How schools get it wrong

Posted on November 1, 2009 in Education Debates – AtkinsonSeries – How schools get it wrong: We’ve made quantum leaps in understanding children’s developing brains. So why are classrooms still organized like last century’s assembly lines?
October 31, 2009.   Alanna Mitchell

The teachers already knew that the girl in Grade 5 had problem parents. In fact, secretly, they called it the “PITA” family: pain in the arse.

But when the 10-year-old’s year-end social studies project came in on letterhead from a public relations agency that her father had hired to do the assignment, it still shocked them.

“What is the father teaching that child?” asked her teacher, who told the tale at a recent education conference near Boston. “And what is she learning? That she can’t do a Grade 5 assignment?”

Most would agree that this parent’s actions defy the purpose of schooling. But do we agree on what schools are for? Or, for that matter, the goal of education?

I’ve spent chunks of the past year in classrooms all over the world, pondering this question.

One of the worst experiences was in a respectable public middle school in North America where I was giving a talk in the auditorium. Teachers patrolled the sides of the room like prison guards, silently threatening the children by looming over them when they showed the least bit of enthusiasm.

I was telling the kids stories and asking them questions, and they were getting all excited figuring out answers despite the menacing presences. Finally, one of their teachers sidled up to me and said: “Don’t ask them questions. Just tell them what you want them to know.”

I formed the image that she wanted me to just zip open their heads and pour in the information, unfiltered by their own ideas. It felt like she thought their brains were just storage silos.

So what is school for? The debate has raged for ages, especially in the past few hundred years, since universal education became the goal of many countries.

Is it for the transmission of culture and potted knowledge, akin to filling a CD-ROM? Is it to foster skills that will serve society down the road, or make dutiful employees? Or perhaps it’s a strategy to make sure a nation’s gross domestic product keeps rising?

Is it a sorting mechanism aimed at working out where in the class system a student ought to land? Or to encourage upward mobility? Should it build character? Endow morals?

Is it a way for the new generation to question the values of the old? Or is it for making sure they don’t?

You could write a library full of books on this stuff.

Guy Claxton, a psychologist at the University of Winchester in England, talks about the unconscious images we have in our heads that tell us what education has been about.

In What’s the Point of School? Rediscovering the Heart of Education, he notes that one of these hidden, ancient images is of a boy preparing for the priesthood. That model, developed 4,000 years ago, holds that knowledge is the “eternal Truth,” never to be questioned.

“The image of school as monastery persists up to the present and the classrooms of Mesopotamia, 2500 B.C., would be instantly recognizable to the students of today,” he writes.

The factory model of education, which stemmed from an engineer’s assembly-line vision of efficiency in putting together the same machine time after time, has also permeated much of the educational imagery of the early 20th century.

It relied on standardization and tight quality control (a.k.a. testing), Claxton writes. Every student was expected to learn the same things at the same rate in the same way.

“(This supposes that knowledge) can be standardized, installed in manuals called `textbooks,’ and chopped up into different sized bits – syllabuses, topics, schemes of work, and eventually the content of individual lessons – that can be bolted on, as it were, to students’ minds bit by bit,” Claxton writes.

You can see how it melded with brave new ideas of mass education emerging at the same time as industrialization.

But then, knowledge was fairly static. Today, it is exploding, and so is our access to it through computers.

Then, and for generations after, people got out of school, got a job and held it until they retired. Today, young adults and even middle-aged ones are shifting jobs every few years.

And the jobs of the future are unknown. Kids in school today might end up having dozens of jobs or careers. Are our schools preparing them for that? Should they?

Today, many parents and teachers believe that the best defence against an uncertain future is to teach children to learn how to learn. To them, that is the goal of education.

They believe the education system should unearth and ignite their children’s passion, their intrinsic desire to learn, the deep joy of discovery.

It is a vision completely at odds with the goals of much of the modern education system.

And neuroscientific findings are telling us that the brain learns – or forms strong neural connections – when the child is in a calm, emotionally regulated state.

“That’s telling us that education must be holistic,” says Stuart Shanker, research professor of psychology and philosophy at York University in Toronto and a leading figure in neuroeducation.

“The first question is: Have we created an educational workforce that has the tools to perform this holistic function? And of course the answer is: No, we haven’t.”

Neuroscience is also telling us that the brain is a platform on which intelligence can be built, rather than the determinant of a fixed intelligence. That means we should see the brain as an organ that is expandable, something to improve rather than prove, Claxton says. Schooling, then, is to help that expansion happen.

Claxton also suggests replacing the monk and assembly line metaphors with that of a learning apprentice. The teacher becomes a guide and model, a co-conspirator on the engrossing quest for understanding and self-knowledge.

And what should they guide and model? The higher-order habits of mind that characterize the expert investigator, researcher, thinker and learner, says Claxton.

There are barriers to all this. One is that the school system faces daily demands to host our children; it can’t shut down to retool. Another is that education is big business, set in its ways. It is a livelihood for education bureaucrats, teachers, teachers’ teachers, textbook publishers and school-builders.

Zachary Stein, who is doing his Ph.D. in human education and development at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, notes that when he and a colleague tried to persuade a school board in Texas to change their tests so that they actually captured what children understood, those most strongly pitted against the changes were real estate brokers.

Changing a school’s standardized test outcomes would change house values, they argued.

But at a neuroscience course for teachers that he helped conduct this summer, Stein raised a tantalizing prospect. What if parents came to understand that the current education system is at odds with how children learn?

“If parents knew that this is how kids learn and that it’s not happening at school, they would mobilize,” he told the group. “The more parents and teachers know, the better.”

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