Modernizing Education Starts With Questioning Our Assumptions

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When it comes to education, we take an awful lot for granted.

 

For example, we look at learning almost entirely from a behavioral standpoint.

 

Teachers provide inputs. Students give outputs. And those outputs demonstrate the intended learning.

 

Yet this framework was developed in the early 1900s. Using it today is to ignore a century of subsequent psychological advancements. It glosses over the impact of the unconscious, the social nature of understanding, physical differences, even the mediating thought processes between stimulus and response such as memory and problem solving.

 

Instead, we force students into inauthentic laboratory conditions (i.e. the classroom) upon which they are passive actors to be molded and shaped by expert educators.

 

Every time we post our learning objectives on the board or when we write our lesson plans beginning with the old chestnut – Students Will Be Able To (SWBAT) – we are hearkening back to early 20th Century thinking a hundred years out of date.

 

We are enshrining a host of assumptions long past their fresh by date:

-Learning is observable.

 

-It happens immediately.

 

-It is measurable.

 

-Once you learn something it never goes away.

 

-Most problems with learning are attributable to inputs provided by the teacher.

 

None of these assumptions have been proven.

 

In fact, there is considerable evidence against each and every one of these premises, yet our entire system of corporate education is based on them like a house built on a foundation.

 

If we are truly to create a 21st Century school system, the only place to begin is here. Recognize our bedrock beliefs are mere speculation and question whether we should really support everything else that’s been built on such shaky ground.

 

WHAT IS LEARNING?

 

It is an empirical fact that human beings are capable of learning. It’s something we do every day. But what exactly does it consist of? What happens when a person learns?

 

Perhaps it’s best to start with a definition. We generally characterize learning as the acquisition of knowledge; the possession of facts, information or skills.

 

But how does one gain knowledge? How does one possess the intangible?

 

It seems that learning always involves thoughts – usually conscious impressions but sometimes unconscious ones, as well. However, not all thoughts qualify, only thoughts of a certain kind.

 

The notion must be true of the world. And often it is an idea that has surfaced before but that now can be recalled at will and used to create new concepts.

 

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems that no matter how you flesh it out, we’re talking about internal mind states.

 

Learning takes place in and of the brain. And this has consequences for our education system – an apparatus designed to make these brain states more frequent along certain prescribed lines.

 

IS LEARNING OBSERVABLE?

 

That depends. Can we lop off the top of students’ heads and peer at the gelatinous mass inside?

 

Not really. And even if we could, we wouldn’t understand what we were seeing.

 

Even if learning may be reducible to a complex set of on-and-off switches among synapses, that does not make it generally observable – certainly not without greater knowledge of how the brain works and advanced neural imaging equipment.

 

As such, the idea that learning is directly perceptible is not necessarily true. It may be evident in some second hand manner, but this is not the same as first hand experience. At best, what we see is a pale shadow of what’s actually going on in students’ gray matter.

 

That alone should send shock waves through the edifice of modern corporate education. We’ve built an entire apparatus to label and sort kids based on observing students. If those observations are inadequate to give us the full picture of these internal learning states, our system is likewise inadequate.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TEACHER INPUT?

 

To answer this question we must start further back – when and why does learning takes place.

 

A student experiences a new neural state that constitutes the acquisition of knowledge. Why?

 

Does it happen because of the input made by a teacher? Is it the result of experience? Is it the result of some other input – reading, interacting, writing, doing something? Or is it the result of something even the student him- or herself cannot easily identify or explain?

 

All of these are possible. All of these (and more) are the catalyst to learning at various times.

 

Thus we lose another premise – that teacher input is the essential cause of inadequate learning. If we cannot place a primacy on the teacher, we cannot wholly place blame there either.

 

Certainly teachers are important. They can have a tremendous impact on their students. But they are not strictly necessary. They are not even the prime cause of learning. They facilitate learning in the way a doctor facilitates healing. The surgeon may set the broken bone, but it is the body that actually does the healing. And in the case of learning, the action is not entirely involuntary. It is much more active and intentional.

