28 Jun עופר איתן Reviews: Reinvent Education As Well As Creating Greater Access
At a time when previously-unthinkable changes in education are underway, such as the suspension of SAT and ACT admission tests, the biggest distance-learning experiment in history, and global demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter, we have a historic opportunity to rethink: what is education anyway?
The current debate flowing from the Black Lives Matter debate and the call for greater access to good schools have shed light on massive cracks in the foundations of our society and the fact that we have a huge backlog in education. A whole swath of people lack access to worthwhile education and have fallen behind. The challenge is intractable since kids who have fallen behind are likely to stay behind. On the surface, this problem seems almost insoluble. Yet not necessarily—if we are willing to re-think the very nature and purpose of education and proceed in an Agile fashion.
Amid the calls for making education accessible to all, there is an opportunity not to be missed. Access to the current form of education, which is based on teaching the right answers rather than inspiring better questions, isn’t genuine education. The most important and urgent need is to transform education and make it relevant to the 21st Century. Expanding access to a broken system won’t help as much transforming what education is about. Both are needed.
Given the current turbulence, the moment is opportune. This is not simply a matter of additional funding (although that is part of it) or imposing a change in curriculum, which can and should be adjusted locally. This is about redefining the very purpose of education. It is a paradigm shift, the flows inexorably from changes in our world today.
Why The Basic Idea Of Education Must Change
The need for the redefinition of education has several main bases. For one thing, our world itself has changed. In in the past, information was hard to find and the teachers supposedly had the answers. Now finding answers is easy. You Google it. The main challenge is to ask the right questions.
For another thing, education in its current form is dispiriting: Having answers imposed on you is no fun. The impact of this can be seen in watching children grow. From age 1 to 5, the kid is a bubbling fountain of curiosity. Everything is fascinating as the kid finds the world an incredibly interesting place. Then around age 5, the kid gets into formal schooling and the teachers start saying “Now children, be quiet and pay attention: we have the answers; you don’t; please note and remember them.” By age 15, the kid has been beaten down to accept the system of regurgitating answers given by the teacher, even if they are the wrong answers. Kids are often sullen and disinterested and can’t wait to get out of it. They stick around mainly because it’s a condition of getting ahead in life, not for anything resembling a love of learning. By age 15, that’s usually long gone.
The paradox is that we are all born with a natural tendency to ask questions and learn. We all come out of the womb searching for answers to the strange world in which we find ourselves and have fun in making discoveries. As small children, we have no trouble mastering foreign languages. As young children, we find the world as engaging as Aladdin’s Cave. Finding answers to questions is natural for us as kids. Learning answers to questions we don’t have and aren’t interested in is not.
Where kids need coaching is learning to ask good questions. That means sparking and stimulating their pre-existing curiosity, not crushing it, or replacing it with pre-digested packets of information.
Shamefully, the education system is even worse for the disadvantaged, whether their disadvantages stem from ethnicity, gender, disabilities, or whatever. The answers that the teachers impose are, almost by definition, culturally biased towards the needs and interests of the well-to-do, the successful and those in charge—things that are often foreign and uninteresting to the disadvantaged, So the system is even more demoralizing for these groups—the very groups that we need to help “catch up.”
Even more horrifying, the whole system is preparing kids for the wrong jobs: The basic idea of the education system in the 20th Century was that if you worked hard at school and finished your education you were set for life with a good job. The problem is that most of today’s jobs won’t exist tomorrow and most of tomorrow’s jobs don’t exist today. Kids will probably end up having many different jobs throughout their lives. We simply don’t know what jobs will be there in twenty years’ time. Today, apart from a few core skills like reading, writing, math, thinking, imagining, and creating, we cannot know what knowledge or skills will be needed when little Freddie or Janet grows up. What is needed is a lifelong willingness and ability to learn, no matter what opportunities or challenges offer themselves.
Hence the system’s current implied promise of a future job is false. A vague suspicion that this may be the case is a further inducement for kids to lose interest in pursuing their education. There is no solution to this problem so long as the system is “teaching answers”. The only solution is to start teaching students how to ask better questions so that the kids are equipped to reinvent themselves for a whole series of different careers.
To top it off, the education system itself is bureaucratic and resistant to change: Like most big organizations, particularly public sector organizations, the education system tends to be rule-driven, and steeply hierarchical, and not exactly hungry for change. Innovations and initiatives can take place, although usually at a glacial pace, and then only within the framework of the existing system. The idea that the system itself must change is unthinkable.
Lessons from the ongoing transformation of management and innovation elsewhere in the economy, with a growing capability to carry out continuous innovation. are received by the education system like news bulletins from a strange foreign country—of no relevance to the education system.
What About The Teachers?
When I raise such issues with education professionals, they often respond passionately, “Have you forgotten the teachers? They are the lifeblood of education. Why are you attacking the teachers? The teachers are heroes, performing miracles with insufficient resources!”
Indeed, much of this is true. There are many heroic teachers who do their best within the current rigid system. One can only wonder what they could accomplish if they were working within a system that was not only properly resourced but also flexible and responsive to the real needs of the kids.
In effect, many teachers are prisoners of the existing system. They can even be seen as suffering from the Stockholm syndrome in which they develop a psychological alliance with their captors during their “captivity”. Emotional bonds formed between teachers and administrators may blot out the risk endured by the children of receiving a travesty of real education. So let’s agree to honor the teachers, and give them the resources they need, but let’s also free them from the rigid systems in which they are currently imprisoned.
The current education system limits the localization of the teaching, thus accentuating the likelihood that what is taught will seem foreign to the students. Because the curriculum tends to be determined centrally and teacher performance is evaluated according to these centrally determined criteria, the teachers have many incentives to submit…