Friday, April 27, 2012

Formal Education as Stultification

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. -- Albert Einstein

Einstein much disliked school regimen and rote learning. His interest in physics was initially extracurricular. He was working as a clerk in a patent office when in 1905 he wrote the papers that would lead to his winning a Nobel Prize in physics in 1921.

Benoit Mandelbrot, although an established mathematician, was ridiculed for “wasting time” on “useless, non-traditional mathematical monsters,” which Mandelbrot called “fractals.” Like Einstein, he lived to see his insights come to be accepted as major contributions to his field.

Formal education can be stodgy and stultifying, both in process and product. I suspect, from my own experience, that that is true for most people a good portion of the time.

Have you ever thought about why the “Books for Dummies” is such a well-selling series? The answer is obvious, if you’ve ever used them. They get to the point. They give you reasons for the theory by showing applications. They don’t go into detail for its own sake. They even use humor to illustrate a point. They are written for the customer, most likely the student!

In contrast, junior and senior high school texts are written to pass review by school system book reviewers on the lookout for anything local politicians might consider offensive to their constituencies. Neither student interest, nor even usefulness to the teacher, is of high, if any, priority. The texts may be filled with factual errors, for which the publishers will pay a fine, if caught. But the errors needn’t be corrected afterward. School boards treat the fines as a discount. (See Beyond the Textbook.)

College texts are written for professors, who will have their students buy them, even if they are scarcely used in the course. For this reason, the writers of college texts worry more about the response of their professional colleagues, than about what the students might think.

In general, school texts are careful to avoid controversy, to seldom, if ever, offer criticisms about the disciplines or about those who practice them. Publishers tend to dissuade authors from leading learners to think “outside the box”: it may put off prospective buyers. (See Reason and Authority in Education)

University life is filled with quaint traditions and cultural practices. Knowing your place and acting accordingly is are two of the more difficult ones to acculturate oneself to. But it is most dismaying to realize that conformity in the pursuit of knowledge is a major desideratum.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Evaluating Learner Strengths and Weaknesses: 
the Impediments of Formalism

--- EGR

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Reforming the Schools: Who is willing to sacrifice for it?

He who gives what he would as readily throw away, gives without generosity; for the essence of generosity is in self sacrifice.-- Henry Taylor
One of the most common and apparently pleasurable distractions for Americans has long been to jump on bandwagons. Nothing warms the heart and expands the self-regard more than to promote “reform” of one kind or another, especially if you, personally, don’t have to pay much for it.

Commitment is a problem. That sometimes means using up personal resources, time, money, attention, patience, to make things happen. But if you are particularly concerned to promote reform, then you might want to have a way to judge how much a person is willing to stand by you if things get sticky.

You may not ever expect someone to be willing to break the law for the sake of the reform, but you may be surprised, occasionally, at the enthusiasm for this that you encounter. (Gung Ho, we call them.) On the other hand, it’s not to much to ask someone who is willing to bother you with complaints, to put up or shut up: help, or don’t interfere. (Better yet, use The Little Red Hen’s Rule: no help, no bread.)

It is a long-standing American tradition to complain about the public schools. But it is a rare occurrence for anyone employed in them to resign his or her position over an issue of reform. Most are disinclined to personally confront a colleague even when they believe that person’s behavior to be unprofessional to the point of immorality or criminality.

What you need is a checklist, a survey of items ranging in intensity from very to minimally disruptive, which will give you an idea whether you, personally, or your colleagues, are sufficiently committed to change to bring it about.

For such an assessment instrument, see Assessing Role and Commitment

--- EGR

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Politics vs. Efficiency: the realities of American public schools

Confidence in golf means being able to concentrate on the problem at hand with no outside interference.-- Tom Watson

Imagine how you would feel if you had to get the approval of a committee for every little thing you did. Don’t you remember how it felt in school when you had to raise your hand to get permission to go to the bathroom? Did you ever have to wait? Did you ever have an “accident?” Do you wonder why many kids think of being in school as being in prison?

On the other hand, have you ever watched shoppers crash through the doors of a supermarket or department store to be first at a sale? People sometimes get trampled and hurt, but a lot of people get bargains, too.

Both of these approaches, tight control and free-for-all have benefits and costs. Tight control favors the group (generally, its “leaders”) over the individual. Free-for-all favors lucky individuals over the group.

American public schools are caught pulled in two conflicting directions: trying to efficiently deliver services to individual children and trying to work within constraints identified by democratically elected officials, whose main concern is not, and cannot (officially) be, individual children.

To examine these issues further, see Two Faces of American Public Education

--- EGR

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Public School’s Real Mission: Inculcating A Common Faith?

Faith is believing what you know ain't so.
 -- Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar

The reason bad public schools are bad is that they badly governed, from top to bottom. Happily, bad public schools are in the minority, despite what some newspapers and other lickspittle TV pundits have to say about them.

“Badly governed” does not mean “governed with bad intention.” What it does mean is that school leaders seldom are willing to face facts which threaten their piece of mind. These school governors, -- state and local administrators, superintendents and principals -- are brim full of ideologies and nostrums they’ve inherited and which they insist on foisting off on the vulnerable.

Part of this is their not unreasonable belief that that much of the general public is in the same delusional state. No parent wants their kids learning things which would disturb the parents’ peace of mind. (This is why so-called “critical thinking” gets many a salute, but has yet to make any headway into the public school curriculum.)

In the olden days of kings and princes, the Established Church of a nation saw to it to inculcate the belief in their congregations that their ruler, as malignant as he might be, sat in power by the Will of God. Subjects were to accept their lot in life and forswear violence as an instrument of change. (See In Days of Yorengore)

In today’s United States of America, where both aristocracy and religious sectarianism in government are purported to be absent, it is the role of the Public Schools (and many a private and parochial school) to teach little more than that our “citizens” -- never “subjects” -- are obliged to accept their governors as the Will of the People.

As good citizens, they are to reject any attempts at governmental change which might involve “violent” activity -- no matter what Thomas Jefferson ever advocated. This "Citizen’s Faith" is what is most important; the recently tediously advocated knowledge-and-skills-focus on the schools has always been given little more than lip-service.

If getting knowledge and skills were really the mission of the schools, then there would be a far more careful preselection of students than our governors and their clients, including parents of schoolchildren are prepared to pay for. Kids are put in grades by age. This is a traditional and cheap sorting method. If some don’t do so well on their report cards, everyone who does not work in a school knows at whom to point the finger of blame.

Here is a method for raising test grades substantially in just two years:
a. for the next school year, retain in grade every public school student who does not have B+ average on standardized tests;

b. any student who is failing this year should be held back for two years;

c. make age 7 the beginning year for first grade; and

d. pull back the curriculum so that any intellectually rigorously formal curriculum is not encountered before 9th grade.

If these steps were to be taken, students would encounter the present high-stakes testing almost two years later in their academic careers and more likely do far better in them, especially in the middle schools.

I don’t expect the above steps to be even considered. Why? Because our school and political leaders, along with many, many parents of school children, just have too many mental impediments -- myths, misinformation, and narrowly focused esteem issues -- to deal with providing their students, their children, with an appropriate, humane, invigorating education.

For references and to examine these issues further, see The Capacity to Benefit from Formal Academic Schooling: 
two ideologies of distribution 

--- EGR