 

In short, teachers can call students attention to something that sparks learning. They can bring about optimal conditions for learning to take place. But they are not by themselves sufficient for that learning. They cannot make it happen. Insofar as it is voluntary at all, it is up to the student. To give teachers sole reward or blame for student learning is absurd.

 

IS LEARNING IMMEDIATE?

 

Learning may be a response to stimulus of some kind. But when does that response take place? Is it immediate?

 

There is no evidence that it must be so. Certainly there are times when one has learned something immediately. When a child first puts her finger in the flame, she quickly learns to remove it. However, there are some lessons that we don’t learn until many years after that stimulus. For instance, that our parents’ advice was often more sage than we initially gave it credit.

 

Thus, again it is inadequate to place reward or blame on teachers for their students’ learning. You can judge a teacher for what he or she did to help, but not what you take to be the result. Just because the teacher’s input may not have sparked learning in the student now, that doesn’t mean that the same input might not engender learning at a later date, given time.

 

IS LEARNING PERMANENT?

 

Which brings up another question – once you learn something, does it remain yours forever or is it susceptible to degradation?

 

If learning is an internal state – if it is the result of neural connections like any thought or memory – it is susceptible to fading. It can be lost or degraded.

 

Therefore, when students enter a class without prerequisite knowledge, it is not necessarily the fault of their previous teachers. Like any skill, memory or thought – recall is enhanced through repetition. Using the knowledge often results in greater retention.

 

If we want a more intellectual society, we should habitualize critical thinking and reward intelligence in our public interactions. Not the exact opposite.

 

CAN LEARNING BE MEASURED?

 

And finally, we are brought to perhaps the most vital question in the field of education – measurement.

 

What did students grasp and to what degree was it mastered?

 

There is an entire industry based on providing accurate accounting of learning.

 

There are corporations making billions of dollars based on providing this service. Moreover, the school privatization industry is almost completely predicated on the “failure” of public schools as shown by the measurements of these testing corporations.

 

As such, there is a tremendous amount of economic pressure to keep this premise that learning can be accurately measured. However, when looked at logically, it cannot be supported.

 

When we measure learning, what are we measuring? And how are we quantifying it?

 

If learning is an internal state, how do we calculate that? Possibly at some point in the future, we’ll be able to look at real time pictures of the brain and be able to tell which information has been learned and to what degree. But we are not at that point now. Perhaps we will never be.

 

Even if we were, what exactly would we be measuring? What units would we be using? Volts? Amps? Some new element susceptible to subdivision?

 

The fact that we can’t give a definitive answer to that simple question illustrates how vast our ignorance is of learning. We do not understand what goes on in our own heads that constitutes understanding expect in the broadest possible terms.

 

Yet how much importance we put on these crude attempts to measure the ineffable!

 

Grades and test scores are but the rudest approximations of the real phenomena hidden inside our skulls. Yet we sort and rank students on the pedagogical equivalent of cave paintings.

 

“It is easier to measure the number of semicolons used correctly in an essay than the wonderful ideas contained within it,” said Alfie Kohn. “The more focused you are on measurable outcomes, the more trivial your teaching tends to become.”

 

Or as Linda McNeil of Rice University famously observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”

 

Kohn has repeatedly suggested that McNeil’s statement ought to be printed out in “36-point Helvetica, framed, and tacked to the wall of every school administrator’s office in the country” for these same reasons.

 

When we talk about knowledge and learning, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

That should make us reluctant to say anything definitive about learning beyond our own ignorance of it.

 

Yet, as in so much of human affairs, when has ignorance ever stopped us?

 

We have to go about the business of educating. We have a society to run, markets to establish and consumers to exploit.

 

Imagine if, instead, we approached learning like explorers or scientists, mapping the shores of our ignorance and determining what helps us comprehend more and better.

 

There are so many tantalizing clues about what helps students learn, ways to foster the spark of inspiration, creativity and critical thinking.

 

I wish we were invested in that activity instead of a capitalist sham of education. We talk much about the skills gap between white and black kids without doing anything constructive about it – a chasm predicated on the fact that one category is predominantly poor and the other privileged.

 

Perhaps we would do better to talk about the ignorance gap of our own understanding of what it means to understand.

