Lefty Parent

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Living & parenting without the rule book

The Human Pursuit of Learning in the Education Industrial Complex

October 3rd, 2010 at 14:39

Following up on my piece yesterday that called out the “Education Industrial Complex”, I want to talk more about the impact of this hugely hierarchical and bureaucratic leviathan and its impact on the very personal, naturally self-initiated process of learning. These mega institutions that exercise such control over us rather than facilitating our own initiative (though well intentioned) I see as remnants of an ancient world view of external authority (which I call “Patriarchy”) that I see as an obstacle towards our human development in the direction of a a more evolved “Circle of Equals”.

To set the context again for this follow-up, I want to go back to Dave Chandler’s words that I think capture the essence of this leviathan I am wrestling with, from his piece “More of the Same: Obama and Schools”

Our ‘education’ establishment is very much about preserving a multi-hundred-billion-dollar spending machine. Corporations make tremendous profit from selling high tech hardware and software to virtually every school district in the nation. Textbook companies and testing companies and education consulting companies and pension investment advising companies and public relations firms and bond dealers… Then there are the politicians who get campaign contributions from the above mentioned special interests and the ‘educrat’ administrators who make hundred thousand dollar a year salaries.

In a well-meaning effort to ensure that every kid in America can get a quality education (certainly a progressive humanistic goal that I heartedly support) kids are compelled (with the force of truancy laws and social convention) to spend approximately one quarter of their waking hours from age five or six until age seventeen or eighteen in school. That is the reality, perhaps framed by me with a more negative spin than most people usually contextualize our participation in the K-12 education system.

Your response to this framing might be, “Kids should be so lucky!”, and for millions of American kids, their local public schools represent perhaps their only opportunity to escape from a hostile and non-nurturing environment of poverty, danger and irrelevance. Those youth would certainly not be well served if suddenly all our public schools were closed and the millions of adults, who perform their critical service working with our youth as teachers, no longer could offer that service.

But given that, I am a firm believer that learning (and a human being’s education) is essentially an intimately personal process that has to be self-initiated and self-directed to be effective. Others (including teachers, parents and other mentors) can participate in that process when called-upon or otherwise needed by the learner. Think “when the student is ready the teacher will come”.

But it is hard to self-direct ones learning when you are compelled to spend so much time within a huge bureaucratic institution where what you learn, who you learn it from, where you learn it, when you learn it and how you learn it is pretty much mandated by people other than yourself, and to make matters worse, people you have no knowledge of or redress to. That is a hierarchical top-down control model with a vengance, creating an educational environment that is completely out of whack with the natureal process of human learning.

The classic anecdote is the student just getting into their current project, whether writing a poem, looking through a microscope or finally grasping a difficult mathematical concept, when the bell rings and they are forced to move on to the next class instead of following their natural inclination to stick with a compelling learning experience.

Add to this that instead of monitoring the pace and effectiveness of ones own learning, you are constantly judged by the adults around you who continually conduct high-stakes evaluation of your academic output and your behavior as you attempt to produce that output. This is necessary because in a huge bureaucratic institution with top-down control, the people who are responsible for your learning are not your teachers, but someone farther removed. That farther removed person has no opportunity to interact with you as a human being and personally size up your development. Instead they have to rely on an abstract system of numeric evaluation and ranking reducing your human uniqueness into a single number or letter that says nothing directly about you, but merely how their abstract criteria compare you to others.

If the learning process was just about you, or even just about you and your teacher, then all this extensive testing, grading and ranking would be unnecessary.

But in the process of all that high-stakes evaluation, the intimate internal human process of learning gets torqued into an exercise in competition with others, where your own self-evaluation and internal compass is not as important as how you are viewed by others and in comparison to others. Like myself at many points in my own school experience, students can get caught up in seeing education (and maybe life in general) not as a self-directed voyage of discovery and development, but a stressful negotiation of a maze that depends on impressing others towards getting some hidden “cheese” at the other end.

I can remember my own experience in fifth and sixth grade with the SRA reading program. One of those “innovative new programs” sold by a big education vendor to school systems including in the town I grew up in. It included all these short essays in shiny color-coded (by degree of difficulty) pamphlets. I remember getting into doing the program like a trained seal, getting excited when I completed each essay, successfully answered the questions, got my little gold star and eventually transitioned (happy day!) to the next more difficult color. The content of what I read I quickly forgot once I had successfully taken the little quiz at the end. All I wanted was to be one of the cool kids who were already reading the purple pamphlets and not the red ones any more.

