The Core of Education

Over the last few years, I’ve been exposed to many education debates. These debates have been about whether ‘holistic education’ is a viable educational concept, what an education ought to consist of, how educational results should be interpreted, how educational reform should be carried out and what its objectives should be, and many other related matters.

I’ve mentioned a lot of these matters on this blog. Some of them have exercised me more than others, and some have infuriated me or amused me more than others. But I think that there are still some basic questions that all educators should think about before they debate the more specific issues.

For me, the basic questions are: “Who do we educate?”, “To what end(s)?”, “With what curriculum?” Questions that are also very important but not so basic are: “In what way?”, “Developing what skills?”, “How do we evaluate success?” and “Where are the material resources?”

We educate students. This means we need to know what the range of human ability is, and how such ability is developed. Lots of new disciplines have developed in the 1990s and 2000s. We now know more about how the brain works, and how flexible it is in achieving goals, for example. We know it adapts dynamically in many ways.

The ends of education are almost always rooted in usefulness to society. In a fishing village, catching fish for survival and trade is a main objective. For our society, we should think carefully about what ends serve it best. We can’t just say, ‘Everything!’

The curriculum must be carefully constructed. You can teach skills like chewing, but without food, this skill is a lot less useful. It follows that skills are less important than context, ability and content — because of the adaptability of the brain. Learning to read, for example, is different for many people; there is no one specific technique. What’s important is that there is something to read, and that there is a lot of it. Preferably, what there is to read will be useful in attaining other objectives.

Once we know who we’re educating, why we are doing it, and along what lines, then only should we think about whether we can evaluate success. Logically, given sufficient education, students should be able, at some point, to continue their own education on whatever foundations have been built. They should also be able to do the equivalent of catching fish in a fishing village context.

As for material resources, it’s surprising how much you can do with limited resources. Isaac Newton’s work on light, gravity and calculus (among many other things) did not have the benefit of the more than 300 years of technology accumulated since his time; yet, we still study a lot of it.

A few years back, I posted some thoughts on an ideal education. Since then, I’ve thought a lot more, but not deviated significantly from those ideas. (Well, actually there is one deviation: I no longer think that all educational outcomes necessarily imply the presence of an education that is designed to produce those specific outcomes. It’s a bit like thinking about intelligent beings, realising that ‘intelligent’ is a self-bestowed term, and that it doesn’t necessarily indicate an intelligent designer. Haha.)

The bottom-line has to be increased functionality. We teach reading because we converted spoken language to symbols millennia ago, and the main method of effective persistent communication between humans relies on decoding those symbols. It’s dysfunctional to be illiterate or sub-literate in this human context. But teaching something like chemistry is a lot less generally applicable, although it may be a lot more powerful for those who will be using it for something specific.

What we need, therefore, is reading material that will challenge the student’s ability to decode symbols and derive meaning in as lossless a way as possible. Finnegan’s Wake might be too extreme, but a fairly high standard of competence in at least one language should be developed.

The next stage is the ability to compose using these symbols, in such a way that effective communication is achieved. This is attained when a majority of people reading your stuff can understand it or at least decode it enough to see what you intend to communicate. The closer they get to your intended message, the better you are. After that, of course, you can write for elegance and beauty and stuff like that; it’s just like building a house — walls and roof first, other stuff later.

Looking back at 2007 and the young people I taught in that bygone era, I realise that they were already good. What on earth were we teaching them, then? If the bottom-line was increased functionality, did we give them that? Or were the examinations just a way to rubber-stamp existing proficiency? Questions, questions…

Original post here.

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