 

Perhaps then we wouldn’t be so bold as to monetize that which is fallacious and foolhardy.

 

Perhaps then we would be more curious, thoughtful and kind.

 

Perhaps then we could build a truly modern system of education that values students and not just how they can be transformed into profit.


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Tax Cuts Are Theft.

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Ben Franklin famously said that nothing is certain in this world except death and taxes.

 

But in our modern age, that might have to be amended to read, “death and tax cuts.”

 

These days, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can’t figure out how to govern without continually cutting taxes – and invariably the beneficiaries of such largess are the rich.

 

No one likes paying taxes.

 

You do a job, earn money and have to give a portion of it to the government.

 

But no one likes going to the dentist, either. Yet it’s something most adults do because we understand its necessity. We know that ignoring basic dental hygiene and avoiding regular dental check-ups will most likely result in halitosis, mouth pain and the eventual decay of our teeth.

 

There are similar societal problems with tax avoidance, but we’ve been tricked into willful ignorance.

 

The rich have paid for an army of economists, libertarians and other would-be thinkers to come up with justifications for avoiding taxation as much as possible.

 

It’s completely disingenuous. This is prostitution as philosophy. It’s whoring out one’s mental faculties to come up with a smoke screen behind which the wealthy can get away without paying their fair share.

 

The idea basically comes down to this: taxation is theft.

 

The government has no right to tax its citizens because it only gets rights from the consent of the governed. People can only give the government rights they already posses. Since they don’t already have the right to tax each other, they can’t give that right to the government.

 

It’s pure sophistry.

 

It imagines a mythical world without government and then tells a story about how that government got its power. But few of us have ever lived in a world without government. Neither did our parents or grandparents back through the mists of prehistory. In fact, it is hard to conceive of a time when people existed with no social structure at all from which individuals could then cede rights to a collective group.

 

And once government exists, each individual citizen owes it a debt. We owe it for all the public institutions from which we benefit. If we went to public school, for instance, we owe it for our education. Even if we were educated privately, we owe it for being able to live in a society where most people are educated since the great majority of those people received that education from public school.

 

It only takes a moment of reflection to see the complex web of benefits every person receives from society that come from some public services. Think of the inventions funded at least in part by government investment. Think of the safety we enjoy due to law enforcement and the military. Think of the roads and infrastructure that allow us to live at a high standard.

 

These are all provided by government, and no matter how rich or poor you are, you have benefited tremendously from being a part of it.

 

As such, you owe that society a certain portion of your income to help support this system.

 

It’s not exactly complicated. But certain economists make it complicated in a cynical shell game while their masters getaway without paying their debts.

 

And when they do, who has to make up the difference? You do!

 

It’s not taxation that’s theft. It’s tax avoidance and – often – tax cuts.

 

No one gets rich because they’re inherently better than others.

 

A person worth $500 million is not 500 million times better than a person worth $1. They are both people and equally as valuable. Nor does income equate to how hard someone works. Many billionaires spend their days lounging around the pool drinking piña coladas. Many poor people spend their days scrubbing floors and toilets. The biggest difference between the two is luck.

 

The wealthy most often are rich merely because they won the lottery of birth or their business ventures succeeded due to pure chance. And even in the rare instances when people made a lot of money because of their intelligence or savvy, that doesn’t justify them being so unequally rewarded by our society compared to those of us without such talents.

 

If you judge a person solely on his/her bank account, you misjudge the majority of the population.

 

Some policymakers will acknowledge these points but still insist on tax cuts based on misconceptions and/or lies about how economies work.

 

They’ll say the United States already has some of the highest taxes in the world. We need to cut taxes to be competitive.

 

However, this is not true.

 

In 2014, total US tax revenue equaled 26 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) – well below the 34 percent average for developed countries, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

 

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Of all OECD countries, only Korea, Chile and Mexico collected less than the United States as a percentage of GDP. In many European countries, taxes exceeded 40 percent of GDP. But those countries generally provide more extensive government services than the United States.

 

Some will argue that tax cuts are necessary to boost the economy. However, we have countless counterexamples to this popular fabrication. For instance, when President George W. Bush cut taxes from 2001 – 2007, the average annual growth rate was far below the average growth rate for any other period after World War II. In fact, only corporate profits experienced rapid growth. Over all, this expansion was among the weakest since World War II.

