07 March 2009

An Inane Idea for Education

The Obama administration is set on spending more on education, but they still haven't seemed to confront the basic truth about it: we need to increase the productivity of teachers in order for investments in education to get us more return. There are, as near as I can tell, only three ways to do this: 1. have each teacher teach more children; 2. have each child learn more (because of new methods or approaches); or 3. more directly apply what they learn to a productive life. It seems to me that there is a way to do all three. The first would slash the number of teachers needed and the last would create a surge in demand for the number of teachers needed. The number of teachers would be about the same but the net result would be better and, I think, more gratifying for teachers.

1. Teachers repeatedly teach certain concepts that could be better taught with a combination of video, computer games, and instant tests. Children at the computer doing certain kinds of drills would not only be taught just what they were missing but would provide continual feedback about where they are in learning. If schools got serious about this, they could raise the teacher to student ratio at least 20% - probably more like 100% to 200%. This increase in productivity would show up on the cost side.

2. Teachers would still be needed. They just would be able to focus on exceptions, rather than rote lessons. They could complement the computer aided instruction by coaching individual children on two things: lessons that the individual child seemed unable to get through the computer and by teaching lessons that did not lend themselves to computer aided instruction - such as music, dance, and inter- and intra-personal skills. These kinds of lessons are largely neglected now in schools, in no small part because teachers are so busy teaching the math, language, and logic lessons that could - at least in part - be taught by video and computer.

3. Finally, it seems to me that one of the biggest problems of our current education system is that it fails to help translate the life of the individual into the milieu of the times. We are born into a particular time in history and with a particular potential. Unhappiesness stems from either failing to understand how to apply our potential to the times or from failing to understand how to realize our potential. There is something terribly personal about potential. For a child to realize her potential requires a kind of attention that can't be provided by teachers busily teaching rote lessons.

Educators - school boards - should be busily engaged in the question of the times. It is unclear to me who - outside of educators - can do more to create the future. As they educate children into adults, they inculcate particular values and skills. The question that educators should continually ask is about the direction of history and where society should be steered. This is to address the question of the times in which they expect children will find themselves as adults.

Educators should further be asking themselves about the children they are failing. It is an apt description to say that these children are failing, in reference to children who have to be held back. They have been failed. And even those who are passed along are often failed in that they leave school having received more insight about themselves through horoscopes than through any insights shared by the school. Educators should be continually addressing the question of what potential are we failing to realize in this child, in these children?

This third point, this notion of education as something that steers us into the future and that identifies and realizes the potential of individual children - would create a huge demand for more teachers. This would at least offset the drop in demand that would follow from automating more of education. And it would greatly increase the productivity of teachers not by spinning the engine of education with more energy - more busy work - but by engaging the power of this more directly into the individual lives and times of the children who spend so much time in schools.

It is not enough to just put more money into education. We should demand a greater return on the money we already spend.

1 comment:

ThomasLB said...

I honestly believe that our education system isn't about expanding potential. It's to teach kids to sit still and obey petty authority, to that by adulthood they are prepared for life in a cubicle.

Education for people serves the same function as those chutes ranchers drive cattle through on their way to slaughter.