So instead of giving me the opportunity to sit down with a good, memorable science-fiction book of my choice and set fire to my imagination, I was instead getting addicted to this fabricated reading program that the Ann Arbor school district probably spent tons of money on which was teaching me to read for the joy of “leveling up” rather than the joy of the content of what I was reading. Again, most likely a well-intentioned program to help kids with their reading skills while bringing a handy profit to the company that created it.

The point here was that the SRA program was not designed to meet my needs as an individual learner, but designed instead to address a market need based on statistical data about student reading skill development. The product was crafted by analysts and technicians that had no idea who I was or what I was interested in learning. I was not the customer whose needs were being satisfied by this learning tool, it was the school district, that could say they had a “state-of-the-art” reading program. By being directed by my teachers to use it, my own inner direction and inherent joy of reading was being compromised.

And think of most teachers’ experience in this huge bureaucracy. They generally have less and less control of the educational process themselves, and instead have ever-increasing administrative and testing functions, plus more and more scripted curricula they need to follow. And the trend is towards evaluating teachers too using the same sort of reductionist criteria, reducing their professionalism to a number that compares them against others. Again, I see this as a result of the degrees of separation between the decision-makers at the state level and the teachers that are impacted by those decisions.

Both the joy of learning and the art of teaching get lost in the shuffle, replaced by mandates on what, when, by whom and how from above. And again, mandates that are mostly well intentioned and are systemic one-sized fits all responses to learning issues discovered by looking at testing statistics for large populations of students.

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6 Responses to “The Human Pursuit of Learning in the Education Industrial Complex”

  1. Can a Hierarchical Public Education System Survive? | Lefty Parent Says:

    [...] player in this actualization model… the student. I fear that the top-heavy bureaucracy of our education-industrial complex with all its administrative levels and expensive supplemental materials and special programs to [...]

  2. Lee Dittmann Says:

    To play the devil’s advocate, doesn’t the structure of schools that you deride replicate the kind of conditions most students will face in the work world–where their schedule is usually imposed on them by a boss, and they are expected to learn how to do a job the way the boss wants them to learn it? Until there are enough jobs available which value independent thinking, setting one’s own schedule, and which are less hierarchical, would we be doing students a favor by letting them learn in alternative regimes?

    Someone, I forget who, suggested that the modern school system was created after the industrial revolution as a means of creating a more compliant and able working class for all the new factories. Thus the emphasis on structure, standing in line, obedience, and rote learning that characterized earlier public schooling and which still persist in some fashion now.

    What of the students who come from families with rigid, faith-based world views? In current public education, at least those students get exposed to secular values, the scientific method, and important concepts like evolution. And even if they take the kids out and home-school them, I think they still need to demonstrate proficiency in state and/or national standards. The parents might well ignore some topics they themselves didn’t like and in such households, would not let their children follow their natural curiosity. If education was not compulsory, dysfunctional parents could well let the kids watch TV or play videogames all day, and with parents setting low value on education, who is to inspire the child to learn? This affects the whole society.

    So I have to say I support compulsory education, so long as there are alternative forms for different styles of learners, much as you suggested in your previous essay.

    By the way, I remember seeing the SRA series in my 60s California schools, but can’t remember reading a single one. I do recall being encouraged by teachers for reading other, more complicated books, even though that meant I didn’t read as many as the SRA-devoted classmates. In particular, I recall reading in second grade what I later recognized as an unabridged version of Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, complete with Verne’s Latin names of various sea creatures that are usually expunged from student editions. I wonder if in some of today’s classrooms, a teacher would be given demerits for allowing such deviation from prescribed reading programs, since my reading two books to some other students’ thirty might be taken as meaning I was behind in reading?

  3. Cooper Zale Says:

    I love a good exchange with the devil’s solicitor…*g*. I’ll try to honor your extensive and thoughtful comment by responding point for point.

    Doesn’t the structure of schools that you deride replicate the kind of conditions most students will face in the work world–where their schedule is usually imposed on them by a boss, and they are expected to learn how to do a job the way the boss wants them to learn it? Until there are enough jobs available which value independent thinking, setting one’s own schedule, and which are less hierarchical, would we be doing students a favor by letting them learn in alternative regimes?

    If you get out of school and work at many particularly low-wage jobs, yes you may well be put in a situation where your working conditions are far less than ideal with supervisors that may be all about ordering you around. But if you are able to leverage your education to get what most people would call a “good job” as a professional or some sort of “knowledge worker”, being trained to follow orders and not think for yourself will probably IMO be a great liability. Certainly the work I have done for the last 30 years as either a political organizer and later as a business systems analyst in the corporate world has been enhanced by my ability to self-direct and think outside the box. Now that I think of it, even when I worked as a low-wage short-order cook during my young adulthood the restaurant owners I worked for my ability to problem-solve and creatively adapt to challenging circumstances.

