End of an Era? What to do? Back to the ABCs?

The ABCs I’m talking about are agency, balance and context

I think these are three important concepts as our society moves forward in uncharted waters. Important for everybody, but particularly for our youth, who as the years pass will more and more have to steer the ship of our culture. But first that ever-needed context…

I think our American culture has lost its bearings… and for good reason too. We humans are dynamic and powerful consciousnesses (more so than many of us may know) with a great ability to adjust quickly and profoundly to new circumstances, at least in a timeframe of centuries, but even in the course of a lifetime. I think this is a blessing, but the roller coaster ride it puts humans and our culture through can involved a mind-boggling and nerve-wracking amount of change and adjustment.

I believe we have come to one of those cyclical points in our history where the assumptions we have made about who we are, what we are capable of, what our life and human culture are about, and the institutions we build to support our path forward based on those assumptions, are losing their efficacy and are becoming destabilized and about to transform significantly.

People use the metaphor of taking a “quantum leap”, but you may not be aware, of the scientific details of quantum mechanics and what is involved in such a transformation. I am no physicist, but from my understanding of the process, a sub-atomic system that was stable and predictable for some length of time suddenly receives new inputs (maybe it absorbs the energy from a collision with a photon) and becomes completely destabilized, loses its current form and reassembles itself in a completely new and newly stable configuration.

Recent scientific thinking has also developed the model of the “chaotic system”, where “chaos” is not the complete lack of order that we lay people usually associate with that word, but a complex order involving innumerable factors reacting to innumerable inputs (including the changes to other factors based on those inputs). Chaotic systems can remain stable for long periods of time but then transform completely in a relatively short period of time to a new configuration that then is again stable and predictable going forward.

So some historians and other students of cultural development put forward a theory that European culture went through a transformative change around 1500 CE which was the time of the Protestant Reformation and the first use of the printing press (in Europe, though used previously in China). Now I tend to agree with those thinkers, like Marshall McLuhan, who believe that technological changes, particularly communication technology changes, lead to profound changes in our culture.

But whatever the spark was, in the course of a couple centuries, Europe was completely transformed from a feudal society with a mostly subsistence agricultural and herding economy to a society of nation states with a capitalist economic system, a cultural form that has remained culturally stable well into the 20th Century. Whether source or symptom, the Protestant Reformation, including Martin Luther’s assertion that people could be their own priests, destabilized the religious order that had kept European culture stable and predictable for centuries. It was most assuredly a time of great hand wringing and soul searching.

So I’m convinced we are now in the next great destabilization and transformation of our culture. The invention of the computer, the electronic network and the Internet in our generation I believe to be as fundamental a new thing as the printing press was in the 16th Century. What our revolution in thinking is, akin to Luther’s “you can be your own priest”, I am not sure I can say. That may not be clear for another century or more. But it might be something akin to, “you can chart your own course” or “we all should be peers” or something like that.

I think this may be the underlying reason why so many of our schools and other educational institutions are struggling and don’t seem to be delivering as much value to their students, families and the larger community (including the business community) than they used to. Our current school system is the fruition of a grand top-down design for learning developed in at the apex of the Modern Era (which many argue is ending) and may be too set in their ways and driven by unexamined conventional wisdom to be as effective as they might and ought to be.

Further, I think there is much dis-ease about schools because in many cases we don’t see them delivering to their students the three things I highlighted in the title of this piece: agency, balance and context.

I think most schools miss the opportunity to make their students real agents in their own education. Educational decision making is so cut and dried and handed down from above by decision makers that students and their families cannot identify and will never meet. In K-12 schools, it seems that over 90% of what students do, where, when and how they do it, is mandated by the state. Many students seem to be passive consumers of a one-size-fits-all pre-packaged curriculum designed by a committee to accommodate all the political and educational stakeholders. Students’ parents (as voters) are one of those stakeholders, but I think it would be hard to argue that the students themselves are.

If the standardization of K-12 education were not so ubiquitous, and the marching orders coming down from above with such authority, students could be engaged to play a significant role in individually, and a group helping guide the governance, curriculum and logistics of their schools. There is the rarest breed of schools out there that is already doing this. They are called “democratic schools”, and because the idea of empowering students runs so radically askew to the conventional wisdom of our top-down education system, these schools are force to be mostly private, and be available mainly to well-to-do families.

In a time when conventional wisdom and institutions built on that wisdom may be losing their value in a rapidly changing milieu, it is more important that our youth be given the opportunity to develop their agency sooner (say in middle school by being more involved in running their schools) than after getting through college (which some say is becoming “the new high school” (see my previous posts). If you wake up one morning and the world has changed underneath you, it’s nice not to be dependent on others for guidance on how to move forward.

And if the rules of the game change radically, if the hot finance careers of two years ago are suddenly a relic of the burst finance bubble, if traditional four-year college is no longer affordable to segments of the population, an individual’s and the entire culture’s sense of balance is jeopardized. If after a long calm voyage so far, the deck of the ship is now rocking in a storm, many of us (particularly our youth) do not have our “sea legs” yet to keep our feet firmly beneath our shoulders.

Business culture suffers when departments become separate silos and therefore can not collaborate to take advantage of new business realities. The compartmentalized focus on English and Math (the objects of most high-stakes testing) as separate subjects in their own “silos”, while the real-world is an increasingly complex and holistic hybrid of technical and human issues seems to me in no way gives our youth the opportunity to learn about complex interrelated systems and how to live in an environment of dynamic new relationships between things.

