High Anxiety over Education
Judging by the number of comments that education blogs seem to get, relative to other subjects, and the number of e-mails I receive after posting something on the topic, it seems that there is a high level of interest in the area. And, judging by some of the things people tell me in those e-mails, there is a fair amount of anxiety accompanying the topic as well. My blog post of Aug. 12, 2014, a little over a year ago, titled What is Teaching? just officially became my most read of all of my posts. It still gets about ten to fifteen hits a day, even after one year. Most of them come from search engine results, people searching for an answer. Indeed, a Google search on that title (exact phrase) has my blog as the number three item! [I shouldn't brag but a search for “Question Everything” brings me up in the number one slot!]
In that post I had a lot of not-so-good things to say about the No Child Left Behind law and the explosion of high stakes standardized testing regime that has effectively gutted our public school system of any real learning of how to think. I lamented the fact that my classes are increasingly filled with students who have been so conditioned by this regime that they are distraught by the encounter with the teaching I offer which definitely does not include teaching to the test.
Subsequently I have received over a hundred e-mails from disgruntled current and former K-12 teachers who pretty much expressed the same basic sentiments. They were either ready to get out of the profession, or had already done so, or were just hanging on till they could retire. But all of them told me the same basic story. Teaching has become a worthless profession in the public schools and they are no longer inspired to work at this faux-education process that the schools have become. How utterly sad. And how completely damning it is for the United States of America's future. Just imagine what the citizens will be like in ten to twenty years from now. Its bad enough now with a citizenry that elects an idiot like George W. Bush into the highest office in the land, but also fills the Congress with more idiots that thought that law was a great idea.
One e-mail, however, stood out for an interesting insight and I have been thinking about it. From someone named Connie:
... but as much as I am pained by the current situation, I am still somewhat hopeful. There are still a few kids I've seen who seem to be able to call bullshit what it is and get on with their own learning. Whether they do well on the tests or not doesn't seem to matter to them. They are curious and follow their own interests in subjects. More than that, I still think all of these kids still have a basic instinct to learn and will do well once they are out of high school. I just hope the colleges can give them a better learning environment than they got from here.I think Connie is right to believe that some kids will survive the system in spite of its crushing tendency to kill learning. And I suspect she is right that most kids will eventually figure it out and get on with learning what they need to thrive in whatever world they enter. The reason is very simple. Learning is what we humans do, naturally and without imposed incentives. You can't stop kids or adults from learning because the incentives to do so are built right into our psyches. Our evolution equipped us with the ability and desire to learn whatever we needed to know to thrive in whatever environment we found ourselves in. The big problem with our public education system is that we think it is teaching kids the job skills they need for our current economic system that is what we are supposed to be doing. But schools even fail to do that. Instead, what schools are teaching our kids is how to ignore bullshit and get on with what they care about.
Of course I still lament the fact that schools are not places for learning about how the world works in the large. Nor does it instil a love of learning and intellectual pursuits. But I suppose we must take heart in understanding that learning is still happening, it is just not the learning of subjects we have historically thought were important. The kids today are learning techno-social networking and communications skills on their own and constructing a new kind of culture and attitudes of disconnection from the mainstream culture of the older generation. They know how to text, for example, and there is a huge volume of text messages flying through the Internet as they hone their skills while sitting in class and ignoring the teacher. That is, they ignore her until she has something worthwhile to say, such as, “OK, this is going to be on the test...” at which point they listen and repeat what she says in a text to their friends who skipped class so they would know what was going to be on the test too.
Does the Education System Support Human Learning?
The fact is our education system was never really designed to support the learning of intellectual understanding in the first place. No matter what the rhetoric has been regarding learning critical thinking skills and a substantial body of knowledge about how the world works (e.g. taking biology, history, civics, etc.) the fact is that school has always really been about one basic thing, making good workers out of us. A good worker does what they are told to do and still deeply believe in the myths of individualism and the promise of upward social mobility. That has been the domain of the K-12 system from early in this country's history. Colleges, on the other hand, were reserved for the few who would become elites and needed at least a modicum of intellectual prowess to serve as administrators of the proles or professionals such as doctors and lawyers who specialized to the point of losing perspective of the larger political framework. Only a small handful of elites would get the kind of education that would truly prepare them for grasping the bigger picture of how to run a culture that was already committed to specific values, such as capitalism as the supreme economic system.
