What’s wrong with education? Well in my jurisdiction, the board has bought in something new. New report cards that dispense with actual comments and instead, replace grades with some lovely politically correct words, like ‘evident’ and ‘emerging.’ Words that are pretty hard to understand but certainly don’t hurt anyone’s feelings and allow our children to live in a great big bubble of happy thoughts.
And who doesn’t love happy thoughts? I’d love to go through life without having my feelings hurt. Never to fail at anything. I’d be a great linguist, a toned athlete, a fabulous house designer, a highly organized and efficient worker. Oh, I’m basking in all those lovely feelings I’m having. Hang on a minute. Damn. My bubble is bursting…Ahhh…Wait, could it be that none of it’s….true?
My linguist skills, well, let’s face it I’m happy to say I can speak one language well, but my Russian, Cantonese, French and every other language you can think of definitely need a lot of work. Toned athlete? Maybe twenty five years ago when I almost won the North Dorset hurdling championship, which is like winning a championship in say, Black Diamond, Canada (Population 25). A house designer? Does Ikea screw it together furniture with help from the picture count? Organized? Oh yes, of course. Absolutely. Now where did I put that post?
Stop with the jargon
Of course, I get the argument that the Board is worried about. It’s about letting kids feel good about their effort. The Board thinks school should be both enjoyable and give children encouragement and you can’t enjoy something, or succeed in something, you just feel you’re plainly no good at.
But all this stuff about the best way to tell the truth to parents about how their kids are doing, is at best a distraction. At it’s worst, it’s making us horribly miss the point because we haven’t in my view, done a very good job of either making learning enjoyable nor have we really defined what we want the school experience to be.
Let’s really define what we want for education
And herein lies the problem. On one hand, we have parents and educators and fellow citizens who follow the philosophy that kids must love everything and never be disappointed. They believe that the school experience should be all rainbows, lights and self esteem building. On the other, we have those who truly believe that kids don’t need music or arts or those liberal kind of stupid studies. Education is so you can get a job.
Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, we want kids to grow up to be able to face reality because they’re going to face it eventually anyway. On the other hand, we want a better learning experience for our children, one that is less taken up with studying to tests and more about inspiring students to want to learn all their lives.
So how do we compute these two very different learning outcomes? Do we bamboozle everyone with obscure language but not really change anything, or do we try and change things when we have no real idea of where we’re going? That’s really the dilemma we face. We have absolutely no idea where we’re going.
The education system we have today was built to educate an industrial workforce
You see, education for all came about because of the Industrial age. The Industrial Revolution brought with it a period of explosive growth, work became more specialized so there was a need for a better educated workforce. After all, a more complex work environment needed people who could not only read but understand more about machinery and instructions. There’s a lot more to it than that but that was then and this is now and the bottom line is, that the world is changing rapidly.
We have a hard time predicting what’s going to happen in the world in a month, let alone once our kids get out of school. That’s why we’ve got lots of educators and parents flailing around trying to find answers. Some things they come up with might work and others definitely won’t. Not hearing about your child’s real understanding of their studies in my view, just doesn’t add much to the equation. Hiding the truth about their mastery of basic skills behind fancy verbiage, doesn’t mean it goes away.
Educators and parents alike are worried and understand that the school system must change to stay relevant. But no one really knows what relevant means. They can only agree on what they don’t want and not what they do. As a result, we have the silly introductions of different words, as though the choice of these words actually gives us our much needed direction.
How do we get out of the box thinkers?
Words like ‘creative’ or ‘out of the box thinker‘ are tossed around. I have a particular interest in the idea of an out of the box thinker. You might be interested to know that when we were on the West Coast they were obviously struggling with the same issue. My daughter took part in a ‘Constructivist program,’ meant to inspire kids. A program that instead of looking at a textbook on ocean shore creatures, meant the kids got their coats on and actually went to look at them, building one observation upon another. Who wouldn’t love that as a concept? Get kids out in the fresh air actually observing nature. Not only that, but it was a class that the principal prided herself, would teach kids to think outside the box; to develop real independent thinkers.
Was it a success? Well, for the large part of the class, no it wasn’t. The standard of learning was appallingly weak. My daughter did a little social experiment and found out that 85% of her class had no idea where they lived, or what BC even stood for and these kids were in grade seven. I know that sounds unbelievable but unfortunately it’s true. When it came to actually initiating studying what might been of interest to them, they couldn’t learn to think outside the box because, as my daughter ruefully observed, ‘you can’t teach kids to think outside the box, if there’s nothing in the box!”
She was entirely right. You can’t take grade seven kids and suddenly teach them to think outside the box without putting something in first. Facts, ideas, theories. Inspiring interest in the world around them. All that was sadly lacking and had been transmitted in a way that had obviously neither stuck, nor inspired them. Not only that, but thinking outside the box isn’t a way of learning, it’s a way of being and that’s why the education establishment is so confused. Karl Marx observed somewhat chauvinistically, that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”
What do we really want?
But as parents and educators ponder the goal of education and toss around politically correct phrases, I have a question. What kind of people do we want in society? What aids and abets that consciousness that Marx talks about? What makes for better societies? Do we want people that follow the system and just do the jobs, whatever those jobs are in the years to come, or do we want those who are independent thinkers? People who are learning, questioning and adapting what they learn all the time? And if we want that, where does all that awakening of consciousness take place, inside only the four walls of a classroom or at home and in the community too?
That brings me to my last point and I think it’s only fair to ask. Does society even really want independent thinkers? I think there are far more people, educators and parents alike, who purport to want to have kids that are ‘outside the box thinkers,’ than actually do. I think it’s become another politically correct word that means very little. Because if children really do start thinking outside the box, it means they will will one day they will question the very existence of the box itself. Because what all independent thinkers do eventually, is question the system and it’s beliefs. And questioning the system frightens people because it threatens the status quo.
Children need a solid base for enquiry
I’m no educator but I do know that basic knowledge is critical in order to be able to think clearly. We’ll never get children to love learning for the sake of learning, if they don’t have a base knowledge from which to explore that which interests them. We will never have citizens that question the status quo and can adapt to coming challenges, if they don’t have a basis from which to know when something is out of whack and the strength, courage and character to do something about it.
You might also like to know that I’ve heard from a number of University lecturers who are apparently increasingly saddened that they have tons of students now that never question anything. Students who take verbatim what they are told and simply regurgitate it back. Just like those children at test time in middle school. How can you create real engaged citizens if children are never taught to question all our assumptions about society, including our most deeply held beliefs? The truth from my experience helping people solve their children’s behaviour problems, and the painful answer, is that we don’t even try. To do that you need children to have a solid start for where they can then begin to question our most deeply held assumptions. However I don’t think we want independent thinkers. I think we want conformists and so that’s how we educate our children.
Our society is rapidly changing and who knows what the future will bring. To adapt, we have to somehow nurture future citizens, not just future consumers. That is our greatest challenge and our biggest responsibility. Hiding our children’s success or failure under a cascade of political correctness won’t help. It’s just one more step on the road to irrelevance.