We don't need no education.Pink Floyd
We don't need no thought control.
No dark sarcasm in the classroom.
Teacher leave the kids alone.
Hey, teacher leave the kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall
I had to suffer through an education system that tried its best to mold me according to the prevailing beliefs about the role of education and schooling. Luckily I survived with some integrity intact. Or so I would like to think. I credit my survival to those all too few really insightful teachers who saw me chaffing at the bit and let me run with some wild ideas. Thank you John Farmer (U. of Missouri), Robert Paine (U. of Washington), Israel Unterman (San Diego State U.), Paul Fisher (U. of North Texas) and several others who transcended the normative system to help me realize my own goals.
There has recently been a playful trend to use the versioning number system to bring attention to different approaches to all sorts of things, with the notion that the 2.0 version is a major upgrade over the 1.xx predecessor. I did this myself in talking about Human 2.0. So, in reflecting on some thoughts about modern education (and the incessant calls for reform), I'll have fun with this notion here. For the past several years I have been experimenting around with various radical approaches to pedagogy. I have informed my students (good naturedly) that they are Guinea pigs in an ongoing research into the what and how of education as it should be — education of the person, rather than training another brick in the wall. I will refer to this rather different version of education as Education 2.0. It has a different look and feel and very definitely a different philosophy. It shares some of the intent of what we have called a 'liberal' education — it seeks to develop the whole person rather than mold someone into a cog in the machine. I'll share some of these ideas with you and you can tell me if you think I'm whacko! [Some of my students think so. Most actually tell me they love the liberating experience, once they got used to it. But sadly, there are still many who are so ingrained in the 1.xx version that they are uncomfortable with having too much responsibility for learning placed on their heads.]
The whole concept of education has had its ups and downs over the centuries. I suppose everything before the 18th or 19th century could be clumped together as an early release — Education 0.xx, where xx stands for a sequence of numbers relating to the number of 'minor' revisions to the basic program. Early education was not all that formal, except for a very few upper class types. It consisted mostly of learning a trade and the social norms from observation and experience. Basically, your parents (and the clergy) taught you what you needed to know and schools were something of a luxury.
Education 1.x, formal schooling, really got its boost from the industrial revolution and the early days of trade specialization — a natural evolution of division of labor efficiency — and the existence of relatively cheap books. But the real motivation for more wide scale adoption of schooling was economic. Just like manufacturing could be made more efficient by assembly line approaches, so too, education could be most efficient in getting children ready to assume their roles as productive citizens by running them through age-leveled grades and classes. The resemblance between assembly lines and schools was more than metaphoric. People who organized education actually did think of students as unfinished products that needed to be 'assembled' by stuffing the necessary knowledge (facts) and skills (reading, writing, and arithmetic) into their growing heads. Public education needed to be efficient since it was funded by tax revenues. So the modern school took form.
Eusocial insects, like ants and bees are lucky. They are genetically programmed with all the knowledge and skills they need to be good workers. And once they mature they fit right into the social framework like precision-tuned machines doing their jobs without one day of schooling. Humans aren't so lucky. We have to learn almost everything. Our brains are not blank slates at birth, certainly. We have genetically programmed predispositions for learning. No one teaches us language. We basically pick it up from listening and watching others' behaviors. But we are not predisposed to learn reading and writing, the visual analogs of natural language (speaking and listening) processing. Nor are we particularly adapted to numeracy beyond simple counting (1, 2, 3, ... many). These and many more facts and skills have to be constructed in our brains through a long and often arduous process of adjusting our neural networks and strengthening key synaptic junctions in our cortical tissues.
We are amazing learning machines. To be sure, we have shown ourselves to be extraordinarily adaptive in the sense of learning things that were never part of our early evolutionary environment. What conditions in the late Pleistocene, for example, prepared us to learn to drive a car down the freeway at 80 miles per hour (not that I do that myself). Such amazing information gobblers are we that you cannot prevent a child from learning all sorts of things, as any parent who is dismayed to hear their three year old tyke blurt out an obscenity, mimicking an older sibling, can tell you. But 'what' we learn, and 'why' we do so is more the issue than 'how' we learn. Learning hinges on motivation. The more motivated we are the easier it is to pick up new knowledge and skills. If our motivation is forced on us from outside, actually what someone else wants us to learn, then we are far less likely to do an effective job of really learning. Instead, we can fake it by encoding the bare minimum in short-term memory until we get a chance to regurgitate it on some supposed objective test, and then go on with our lives as if nothing had happened beyond an inconvenience and waste of time. The use of the term 'regurgitation' is not just metaphorical. Students very often really do purge their minds of what they consider useless knowledge. [Actually, they never transfer the short-term memories into long-term, integrated knowledge, so the short-term encodings decay fairly rapidly.]
A huge part of the problem is the 'why' we educate and 'why' we think we need to be educated. Every child needs to be acculturated. We need to fit into our own society as adults. So we need to learn to become members of that society. Any child could become a member of any culture that it grows up in; we are infinitely malleable in that regard. So it is the duty of the society to ensure that each child receives appropriate exposure to the norms and expectations that constitute being a member. Cultures that emphasize humanistic qualities will emphasize educational processes that produce humanists. Cultures that emphasize material wealth will emphasize education that produces workers. In much of the world today, the emphasis is on wealth and economics. Hence education is about producing a worker citizen. And much as I hate to say this, from my perspective, that doesn't mean a 'thinking' citizen.
As much as modern educators like to repeat the idea that they teach critical thinking skills, I have to take issue with that claim. In fact, I suspect that critical thinking is anathema to what is desired from our education system. The simple fact is that as our society becomes more complex, and especially technologically oriented, the more we need individuals who conform without doing a lot of questioning about why things are the way they are. This translates into an education process that emphasizes telling students 'how things are' and leave it at that. Don't ask why. Don't question authority (otherwise you won't do well on the test). The most common complaint I hear in my classes is of the form: "I wasn't sure what you wanted on the ..." test, homework, project ... you name it.
The way I interpret this is that the student is used to the teacher telling them exactly what they should put down. And teachers generally go to great lengths to avoid ambiguity so that the student can most efficiently perform their duties! When faced with even a mildly ambiguous situation they balk at not having enough direction to perform accurately and quickly. They are, after all, trained (by the time I see them) to work toward one objective — getting a good grade for the course. They are motivated to get the full set of instructions so that they can get the 'right' answer so they can demonstrate they are able to jump through that particular hoop. To me this is a sad state of affairs.
Being a rebel by nature (happy coincidence, my motorcycle is called a Rebel!) I am unsatisfied with this situation. Hence my experiments with a prototype for Education 2.0. Of course I am trapped in the same schooling system that is problematic. I have to 'teach' courses and have to conform to some basic standards. Each quarter I have to evaluate students and assign grades because that is the system. And teaching in what is essentially a 'professional' degree program (computer science, mostly) I am expected to stuff a certain amount of knowledge into the skulls of my students so as to earn my paycheck. But that doesn't mean I have to accept it as right!
So let me share with you a different philosophy about education, what the real outcomes should be and how I think it might be accomplished. Remember, this is exploratory, so I don't claim this is THE right or even a BEST way to proceed. But it makes sense to me. See what you think.
First a small justification, especially for those of you who are concerned that my poor students are going to suffer a deficit in learning as a result of the reckless experiments of a maverick (and former students feel free to chime in on this anonymously!) My courses are evaluated by students as is the practice in most universities. So I have some evidence that many students, but not all of them, believe that they have learned the bulk of the subject of the course. Furthermore, in the comment sheets that they turn in they indicate that the approach I take, while unnerving to some at first, did contribute to their achievements. So I am comfortable saying that there are indications from the students themselves that they are not suffering from being experimental subjects. Also, from time to time I get e-mails from graduates who have been working in the field for some time, thanking me for forcing them to think for themselves as it has helped them advance in their jobs! How about that? I eschew teaching to the job, but students sometimes benefit anyway!
I should also mention that I make no claims about being a 'good' teacher. I'm not even sure what that means. Rather, its like pornography; I know a good teacher when I see one. What I claim is that I tend to meet my objectives in conducting courses. Its just that those objectives might not coincide with those set by conventions.