I remember asking my daughter’s veteran geometry teacher what he did to make math relevant to his student’s lives. He shrugged and said that frankly there was not time for that.

Finally, confined mainly to the four walls of a classroom, surrounded by an unnatural preponderance of others of the same age only, separated from even the real decision making of the institution they are the focal point of, kids are shielded from the context of the adult community that surrounds them, which ironically is trying so hard to nurture their growth. Many students go home to difficult and challenging lives for their families that are completely out of context to what they are learning in school.

But again, there are new school models out there that feature promoting student agency, giving students more of an opportunity to chart their own course, develop that inner compass and sense of balance, and then also take advantage of the actual running of the school as an opportunity to experience the real context of the educational institution that is built around them. Unfortunately in the current fixation with high-stakes testing for basic proficiency in English and Math, these more broadly drawn, holistic schools cannot pass muster as public schools and are relegated to a minimal role as alternative private schools, when they ought to be widely available options as charters or other incarnations of public education.

5 replies on “End of an Era? What to do? Back to the ABCs?”

  1. Your web site is quite enjoyable, Cooper. This post, in particular, hits hard in two ways. It addresses the time-is-way-past notion of segregating kids by age into classes. My daughter’s junior high (7th and 8th grades only) principal said they were three types of students: boys, girls, and women. The girls generally matured faster than the boys physically. That is obvious. Wouldn’t mental maturity also be obvious to teachers, administration, and school boards? I guess not.

    Many reading might be hit hard also by the lack of context you described with your daughter’s geometry teacher. It reminds me of sitting in class wondering how the subject I was learning would be useful in any way. Looks like that hasn’t changed much.

    The old poster which says the country would be better if schools got all the money they wanted and the military had to hold bake sales is apt. Making schools relevant and changing the generations-old status quo will take years and more courage than this country has ever before mustered. It will be difficult and painful along the way. Doing the same thing as in the past will lead our youth down a black hole into uselessness. No parent should tolerate that thought. Some ’60s radical activism might be just what’s needed here. Damn, would that be great!

  2. Somehow this post seems a little too pessimistic. I hate to defend the establishment – but, we’ve seen changes in our childrens’ curriculum – applied or everyday math and the introduction of higher level concepts at the elementary levels. They have many remediation programs for those students who begin to fall behind – attempting to catch them before they reach the upper elementary levels when the problem becomes overwhelming. We’re seeing integrated studies at the middle school. Our high schools are offering many more options and resources for student-driven learning and activities, and they have given the students voice, albeit not control (think mayhem). They are incorporating applied strategies and linking subjects to one another. Some of the teachers actually talk to each other and work together – what a concept! Their assignments deal with problem solving more often, moving beyond memory labs. Cultural change in education is slow, but it is happening in this very fast-paced world Historically speaking, however, we’re talking nanoseconds vs. decades or centuries. We no longer print handbills one at a time. The silos are still there, but clearly the shape is changing and bridges are being built between them. But I must acknowledge that we live in a more advantaged district – understanding that these changes are shamefully not occuring in other districts.

    And finally, on a personal note, I “live” the chaos theory in the middle and muddle of every day life, and in that there is a mysterious and beautiful order.

  3. I have not gotten a lot of comments lately on my blog so I particularly want to acknowledge Luke and Mary for their thoughtful responses. Unfortunately a blog is not quite the same thing as a forum, where every participant can start their own posts, which encourages more back and forth within the online community which I would love to foster. It has annoyed me in the past to post on others’ blogs and then get no response from the blogger.

    FYI… I do post pretty much these same entries on the version of my blog “leftyparent” on Daily KOS at http://www.dailykos.com/user/leftyparent. That site operates as more of a forum and if you are interested in seeing a lot of responses to these posts you should check it out. I would also encourage you, if you are so inclined, to start your own blog (or “diary” as they call it) on Daily KOS and put your own ideas out there for examination, support or criticism.

  4. Luke… Your point that mustering the courage in this country to accept fundamental change “hits hard” with me. Our country could be viewed as one of, or even the most, favored “offspring” of the Modern Era, now in theory at least coming to a close.

    Given that, I think it is right that it will take a lot of courage to maybe put our “exceptionalism” behind us, and take our place as more of an equal partner with other nations and embrace cultural transformation, which I believe is evolutionary and therefor a good thing.

    Some 1960s style radicalism by some of us aging baby boomers might be to back off from so much “helicopter parenting” and advocating for the idea of profound alternative paths, particularly in the area of education. I strongly believe that offering families many educational paths for their youth will encourage more agency and more active participation in the larger community (rather than more passive consumerism).

    I would be interested in your further thoughts if you would like to share.

  5. Mary… thanks again for your response!

    First of all, I appreciate your feeling a negative tone in my post. I did not intend it to be so, but maybe some of my own frustration at the school experiences of my kids is bleeding through. With my dad teaching me that life, at its best, is an adventure, I tend to embrace change and the evolutionary potential in any transformation. To anticipate a major historical cycle coming to an end, a death experience of sort perhaps, can feel like an admission of defeat or failure, but I see it as just the opposite.

    You are advocating for more effort to “rehab” the conventional instructional school model, which today is pretty much the only option form most of our youth. I am advocating for an approach to education that encourages many profoundly different educational paths for youth, including instructional schools, holistic schools, homeschooling, unschooling, apprenticeships and internships. I think in an environment of “many paths”, more of our youth (with their families’ help) will be able to better navigate the path to adulthood and a more active contribution to the larger community.

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