 

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In short, the US is doing a terrible job providing every citizen with the benefits of our society. We are disproportionately rewarding the rich while forcing the rest of us to pay for the services from which we all gain. Moreover, other countries provide even more bang for that buck.

 

Now this doesn’t mean that the government should tax us all into the ground.

Nor does it mean that the government should spend our tax dollars willy-nilly.

 

Taxation needs to be fair and spending needs to be regulated.

 

But constantly cutting rich people’s taxes is immoral. It is unfair to the majority of people making up the difference and struggling to survive when government services lag behind need.

 

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Our public schools are suffering under strategic disinvestment. Especially in poor neighborhoods that often disproportionately serve people of color, public schools cannot keep up with children’s needs. They aren’t providing an equitable level of service with those schools in richer, whiter neighborhoods.

 

Our policymakers try to solve the problem with charter schools, vouchers, standardized tests and Common Core. And the results have only been a worsening situation.

 

The real solution is simple – increased funding through fair increases in taxes on the wealthy.

 

Tax cuts are popular, but every time we let the rich get away with paying less, we have to either take more from the poor or take the knife to public services.

 

This affects the poor immediately in the form of reduced services, but it affects the rich, too. They have to live in a world where the majority has less – this means increased crime, increased drug abuse, increased ignorance, etc.

 

As a society, we must get beyond the selfish urge to look out only for what seems best for ourselves and our immediate friends and families. We must look out for our entire society. We must look out for the needs of everyone in it.

 

Otherwise, when we fall for these economic fallacies, we’re only stealing from ourselves.

Education Does Not Cure Poverty – It Cures Ignorance

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What good is an education?

Will it get you money? Will it make you rich?

No. Not really.

And that’s one of the biggest problems with American public school policy of the last 15 years. It misunderstands the purpose of the very thing it purports to promote.

Poverty is skyrocketing. It’s been on the rise for at least three decades, but since the economy collapsed in 2008, the ranks of the poor have swollen like an untreated wound left to fester and rot.

We could be doing something about that. We could be working on a jobs package – on something to get people back to work. Instead we crowd around unemployment data and clap each other on the back because on paper it looks like we’ve overcome this obstacle.

Unfortunately, we haven’t.

Since President Barack Obama took office, there have been less people out of work than during the disastrous Bush years. However, most new jobs created since the crash only pay minimum wage. The good jobs are drying up and being replaced by poverty wage employment. And that’s not even counting the hordes of people who’ve given up even looking for a job but don’t merit a mention in these Pollyanna publications!

So how do we truly answer this dilemma? How do we get America back to work?

According to our policymakers, through magic.

Provide people more training, they say. Make sure those out of work obtain new skills and the next generation receives a rigorous education.

It’s the kind of solution our grandparents – who lived through the Great Depression – would have laughed to silence. Give someone a book, put them in a school, place them before a teacher and – POOF – they’ll be able to get one of the nonexistent well paying jobs that – may I repeat – DON’T EXIST!

It’s not that we have an unskilled workforce. We have more people than ever with Doctorates and Masters degrees living on food stamps. The problem is lack of well paying jobs. We’ve tax sheltered, down sized, and corporatized America into a land where the rich play Monopoly with all our cash while the rest of us subsist on McJobs.

Claiming that education alone can resolve this problem is like saying all a starving person really needs is a fork and spoon. But that won’t help if he has nothing to eat!

It should be no surprise that those championing our school system as a silver bullet to our jobless nation speak out of both sides of their mouths. On the one hand, they say, education can save us. On the other, they say, if education was better we wouldn’t need saving. And since they’re almost exclusively employed by the same people who gobbled up all the jobs in the first place and then spat them out to China, it’s a travesty that anyone listens to them.

They’re not offering a solution. They’re making a last ditch effort to clear the board of any remaining public money – education dollars.

