Gordon Brown Fixes Education (In A Single Post)

I’ve brought up the subject of education a few times now. I’ve never explored the subject on a grand scale, but I intend to rectify that today. Here’s some of the key issues our society seems to have with education, and what I think we could do to fix it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to say right here and now that I was homeschooled and can’t speak with first-hand experience on a lot of what I’m going to be talking about. A less arrogant man would take this as a sign that he should probably just shut his ignorant mouth about it, but I’m going to forge recklessly ahead. I do have some cursory teaching experience (though that’s to an adult population), I’ve helped kids with school in a professional capacity, and what with this culture’s frankly creepy obsession with high school (which oughta be a post in and of itself), I feel I’ve got at least a grip on what we’re dealing with.

Let’s begin.

I. How To Think,  Not What To Think

If there’s one class I could make mandatory for everyone in the US, it’d be a course on critical thinking. The simple truth of the matter is that you can give someone factually accurate information until it’s coming out their ears, but if they don’t know basic logic or reasoning, it doesn’t really matter what you teach ’em.

I could probably launch into some tirade about how kids are taught to be good little conformists and never question authority, but I’ll spare you my political rants.

I’ll just say this: most every felon I work with (I work with felons, by the way) could have avoided his or her conviction(s) if they had just thought rationally about their situation. The fact that the public falls for the same corporate puppet show every four years, or are constantly being manipulated by our media and politicians all seem to stem from the same root problem of lacking basic critical thinking skills.

Fix that, and a lot of our other problems will fix themselves.

II. No More Irrelevant Info

And just who am I to say what is or isn’t relevant? We’ll I’m part of the community and feel I should have a say in the education of the next generation- but hold your horses anyways, I’m not going after music and art classes (yet).

I’m talking about advanced math courses which the vast, vast majority of students will never once use in their daily lives. Be honest, has your understanding of biology affected the outcome of any major (heck, minor) decision in your life? When’s the last time you used anything above advanced algebra?

I’m not one of those obnoxious people who’ll smugly preach that the sole purpose of school to be to prepare you for a job, but I do think education should have some personal application. Let’s be honest, which would be more beneficial to society at large? A required course on chemistry or conflict management?

III. Your Education Should Be Yours

You ever see those pictures of children sitting in the dirt in some war-torn third world country? Ever see ’em being photographed walking barefoot for five miles just to scribble notes on a broken hunk of chalkboard?

You ever wonder why?

Some people say that it’s because education for them is a privilege, and not a right, but in truth, most countries outside of the US offer great public schooling and in this country (good) education is a costly commodity that few people can afford.

No, I think it has to do more with the knowledge that it’s their choice. Most of them could stay at home and work on the farm, or heard cattle, or become a mechanic, or a laborer like their parents, but choose to go to school. “Choice” is the key word here- and it seems to be lacking in Western schools. You have no say in what you’re taught, how it’s taught to you, or by whom. I don’t think you can democratize the classroom on every level, but I think that once you make education something that’s truly yours,  you’re bound to take more of an interest in it.

IV. **** Standardized Tests

Or really, evaluations on every level. And we’re not talking about a quiz just to gauge your general knowledge of something, we’re talking about the practice of deciding a school’s funding based on the soulless mass-testing of its students and teachers.

The concept behind this is that schools where students produce good grades must be doing something right, and therefore deserve money, while schools whose students produce bad grades deserve to have funding cut.

Now that’d be a stupid idea if we made the false assumption that all schools are equal, but before even that, we have to address the fact that all schools aren’t equal. Students living in poorer conditions are working with a much, much greater degree of stress than their wealthier counterparts. With a constant lack of good food, basic safety, or stability on any level- how exactly are you supposed to focus on learning already tough subjects?

Yet more and more schools are adopting this policy to secure the funding they’re already desperately short on.

Okay, so maybe that’s not all the problems of education fixed in a single post, but I think we’ve hit on some pretty fundamental questions here in terms of the education debate. Application, indoctrination, administration, competition- slay these dragons and I think we’re well on the way to revolutionizing the educational system and turning what’s the worst part of the day for most kids into the best.

And isn’t that what education should be?


