Education between Wars and Understanding (1)

“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” (G. B. Shaw)

 

It is perhaps our greatest strength and our deepest vulnerability to believe in something. Education makes no exception when it comes to beliefs and values that underpin every single act of our teaching. Those who think that they possess a strong independent mind, unaltered by bias, fall prey to overt or hidden ideologies, even as they claim their neutrality by invoking research. In doing so, they forget that “research and politics are inextricably bound together.” (Cohen et al, Research Methods in Education).

So what does that have to do with today’s post? Oh well, as debates on education seem to intensify on Twitter and are becoming increasingly divisive, I found it a good idea to revisit several points made by others who also thought deeply about education. My main source is Kieran’s book, The Educated Mind, and the second post in this series will also bring ideas from Carl Bereiter (Knowledge Building), Graham Nuthall (The Hidden Lives of Learners), David Perkins (Making Learning Whole), and Ian Gilbert (Independent Thinking).

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Education and The Usual Suspects

“The costs of our educational crisis, in terms of social alienation, psychological rootlessness, and ignorance of the world and the possibilities of human experience within it, are incalculable and heartbreaking.

School, that business of sitting at a desk among thirty or so others, being talked at, mostly boringly, and doing exercises, tests, and worksheets, for years, and years, and years – is the instrument designed to deliver these expensive benefits (competitiveness of nations and the self-fulfillment of citizens).

So who is responsible for our modern social puzzle, the educational ineffectiveness of our schools?

For media pundits and professional educators, there is no shortage of blameworthy candidates: inadequately educated teachers, the inequities of capitalist society, the irrelevant academic curriculum (or a trivial curriculum filled only with the immediately relevant), the breakdown of the nuclear family and family values, mindless TV and other mass media, the failure to attend to some specific research results.

Along with the cacophony of blame comes a panoply of prescriptions: introduce market incentives, make the curriculum more relevant or more academic, reform teacher training, ensure students’ active involvement in their learning, and so on.”

Anyone may find themselves nodding at the above, whether progressive or traditional, until they get to the heart of the book – Kieran questions the concept of education itself and finds it to be the very cause of problems:

“The trouble is not caused by any of the usual suspects.

Instead, as I intend to show, it stems from a fundamentally incoherent conception of education.”

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Three Old Ideas and a New One

First Idea: SOCIALIZATION

“Education therefore becomes the process by which we generate people like us. Which is precisely the last thing it should be.” (Ian Gilbert, Independent Thinking,  p.20)

“Central to any educational scheme is initiation of the young into the knowledge, skills, values, and commitments common to the adult members of society. The process of socialization is central to the mandate of schools today. Our schools have the duty to ensure that students graduate with an understanding of their society and of their place, that they have the skills required for its perpetuation, and that they hold its values and commitments. While we might not feel comfortable with the term, we accept that a prominent aim of schools is the homogenization of children. “

No one can disagree with this. It has permeated any society, from oral cultures to contemporary ones. It is also very hard to argue that schools should *not* prepare students for the challenges of work, that they should *not*transmit a set of beliefs, norms and cultural modes that are characteristic to the respective society at large – eventually, societies survive and maintain their sense of identity through this relative homogenization process and indoctrination.

Kieran goes on,

“The very structure of modern schools in the West, with its age cohorts, class groupings, team sports, and so on, encourages conformity to Western social norms. Such structures can accommodate only a very limited range of non-conformity: students learn, more or less, to fir in for their own good.”

Those who emphasize the role of school as fundamentally a social agent also insist on two other aspects. First, teaching students only “useful” knowledge and skills (the utilitarian view that I argued against many times, and that we can also find in Kieran’s other book, Our Progressivist Inheritance from Spencer, Dewey, and Piaget) along with the discarding of more “academic” topics because they do not fit the “modern” world. As I said years ago, “I’m all for authentic learning but not that authentic that children are trained for life. Education is more than a replica of the ‘real’ world. Also, there is a danger of the Me culture – the immediate and the present at the expense of understanding the Other and the past. A narrow view is not liberating but confining.

Another aspect is that the teacher “is seen as an important social worker, primarily as a role model who exemplifies the values, beliefs, and norms of the dominant society; knowledge of subject-matter cannot substitute for “character”, whole-someness, and easy and open communication with students.”

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The Second Idea: KNOWLEDGE

Kieran’s brings Plato as another thinker who influences today’s education even if it appears so distant historically and culturally. His work, The Republic, written for his Academy, argues for the opposite view: education is *not* about transmitting the society’s current repertoire of skills and knowledge so that the students become better citizens, but about equipping the new generation with increasingly abstract forms of knowledge so that they transcend the “conventional beliefs, prejudices, and stereotypes of the time and come to see reality clearly.”

