Monday, March 26, 2012

The Face of Education

Education Has Gone Astray

To get to a certain point we all need some basic instruction, how to read, how to write/type, and basic math. Once we have those skills we can quite easily take over the course of our own education, tailored to our interests and our strengths.

Nothing is more demotivating to a child than having to learn something they are absolutely not interested in and yet are forced to learn. Then why do it?

Why do we have mandated by law instruction until the age 16, when by the age of at least 7 they have acquired the rudimentary skills to continue down the path that they choose and at their own pace?

Think about why our education system is like it is. It is shaped by corporations, curated by government, and mandated by law to produce a particular subset of workers (not thinkers) that fit into the current economic and cultural milieu.

This would be acceptable except for the fact that the system is now failing our children. If the free market guaranteed some form of employment for the time spent in school it would be an equitable trade off.

However, what is happening is that the level of education required by today's corporations is insufficient, the governments are too broke to provide more subsidies and corporations will not step in unless there is a profit to be had.

Hence all further education investments are coming from private individuals to get their children a degree from a university. The result: a hoard of over-educated mail-room clerks.

The over production of young adults with degrees has raised the bar for those seeking employment. Why hire a high school grad, when you can get a University grad for the same price? All this on the dime of the private individual.

Student loans? One of the hardest loans to discharge through bankruptcy, essentially creating a self-reinforcing loop that requires young adults to:
1. Get a degree
2. Take on massive amounts of debt
3. Take the first job offered to allow them to pay that debt

Which drives down the ratio of labour cost to the level of education a company gets.

So why pay for the privilege of having a degree or a diploma when the same education can be had for the price of a library card and a good computer?

Some of the greatest innovators (see links) in history share a common trait, either they were self-taught, or they were kicked/dropped out of school and then self-taught. Schools, as configured, squash innovation and encourage conformity.

Grades are degrading.

Grades are a shorthand that teachers and employers can use evaluate the quality of conformity attained by the pupil. A student that receives mostly A's and B's is praised while another student that receives mostly C's and D's is looked at as performing at an unacceptable level. Grades are little more than branding, establishing social hierarchies before they are let out into the "real" world.

Creating a situation of scarcity, for example, grading on the curve, creates an environment of competition which discourages information sharing (often referred to as "cheating") which in turn creates an atmosphere of fear of being wrong. The result: a roomful of mediocre students who end up being mediocre adults who take no risks, stand for nothing, all for fear of being wrong.

Children are natural collaborators. Don't believe me? Watch them at play in pre-school environments, you will see them learn about games, structures, songs, in groups and often spontaneously. Ironically this behaviour is one of the first the education system tries to snuff out with rigid formations (desks in a row), rigid schedules (class time length, recess length, occurrence of lunchtime), no talking, and repeated discipline for the offenders (non-conformists) that do not fall within the range of "acceptable" behaviour.

What does a diploma tell you? Or a degree or designation? All it says is that the student knew the material well enough to pass a standardized test. It does not demonstrate or illuminate the passion or adeptness the student possesses with the material. The only way to know how well someone knows their field is to talk to them and better yet to have them talk to others that share their passion and expertise, thus both at once demonstration their ability and maybe learning something more about what they love.

The Way Forward

Provide the basics for our children: reading, writing, and math, which are the bare essentials that provide a platform to acquire more knowledge on their own. In short, once the children are able to absorb and choose the knowledge they want to acquire, then we allow them to do so. No grades are to be given, no diplomas earned, instead the child is allowed to pursue an education path as far as his or her ability allows them to progress.

Initially knowledge would be acquired through a Khan Academy-like environment ( where the child watches/reads a section, then answers a number of questions at the end of the chapter, if they are right, then the child progresses to the next level. At some point when the child exhausts a particular path in Khan Academy then he or she "graduates" to partaking in discussion circles/forums where others share the same interest in furthering on the same educational pathway.

As they demonstrate a firmer grasp on the material, the collaborative environment of the discussion circles/forums will stimulate new theories, new material, and new ideas to pursue. As their knowledge increases they in turn reinforce or increase the knowledge of others. The one truth that they will hold is that novelty can come from anywhere and from anyone.

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