NOTICE: This essay is a work in progress. I post it now in hopes it will motivate me to continue working on it.
Education in the United States is relatively broken. Very few dispute this. Once a child jumps through whatever hoops we’ve asked him to, we reward him with a piece of paper that says he has a basic education. Like the parchment given to the Scarecrow, a high school diploma is almost meaningless. Part of the problem lies in the inconsistent standards for earning a diploma, which in practice vary widely between geographic and economic regions.
More important, though, is the fact that our education system at present is designed to teach facts, and this it does fairly well. But this stuffing of facts into students happens largely in place of teaching them how to think. The results are plain to see. The students, lacking a solid framework on which to hang these facts, tend to remember them just long enough to pass the required tests. The teacher recognizes this and, as the students are leaky vessels with no approved means of repair, she spends her time filling and refilling them with the required facts right up to the tests. This dire situation is certainly true in the K-12 system, and many colleges (more properly called technical schools) share this deficiency to some extent. I read an article recently that contained many points on this topic with which I agree strongly, and that put me in a mood to write on this topic.
It’s popular to blame the teachers for the poor state of our education system, and it’s true there are a lot of bad teachers who are still in the profession because of union rules protecting them. I have three children in school and I’ve seen some very poor teachers who certainly should have been fired, but I’ve also encountered a lot of excellent teachers who are utterly devoted to teaching.
Moreover, blaming teachers is missing the point. There are bad workers in every field – without exception. A profession should have a means of continually purifying itself of bad members and influences. The Education profession in the U.S. is for the most part delinquent in policing itself and we have to fix this, since the profession itself will not. But getting rid of all the bad teachers, by itself, is not going to fix our education system.
We need to reform our education system at its base by changing its priorities, redefining what’s considered a good education and basing the goals of the reformed system on that definition. It’s not as if our system is irreparably broken or completely off base. It’s not that the content of what’s taught is so wrong. It’s the focus on quantifiable results and on turning out young adults who have a set of basic skills (and beliefs) that have been decided to be most useful or appropriate or whatever standard applies in that region.
Education is a qualitative process and trying to force it to fit into discrete elements, buckets of knowledge that we can easily quantitatively test against, is only harming ourselves and the children we put through this. There are far better ways of knowing whether a student understands a topic than having him fill in circles on a piece of paper. Essays are somewhat better but the key here is interacting with the student, leading her or letting her lead as appropriate to explore her understanding of a topic. Of course this takes more time than just giving a test and then grading it, but we have to decide whether we want good test takers and essayists or educated citizens and provide the resources needed to do the job well.
America is defined by innovation, the pundits say, and our future success as a nation will be determined by our continued ability to innovate. And how do we teach innovation? That’s hard to answer, but to get started we can come to an agreement on a general definition of innovation. Like Justice, it’s likely to be somewhat difficult to pin down exactly what innovation is, but we can certainly agree that people like Edison, Einstein, Henry Ford, and many others are prime examples of innovative people. Once we define innovation to some extent and we have a set of archetypal innovators on which all agree, we can use these sources to extract some component qualities that are present in most or all innovative people. We can then study these qualities and our knowledge of the example innovators to identify a lot of practices that almost certainly don’t contribute to innovation and a few that do.
What qualities does an innovative person have? These are the qualities we should nourish. Doubtless freedom to investigate the world as one sees fit will be found to be a common factor in the youth of most innovators. I’m not suggesting we give children endless choices and let them find their own way. Children need guidance and they need to be taught reason as a base on which everything else rests. On reason rests the potential for good social behavior, good problem solving, and of course innovation. The idea is to educate without unduly limiting what a child can think. There should be no limits as to what thoughts a child can entertain, though there are certainly limits as to how far she can explore certain ideas.
To be continued …