How to Escape Education’s Death Valley

Here’s another great TED talk on education by Sir. Ken Robinson. In this video, he outlines 3 principles crucial for the human mind to flourish — and how current education culture works against them. He highlights how the number of students disengaged from school is just as bad as the number who drop out of school, and how this lack of interest in education drags down our economy. By focusing on conformity and standardization, kids aren’t being engaged in their individual curiosity, interests, and talents.

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Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids

freaks-geeks-and-cool-kidsIn Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption, Murray Milner, Jr. examines the relationships that lead to the formation of school cliques while, at the same time, attempting to tackle the problems of caste-like divisions and the increase in alcohol and drug use and casual sex among teens.

Milner argues that traditional explanations for teenage behavior, such as hormones, psychological development, parenting styles, and social background, are less important than the way adults have used schools to “organize young people’s daily activities” and the systems that teens have constructed in response to that organization. Milner also explores the role of consumerism in teen identity formation.

Generally, the formation of school cliques boils down to one concern: status. Why are teens in the United States so concerned with status? “It is because they have so little real economic or political power,” Milner explains. Teens have very little say over what happens in school or the subjects they study, so they concentrate on the one area where they do have power: the power to create their own status systems.

In order to maintain status, “insiders” must make it difficult to gain that status, so they frequently change and complicate the norms. That is, according to Milner, the source of teenage concern over possessing the latest fashions, music, and lingo. Businesses have spun this concern into a multi-billion dollar industry.

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Education for the Individual

Chemistry Teacher with Students in ClassPreviously, in “Education and the Individual,” I discussed how the two competing educational methods in the public education system in the United States both presuppose a state monopoly on education, and how both seek to impose a uniform purpose and set of standards for all children. In this article, I will lay out the fundamental premises of individual-oriented education and will propose a few examples that illustrate what individual-oriented education might look like.

There are three basic premises of individual-oriented education: 1) All children are not born with the same innate talents and abilities. 2) A child who develops his or her own unique talents and abilities has more to offer than one who does not. 3) Each individual has a right to develop his or her own talents and abilities in a manner of his or her own choosing.

The third premise is contingent on a) an individual’s ability to pursue his or her own destiny, and b) social need. Social need can limit this in many ways. A person may want to make a living selling paintings, for instance, but if the market is saturated by painters at the moment, he or she may have to settle for something else. Premise three is sometimes described as the “pursuit of happiness.” In relationship to education, I argue simply that a person has a basic right to pursue his or her own destiny with the aid of unrestricted access to information on which to base those decisions. There is no guarantee of being successful in that pursuit.

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State vs Individual Education

Libertarians and proponents of other individual-centered philosophies have all but surrendered the subject of childhood education (1-8th grades) to their intellectual opponents. This is largely because they are more willing to “opt out” of state schools and leave the intellectual development of children up to parents and families. Statists, on the other hand, have no qualms about investing resources (their own and others’) in molding and shaping future generations through compulsory childhood education. How is an individual-centered education different from a statist education? What are their competing values?

In the United States, two ideas currently dominate childhood education: what is called (derogatorily) the “factory model,” and the “child-centered” approach. The difference between the two, however, is in their method and not their purpose. Picture a typical classroom with rows of desks, bells announcing the end of periods, and a teacher lecturing at the chalkboard, and you have the factory model. Child-centered theorists argue that the factory model stifles creativity, discourages working with others, and promotes excessive focus on competition and grades. Some, like Kirsten Olson (author of Wounded by School) and Parker J. Palmer, believe the factory model even emotionally and spiritually injures students.

So far, while it has made some inroads in individual classrooms and is the reigning paradigm in university education programs, the child-centered approach has yet to replace the factory model as the dominant educational method in public or private schools. The child-centered approach, however, remains—at its heart—about educating children for particular ends. Its proponents are not fundamentally opposed to the public education system—they simply want to impose their own vision on that system. Many, like William Ayers (former Weather Underground leader and current professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago), seek to use public education and the child-centered approach as arms of their own political battles.

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Transforming Education

In this TED talk, Sir. Ken Robinson makes the case for a radical shift from standardized schools to personalized learning — creating conditions where kids’ natural talents can flourish:

My own thoughts on education are very much along those lines. This month, I’ll be exploring problems in education and individual-oriented alternatives to school through book reviews, videos, and short articles. I hope this sparks some ideas or raises questions in your mind about the effectiveness of our current approach to education.

Wounded by School: A Flawed Polemic Against Modern Education

wounded_bookcover-205x300In this problematic book, Kirsten Olson argues not only that the ‘factory model’ of education is ineffective and even injurious to students, but that it is incapable of producing the kind of creative minds that our contemporary American workforce demands. Underlying her thesis is the notion that the emotion of joy, specifically the “joy of learning,” is the single most essential component to education, and that the experience of joy has been lost in the soul-crushing, day to day routine of America’s schools. Old School Culture, as Olson defines it, “is a set of old-fashioned ideas and attitudes in school that construct teaching as hierarchical, learning as passive, and the bureaucratic structures of school as about adults, not kids.”

Olson makes some very strong claims, accusations, and generalizations, which normally would require a foundation of objective evidence to support. If Olson had prepared a court case in which she sought to convict the public school system of wounding its students, however, her case would rest predominantly on personal anecdotes and circumstantial evidence. Her interviewees, some of whom had been out of school for decades, would parade up to the witness stand to tell their stories of being wounded by school, as well as their road to recovery. Then, dramatically, Olson would take the stand as an expert witness, telling about her work as a school consultant and how she observed the attitudes of students in many different types of classroom environments, and how, in non-traditional school settings, “learners” respond in an entirely positive way. This black-and-white portrayal should raise a red flag in the mind of any critical reader.

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a clean, colorful, and vibrant movie about the disconnect between war and the home front, fantasy and reality, but trips up in the execution. Its much-praised frame rate of 120 frames per second (twice the previous record) isn’t really justified by the film’s simplistic plot, and in some ways it looked like a film school project. Its stereotypical portrayal of soldiers undermines what it gets right about the relationship between soldiers and civilians. Overall, it’s entertaining enough to watch but not something you’ll come back to again and again.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is based on a novel of the same name by Ben Fountain, a 58-year-old writer from North Carolina. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment about it in relation to the film. While I was watching the movie, however, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that this story wasn’t written by either a former soldier or someone who served in the Iraq War. “This is what a Hollywood screenwriter thinks soldiers sound like,” I thought as I listened to the dialogue. Turns out my suspicions were correct, which explains why the soldiers were so painfully stereotypical. A writer often falls back on stereotypes or popular tropes when not informed by personal experience.

The film’s portrayal of the disconnect between soldiers and civilians, however, is very insightful. It’s hard to describe the oddity of being involved in something like the military, especially if you have been deployed in a war zone. Everyone has an opinion about it, even though they have no direct knowledge or experience. Even comments from someone who supports the troops and the war effort can seem awkward and embarrassing, and this film captures that beautifully.

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