An even smaller group of super-elite intellectuals have received an education based on knowing just for the sake of understanding. They have been interested not in the knowledge needed to control a social order (that has fallen mostly to the lawyers who become politicians) but to a grander understanding of how the universe works. These are the scientists and mathematicians who pursue knowledge that may or may not have any practical application. They, by their nature, see such knowledge as intrinsically valuable and there is a long history of pure science producing knowledge that does, eventually, generate practical usage. This is an extremely small group. They are motivated by internal needs to understand and are conscious of the need to eschew ideologically based investigations as well as maintain an honest realization that knowledge itself is provisional, ambiguous, and uncertain. This is the crowd that do the esoteric intellectual work for society. Today we expect everyone to take algebra, one or two natural sciences, and a few social sciences in their schooling. These courses are taught as if the students are intending to become scientists. They are taught about the scientific method and reams of facts and figures from the disciplines as if they need these in order to be productive members of society. And, of course, they don't. Moreover, most students are actually aware of the fact that they will not need to know what a valence electron is and wonder why the ideas are being shoved down their throats — and wasting their time.
Humans evolved brains designed to learn a culture, to adopt the ways of their tribes, and to become functioning members of their societies. They had to learn the way their world worked, the knowledge of how to survive in a wild environment, because that was linked inextricably to how people made a living, and kept living. Our brains are designed by evolution for that purpose. So it is altogether natural that that is exactly what we do now, even in our technological culture. And the simple truth is that most people do not need to really know biology or calculus for the most part. We just need to know how to fill in forms and follow procedures. Only a small number of people actually ever use even algebra in their daily lives. They may use some aspects of algebraic thinking, like knowing how to double a recipe for cooking. But they do not need to use most of what is taught officially in schools to sell insurance or write commercial jingles. Those subjects are “taught” as a front to hide the real purpose of education; students need to be acculturated as efficiently and as quickly as possible.
Schooling through high school solves another major problem for society, namely the fact that since we decided children should not be factory laborers, and the majority of families are no longer involved in farming, we have to have something seemingly productive for our children to do while parents work at the office. Schools have become a way to corral the young, sequester them for a significant portion of the day, and keep them largely out of trouble. At least that was part of the motivation and the early belief. If kids were engaged in learning about the world in a controlled environment they would not be getting into trouble. And if the subjects were important, they would end up with a wealth of knowledge they would use in their work lives. As with so many of our social engineering ideas that look good on paper, this one has been a miserable failure as well.
There is a horrible mismatch between the way human beings learn and the way schools are designed and operate. There is a terrible myth about what children should be taught in order to become worthy members of society. The latter is largely the result of deep ignorance of the actual nature of the various subjects that are dictated to be taught by the very politicians and corporate overlords who determine what we are all supposed to believe about school curriculum. Most politicians know no more about physics or biology than they themselves were taught in high school. And in most cases they have forgotten how bored they were themselves, and how much of the subject they have actually forgotten. All they know is that they were taught those subjects when they went to school so assume they must be important and so, by god, every student needs to learn them. This, more than anything, provides stark evidence that no one is learning critical thinking in school. If they had (and this applies to all members of society since they buy the story and reinforce the politicians) they would be able to examine their own experience and realize that they did not really learn anything useful in those courses. They would then be willing to question why we force all of our children to take courses that will never help them live meaningful lives.Instead they invent new myths such as if we don't “train” our students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) subjects, the country (the US) will lose its leadership role in technology and its global competitive advantage. Actually the US, while having been an economic engine supporting innovation in the past, has always depended on a very few brilliant people (the super elite intellects mentioned above), many of whom came from abroad, and received their formal educations elsewhere. In fact, if you look at the educational histories of many of our brilliant scientists and mathematicians you will discover the role of self-education in their lives. Today the innovation still comes from a remarkably few people. Even the claim that the workers of today need to be highly educated (meaning having BS degrees or better in some STEM subjects) is a myth. The Googles and Microsofts of the world need a few really creative and knowledgeable people to come up with the innovations. But the army of programmers and engineers that produce the resulting products are really not much more than technicians who know how to push the right menu selections on an array of “tools” and let the computer do the hard work. Programming languages like Java, for instance, have evolved to a point where the programmer need only know a menu of options and design patterns. In their day-to-day work they do not need to know computer science at all! The students are smart enough to realize this and literally rebel at our efforts to teach them computer science as an intellectual topic.
