What’s wrong with education? Well, first let’s look at report cards as an indicator of the health of the system in general. 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 fail at anything. I’d be a great linguist, a toned athlete, a fabulous house designer, and 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 is 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 forty 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’s “screw it together” furniture with picture help count? Organized? Oh, yes, of course. Absolutely. Now where did I put that post?
What’s wrong with education? Stop with the jargon!
Of course, I get the argument that the school 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 at something if you feel you’re plainly no good at it.
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 its 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 or really defining what we want the school experience to be.
What’s wrong with education? Let’s really define what we want for education.
And herein lies the problem. On one hand, we have parents, 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, light, and self-esteem building. On the other hand, we have those who truly believe that kids don’t need music, the arts, or those liberal kinds of stupid studies. Education is so you can get a job, period.
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 for 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 where we’re going? That’s really the dilemma we face. We have absolutely no idea where we’re going.
What’s wrong with education? Our system 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 also 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 of the ideas they come up with might work, and others definitely won’t. In my opinion, not knowing your child’s true understanding of their studies 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, not what they do want. 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.
What’s wrong with education? 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 here on the West Coast, they are obviously struggling with the same issue. Even years ago (the idea has been around for some time and still is), my daughter took part in a “constructivist program” meant to inspire kids. Who wouldn’t love 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? Get kids out in the fresh air, actually observing nature. Not only that, but it was a class in which the principal took obvious pride: teaching kids to think outside the box and to become real independent thinkers.
Was it a success? No, it wasn’t for the majority of the class. 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. That may sound unbelievable, but it is unfortunately true. When it came to actually initiating studying what might be 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 the box first: facts, ideas, and theories that inspire 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’s wrong with education? 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 who 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?
What’s wrong with education? Do we really want independent thinkers?
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 one day question the very existence of the box itself. Because what all independent thinkers eventually do is question the system and its beliefs. And questioning the system frightens people because it threatens the status quo.
We are now, I think, in the most repressive period with regards to the ability to question the system in recent history. No dissension is allowed. Whatever side of the political spectrum you are on, Elon Musk’s “Twitter Papers” revelations have revealed that what we hear and see is increasingly a narrative that is moulded by state actors who repress or amplify facts depending on the narrative they wish to convey. So if free speech is under attack, then surely minimizing the idea of free speech among children is a priority. After all, we can’t have future citizens asking uncomfortable questions.
What’s wrong with education? 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 of knowledge from which to explore what 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 are just like those children at test time in middle school. How can you create 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 foundation from which 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. We cover up our ineptitude and our failure to prepare the citizens of tomorrow with fancy and meaningless words instead.
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.
Is your child struggling with peer pressure?
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Here’s one clip of Annie the Nanny talking about how to best handle toddler choice on CTV Calgary.