Follow by Email

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Thinking and Learning

One of the biggest ethical issues of the 21st century is the crisis in education. Usually that is captured in the US as the failing of the public school system to produce productive (defined in many different ways) producers and consumers. But it also reflects the deeper crisis in our culture and our political economy.

Joel Klein, former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, speaking at the Aspen Institute on his new book Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools put this crisis in focus at a seminar I attended. Also recently I listened to an expert panel on ISIS and terrorist violence which attested to the crisis in education that separates two very different civilizations and cultures among nations and within them.

I generally agreed with Klein's fixes. The principal of the school is key and needs to be a strong leader of education, free to pick his/her own team, and held accountable for leadership of the school as a community of excellence more than as an administrator. The principal has to be committed, visionary, and optimistic, a real leader of the school teachers; and also be provided all the tools and support of the school administration.

I learned how much the principal makes the difference when we moved to Hawaii. I wanted to use the public schools and so moved into the district of one noted for its excellent. All that changed in three years when another principal was appointed by the statewide department of education bureaucracy. Teachers were no longer motivated and the school became mediocre. The parents mobilized, but the bureaucracy was intractable. At considerable sacrifice, we put our children into private schools. I said, as much as we wanted to support public education, we would not sacrifice our children to a principle or a principal.

Teachers should be formed into a professional association that provides all teachers standards and encouragement, including continuing education and remediation, not a trade union that protects bad teachers. And teachers should be free to exercise creativity and initiative in their classroom and given excellent pay to match their excellence in education.

The interface of teaching and learning in the US needs to be examined. National standards and core curricula are neither the problem nor the answer. The answer is to provide every family, no matter their income, the choice and means to attend a school as a community of educational excellence. Public education does not necessarily mean government run. It does mean publicly provided and required using the best that science has to offer; and seen to that by government. Ideally, under the leadership of a visionary and committed principal who assembles his/her own team, teachers in dialogue with parents and local community leaders should establish their standards of excellence and goals and build scientifically based curricula that can truly engage students.

Here is where I disagree a bit with Klein. He stresses the passing-on-of-knowledge part of education and gives the example of a teacher supposedly teaching the Civil War who quickly goes to racism and asks students how they feel about racism rather than learning all the causes and effects of the Civil War. Klein pokes fun at the Google world where anyone can go to the internet to get answers without assimilating them. He supports core standards and curricula by which to judge the value of the educational endeavor.

But I who have taught and consider myself a perpetual student feel strongly that it is the teacher's responsibility to set up the situation where the students want to search for answers and solutions (both in the library and the internet) and where, as an elder teacher told me, the classroom is as exciting as student distractions. It is not enough to provide answers to questions that are not being asked.

Education is not only providing correct information. It is also stirring up curiosity, questions, and a desire for truth.  Even the great knowledge of the past can be best achieved by students who want to know it to solve a problem. Taking Klein's example: suppose a teacher said we are going to be dealing with the Civil Way in American History because of how it still affects us today. You are going to see two great movies, but we have to get ready to see them. We are going to visit some of the Civil War sites and monuments (actually or virtually). And we are going to play a game in which half of you will be rebels in grey and half of you will be unionists in blue. So we have to get ready to play our parts. And we are going to see which problems we have today can be understood by knowing the Civil War.

Education is both learning and thinking. And that duality seems to me to explain the conflict in our cultures and civilizations. It was the Enlightenment that began in the West, after the Protestant Reformation and after the decline of the Dark Ages, largely brought about by the rediscovery of classical thought saved and transmitted by the Muslim world, when it became advisable to question all authority, religious and political and scientific. The revolution in the heavens of an earth traveling around a star was matched by a revolution in religion and politics.

While thinking without learning is blind (and really impossible), learning without thinking is indoctrination (and ultimately self-defeating). Indoctrination unfortunately is still pushed by regressive forces in politics and religion in many parts of the world including our own country. Ideology as a system of ideas is a facet of every society and culture that should be acknowledged and understood. But ideology as an unquestioned or even absolute set of ideas should be defeated. But it cannot be defeated by force or through another absolute ideology, but only by an education that values and employs critical inquiry, which in turn values and encourages the initiative and creativity of all persons.

For many years the Church allowed education only to clerics and aristocrats and only as long as it was consistent with the "true doctrine." Slavers and segregationists in the South forbade or discouraged black people from learning to read much less having access to liberal education. The Taliban and ISIS punishes families and teachers for providing education to girls and liberal, critical thinking education to all. Denominational schools were often established to protect their members from heretical ideas. Stalinists and Fascists through their councils and Conservative Christians through their school boards try to control the school curriculum so it is consistent with the purity of their doctrines.  Parents often homeschool to protect their children from ideas that they consider dangerous or subversive.

Because education is more than doctrine. Because education is the stimulation of thinking, it is successful when teachers and students move outside the boxes of their previous categories and ideologies to create new more inclusive ones by which they will prepare for and begin their action to change their world. This is true public education as people like John Dewey and Paolo Freire taught it. This is education that comes out of and fosters democratic publics, free spaces where students can experiment in building their lives, their city, and their world.

No comments: