What do we mean by Education?
Educate: from the Latin educere,
Today, as our education system suffers, there is much talk of educating and teaching but few speak of indoctrinating. It just doesn't sound right. We want to do something high-minded for our kids, not beat them with rulers. But wait. Indoctrinate: from Middle French and Latin, to give instruction in the fundamentals or rudiments. This is the same root (the Latin doceo, docere: to teach) as doctrine: something that is held or put forth as true; and doctor: teacher. But there is another meaning to indoctrinate and that is why it didn't sound quite right: to imbue with an idea or opinion. That is the indoctrinate we are leery of.
What is it that we want to do with education, anyway? If we are honest we will have to include some indoctrination, some giving of instruction in fundamentals. Remember Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmatic? The three 'R's? But we want more than that. We want the educated person to be able to think for herself.
Keeping the Public in Public Education
This is the title of a newly-published small book by Rick Salutin, teacher, writer, and long-time columnist for The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star (Linda Leith Publishing, 2012). He dedicates the book to his teachers – two of them in particular. He reports on his visit to Finland, which in the last decade has ranked consistently first in the world in student achievement. What he found was simple: in Finland teachers are respected and allowed to do what they do best.
I recommend this book highly to anyone seeking evidence and carefully reasoned arguments for the following conclusions:
Teaching and learning is an interaction between two human beings.
Teaching to the test is counterproductive.
Management oversight of teachers is counterproductive.
Graduate degrees in “education” are useless.
Curricula can be good, bad, or offensive.
The real goal is to think for yourself.
What Industry Wants
North American industry finds itself in a bit of a bind. Most of the jobs it needs done require a thorough grounding in Math and Science. We are not educating enough people to fill these positions. To be sure there are generations-old partnerships like that of Stanford University with Silicon Valley. But in general industry doesn't look far enough forward to help in the education of the next decade's engineers and scientists. Instead, what we see is the proliferation of “for profit” universities, which are in essence vehicles for turning student loans into capital formation tools. Never mind that the student victims wind up with a degree which is even narrower and more overpriced than one from a legacy non-profit university. Charter schools are another example where public money is used to finance a “free market” experiment.
So where do we look for guidance? The right points out that government only imposes tests and hierarchies, so the free market is the only option. The left says big money tilts the income curve and skims the graduating cream to work for hedge funds, so government is the answer. While these are arguable points, they don't help us to improve education, to get us to a place where, as in Finland, citizens respect teachers and kids learn naturally and well.
The Education Myth
The myth is simply that education is found in institutions. We have come to so thoroughly identify learning as emanating from schools and universities that we have forgotten the basics: a teacher shows something, points it out, says, look at that! Then a student sees that thing as if for the first time.
If we consider this simple but essential relationship, many useful insights follow:
The institution is the house, the teacher and student make the home.
Learning depends on mutual respect.
There are as many ways to learn as there are students.
There are as many ways to teach as there are teachers.
Forcing conformity kills the motivation to learn or to teach.
Teachers should have a university degree. Just not in Education. If they are really teachers they will know what to do.
We should stop worrying about tests, for teachers as well as for students. Let teachers teach and let students learn. It will be obvious soon enough who is getting it right.
No one has a right to be taught. Everyone should have a chance to learn. At a policy level this seems like a contradiction, but it is not. Let teachers and student find each other and chances and opportunities can be winnowed out from rights and entitlements.
There have always been teachers who got it right. In the fifth century B.C. it was Socrates. In the last decade it has been the Finns. We have been looking in the wrong place.
"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." W.B. Yeats