    Someone, I forget who, suggested that the modern school system was created after the industrial revolution as a means of creating a more compliant and able working class for all the new factories. Thus the emphasis on structure, standing in line, obedience, and rote learning that characterized earlier public schooling and which still persist in some fashion now.

    My reading of American History was that Horace Mann, a key founder of the US public school system, originally envisioned schools teaching kids (particularly from Catholic and other non-Protestant immigrant families) uniform Protestant moral values. It is only later, with the burgeoning Industrial Revolution (along with an effective opposition from Catholic immigrant communities) that US public schools moved to their focus on the “Three Rs” and the rigid class schedules, transition bells and standardized curriculum that seemed to consistent with 19th Century business practice and would hopefully appease taxpayers uncomfortable with ever greater levies to finance a growing school establishment for mandatory universal youth education. Even today, most schools continue these very 19th Century practices, even though most of the work world has moved well beyond them.

    What of the students who come from families with rigid, faith-based world views? In current public education, at least those students get exposed to secular values, the scientific method, and important concepts like evolution.

    We live in the information age where most kids are exposed to the larger culture through the media and including the Internet, so the role of schools as a young person’s only portal to the larger secular culture is not what it was in the 19th Century. The trade off as I see it is as follows… Is it worth mandating and regimenting every kid’s learning process and diminishing their natural zest for learning to ensure that every kid is exposed to all these mainstream secular ideas? And should the state control human development rather than the individual and/or their family? Which decision-maker is closer to and therefor more knowledgeable of the unique talents and interests of the young person?

    If education was not compulsory, dysfunctional parents could well let the kids watch TV or play videogames all day, and with parents setting low value on education, who is to inspire the child to learn?

    So I have to say I support compulsory education, so long as there are alternative forms for different styles of learners, much as you suggested in your previous essay.

    Though I believe our education system would be much enhanced if it were not compulsory (imagine teachers not have a classroom where half the kids don’t want to be there!), short of that I think have profoundly alternative public education forms, including support for homeschooling, is a great step forward.

    I wonder if in some of today’s classrooms, a teacher would be given demerits for allowing such deviation from prescribed reading programs, since my reading two books to some other students’ thirty might be taken as meaning I was behind in reading?

    In our current obsession with ever-increasing educational content standards backed up by high-stakes standardized testing of that content, I think your reading of Jules Verne rather than the state-approved reading list would lead to demerits for you, plus for your teacher and your schools evaluation. In our current education environment the to-down control model generally prevails and compliance trumps initiative both for what students learn and teachers teach.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion… and I would be interested in your additional thoughts responding to mine!

  4. Doug1943 Says:

    Here’s a wager: take a dozen educated Lefty parents (say, subscribers to the New York Review of Books), and a dozen educated Righty parents (say, subscribers to National Review), sit them down together, and ask them to come up with a list of the things they would like their children to know by the age of 18.

    Not skills, attitudes, morals, just the things that they would like them to know. Include both knowing how and knowing that things. Tell them they need to be as concrete as possible: for each thing they list, they also have to list some method by which they could be satisfied that their child actually knows it. (This method does NOT have to be a standardized multiple-choice test.)

    I’ll bet you would find a HUGE overlap.

  5. Ruth Says:

    It seems Doug is having a tough time understanding that progressive parents don’t have a “list of things” we want our kids to know. We want our children to be encouraged to pursue what interests them. I want is for my son is to be happy, productive, compassionate, accepting, inquisitive, creative, and a critical thinker. What else does he need?

  6. Cooper Zale Says:

    Doug… sorry to take so long to reply!

    First of all, I am not your garden variety left-wing person who also happens to be a parent. I use “leftyparent” as sort of a play on the two meanings of the word “left”. The first meaning that yes, I come out of that politically progressive left-wing tradition. But also, perhaps more importantly, I’m left-handed and tend to think outside the box of a right-handed world. I’m kind of more of an anarchist at heart than a socialist or classic liberal. As a parent I’m pretty unorthodox, by conventional left- or right-wing standards.

    Anyway, I agree with you that if you got a dozen more conventional progressive and conservative parents in a room together they would likely be mostly in agreement about what they wanted for their kids… a good rigorous K-12 education, the glide path to a top college and then on to a high-paying career (doing something the kid liked of course). They would probably come up with something very similar to the standardized education that we have and that I’m not comfortable with at all.

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