Some Thoughts on Education – Pt. 1

The answer is, seemingly, always more education. Any conversation about large issues ranging from voter fraud to climate change inevitably ends with the tract “Well, we need to have better education…” or “In a more educated population, we wouldn’t have this issue!”

And it goes on.

Excuse me, while I clear a cough that sounds suspiciously like “horseshit”, but I find it ridiculous that we pile more expectations on such a poorly compensated and understaffed workforce. How in the hell is an occupational group routinely paid mid-$40,000 on average supposed to solve world hunger, solve climate change, our inability to pass the marshmallow test, increase fiscal responsibility, create voter awareness, and solve the hundreds of other issues that plague society?

All of this assumes, by the way, that a more educated population would be more equipped to handle these issues. Never mind studies that show more intelligent people tend to be more stubborn. Or more susceptible to cult like activity. Or even that education simply does not correlate to happiness. Or success.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

As an engineer, I find it important to carefully and judiciously state the problem. List out our expected outcomes and end goals, then build a plan from there. As you might ascertain, if the goal of improving education is to solve our numerous, intractable problems, I’m not entirely sold.

But let’s say we want to improve education in and of itself as a social good.

Let’s say education is a social good because it increases social skills, develops a sense of curiosity about the world, and cultivates a strong sense of independent decision making.

Let’s also say that education equips the student with skills necessary to tackle life’s common problems. Taking care of oneself. Foster good citizenship. Financial literacy. Plain old English literacy. That sort of thing.

Was our current education system designed to do any of those things?

Hell no.

Our current system was made in the model of the industrial era i.e. batch processing children via mass production lines (grades K through 12) with one handler per stage. In my opinion, mostly to keep children out of the labor force.

Recent trends are somewhat following this thought process except instead of mirroring the industrial era, they are looking to digital disruption as a source of inspiration. This has led to online degrees, flipped classrooms, and Khan Academy. Not bad advances, but somewhat obvious adaptions of our current era and not something I would call novel.

Of course, I have ideas that I think really might challenge how we currently think of education. Or at least, a few technologies that improve learning. But I think in order to tackle or discuss a problem, we should examine it in entirety. Why doesn’t the mass production method work, and what does?

*                                  *                                  *

I was a tutor for a minute. I was okay. Not great, but I managed to have some breakthroughs with some students. Some of what I am sharing is the result of that experience, some of it is secondhand insights from other educators (real educators), and some of it is what I have thought from the student’s chair.

One hard reality about education we must accept that cannot be fixed with any amount of money is this: some children are unteachable. Full stop.

It is unfortunate but also true in a few obvious ways. One is in the severely mentally disabled. I think most of us understand this point. And I don’t want to demean the mentally deficient. As I said earlier, this does not automatically translate to a lower quality of life, but there are some skills and ideas that simply will not take, regardless of funding, effort, or time.

Another hard reality that I explicitly realized from tutoring: it is not natural for kids to sit still and learn. Where I tutored was forward thinking in that there were a lot of math related games (I was a math tutor) and chances for activity.

But this is not the norm. And kids are young and, not always but often enough, energetic. So much so that there is an entire group of medical professionals who believe ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is overdiagnosed. They believe that ADHD is just children being children and not adapting well to an artificial construct that is education.

I don’t condone or condemn this view (I don’t know enough about medicine one way or the other), but I think it shows that education is indeed not well constructed for young children. You can’t treat a small child like a product in a factory line, just waiting to be molded by expert hands.

Which brings back the question, if our current means-of-production inspired mode of education doesn’t work, what does an alternative look like?

One alternative is in pre-industrial schools. Mostly, they were at will, small, and entirely voluntary. If you were to join an academic institution at that time it was because you, as a child, had time. I’m thinking of Agrarian society schools where reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic were the mainstays.

The voluntary nature is interesting because it allows students to self-select out. At the same token, sometimes a student needs that push to do something he or she feels is out of their reach by being forced to do it. I know that I have learned many things mostly because I was forced to do them and I fully think the sacrifice was worth it.

Another alternative was mentioned in the children’s novel My Ishmael. Ishmael, our favorite talking gorilla, talks about how “Leaver” societies, that is “primitive” or “tribal” societies, don’t formally teach because they are aware that children are constantly learning.

Ed Burns, writer of the TV show the Wire, said something similar about his fourth season which chronicled four young children navigating an inner-city Baltimore school rife with drugs, abuse, and mismanagement. He noted that education comes in many forms, not only school, and that all of this affects the growth of a child.

Sometimes we think of schools and prisons as being removed from society, places where the street doesn’t enter in. But that’s not the case. The school is porous. If there’s a problem in the neighborhood, there’s a problem in the school…Well, it’s not about education as you’re thinking about education. Everybody is going to get educated. It’s just a question of where. Some people get educated in the classroom, some people get educated in a boxing gym; some people get educated on a corner.

But we already knew that, right?

How do we accelerate that natural tendency of children to pick up what their elders are saying and doing?

How do we do it in a world advancing so rapidly that the wisdom of the elders doesn’t even apply to the present, let alone the future?

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