If only the teachers had taught us better, they say, we’d all be able to have a corner office in the sky. But since those evil, lazy educators are doing such a bad job, we need to close as many schools as possible to save those kids. And then we can privatize them and swipe even more of that sweet, sweet public money to the 1% who can run charter schools and cut student services while scarfing up the rest as yummy profit.

To prove this thesis, policymakers force untested and irrational reforms on public schools – standardized testing, computerized test prep, Common Core. When none of this works (as planned), they simply blame the educators who never wanted any of this in the first place. But it helps us serve up teachers on a silver platter as the scapegoat of the day.

These so-called reforms solve nothing – they just make things worse.

Furthermore, they’re a distraction, smoke and mirrors so we won’t see the real issue of how we’re being swindled by the 1%. After all, THEY were the ones who got us into this mess in the first place! They were the ones who crashed the economy – not Mrs. Jones, the local science teacher.

We should know this already. It’s out in the open and easy to see. The media is not doing its job of reporting the truth. The public is being dazzled by propaganda that appeals to our basest selves. But most importantly, we’re being fooled because we no longer remember what education is for!

Even under the best of circumstances, education does not make someone rich. That’s not it’s goal. It never has been. Education seeks to enrich people’s minds, not their bank accounts.

Yes, there is a relationship between the two, but its several steps removed. A well educated person may be able to more easily obtain money than an uneducated one. She may be more prepared for a well-paying job. However, being prepared is rarely what makes someone rich.

People gain wealth most often by inheriting it (See Paris Hilton, Bill Marriott, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump). Others get money by cheating the public out of it. This takes a person with a weak moral code, not necessarily strong book smarts. For instance, look to the Walmart model of selling groceries cheaply by paying poverty wages to employees who then must rely on the federal government to survive and thus can only afford to shop at Walmart. That’s not smart. It’s sociopathic. Anyone could have thought that up, but it takes a person with a stunted conception of the value of other people to actually do it.

More important than a college degree are connections. The Rich know the right people. They have contacts in high places with whom they can barter for lucrative tips, jobs and partnerships. They have friends on Wall Street who can tip them off when a stock is about to rise or fall. They know editors at prominent papers who have no problem changing the headlines to match a preconceived narrative rather than the facts on the ground.

Again, that doesn’t require all A’s on your report card. It’s the result of a lottery of birth, social standing and an undeveloped sense of fairness.

There are some people who actually do gain riches on the merits of their intellects. But they are few and far between. Even among them there is a large portion who are more lucky than genius. I love Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, but it doesn’t take an Einstein to come up with it. Sometimes the gods of finance just smile on hippy dippy flavors with fun names.

Since the ancient world, thinkers have postulated that the purpose of education is not to increase material gain – it is to become a better person. The Ancient Greeks believed that there is value in knowledge and wisdom that doesn’t translate into gold. Aristotle called it eudaimonia or human flourishing. The best life includes wisdom.

This builds on the philosophy of Socrates – one of the founders of Western thought – who famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We have strayed far from these ideals. Today we might say the unreciprocated action is unworth doing. If something doesn’t translate into cold, hard cash, it is considered weak, a wasted effort. Even philanthropy has become a way to gain control over the industry you’re ostensibly trying to help. (See Bill Gates immense influence on Education policy.)

In their hearts, most teachers would side with Aristotle and Socrates over the Waltons and Gates’. And that’s why our corporate masters look down on us. We represent an ethos that they have abandoned and tried to destroy.

They tell themselves the fairy tale that wisdom means cheating others out of money. The removal of ignorance, they say, is the removal of any obstacles toward clawing and punching your way to the top.

But true wisdom recognizes that people are more than mere animals. We do not need to continue the Darwinian struggle of survival of the fittest among ourselves. We can cooperate. We can value each others lives. We can love.

If people valued this kind of knowledge over money, what would happen to the rich? Wouldn’t it prove that they have wasted their lives betraying and manipulating the less fortunate? Wouldn’t it reveal the poverty of their souls?

Because if people were truly educated, they would see these sick, twisted individuals for whom they really are. And we would demand justice. Not so that we could replace these penny-ante tycoons with our own wealth addiction. But instead so that we could all live in peace and bask in the joy of knowledge, compassion and an unending quest to chip away at our own ignorance.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.