of the student body. How many people really use algebra in later life? How many people could better use some financial education on how to budget, plan their savings, and understand contracts? The misplaced idea that segregating children by their natural inclinations or aptitudes ("streaming") is undemocratic has led too far in the direction that we need a one-size-fits-all educational policy. This was put into place as a reaction to the discriminatory practices that were in place before, where minority students were frequently shunted into inferior tracks and not given a chance to take the more rigorous programs. The cure for bad implementation is better implementation, not dumping the programs. Assessment of student's aptitudes and inclinations needs to be made more impartial and removed from the arbitrary control of local officials. This is a case where standardized assessment could play a role.

Finally, we need to acknowledge all the new sources of learning that children are exposed to. We no longer have a nation of pioneers, living in isolation. When a child left school in the afternoon he went home and did chores. His education stopped. Now when a child goes home now he has access to the entire world via the internet and TV. Children know more and they know it at an earlier age. Our curricula haven't adapted. Children with the right aptitude should be allowed to take more advanced subjects in high school. These can be academic or vocational depending upon the student's inclinations. There is little educational value in semester after semester of literature, for example. If the course is taught properly to begin with the student will have learned out to find literature on his own, and how to read it critically. Once again it is the skill set that should be taught, not the "great books".

If students graduated from high school with this additional education (I'm not speaking of "advanced placement") the colleges would be forced to adapt. Courses would also become more challenging and relevant. As everyone in this country seems to believe, education is the key to success, but few want to look at what needs to be done. They prefer to wring their hands and look for someone to blame for the sorry state of education. If you want things to change, don't demand change, make change.

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