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To What Extent, How Much, and of Which Kinds?

Hi all, I’m looking to take a step back and get your opinions on the very aim of schooling. Most of this is taken from an article I prepared and showed to other Coop’ers; they suggested it would make for a reasonable post, and so here I am.

I’ll first bring up a couple of existing paradigms on general education:

Alan Paton (Cry, The Beloved Country) provides the following except, which I very much like. I think it’s reasonably self explanatory, talking about a character that realizes how much the traditional educational model fails his (rural) people in teaching the skills they need to survive in Johannesburg:

He would go back with a new and quickened interest in the school, not as a place where children learned to read and write and count only, but as a place where they must be prepared for life in any place to which they might go.

With a different approach here in the USA, the KIPP schools aim to maximize achievement on standardized assessments. I know there are sources out there that say KIPP doesn’t live up to their claims, but let’s take it as face value. If not KIPP, some group out there will be able to put a system together focusing purely on academics that teaches under-served kids to pass state standardized tests, get 1200 SATs, and get into college.

These are two reasonably opposing approaches for a “school system,” and they do not share the same goals in “education.” I want your opinion on what the role of schools should be in our society. Let’s try to be very realistic about the people and culture of the USA as it is, but take a moment to redesign the “schooling institution” from the ground up. What would it look like, and, more to the point: to what extent are schools responsible for ensuring the conveyance of how much of which kinds of knowledge?

Just to get past the basics, here are a couple thoughts: were we to say that schools above all should teach kids how to work together and lead authoritatively (the Paton approach, if you will), would you accept that children who learn how to lead and work collaboratively through scouts, in football, and with part time jobs will waste their schooling since it will just duplicate what they learn in their everyday lives? On the other hand, if we focus on teaching how to read and write and count only (KIPP), will it be ok to produce some adults without the ability to identify propaganda, solve problems collaboratively, or to integrate next year’s new discoveries into their current framework? (I’d probably say we should leave “think critically” out from either side since both benefit ; failing to teach it is a fault of assessments based on memorization).

I personally find it too easy to take these extremes as a dilemma, and picking between the two, say, we must focus on teaching methods of new information acquisition, leadership, community participation, and collaborative development. Earlier in life, I’ve argued that teaching how to derive a proof in physics is useless in general education and that a psychologist, entrepreneur, welder, or computer programmer probably will never need to know it (and could look it up if they did). Yet, there will be some psychologists, entrepreneurs, welders, and computer programmers that will use it later in life – not to solve a physics problem, but to realize they need to consult a colleague in the department of physics or send a proposal back to the engineers. This is the true core of liberal arts education, and if we don’t have a rigorous general education when you’re young, we will not even know how to cross outside of our specialized silo of learning later on.

Alternatively, we want everyone to be an informed citizen, capable of seeing through advertisers’ and politicians’ spin. They need the tools to quickly pick up the knowledge required for a job, adapt as the market and environment changes, and learn new skills and technologies that didn’t exist when they were in school. Everyone in every career needs good collaboration skills, and all students (ideally) will find a place in society, follow the important laws, vote, and (more ideally) participate in community organizations, churches, and schools as laypeople and volunteers. The general educational system is the only place currently where we as a society can make sure our future citizens have the skills to constructively participate.

The difficult problem for me remains in determining which parts should be addressed in schools and which parts elsewhere. Once we have a consensus on what our schools should teach, we can move on to develop better methods of education, build appropriate assessments, and facilitate the success for those who have not yet succeeded.

So, I’d like your thoughts : To what extent and how much of which kinds?  Give us a vision of what schools should be to effectively service the society that we have.


One thought on “To What Extent, How Much, and of Which Kinds?

  1. I aksed my 11 year old students this very question recently. Here are some of their responses:
    What are the goals of education:
    To learn (Jasmine)
    To expand the way we think (Josh)
    Taking on challenges and learning things that will affect your future (Dean)
    To learn lessons in life (Sasha)
    To support our future (Zac)
    To get the tools we need for the future (Gabe)
    To get a profession (Amy)
    To experience things and find out what you’re good at (Emma)
    To get people to enjoy life, study interesting things and even use it in your future (Jay)
    To learn to be successful in life (Amy.F)
    To learn, so we won’t be stupid (Lele) (!)
    To keep human knowledge forever by passing it down to following generations (Matthew)
    To learn so you can grow up to do something that may help others (Gemma)

    Posted by whatedsaid | October 20, 2010, 6:42 am

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