13 responses to “Gordon Brown Fixes Education (In A Single Post)

  1. I’m under the impression that longer comments are imminent, so I’m just going to say that I’m disappointed you didn’t use the following comic as a visual explanation of the flaws in standardized testing:

  2. Although you name several key issues I think you critically underestimate the complexity of both the current system and your proposed solutions.
    For a first retort, with more coming.

  3. Alright, I’m actually taking a pause from lesson planning for this so I think I qualify as at least somewhat as direct from the trenches. In short, I’m a little disappointed by your blatant oversimplification. While you do identify several popular problems, you don’t give any useful solutions.

    1. How to think.

    It’s a charming idea and one that I think that several of my students could benefit- except that by several I mean maybe two. How do you exactly teach critical thinking in a way that both creates a unified and cohesive classroom structure as well as covering enough material to make the time worthwhile? Socrates was a master at it and even he was dealing with adults (in general) and a long complex, painful discussion was necessary to achieve any flexibiity in the mind. At an 8th grade level, most of my students aren’t mentally capable of that level of conceptual thinking. In high school, I think it would be far too tempting to run with the idea of being critics rather than actually thinking. More than that, how do you quantify that? How do you ensure that the students have in fact developed some sort of critical thinking? The only way I could imagine would be by having them write essays- oh wait. We do that. Part of the tension with teaching minors is that when you teach them to question authority, you inevitably run up against their most present authority, i.e. the parents. Without the pressure of responsibility, I can picture rudeness replacing measured rebuttals, and snide comments masquerading as maturity. Teaching critical thinking would be great- and that’s one of the reasons I think college should be available to everyone. It matches the required mental maturity with the independence of young adulthood to challenge thoughts and develop constructive opinions. In lower school, I struggle to envision a consistent, productive, and efficient program for it.

    2. Irrelevant info.

    As one of my friends who is an logician (and really liked your first point) pointed out, one of the things higher math is designed to do is teach logical progression, or critical thinking. Now I’m the girl who led a one-person campaign to get out of Pre-calc and succeeded based on the fact that I knew, and could argue, that I would never use it in my future career. I agree that there should be more flexibility in the school curriculum. The problem is- there is literally no flex. In America, the school year has not expanded since the 1950s. The material to be covered has rapidly ballooned, however, and the three Rs are in brutal competition from everything from typing and technology classes, to drug programs and sex education. Instead of merely covering the basics the schools have been tasked with developing the physical, mental, and moral well-being of students (more and more of them each year). With that glut, the idea of cutting down on required classes is appealing. Who really needs biology? Future voters do. They need to be able to read and research (and even if it’s in the simplified journalistic text) be able to reference the questions that our world is increasingly being brought up against. Cloning? Cancer treatments? Pollution and poverty? Any effective solution to these issues requires a public that understands at least an entry level about how the science works. The future is a rapidly changing place and understanding economics, complex maths, and advanced sciences are some of the keys to being part of the change, rather than an audience.

  4. 3. Choose your school.

    Every student is reluctant (some day, some week, some year). How do you create a system that lets them legitmately create buy-in while also recognizing that these are children- they change what they want on a regular basis and have little to no experience in long term discipline that a subject requires. Charter schools are attempting to adress this in part by creating an opt-in dynamic. You choose to go to that school and if you choose to stop investing you are no longer allowed the benefits of that environment. Kahn academy (and other programs like it, like the TED talks etc) provide more learning environment for self-motivated students but the problem is, we can’t just teach to them. We have a duty to teach to all of the students. The question of how to get all students invested is one I hear on a regular basis. You point it out but don’t offer any solution either. Part of it can rely on the idea of creating a school identity- I’m proud of my education because I’m a Southeast Wizard etc. Other elements might be linking it back to real life ability but there’s a certain sense in which things should be learned because it’s good to know. (Though I’m always intrigued by Holme’s philosophy of the mental lumber room.)

