Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Reverse Engineering Education

Engineers--according to a friend who is an architect--imagine the product they wish to end up with, and then design the process by which to create such a product.

In designing educational systems, not the ordinary socialization that preceded formal education in much of the world, but the contemporary system that involves bureaucracies and unions, graduate programs and curricula, we might also ask the question of the ultimate goal:

What kind of person do we want to produce through education?

A person with
  • Confidence, but who keeps questioning
  • Compassion
  • Integrity, moral fiber
  • Civic engagement
  • Happiness
  • Curiosity
  • Tenacity
  • Flexibiliy
  • Creativity
  • A sense of community
  • Happiness and a sense of people's right to happiness
  • Non-complacency
  • Acceptance of and openness to others
  • Looking for the good in others
  • Discernment (of information, of action)
  • Internal sense of quality
Life skills
  • Financial savvy
  • Practical knowledge: Laundry, physical care (cooking, replacing a button, cleaning)
  • Enjoyment in technical/practical challenges

Then, how do we do that?

If our goal is education for life, rather than education for school, we might reconsider where our emphasis lies.

I grew up loving school. I made tests for fun, played school--always being the teacher--and derived a sense of self-worth from scores on tests. But now, having spent many years in higher education, having two teenage children, and conducting a project on higher education, I have come to conclude that our schools are self-justifying strait-jackets for many children. Children whose passion is writing, or music, or fashion, or football, or work, are tortured by the requirements that keep them learning chemistry or writing about The Catcher in the Rye. If they were allowed to pursue their interests, they might look forward to school and might put into it the kind of effort that their elders think is appropriate. I used to believe that everyone needed a serious foundation that is "well-rounded," and certainly young people need exposure to the complexity of the world before they focus on their own interests.

I am, however, confident that "everything connects"--this is one of anthropology's central tenets--so that if people start learning anywhere they may end up somewhere else. I have rarely seen people doing what they love and complaining about it.

But for most children and students, including college students, much of their work is, essentially, meaningless in terms of their larger goals. So they do whatever little they have to--unless they are among the small minority planning to attend elite colleges, in which case no meaningless task is irrelevant for the all-important goal of college admission--using whatever methods they can find, including cheating, to be left alone.

This is true as much in college as in high school, as much in high school as in the early years of school. There was a time when colleges had no majors and no "distribution" requirements. Now students are bombarded with English classes, math classes, prerequisites, even entire degrees, which are piled on the poor student who just wants to grow up and hang out with friends, or to get a job, or to spend all day playing a guitar, badly. That doesn't mean we should necessarily let the children or young adults do whatever they feel like--and long-range planning is not the strong suit for children or many young adults--but neither should we be surprised when they cut corners, resist, complain, and celebrate snow days.

Two writers with alternative approaches to the very central notion of schooling are Kieran Egan and Alfie Kohn. Egan proposes "imaginative education" and Kohn champions a variant of "progressive" education. Both argue forcefully against the narrow test-focused rigidity of "traditional" education and suggest that the best education can inspire and prepare children for a lifetime of joy and effectiveness. Neither of these desiterata, however, is easily measured by standardized tests.

As we reverse engineer our educational system, it is helpful to consider at each step where we really would like to end up. This requires serious conversation and cultural examination.

1 comment:

  1. I like this and it's what I try to do. But thinking culture-ecologically, before we reverse engineer what kind of people we want education to produce don't we have to reverse engineer the social-economic structure into which they will be plugged?

    The qualities you mention make a lot of sense for upper management and the intellectual trades. Those are already well-stocked by the elite fraction of the education complex. It's not at all clear how teaching janitors, fry cooks and middle managers to be more flexible, reflective and curious is cost-effective or does anything but equip them to be miserable about their fate. I'm suggesting the schools produce, in their variety and distribution, exactly what they 'need' to - staff for the hierarchy.

    Now, if we could work it so that there aren't way more janitors than CEOs and philosophy professors, or even better so that we all clean up after ourselves and there are no hierarchies of status and income, then we'll be talking here.