Re-imagining the Wheel: Part 2

This is the second part of a series of essays I composed while trying to keep my head above water at my former job. I eventually left to spend my time teaching what I was preaching. While there I was grappling with why there is a major disconnect between what we as parents, educators, and politicians say we want for our children, and what the schools are actually providing. You can read part 1 in full here, and I give a brief summary below.

Part one was concerned with the current state of the education system in general, as can be found in most major developed nations. The irony is that these countries are far past the stage of development that the current education system is useful for, and as such, it is a dead weight which is actually slowing the progress of these nations. I referred to what I have personally observed across 3 different nations; the United States, New Zealand, and Mainland China. Additional research confirmed the same predicament exists in the nations directly connected (ideologically and geographically) with those three mentioned.

I opened by introducing the idea of discipline and chaos, Striated vs Smooth spaces. I also began to introduce the issues within the current education model, and how this system is showing its age: it can no longer meet the needs of the students and is not a suitable instructional method for the modern information age, and beyond. I then introduced the (over)reaction from many within the Unschooling and Deschooling communities, which we can imagine as the War Machine, marching on the State in order to instigate a regime change. Quite honestly, each pro- or anti- reformation argument regarding the current state of education seems determined to plant their partisan flag in either camp and hunker down, without any real ground gained by either.

In part two below, I will tie up some loose ends, and propose a middle way.

In the past, I've shown parents what complete freedom (comparable to the currently popular hands-off approach to parenting) can mean in the classroom, by scrawling wildly over a large area of a blackboard, chalk screeching. Essentially, I make an aimless mess. I would then clean and encircle a large area, and with the same speed and enthusiasm, create a spirograph-like star within the bounds of that circle. This served as a visual example as to what a student can achieve if they are completely left to their own devices, versus given boundaries within which they are free to roam.

With boundaries and guidance, students become creatively focused, without limiting their enthusiasm or agency. Acting with purpose is far more fulfilling than being enthusiastically aimless.

Therefore in my classrooms and teaching spaces, I set standards and guidelines for good community behaviour, and my expectations let the students know what is asked of them in advance: children thrive and feel safe when they are entrusted with information, are given boundaries, and there is a clear and consistent routine. Safety, community, compassion.

However, the current education model takes this concept of structure and boundaries too far, requiring that students provide standardised answers to standardised questions, and achieve standardised outcomes in a standardised manner. Classes are standardised by age, subject, and the time of day - the core subjects are each locked within their walled gardens, and never the twain shall meet. This is externally imposed discipline, rather than the discipline of acting with purpose within boundaries of safety and community, which removes agency and stifles creativity.

Now, if you were in the business of developing your nation and require a solid labour workforce to man your factories and a standing army, this is an excellent way to do just that. However it is not the year 1917, and while a well-educated workforce and an armed defence force are both still necessary and valuable, there are other ways to reach the same goal without stifling creativity or self-discipline, while additionally instilling grit and purposefulness^1.

I've said elsewhere that I'm not covering much new ground here. The purpose all of this serves it to recognise the issue is widespread, and to call further attention to is as an educator so that hopefully other educators, parents, and administrators will see that there is a middle way. That is, instead of either keeping the status quo as it crumbles and groans around us, versus completely burning the entire operation to the ground and rebuilding, we can instead renovate the 100-year-old educational edifice.

In order to do so, I have a suggestion as to how we can guide the process. The following are a collection of benchmarks that I propose we use to examine our existing structure and as a guide, as we build and improve upon this. I present them here with the aim that they foment discussion, and quite honestly I hope that someone smarter and more qualified than I can improve upon them^2. So dear reader, I present for evaluation, my

Benchmarks of a Modern Education System:

  1. It must meet or exceed the needs of the majority of students now and in the future, independent of culture, special needs, or excessive interference from the State.
  2. It must be able to scale; it will work efficiently at or greater than a national level, not just for 1-5 students or a certain ideological group.
  3. It must use the resources currently available (school buildings, administration staff, teachers, and subject content) or better still, stimulate industry through the creation of more resources.
  4. It must be based on a nonpartisan, secular worldview to enable its application in any nation, and by any religious (or non-religious) group.
  5. There must be oversight; pedagogy and methodology must be based on established and emerging 'best practices'.

In the third part of this series of essays, I will elaborate on a model of education that I like to call the Agora Model. This is a working title, as I am aware that Christian groups have somehow laid claim to this term.

  1. [1] It would be remiss of me not to mention that certain units or entire divisions of armed forces often have a sense of purpose. Take the U.S Marine Corp for example. They have an amazing sense of purpose and camaraderie that is much admired, however, this is also externally generated. As individuals, they are stripped of their prior identities and subsume themselves into the brotherhood of the Corp. This creates a fantastic, loyal, and brave fighting force, but I imagine finding yourself and knowing yourself as an individual, discovering your own purpose in life becomes doubly hard after leaving.
  2. [2] They are a work in progress and I hope that they will not be dismissed but rather taken and built upon.