Modern Education: The One Best/Worst System

Over the last few years, I’ve been on a steady diet of books like Tyack & Cuban’s Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Harvard, 1995) and its precursor work, Tyack’s 1974 opus The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education, Low & Johnston’s Singapore Inc.: Public Policy Options in the Third Millennium (Asia Pacific, 2001), Tan & Ng’s Thinking Schools, Learning Nation: Contemporary Issues and Challenges (Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2007), and perhaps about another 50-60 books on related topics.

It has struck me that modern education is more engineered (or engineering) than ancient education. Ancient systems of education were more about ‘this is who we are’ and ‘this is what we do’, as seen from countless studies of ancient cultures and oral traditions. Modern systems of education are designed to produce factors of production in an economically optimal way (whether or not we can figure out what has to be produced).

The phases of modern education seem to be consistent in every system. At some point, a state, confederacy or other large organization thinks of education not as something that is intrinsic to the human condition, but as a preparation for life. This preparation is seen first as necessary for survival, and then as a necessity for economic productivity (which in modernising societies is perceived as tantamount to survival).

At this point, what Tyack calls ‘administrative progressives’ take over; these are people who are fully convinced that given the nature of education as an economic necessity, directed economic planning (involving flowcharts, organisational structures, functional bureaucracies and so on) of some sort must be used to control the process. This begins with the obvious infrastructural necessities — economic resources are diverted to supply buildings and tools (schools, furniture, stationery etc) — closely followed by mass production of teachers, mostly with perfunctory (i.e. just good enough for function) training.

However, since schools are only venues and teachers are only agents in this worldview, the key battleground is that of curriculum. Curriculum planning begins with basics like standard language proficiency and mathematics, and then proceeds to sciences, and then whatever version(s) of the humanities that can be applied to the local milieu.

Humanities subjects normally begin with history as a sociocultural narrative designed to justify or normalise the state’s existence; geography is deployed with an eye to highlighting the natural or geopolitical resources of the state. Aesthetic subjects like music or art, not being of high importance to modernisation, are normally grafted on last; however, since they are seen as hallmarks of a civilised society, they are always there at least ‘for show’. The sciences and mathematics are important because of their role in developing an engineering-capable base, and their perceived correlation with economic development.

At some point, this relentless upsurge in school, teacher and curriculum deployment will overstress the system — a society that has shifted from semi-literacy to full industrial competence in a generation or two will always hit this shock point. When it does, the high dropout rate will become obvious, since most students are not yet part of an education-based culture.

Solutions will be sought, and always fall into two categories: a) the system is failing (which of course it is) and must be redesigned; b) the students (based on various statistics) are failing (which of course they are) and they must be reclassified. In the former case, ‘systems engineers’ (or whatever they are called in that time period) will be called in; in the latter case, the latest studies in human intelligence and cognitive development will be sought, analysed and mishandled.

The solutions are always the same. They don’t vary except in specifics based on the resources available.

For the system, economic efficiency dictates that resources no longer be deployed en masse, but in different ways and at different levels (diversification of product and production mechanism). No longer will you aim to mass-produce, but you start to mass-customize by streaming or tracking (the easiest solution) at first, and then by offering an educational buffet (smorgasbord) from which your intelligent targets can choose their own destiny (the most complicated solution).

For the students, you need to channel them into these diversified production lines by evaluating their relevant qualities. This necessitates adoption of some sort of testing mechanism, normally a descendant of Alfred Binet’s IQ tests, as modified by Eysenck, Gardner and all the other curious people who have assayed (and admitted failure in) the comprehension of human intelligence. Even though this is pseudo-science, it’s the best we appear to have.

For more centralised systems, the ‘test beforehand’ seems to work. You test the students on stuff they have not yet been taught (as in most selection tests). If they are good at what you haven’t taught them, you admit them. Of course, it also makes it easier to teach them what you haven’t taught them, since they have shown aptitude in it before you started teaching them. This boosts results, since only those who know something about what is to be taught will end up being taught.

Since this is a human process, humans as rational economic consumers will eventually figure out what they have to learn in order to be taught. They then screw up the system by stressing themselves learning stuff they will be taught before they are taught it, and driving up the admission requirements. This happens especially in the professional disciplines: for example, medical schools only take in those who already look like they’ll be good doctors (which means that educators don’t have to work so hard) . That’s a typical consequence of economics being the driving factor behind education. It also happens in schools at a junior level when parents figure out that better qualifications lead to better-paying jobs unless you are very fortunate or very talented in some other area.

When this is happening, it means that the system has shifted away from one that is driven by quality of school and teacher, towards one that is driven by performance of student. It is like choosing bioengineering and GM seeds to compensate for bad soil, bad farming practices, and bad farmers (or at least, indifferent soil, farming practices and farmers). Once you go down that road, you will not bother to think about good soil, good farming practices and good farmers. Rather, you will look at the huge crop yields from your GM seeds and imagine that the soil, farming and farmers are good because you are using GM seeds.

But is such a system bad? In a warped way, it isn’t that bad. You’ve produced self-modifying GM seeds and GM-seed laboratories. This means you no longer have to invest in the messy business of skilled farming; any fool can plant the seeds and get a good crop. In fact, with fertilisers from some specialist corporate entity (let’s refer to it as MS), you don’t even need to bother with soil quality. MS fertilisers with MS GM seeds will do it all for you.

The downside, of course, is that you are now beholden to MS. If you ever need good farmers, good soil, good farming practices, it will be a long, hard struggle to get them back — especially after you have redefined ‘good’ to mean ‘makes adequate use of MS stuff’.

In a modern education system, one of the hidden axioms is that good practice is that which produces what practitioners have decided is a good outcome. It is like saying a machine is good because it produces what the machine-designer wants it to produce. Whether the product is any use at all is no longer questioned. Instead, a product is praised when it turns out to have ‘label extension’ — that is, it can be used for other originally non-specified purposes, much as a screwdriver handle can be used as a (bad) hammer. This was the case with the anti-hypertensive drug that later became known as Viagra.

Some enlightened consumers will then look at the system and aim for philosophical reform. This is like trying to farm organically instead of by relying on MS. It is expensive, only rich people can afford it, and even though the rest of us can’t afford not to have it, it will remain that way. Worse, a lot of cheap knock-offs will be created that look like the expensive stuff but get results by dirty means — this is the case with so-called ‘traditional Chinese medicines’ that have liberal helpings of steroids mixed into them.

What then can be done about modern education? The answer is, “Not much.” It is all a farrago of misapplied science and misconstrued statistics. The challenge that an educational reformer faces is to find good educational research and have it cleverly applied by good educators. That, my friends, is another story altogether.


Original post here.

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