School curricula, including, increasingly, higher education, are based on a fundamental fallacy. Society believes that everyone needs to know STEM subjects (as well as US history and a few other subjects that are difficult to connect to everyday living) and students know that these subjects are largely irrelevant to their lives. The whole accountability philosophy applied to K-12 and looming large over higher education institutions as well, is the result of the mistaken beliefs we harbor about what is important for students to learn. And those beliefs are retained even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Indeed as the damage caused by teaching to the test, an outcome of No Child Left Behind and high stakes standardized testing, takes hold on student learning outcomes, instead of diagnosing the problem correctly, society doubles down on more accountability based on metrics that people terribly ignorant of human learning invent. It is a positive feedback loop that is taking the American education system down.
How Humans Learn
The key to getting out of this conundrum is to grasp the way in which human beings learn. That way was evolved over millions of years of hominid evolution and deeply refined during the cognitive explosion that turned the Homo predecessor into Homo sapiens. All animal learning is based on constructing neural circuits that correspond to perceived systems in the world and how they work. These circuits are the conceptual models that the brain encodes and uses to anticipate the future. In the case of humans we can build incredibly complex conceptual models that also allow us to anticipate far futures. But all such concept construction is based on associations with a priori meaningful concepts or physiological mandates. Ultimately all learning is for the support of living in the world (the extant environment). This is natural learning. We do it without really trying, without hard mental effort, because it is important for our survival and the overall fitness of the species.
Human children are endowed with extraordinary curiosity. They want to know and understand everything because evolution programmed them to learn about their world. We are not born with a lot of knowledge pre-programmed by our genes. We need to build those mental models that allow us to succeed as adults in our complex social and physical world. Parents and caregivers are able to channel where children focus their attention mostly by providing role models and occasional explanations. Children in the Pleistocene, and up to today, learn extremely quickly when an adult produces something useful and then shows the child how it is done. The adult need not lecture the child. They merely have to provide some guidance when the child gets off course. All of the motivation for learning comes from within.
At first, when a child is young, this involves fundamental things that are characterized as “play.” Building towers with blocks is fun, but it is also preparing the child to build real structures with real materials for real purposes. As children age their attentions naturally turn to more practical knowledge. A young boy goes hunting with the men to learn how. A young girl follows her mother on a foraging expedition to learn where the best roots are to be found. Nobody has to lecture these children on the importance of learning these skills and the knowledge of how things work that supports them using the skills. They are tied to the very act of living and the motivation for learning is built into the brain from billions of years of evolution. Contrast this as I stand in front of a class of blank faces trying to explain to them why it is important for them to learn how logic gates can be configured to wonderfully do arithmetic. Such attempts at motivation do not really work. They know they will never need to know that to put food on the table. What they need to know is how to write a program in the latest language so they can get a job that will put food on the table. How can I get them to see that their ability to write programs well does depend on their subtle understanding of logic when they know very well that they just have to choose the right method (a program function already available in a library of such functions) from a menu of options and never have to worry about how it works?!