    4. Testing.

    Well, as a teacher who lost half of her instructional day to standardized testing today, I’m liable to scream to burn the bastards with the rest of the crowd. In all honesty though, the burden lies in the adjective.As a teacher, one of the most stressful things in my life is worrying that I am not providing my students with a high enough level of rigor in order to prepare them for a successful life. Having a sense of standards, of a target to aim at is a stressor (what if I fail even WORSE than I thought) but also a real relief, a way to measure progress., Absolutely we need to strip the connection of funds to scores. To ignore nutrition, security, and parental education, when calculating student progress is a criminal example of “equal and injust”. Keep the tests. Give the money. Don’t bother tying the noose around them both.
    In conclusion, education is a labrynth of complications and I don’t know how to fix it. Systemic change will fail because what Houston is not New York is not Roxburo is not Hearne. Indvidual campus change won’t work because the problem is far far bigger than the class of 2014. In the end, education is eternally hampered by the fact that it is simply too important. Any experiment gambles a kindergarden class, an eighth grade class, those seniors. It sends them into the world at the mercy of an educaation that might fail them completely. Who has the guts to gamble like that? But who can leave the system to it’s own collapse? In the end, we have a moral duty to each of these students. At the ground level I’ll give what I can to these students under my power. At the systemic level, I’ll vote and petition and fight for long term change.

  5. To add in, I know that you were upfront about your lack of expertise: “I want to say right here and now that I was homeschooled and can’t speak with first-hand experience on a lot of what I’m going to be talking about”. I hope that I have not spoken with a tone of rebuke but rather a desire to further the conversation.

    • Ok, this is probably the most in-depth response to a post we’ve ever had on the blog, let alone one I desperately scribbled together in the wee hours of the morn’, but let the debate begin.

      I. I was actually taught logic and critical thinking for years from a set of really neat workbooks. You’d be given a story (of varying complexity) and then given a test at the end on what you could or couldn’t assume from the contents of the story. I was also taught basic logic (the whole classical “If men are mortal and if Socrates is a man then…”). At the time I griped and moaned about it like it was the greatest injustice ever visited upon man, but looking back I’d cite it as the most integral part of my education.

      All that’s to say is that the materials for teaching and evaluating critical thinking and logical ARE out there.

      II. I’m not gonna claim to have the be-all, end-all curriculum in my pocket here, but I do think we have to accept that not everything being taught in school is integral to success in life, or even to being a whole person. As you point out, more and more is getting heaped on- at some point, we’ve gotta decide what is and isn’t important to this stage of education. I like biology, and I actually do want it taught (conservation bio in particular). Physics or astronomy or chemistry, however, aren’t majorly relevant to someone who aint gonna be directly involved in those fields.

      • I’d love to hear more about that curriculum. I don’t have a lot of power over what gets included but I could sneak it in hopefully in an exercise here or there.

        Although homeschooling is it’s own combination of strengths and weaknesses (it made me so, so, unhappy. ugh!), it does have the freedom to allow for more in-depth focus at different levels.

        As far as civic duty etc, one thing my school does is have required volunteer hours for every student and service days for each class to get together and work n the community to serve others. Things like that are key parts of involvement I definitely agree.

        I think the two steps that schools could take to most rapidly improve education are possible baby steps as you call them. First would be an unified code of discipline (preferably from kinder- 12 in a district) because that just saves so much time in classroom management and silly quibbles about what one teacher allows vs. another as well as promoting a sense of personal responsibility because each student knows the consequences and can be held accountable for their actions. By developing that consistent discipline you also allow teachers more freedom to try different methods n the classroom etc.
        The second thing would be a pause on the rush for “core curriculum”. By condensing so much “vital material” week by week, students are appearing more like stuffed turkeys than active minds. I’d like to see a transfer to a portfolio style assessment in which students submit projects, essays, presentations, and other more authentic forms of expression to a committee for evaluation. That would allow students to present their strengths rather be trapped in a place where they are bound to fail for no reason (ie your chemistry class).


        • I can attest to Gordon’s point on the logic and reasoning workbook. I had something similar in high school, and it was fantastic. They can be structured around pointing out logical fallacies, such as ad hominem attacks, etc. I teach a lot of college students that would have benefited significantly from such a curriculum.

    • III. I don’t think everyone has the option of choosing what school they go to- but that’s not the point I was trying to make. The issue I think most students have is the lack of meaningful class participation- the lack of actual control they have on a daily basis in learning what they want to learn. Involving students in school decisions from an early age, I believe, will not keep them invested in their own futures, but offer them hands-on experience in basic citizenship and foster a strong sense of civic duty in a way that a lecture on the same subject just won’t produce.

