The most important problems in the field of education

in which The List, it turns out, is not where the real work lies

My list is short:

  1. Purpose. The purposes of schooling are too numerous, are often unclear, and frequently conflict with one another.
  2. One Size Fits All. Educational Psychology 101 tells us that each individual grows and learns at his or her own pace, and in his or her own ways. We then put kids in classrooms according to age and teach them the same stuff at the same time and usually in the same way.

Kind teachers, enthusiastic teachers, inspired teachers can make a bad situation better.

But so long as the school is trying to do a long list of contradictory things instead of focusing on a short list of well-conceived goals, and so long as we group students by age with little regard for individual needs, nothing fundamental will change. Amelioration is the best we can hope for.

Underlying Assumptions

As I look at that short list, I realize that it will be helpful to dig a bit deeper. What’s my beef, exactly, with the purposes of schools? And learning theory aside, what’s so bad about kids going to school with their peers?

Schools are not charitable organizations—they are instruments of the state, and are designed to benefit the state. Much as I understand this, however, I don’t much care. The interests of the state interest me very little. It’s important to the state that our children be raised up to vote for one of the major political parties, and that they be prepared to hold jobs so they can pay taxes and contribute to the GNP. Fine. Wake me up when you’re done.

I do prefer to live in a society where people behave well, and where people are well-read, thoughtful, knowledgeable, healthy, and curious. These would be the aims of my ideal school.

As for the factory model of schooling—students grouped by age and taught on a conveyor belt—well, it’s all about the money, isn’t it? An 18th-century aristocrat, say, would never have sent his child to a school; he hired teachers to come to the house and, in the best of all possible worlds, a gifted and inspired teacher sensitively guided the child to explore his interests and discover new ones in a way and at a pace suited to that particular child. Of course children benefit, too, from interaction with their peers, but they don’t really learn much (academically) from each other, not at least until they are young adults. And they can interact very well with each other by playing together, doing sports together, going to camp together, etc. The success of the home-schooling movement shows how unimportant the school is. Let’s face it: if we could only afford it, we would all hire gifted, inspired teachers to teach our children one-on-one.

However, of course, we can’t afford one-on-one teaching. So we send the kids to schools that are funded by taxpayers who want their money spent well, i.e., as little as possible and never on activities whose value is controversial. And once the kids are in school Mom can go back to work, which is pretty much required these days, and that brings us to one of the most important purposes of schools as they exist today: babysitting. (If you think babysitting is only an accidental side-effect of schooling, ask any school administrator about sending students home for a day or two so that teachers can participate in professional development workshops.)

And therefore . . .

This line of reasoning brings us back to my list of the two most important problems in the field of education and tells us that neither of these problems is actually important, because they are part of the fundamental nature of schools. Or rather, they are not problems so much as they are essential characteristics of schooling. It is possible to pursue education without schools—home-schooling being the one viable example I know of, cyber-schooling being perhaps a derivative of home-schooling or perhaps, someday, something more. But so long as we are talking about schools, the two problems on my list will never go away. For the vast majority of students, therefore, we should focus instead on the pragmatic, unglamorous work of amelioration: what can we do within schools as they exist to make them less bad?

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