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What have we learned? - On Public Education

Have you ever thought about why we go to school? Why we spend a dozen of years of our life going to the same place every day to be taught what is right and what isn't? Why we endure those endless lessons on math, ancient greece or correct spelling? Why we take part in these theatrical classroom plays and struggle to memorize everything that one important person up there says? Sure you have. Every child asks this question at some point when the motivation to go to school finally plummets. It seems like a silly question, but, like most questions that are asked by children and shrugged off by parents with the usual platitudes ("Everyone has to go to school, honey."), it's a very profound question the answer to which has many implications.

Let's not answer the question just yet, but continue playing the why game by asking a closely related question: Why do schools, why does our educational system, look like it does today? As grown-ups, when we debate our educational system, of course we have all sorts of opinions on what is wrong with it and what it falls short of -- if we debate at all, that is, and not simply accept it as a necessary evil ("Everyone has to go to school, honey.", we hear our parents say). But nobody talks about why it became the way it is today. So, let's get some education and find out how it did become the way it is.

Back in the day

Do you remember your school days? Checking your time table before going to class, the bell, the tension before a test, the different years you went through and comparing your grades with those of others? Sure you do. But do you remember the steam engines, back in the day when school was invented? Of course not, that was 200 years ago.

During the time of the industrial revolution, when skilled workers were needed in hives, the idea of public education was born to educate the people in preparation for their role in society as workers. Obedient and diligent workers were needed that could adhere to standards and perform tasks in a pre-defined way.

So, they took children, grouped them by year of birth and put them through a series of learning phases, akin to a conveyor belt, to fill in the necessary knowlegde. These schools, like the production sites back then, had bells to signal breaks and time tables to organize the lessons, like the shift plans in the factories back then, and the lessons were held by a grown-up who also had the authority over all communication and the correct behaviour of the children, as well as bathroom usage. In order to make sure that the presented knowledge had been absorbed, they devised standardized tests, where questions have only one correct answer, in order to easily assess performance, and an accompanying grading system to rank the children.

And sure enough, bells and time tables worked great to turn those fussy children into obedient diligent workers. Standardized tests and the minute grading system trained them to do one thing and do it well, just like they were told.

The good, the bad and the ugly

To this day, this is more or less how we educate our children. And as a consequence the system has established an efficient classification or rather a ranking for people in our society: the academics and the non-academics. Academics are people who do well at school, non-academics don't. Doing well at school usually predicts getting a well-paid job and thus high socicio-economic status -- academics are the winners in our society. It is not like the education system set out to separate losers from winners, though. It set out to foster and reward specific, and undoubtedly arbitrary, traits in people, like obedience, diligence, abstract cognition, and others, and happened to turn those who met the criteria into winners, as it essentially functions as a scoring system for people on the scale from academic to non-academic.

This scale may be useful for some, but certainly not for all areas of life. An area that it is definitely not useful for is creativity. Studies that measured creativity (*) in children while they were growing up found that children in kindergarden are creative geniuses. However, the older they got, the less creative they became (the drop in measured creativity was quite significant). The only thing all these children seem to had in common is attending school. This is where they were taught: "These are the questions. There is only one right answer for every question. Everything else is wrong. Here you get to learn the right answers to the right questions.". Undoubtedly, this stifles creativity as well as critical thinking: School becomes a place where you are loaded with knowledge without room for original thought and exploration. Similarly, collaboration has traditionally been neglected as well by our educational system -- sure, it doesn't play into the competitive environment and makes performance evaluation quite cumbersome, but collaboration is simply how people are wired. We are social creatures with the urge to discuss our observations and approaches to tasks and learn from our peers. People who exercise their creativity anyway or collaborate regardless of the consequences get punished and eventually turn into losers.

Talk about a revolution

However, there appears to be hope: In recent years more and more people have become concerned and offended by the fact that children are classified into ranks that determine their future. They argue that noone is born intelligent or stupid. According to them, all humans have the same capacities, but everyone has "different starting points", regarding their family background, their upbringing and their personal history. They want to give everybody the chance to become an academic. In order to achieve that, they demand individual and inclusive learning -- tailor-made education for everyone, helping them whereever necessary to lift them to the level of an academic. Tailor-made learning material and, due to the lack of teachers, self-dependent learning with self-checks and independent execercises is the new trend, emanating from the pedagogic ivory tower.

The realization that individualism is key is progress, but can we expect individuals with different traits, skills and personalities to turn into an army of academics, all with the same arbitrary skill set, just because we give them space to endulge their individualism? When we stop enforcing the defined rules of spelling in class as vigorously as before, for example, we shouldn't be surprised when children come up with indivudal rules of spelling and thus fail our standardized tests.

Can we force people to become academics? How much change is actually possible from environmental intervention? Can we shift the percerntage of people who are unacademic today towards the academic end with public education? Studies suggest a high covariance of IQ (*) between relatives within the same environment compared to a noticably but not dramatcally lower covariance of IQ between relatives in different environments. [2] Additionally, other studies showed that while mental ability in an environment of high socio-economic status seems to be stable between generations, mental abilities between generations vary more strongly in environments of low socio-economic status (SES) [1]
Assuming better-developed mental abilities in higher socio-economic environments, this can be explained with the notion that high-SES environments tend to tease out a child's full genetic potential with all kinds of stimuli, while low-SES environments tend to starve even children with a high genetic potential for academic achievement. (comp. [3])

What does this mean? Apparently, we cannot in fact foster and boost over generations all the people in our society who have been classified as unacademic to the point of eventually turning them into academics. The vision of a society where everyone is an academic is dead.

The goals of public education

Without realizing it, people, who want everyone to have the chance to become an academic, implicitly accept the goal set during the industrial revolution: growing skilled, obedient, abstractly thinking workers with the precision of machines. When realizing that everyone is different, we shouldn't set out to work on changing the people to fit into an ideal template of an academic even harder, but instead change our goals to adjust our education to suit the individual needs of our children.

Indeed, while everybody has an opinion on what is wrong with our educational system today, nobody talks about what should be achieved with education - the actual goals of our public education. What do we actually want?

Previously, the inventors of public education during the industrial revolution sought to prepare new generations for working in the economy (which is a macro-economical goal), recently this was reinterpreted as preparing them for being well off economically (which is a more indivual goal, but it still depends on the economy to define which people are actually needed and will thus be well off financially).

However, there are many goals that are not met by the current system: Long gone are the days when companies didn't care about soft-skills and collaboration. On a personal level we might want our children to be prepared for life, with inter-personal, self-organization and self-determination skills. From a cultural perspective, we might want to pass along the cultural heritage of our society while preparing them for the globalized world. From a societal perspective we might want them to take on their responsibilities of active participants in our democracy.

So, why should everybody be an academic? And why do we treat people who cannot be squeezed into the template of an academic like losers? What do we even have to gain from that?

The shortcomings of our current educational system are not answered by taking the individuality in people as a starting point for turning them into a homogenous army of people with the same arbitrary skill set. The answer is to fully embrace the individual skill set ofo every person. To change the goals of education at its core.

We need to have a public debate about what we, each and every one of us in society, actually expects and wants from the education our children receive, so that hopefully when our children one day ask us, why they have to go to school we have a real answer. But, when education really has changed for the better, maybe they won't even ask that question anymore.



Thanks to Sir Ken Robinson for introducing me to the faults in public education for the first time in his talks, and to Sean Kong for providing the article cover.

Marcel klehr

Passionate rationalist. Pragmatic melancholic. Random spectator. Unasked commentator.

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What have we learned? - On Public Education
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