      IV. I agree that the problem is extensive, but baby steps, y’know? A change here, a victory there- we gotta take what territory we can take, right?

  6. roxannemakesstuff

    First off, I agree with many of your points (despite first-hand experience, new perspectives are needed, I think), and I also agree with much of what Rosie has to say.

    As someone who worked with refugees in the educational system, YES. **** standardized tests. They suck on every level. I left education as a major because I felt education for the people I cared most about happens more effectively in the community.

    And I think that’s the issue. For us everyday people, education needs to be changed, but realistically we can enact a lot of the change we want to see in the system by stepping out of it. Let your kids go to school, and build ownership, critical thinking, and specialization in your family and in your community. Changing school policy is ridiculously complicated and frustrating, but third-party change offers the mentorship and personalized education most people want to see.

    Yes, changes can and should be made in many areas (standardized tests, for one), but a lot of other changes aren’t feasible in our current system because of school sizes and funding. Schools offer “useless” classes, because they are useful in society, and honestly you can’t offer personalized classes with the number of available teachers and abundance of students. Also, you come into the issue: when is a student old enough to choose a career path? Broad classes keep doors open for students, even if some subject matters aren’t directly useful for all.

    Education is messy, but I’m glad you chose to address it. My current vote is that we just give up and copy Finland.

  7. Glad to see this discussion.

    A couple of thoughts:

    1) I think that standardized tests are unfairly maligned. Nobody believes these tests can tell us everything about students. They can, however, give us a decent indication of whether students have leaned the material they have been taught. They are not IQ tests. They are connected directly to what schools are supposed to be teaching. It is not unreasonable to believe that a school that is doing its job (simply put, “teach students”) will score quite well on these tests.

    2) The controversial part of standardized tests are not the tests themselves. Most countries have standardized testing. The controversial part is, as you mentioned, the connection between scores and funding.

    3) Schools are not opting into this model. If they could, schools would avoid any sort of evaluation tied to funding. It is completely outside of their interests to accept the accountability regime. The current model came from the federal government, starting with No Child Left Behind (2002), and continuing with the Race to the Top initiative (2009).

    4) You are absolutely right that it makes no sense to cut funding from schools that score poorly on these tests.

    5) It does not make sense to me, however, to accept that schools have nothing to do with poor scores. Poverty, as you point out, is intimately correlated with poor performance in school. Study after study has shown that. It is not the case, however, that schools and teachers are completely free of blame for this. Teachers’ unions argue this, as do education traditionalists like Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling-Hammond, but it isn’t something I’m ready to accept. Schools sometimes fail to produce enviable results (by whatever measure you want to use) because they serve a disadvantaged and oppressed population. It is also true that they fail sometimes because they lack the creative thinking and the will to actually tackle some of the problems. Until recently, schools had no real reason to act any differently than they had in the past, no matter their effectiveness.

    6) Identifying schools and districts that chronically underserve their populations is, to me, critically important if we are to at all improve the quality of life in this country. These schools do exist, and they are exacerbating the problems already present in impoverished communities. While it’s important to fight poverty from all fronts, the idea that poor schools play no part in generational, systemic poverty strikes me as complete tripe. And, unfortunate as it may be, testing data are the most efficient means of accessing that information.

    7) It is critical to remember that schools and school districts are bureaucracies. While people involved in education generally want what is best for children (who doesn’t?), they operate within certain constraints, and respond to the consequent incentives in fairly rational ways. If the incentives do not really match the goal (in this case “educate children”), then the results will follow suit. The accountability regime, for all of its faults, has signifcantly altered the incentives acting upon schools and school districts.

    8) All the above said, I believe there are significant problems with the ways in which tests are administered, the ways in which schools are held accountable to their results, and the fundamental assumptions behind federal actions (especially No Child Left Behind). So before anyone brings up “teaching to the test” or mentions “draconian cuts,” please know that I am against those things. If you take away anything from this comment, it is that I am not fundamentally opposed to testing, or to using those tests in order to make decisions.

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