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What's Wrong with the Education System

(This article draws from an earlier article on this blog.)

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 young person as a passive, inert object. As far as the definitions above are concerned, the studying person is usually 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’, whether they can ‘fit into the society’ in a ‘productive’ way.

During the changing economic and social era of the 1960s and 1970s in England, primary education moved towards a ‘child-centred’ system: the social, physical and emotional needs of a child were, according to supporters of this approach, just as important as a child’s academic performance. The Plowden Report (DES 1967) stated that ‘at the heart of educational progress lies the child’ (p.7). The report advocated learning by discovery, independent learning, a focus on individual needs and an integrated curriculum. Schools were supposed to be more involved with their local communities and primary education needed to address the needs of ethnic minorities and the handicapped, as well as the gifted. The idea was to try to ensure the holistic and rounded development of each individual in addition to teaching the basic skills of literacy, arithmetic and reading. This was a move away from the economic model for education which had been in place in one form or another since the 19th century.

Conservatives didn’t like the Plowden Report, claiming that the child-centred philosophy hindered economic growth. Education in schools, they argued, should focus on the development of skills necessary for a changing economy. They needn't have been so concerned: Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (DES 1978a) reported in 1978 that only five per cent of classrooms in England had adopted the child-centred philosophy; 75% had continued to use traditional methods.

Something was not working.

It was argued that the socio-economic conditions of the time in England made notions such as individual needs and choice more relevant: high employment meant that there was a need for diversification and encouraging individuality. This general shift of viewpoint wasn’t limited to England: the Netherlands also were influenced by similar child-centred ideals, with an emphasis on holistic development, widening access to education, and catering for ethnic minority pupils. The Netherlands actively aimed ‘to construct a “great society”, in which life was good for everyone...a society in which power, knowledge and income was equitably distributed’ (Karsten 1999, p. 306).

Similarly, in New Zealand at the time the official syllabus for reading stated that ‘We must accept the fact that each child is a unique personality whose capacities differ from those of his classmates. A uniform standard of achievement throughout an ordinary class is a mistaken aim.’ (McLintock 1966)

In Germany, however, there was an emphasis on conformity. The impact of the Plowden Report was minimised by a bureaucratic and highly politicised education system. German conservatives advocated a ‘traditional’ educational philosophy: children needed ‘pressure’ to learn; teachers needed to be authoritarian; a school’s concern should be with children’s academic achievement. Children were to be prepared for society, and so education in Germany remained economically driven. Education was a response to specific economic needs.

From a certain point of view, the economy-driven model 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. From another point of view, the child-centred model seems a good idea: nurturing the younger generation and encouraging individual skills so that society itself would be transformed.

But both views of 'education' are so energy-intensive, so demanding and ultimately so fundamentally flawed that they exhaust themselves before they 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).

They are unhelpful models that not only fail to describe exactly what is happening but also what should be happening.

What’s wrong is that both models place society and its ‘knowledge’, either economic or social, at the core of the universe. This static knowledge is then transmitted into space, where, it is hoped, some receptive minds will take it on board and eventually become transmitters themselves.

The result is that neither produces the results that both require. They both waste enormous resources - more children fail than succeed, both economically and socially.

According to these 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, even while claiming to be ‘child-centred’; making sure that subjects have a particular ‘look’ 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.

Focusing on the social, physical and emotional needs of a child is an easy thing to state as an aim but just as difficult to achieve, if not moreso, than the emphasis on the economic contributor.

In England, the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) published The National Curriculum: Handbook for Primary Teachers in England Key Stages 1 and 2 in 1999 (QCA 1999a). This stated explicitly that an education curriculum had particular aims. Looking at it, the split between the two broad functions of an education system can be clearly seen:

A belief in education, at home and at school, as a route to the spiritual, moral, social, cultural, physical and mental development, and thus the well-being, of the individual. Education is also a route to equality of opportunity for all, a healthy and just democracy, a productive economy, and sustainable development. Education should reflect the enduring values that contribute to these ends. These include valuing ourselves, our families and other relationships, the wider groups to which we belong, the diversity in our society and the environment in which we live. Education should also reaffirm our commitment to the virtues of truth, justice, honesty, trust and a sense of duty.

At the same time, education must enable us to respond positively to the opportunities and challenges of the rapidly changing world in which we live and work. In particular, we need to be prepared to engage as individuals, parents, workers and citizens with economic, social and cultural change, including the continued globalisation of the economy and society, with new work and leisure patterns and with the rapid expansion of communication technologies. (QCA 1999a)

The first paragraph is child-centred; the second society-centred. But neither paragraph suggests how either aim is to be achieved. And both are fundamentally based on the idea that the child is a recipient of what is considered to be a ‘greater good’, whether in his or her own interests or in the interest of the society around the child.

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

Instead of seeing children 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 system should see them as already bursting with life and energy in the form of active, vibrant and powerful needs, concerns, desires and ideas.

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

Quite the opposite.

Correct education produces moments of fulfilment for the student (and indirectly, for the teacher) as his or her own aims and goals are engaged. The effect can be profound.

The more creative and energetic the educator is in creating or finding and then accomplishing goals for students, the more successful he or she will be. This doesn’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.

Children are not passive recipients, blank slates upon which we are free to write either our own values or the economic requirements of the age.

The ‘concerns’ of a child include a need or casual desire for a skill, a need to feel purposeful, a desire for a deeper understanding; they 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 in children 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. Children have to eat, they need shelter, they all have health requirements. 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 so 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 children.

Then we get into the realms of the universal, knowledge or abilities that children 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. Fulfilling this range of needs 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.

Where education is successful or long-lasting, the emphasis is on 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.

For more about education, visit Education and Parenting World here.

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