Kieran makes us aware of Plato’s powerful message that is echoed today:

“Plato succeeded in expressing his central idea with such clarity, force, vividness and imaginative wit that everyone who has written about education in the West has been profoundly influenced by it. Who, after all, want to live and die prisoner to conventional prejudices and stereotypes, never seeing the world as it is? Plato’s claim that his ‘academic’ curriculum alone can carry the mind to rationality and secure access to reality has been so influential that we can hardly imagine a conception of education without it.”

It takes just a glimpse at today’s curricula to see how loaded they are with academic subjects – we teach gravity and the solar system, fractions, drama, ancient history, and “much else for which most students will never have a practical need.”

Kieran identifies schools that focus on transmitting this distant cultural legacy as “elitist”:

“For these people, school is properly a place apart from society: a place dedicated to knowledge, skills, and activities that are of ‘persisting’ value, transcending the requirements of current social life. Modern, neoconservative promoters of the Platonic idea, whose slogan is ‘excellence in education’, direct their outrage particularly at students’ ignorance of their cultural heritage (cf. the British Black papers on Education during the 1960s and 1970s; Hirsch, 1987; Ravitch and Finn, 1987), and downplay programs that do not serve a specific academic purpose. Teachers tend to occupy a more distant, authoritative, and even authoritarian role because they properly embody the authority that comes from being an expert in the relevant subject matter.”

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The Third Idea: DEVELOPMENTALISM and PSYCHOLOGIZATION

The third idea that influences education today has its roots and conception in Rousseau’s novel, Emile. Although he viewed it as a supplement to Plato’s Republic (he mentioned that Republic “is the finest treatise on education ever written”), Kieran argues that Emile and its underlying assumption (that learning should follow the natural development of the child) is “at odds” with the platonic conceptualization.

Rousseau proposed that education should follow the internal development of children’s faculties and adjust to their progressive expansion. His ideas were further built upon by John Dewey and Jean Piaget, whose impact on modern education is undeniable. Several concepts have become common-sense and so embedded in educational thinking that,

“It would now be considered strange not to recognize the importance of students’ varying learning styles; the emphasis on individual differences among students, the encouragement of active rather than passive learning etc. The modern voices that encourage schools to focus on fulfilling the individual potential in each student, that students should ‘learn how to learn’ as a higher priority than amassing academic knowledge reflect this third educational idea. Here, the focus of education is the experience of the child.

The commonest expression of this idea today combines the variously interpreted progressivism of John Dewey with Piaget’s developmentalism and the psychologizing of the study of children. In the classroom and outside of it, ‘discovery learning’ is valued, manipulatives and museums are recommended for students’ exploration, discussion is encouraged, and project work by individuals or groups is provided for. Teachers are not authorities so much as facilitators (…).”

This resonates with me because I see too often “active” learning being promoted as a substitute for in-depth understanding, and hands-on activities are encouraged at the expense of minds-on learning experiences. Or I see teachers who think they can promote ‘critical thinking” with a minimal access of knowledge. Needless to say that other strange educational approaches still harm education although they were completely debunked by research.

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It is not difficult to see that most educators fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, and tensions between these three main education values have always occurred; Kieran concludes that “at best, schooling is a set of flaccid compromises among these three great and powerful ideas.”

Radicals are identified by their simple solution of discarding two of the three ideas. This does solve the theoretical problem and does usually mean they speak with a clearer and more urgent voice, and so accumulate disciples, but at a harsh practical cost.”

We can easily recognize this in the war between progressive and traditional education, where the “cost” is different in extreme cases. This reminds me again of Ian Gilbert’s words,

“Any reckoning of the achievements of an individual, an organization or a state should always be measured against these three words – at what cost?”

Kieran finds profound incompatibilities between each (socialization and knowledge, knowledge and development etc.) and offers an interesting analogy with prisons:

“Prisons are more problematic. They were developed in the West to achieve two aims: to punish and to rehabilitate. The problem is, these aims are not entirely compatible; the more a conscientious civil servant tries to achieve one, the more difficult is to do the other.”

And so happens in education. His conclusion is that schools today try to achieve the three aims (socialization, knowledge, development) in the same manner and consistently fail not because of the reasons enumerated at the beginning (curriculum, teacher training and so forth), but because education should be viewed differently: as mediation of the cognitive tools that shape our understanding. The rest of the book is a great example how all these three elements – knowledge, socialization and development can be rendered compatible without minimizing the importance of each, but by discarding the “baggage” that each of them carries.

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I would like to end this first post in the series with John Maynard’s words:

“The ideas of educational theorists, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed education is rule by little else.Practical people, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct educational theorist.

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