Thursday, August 25, 2005

Further educational philosophy discussion

I love blogging! Today, Mr. O'Donnell has answered my question about why he teaches his children what he does in his latest blog post.

If you are a regular visitor and looking for my usual discussion of politics, Christianity or the combination of both, I do promise I'll get back to that, but my "back to school" week is dedicated to the discussion of education and schooling.

It is seems that I'm being challenged to be the answer to my own question "who will defend the value of public schools?" I didn't start out with that intention, but, as the saying goes, if you want something done, do it yourself; other wise it'll never get done.

In this post, I'll respond to Mr. O'Donnell's most recent criticisms and tomorrow, hopefully, I'll post about the value of public education.

The first thing I've noticed is that a couple of blogs that have taken umbridge with my original post have confused methodology with goals. Please remember that I'm arguing WHY we teach what we teach, not HOW we teach it.

Let me start with Mr. O'Donnell's very direct answer to my question about why does he teach his children what he teaches them.
So, to answer you question, we are teaching them the core skills required to be self sufficient adults, and we are supporting their individual interests in order to maximize the happiness of their childhoods, and maybe lead them to careers that will maximize their happiness as adults. How that works out will be up to them, not me.

If I didn't know better, Mr. O'Donnell copied that straight from an educational philosophy book about the value of democratic equality. Those, like myself, who believe that education should be to maximize the individual's potential and allow them as many choices as possible would certainly second this very concise goal of education. So it is clear that we have some agreement.

Yet we have disagreement over statements like
Depending on whose numbers you believe, 20% to 50% of public high school graduates in the US are lacking these basic skills when they graduate. If the schools are failing to teach Johnny to read, why would anybody have any confidence that they can affect higher order changes like democratic equality?

Knowing that 63% of all statistics are made upon the spot, I would challenge these fairly outrageous claims of up to 50% illiteracy. Even if I grant this extreme claim, can I please remind everyone we are talking about GOALS and not methods. This is a crucial difference. Let me illistrate with an analogy. My beloved Mariners start every year with the goal of winning the World Series. Yet for their entire existance they've failed. That doesn't change the goal. Each year they try new methods in hopes of reaching that goal. The same can be said in public education. We desire every student to be more knowledgeable and more in love with learning at the end of the year than at the beginning. I will grant that some schools and teachers fail in this area. That is why we should demand some accountability, like the Mariners do of their players and coach, but that doesn't mean we should jettison the goal.

Additionally, I think we can show that education does have an end effect on democratic equality. "Forced schooling", using Mr. O'Donnell's words, started in the early 20th century. Starting from the 1940s onward, we've had an increasing middle class in America. While I may not be able to prove causal link, one could infer that schooling that emphasizes maximizing one's potential sets a foundation for increased success in a career and thus increased economic success.

If you want better causal relationships, I'd refer you to Singapore which maintains a strict centralized control over schooling. For five decades it has decided what should be studied in the classroom. It first taught simple skills so that agrarian workers could enter factories and work machines. When the leaders saw that China would eventually overtake them in cheap labor, they moved toward educating the workforce in professions like law, engineering, medicine, etc. Singapore has moved into the same economic strata as Korea, Hong Kong and Japan because of these value-added service industries. Now the Singapore central government has decide that technology is the future and is placing heavy emphasis on bio, nano, networking and other areas that put it on par with similar American research.

Mr O'Donnell continues
Education is not and never has been a consumable commodity. Forced schooling is a consumable commodity. You can make me spend 12 years in school, but you can't force me to become educated.

I agree that education isn't a consumable commodity, but think tanks on the Right (Heritage Foundation, especially) have asserted they are. Certainly our business community acts that way. They want people with higher and higher degrees. While degrees don't necessarily show how much you know, they are the yard stick we use to establish some sort of baseline.

This is why home education is such a superior model. A government teacher, faced with the directive to teach 30 individual kids who did not choose to be there, the exact same thing, at the same time, in the same way, is doomed to fail with most of them. Individual preferences, desires, and interests are never part of the decision process. The schools don't care. They see education as an assembly line. Shove the kids in at age 5 and they come out at age 18 educated.

Mr. O'Donnell's oversimplification of public schools is worrying. This is a perfect example of where the PR battle has been lost. While it is true that many schools have functioned this way, the prevailing methodology in teaching is to help students be life-long learners and to encourage them to explore things that interest them. Are there limits due to the nature of class size and topics required? Sure, but that doesn't mean students can't learn as they wish.

Let me give you an example from my own Gr 8 classroom. I had to cover American history. I could have done the "chalk and talk" starting in 1600s and finishing at WW2. Instead, I tried to vary the content delivery and allow students to flourish regardless of their learning style or individal differences. I had a "stamp collection" project that required students to research 5 famous or important Americans. They had to design a stamp to commemorate them and then write a reason why the person deserved a stamp. We had a Continental newspaper to debate issues surrounding American Independence. We had a Congress to write and pass laws for the school. Did it work to engage every student everytime? I can't make that claim, but I know that most of my students were engaged most of the time. I'm not extremely unusual in my methodology so to claim that schools are assembly lines is a vast overstatement.

What I'm still missing in reading several of the critique posts is why homeschoolers/educators (I'm sorry I'm new to this sub-culture...what is the term for the person that stays at home to teach the child?) choose to stay home. Some have alluded to how bad public schools are or how much better homeschooling is. I guess I'm wondering homeschooling is so much better at what? I think the answer to this question is also the answer to the why question I've been asking and will turn out to be the homeschooler's/educator's educational philosophy.