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What's Wrong with Education Today?

What’s wrong with education today is probably easy to sum up.

Education breaks down whenever its definition of a ‘student’ is incorrect.

The dictionary defines ‘student’ as either ‘a person who is studying at a university or other place of higher education’, or ‘someone who is studying in order to enter a particular profession’, or ‘a person who takes an interest in a particular subject’. The word comes from late Middle English, from Latin student, ‘applying oneself to’, from the verb studere, related to studium ‘painstaking application’. You can see ‘pain’ creeping in there, right at the beginning, as well as a range of definitions, of which ‘a person who is studying at a university or other place of higher education’, or ‘someone who is studying in order to enter a particular profession’ are the ones that most likely spring to mind.

This is different to ‘pupil’ defined as ‘a person who is taught by another, especially a schoolchild or student in relation to a teacher’. This word comes from late Middle English, in the sense of ‘orphan’ or ‘ward’, and from Old French pupille, from Latin pupillus, the diminutive of pupus ‘boy’ and pupilla, the diminutive of pupa ‘girl’. Interestingly, ‘pupil’ is the word most used in the British school system to denote someone who is being taught at school.

You can immediately see the difference: ‘student’ has connotations of someone studying something with a purpose beyond a subject, or because of an interest in a subject; ‘pupil’ puts a hierarchy there straight away - the one studying is ‘diminutive’, being ‘taught’ by another. ‘Pupils’ require someone else present, usually an older person by this definition; ‘students’ are more independent, it seems.

Conventional schooling is largely based on viewing the other person as a passive, inert object. As far as the definitions above are concerned, the studying person is usually also younger and dependent upon another. The purpose of education in this traditional model is 'to spark the other person to life', to get that individual to take in knowledge, hold onto it and channel it, and then, if this is achieved, translate that tentative, precarious 'flame' of knowledge into an ability to apply, to make something or produce something. In modern times, this has been even more narrowly determined to be economically based: the products of the education system are judged by whether or not they are ‘economically useful’.

From a certain point of view, it sounds workable: taking the younger generation and inculcating them with the skills needed by society so that they make a contribution to economic growth and to the well-being of all. But this idea of 'education' is so energy-intensive, so demanding and ultimately so fundamentally flawed that it exhausts itself before it can convert enough 'inert matter' into life, or enough trainee producers into active production. It’s like throwing pasta at a wall to see if it will stick - if you throw enough, yes, some will stick - but you have to throw a lot of pasta at a lot of walls to get enough for a meal, and meanwhile there is huge wastage and very high drop-out rates (literally).

It’s an unhelpful model that not only fails to describe exactly what is happening but also what should be happening.

What’s wrong is the self-centred, 'Life started with a spark' model which places the teacher and his or her ‘knowledge’ at the core of the universe seeking others in the 'outer space' of the world at large.

In conventional models, education (it’s said) is brought about by a quantity of activity ('Let’s push information outward using mass institutions called schools to classrooms full to breaking point with young people; if done in enough volume and with enough intensity, those young people will be compelled to take it all on board!'), and by a long process of culling ('If teachers get data known to enough people in enough places and contexts, some people will be bound to assimilate it!'). These ideas are based on several central assumptions, including that ‘Young people are inert receptors’ and ’More equals good' and the hope that the more data or technique that is pumped into groups of people, the more it will stick (with some).

This is education based on ‘buzzwords’; particular kinds of added value; using various ways of presenting logic; sidelining or excluding anything too ‘emotional’; ignoring individual personality; making sure that subjects have a particular ‘look’; providing data through infrastructure with correct links and so forth. All of these things are designed to give the 'passive other' the information necessary to evaluate whether he or she wants to make any kind of commitment to a subject or a future.

A real education would need to be based on a completely different notion of what a person is.

Instead of seeing people as passive, inert objects who have to be pushed and shoved and fed and attracted and moved and channeled, almost against their will, a real education sees them as bursting with life and energy in the form of active, vibrant and powerful needs and concerns.

If an educator can create something which addresses vibrant, powerful needs and concerns in a ‘student’, neither the educator nor the student will have to expend much effort for the student to become educated. Quite the opposite.

So the job of a successful educator is to find or create needs and concerns and then address them.

Correct education produces moments of fulfilment for the student (and indirectly, for the teacher). The effect can be profound.

The more creative and energetic the educator is in creating or finding and then filling needs in students, the more successful he or she will be. This won’t feel like effort if done properly. If an educator successfully addresses a concern for another, that other will either return for more concerns to be addressed (even ones that he or she didn’t realise were there!) or they will recommend others to come. The ‘concerns’ could be a need or casual desire for a skill, a need to feel purposeful, a desire for a deeper understanding; it could be vicarious sensation, a sense of competence, a get-away from mundanity, a new look at things, or even peace of mind. The range of effects that could be described in terms of needs is infinite.

Using these things - whether they were fully aware of them or not - successful teachers have been effective.

Some needs are inherent, automatic or basic. We have to eat, we all need shelter, we all have health requirements, we are all alive. People respond on a primal level when threatened with starvation, loss of homes, ill health or death. These create a fundamental and urgent yearning to learn.

Some needs are not necessarily basic, but are so common that they are part of living: the need for social skills, an urge to be entertained, and the desire to be productive are examples. These form the fabric of human society and are part of the strong urge to know which drives many students.

Then we get into the realms of the universal, knowledge or abilities that people don’t so much need but might want: practical, immediate skills, stable data, insights, small things that just about everyone has lacked at some point of time or all the time. Presenting a needed range of information correctly opens the door to becoming educated in a profoundly significant and almost all-embracing way.

The key thing to note here is:

All people, young or old, share a desire to learn.

Now for the other side of that coin: how can education occur as we have described?

If the desire to learn is constructed from the same basic material - emptinesses, needs, desires, of varying magnitudes - education is composed of experienced knowledge, the common intellectual subjects, and core intellectual purposes.

Underneath all of them, at least where education is successful or long-lasting, is the quality of purpose. This is certainly not a given in today’s ‘culling system’ used by schools - in fact it would seem to be quite rare, in the scheme of things - but its nature means that it can be relied upon to give life and meaning to all of the rest of the trappings of the thing called ‘education’.

Schools currently depend on the law to coerce children to attend; they depend on rigorous and quite ancient class-based techniques to turn these children into ‘pupils’; and then they depend upon an unwieldy and creaking grading system to try to measure effectiveness. All of this is based on the notion that the school is the source of all wisdom and the child the passive receptor.

What if we could have an education system into which children (and adults) flocked to participate; in which children (and adults) rapidly and almost without effort became students; in which effectiveness was measured by individual triumph. All of this could happen if education was based on the notion that knowledge is taken in based upon need and the student is an active contributor, not an inert object.

Stay tuned for further articles on what that might look like.

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