So, though the number of people who really need a deep grounding in STEP subjects is actually quite small, they still do need to have an intellectual base from which to operate. And the average worker/citizen needs to have a better understanding of what they do for work and why they are doing it. They require more than just a cursory knowledge of which button to push. So the real conundrum for society is how to develop an education system that achieves deep learning. Clearly the design of education that matches the way people actually learn would seem to be the answer. But immediately we run into a fundamental problem. The current education system is based on mass production - the assembly line process of moving students in lock step through the manufacturing plant, adding modules of knowledge to their brains with each step. It is done for economic reasons. The industrial model of production is the most efficient way to move large volumes through the system.
An education process based on how humans actually learn, on the other hand, would be the antithesis of what we have now. The kind of process that is best matched with learning has already been prototyped in the Montessori schools. The mechanics of classrooms and developmentally-based learning with hands-on active learning a core part of the program are much better matches for how kids learn a variety of subjects. These schools still adhere to the curriculum ideas of traditional education, for the most part, but have a much better set of practices with respect to pedagogy. An even better matching would be achieved if a Montessori-like school were combined with a permaculture-based curriculum (application of systems science principles to designing and operating living and sustainable communities). Students would be immersed from an early age in the skills and knowledge needed to live successfully and in harmony with the natural world but also have access to the underlying and intellectually stimulating principles of systems. Those who have a natural bent for exploring the intellectual areas or want to go deeper into design principles will be motivated to learn math and science as it pertains to these living systems. When a curious child ask grandmother what makes the plants grow the opportunity to teach biology is at hand. At the time an inquisitive youth asks father why the arrows need feathers the chance to teach physics is realized. These questions have deep meaning to children who grasp that those subjects are truly important for life. The gaining of knowledge of biology or physics follows from the desire to understand why the world works the way it does. Moreover, when the child asks if larger feathers would make the arrow go further or faster or straighter, the advent of learning science and invention is reached.
The Sad Reality
Unhappily our society is locked into mass production of know-nothing education. We will not reform schools in any meaningful way. It would be too costly. We would have to sacrifice a lot of consumption of luxury to support such an endeavor. And with the attitudes expressed by the majority of people in this country (and many abroad) that is not going to happen.
So we will continue to force kids to sit in dull classes memorizing just enough facts from dull subjects to pass tests (and then promptly forget what they memorized). We will stunt their development. We will erect barriers to progress for those kids who are exceptional. We will drive our future generations into the depths of ignorance as we tell ourselves that with just the right amount of testing we will have a perfected education system. And a decade from now we will be complaining even more.
As with all of the foibles of human behavior of which I have written over these years, this example reinforces my thesis that the human species is deficient in the one thing that would help us achieve better decisions in life. As I have said so many times, we are clever but we are not wise. Cleverness gave us calculus but it didn't tell us where best to apply it. Cleverness doesn't give us the understanding that just because we have calculus (which is very useful for a number of applications!) doesn't automatically mean every human being needs to learn it. Let those who are curious learn it and those who are adept at its uses use it. For the rest all that is needed is a basic understanding of what its uses produce and appreciation for what it does for humanity. Appreciation for is more important than having any facility for using when you don't really have an interest or a need. I am perfectly happy knowing that there are quantum physicists in this world who are exploring the basis of physical reality. I appreciate their capabilities and their findings without having to know the kind of math they use to do their work. We don't need many such physicists to explore that world. But it is nice if everyone else can grasp the significance of what the work produces.
There are many different kinds of cleverness (intelligences and creative capabilities) and not everyone fits the STEM model, or the humanities model, or the social sciences model. But we all need to have some basic appreciation for the variety of capabilities that exist and contribute to our lives. Each individual will learn what seems important. Wisdom would help individuals decide what to pursue. Wisdom would help us collectively not try to force everyone into the same mold (or at the same rate). But this world we have created has no place for wisdom. It is too costly. It does not make profits in the current quarter. We will continue to batter our children with one-size-fits-all education based on the belief that the curriculum we teach is what students need to know to thrive in this world. And our delivery system (schools) will continue to crush curiosity so as to get conformity from all. At least we can say that we did successfully acculturate out children — if you call this a worthy culture.