The Most Important Graph in the World

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Schools vs. Education

I'm very interested in alternatives to traditional schooling such as this.   The one bright spot on the horizon as our economy continues to contract is that we will, sooner or later, be forced to admit that we cannot maintain anything at all like our current schools system.

Why am I so eager to see the end of schools?  It's not because I'm eager to dis-employ teachers, but because the factory school model is such an abysmal failure.


My most profound meta-memory -- as someone who was always at the top of any class taught on the standard regurgitation-of-instructor-presented-content model, which was all my schooling (K-12, plus 4 years undergraduate, 3 year MS degree, 3 year law degree) -- was that this form of school is a criminal waste of time in that it mainly exists to teach a secret curriculum of conformity and obedience in the guise of educating young people about "subjects," which are nothing but arbitrary categories imposed on knowledge for the convenience of pedagogues.


I once struggled to explain this problem to someone on a beautiful spring day in Oregon, which meant that there were at least three different weather systems visible in various parts of the sky, producing a lovely variety of different clouds in view.  So I talked about how schools "teach" about clouds.

I said that what I remember of my "education" is that I would have been "taught" the proper scientific names of those clouds, and shown a picture of each one, and at some point been tested on my ability to match those cloud names to photos.  And I would have been terrific at it.  And completely ignorant.


That is, at no point would we have gone outside to look at clouds.  At no point would there have been any discussion of what sorts of clouds one might expect to see during different times of the year, how they form, how they move, or whether they're the same all over, or whether different places have different kinds of clouds.  We would never have made observations of clouds, or built histograms of clouds, or been encouraged to come up with better names that we could remember.  We would never have been invited to think up some questions about clouds or, heaven forbid, develop ways to investigate our questions. For sure we would never have been asked to wonder how clouds affected us.  Or whether they were a daytime thing, or if they were present at night (and how could we find out?)

Nope.  The only thing that would matter, the hallmark of learning, was being able to match the damn latin names with the standard textbook photos.  In nearly every subject, year after pointless year, my "education" consisted of being taught an empty vocabulary completely devoid of actual content.  Because my brain happens to be really good at thinking symbolically and in catching and manipulating words, I'm an educational superstar, always with a great GPA.  And knowing just about nothing useful from all that time wasted "getting an education."  Meanwhile, people much smarter than I, people whose minds insisted on having tangible content to match with the words, were labeled as "slow" or even "learning disabled" because they hadn't figured out that understanding didn't matter, school is just a word game.


This is why the move towards even greater standardized testing is so profoundly evil.   Ramping up the emphasis on standardization and competition (rankings/grading) in schools is only aggravating the worst of what makes our schools so dismal now. ADDENDUM: as so often happens, the cartoonist says in a few frames what I bury in a cloud of words: http://xkcd.com/803/. Most of my teachers oscillated between the lower two responses. And that was well before standardized tests ruled the earth.