I love education. But I hate teaching. Far too often we confuse the two, and I think that’s a big reason the US education system is the battered & bruised behemoth it is. Well, that and demagoguery by pusillanimous politicians.
If you look at how the US education system evolved, there are striking similarities to how our workforce evolved. The industrial revolution turned farmers with broad skill sets into incredibly specialized factory workers. Schooling moved from truly individualized curriculum in the living room, to a rigid, standardized, curriculum-driven classroom. Mass production meant less variation. Mass education meant we could educate more kids in a standardized system, as long as they fit in within the system. It meant less tolerance for “abnormal” kids.
Back in the day, Horace Mann thought that “public education was the best way to turn the nation’s unruly children into disciplined, judicious republican citizens.” He thought a standardized approach to education would level the playing field for kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Give them all a fair shot at the American dream. Lofty goal. A goal I agree with. But what happened was factory farms and factory education.
And it’s not that people haven’t been trying to make reforms– they have. For a long time. Back in the early 1900’s, John Dewey was pushing the idea of “Progressive Education.” He argued (rightly, I think) for a more balanced approach to education. According to Wikipedia, “The problem was that Dewey and the other progressive theorists encountered a highly bureaucratic system of school administration that in general was not receptive to new methods.” That rings true today, too. Massive, entrenched institutions are structured to preserve the status quo.
But the status quo isn’t working. Obviously. Something needs to change. Just like Dewey, and Maria Montessori before him, I’m arguing for a more balanced approach to education. Rather than teacher-centric, vs. content-centric, vs. student-centric, it ought to be more collaborative. Maria Montessori put it best: “Education should no longer be mostly imparting of knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentialities.” There are people pushing for this today. Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote an article on RWW about how How YouTube is Part of a Global Economic Transformation. From the article: “It has become increasingly evident that to realize human potential in today’s societies and economies, lifelong learning is required, not just an initial period of formal schooling.” Hell yes.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the US education system has failed. Or that it’s terrible. Or that I hate teachers and textbooks. On the contrary. I think that on the whole, we’ve tried our best. But we can do better. Because in our attempt to give our national treasures an equal shot at success, we forgot that “equal” doesn’t mean they should be treated like so much carbon in a diamond factory.
Our children are not factory-made. Each has unique strengths and weaknesses. Each has unique experiences that will inform their learning. If we can minimize the demagoguery and leverage some of the amazing technologies (iPads, serious games, the friggin internet) to create mass-customized learning, we can help each of our precious stones polish themselves into the gem they can be.