And here is my central objective: By the time a student graduates they should be completely free from the need for any particular formal education because they have learned how to manage and guide their own acquisition of knowledge in the future. In other words they are emancipated from the need of someone else telling them what and how they should learn. Furthermore, they have acquired a desire to explore new areas and continue learning for their whole lives.
This doesn't mean that they might not choose graduate school or professional continuing education specifically for the efficiencies schooling provides in focusing on specific topics, or to pursue a career in academia. It just means that they don't feel this is the ONLY way to learn new knowledge.
So how does a person become a self-guided learner? Isn't there some danger that a person will miss some guidance toward what is out there that is new and in need of learning? The answer to this latter point is embodied in the name of this blog! What students need to learn is less about specific facts and more about how, of whom, and when to ask questions. In my mind the essence of a true intellectual life is in searching, discovery, and later incorporation of information into prior knowledge.
My methods are always changing and sometimes I hit on something that works, sometimes not so well. Yet overall I have tried to keep this central objective in the forefront of my approaches. Primarily my approach is to set the students a challenge — a project, usually done in pairs or threes — and provide them just enough information to get them started learning what they need to know to meet the challenge. For example, in my mobile robotics class the final challenge is to build a robot that behaves like a primitive animal (see this short video of one of the classes demonstrating their masterpieces). The challenge is particularly difficult in that not only do the robots need to behave like animals foraging for food and avoiding danger, but the students need to accomplish this using two (or more) computers (we use the Lego Robot kits with each student getting to 'play' with one kit, then for the last challenge they put the two kits together in on robot body).
I do provide some lectures on theoretical aspects of behavior-based robotics but these are just pointers to the problems and the students need to find ways to apply the principles to achieve success in their projects. I am also there to answer their questions when they finally realize that they need to ask.
After years of being herded through subjects and often held by the hand as every detail is explained to them, all too many students find this exploratory-based approach unnerving. Instead of a detailed specification of what every aspect of the project should entail they get only a description of what the final behavior should be and guidance as to what principles apply. Then they are on their own (well with a partner with whom to commiserate) to figure out what they need to do. Of course I try to monitor their progress and intervene when it seems like they are getting off on a tangent or are stuck. For the majority of students, first looking at this challenge, their first reaction is that they have no idea where to begin. It looks impossible or at least way too much work. But after some rocky starts they find they quickly get into the pace and actually start enjoying the process, even enjoying those frustrating, hair-pulling problems they just can't seem to get — until they do; they experience the 'aha' moment and it feels very good.
In the end the vast majority of these students succeed, some more elegantly than others. Nevertheless they walk away realizing that they have the power. And that is the best part of my job.I have the privilege of watching their faces as they show off their work. I often see them experience that 'eureka' insight and see the pride they feel for their own accomplishments. Then I know that for all the pain and anguish I might have caused them at first, they are ready to go tackle the real world.
Our education system is too highly dependent on specialization and isolation of knowledge domains. It pushes the measurability of outcomes (standardized testing) so as to be accountable to the public that is firmly convinced that higher ed isn't doing its job unless students graduate ready to hit the job market. The business community, the politicians, the parents, and very many students, expect to pay for a service. Students are characterized as customers and today there is so much emphasis on customer satisfaction! Lost in the fog of commerce is the human mind, the individual who started out in life full of curiosity and wonder at the marvels of the world but ends up by high school graduation just worried about the grade and learning stuff that will help them get employment.
I believe in the human spirit of discovery and understanding. I believe in an intellectual life that is more than about memorizing facts, figures, formulae, etc. I believe in self-actualization. I believe in culturing wisdom. Unfortunately, I can't report seeing these thrive as the norm in the world of education.
So in the coming months I hope to explore the issues of education a bit more. I am concerned that in this day when 'reformers' are calling for more accountability and tougher test standards we are going to make matters much worse rather than better. We consistently ignore the way in which real human beings learn in favor of a model that treats people like automobiles being assembled on the line. We don't need no education 1.xxxx, to paraphrase Pink Floyd. We need a new version, one designed to meet human needs and to help enhance our humanity. Maybe we can ask the right questions and see where we might come up with an Education 2.0.