Benefits of staying off the path

Here's an argument for educational reform that even a politician can understand:

It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged, memorably framed by Edison I think, that we don't know a millionth of one percent about anything. I assume that most people would agree that the sum of human knowledge is pretty big. Too big, in fact, for any one person to know, let alone understand, all of it. Indeed we frequently choose to approach a problem or project by collecting a team of people each of whom brings different knowledge and expertise, so that we may be sure that we have all the knowledge required to address the problem.

If this technique is so effective — and it is — then our education system should prepare for it. And, I hear the dear politicians protest proudly, it does. Up to age shmeu everyone learns the basics, and then each child gradually specializes until by age smee they are ready to enter higher education fully prepared for their narrow specialization that will make them such a valuable contributor in the future.

This is a really strong argument when you know exactly what the future holds. There have been times in the past where we (almost) have. Those times are looooooong ago now, and getting ever more distant and an ever faster rate as Moore's Law drives us ever faster into the future.

If the next generations are to be ready to face this unknown (and I suspect, unknowable) future, then we need to ensure that their range of knowledge is as diverse as possible, and furthermore, their range of approaches, ways of thinking, is as broad as possible. (Quick! Everyone out of the box!)

Diversifying their range of knowledge is the bit that I think the politicians can handle. We can tell them about it without their needing too much hand-holding. It goes as follows:

If you impose a national curriculum, that every child must follow up to age shmeu, (even if it then diversifies into specializations that are also imposed at a national level) then the greatest possible sum of all their knowledge is barely greater than the knowledge of one child. I understand that you want equality of opportunity and that ensuring that desire means assuring that the same level  of education is available to every child, but it does not mean that the same education should be given to every child. Supposing you defined 10 different national curricula, and distributed them at random around the country. You would increase by an order of magnitude the total knowledge of your nation. It follows that if there were 100, 1000 curricula, you add two, three more orders of magnitude.

Are you out of your mind? 1000 different curricula?

Here's the part that will make the politicians sad: education has to be disestablished. Disestablishment is the separation of any institution from the institution of the state. In other words, you remove all Government control, and indeed most central control from education. Personally I think that individual teachers should set the curricula of their own classes and teach it as they choose. Naturally this makes comparative testing (competition) invalid. Individual teachers might use examination as a means of tracking progress, but a national exam "at the end" is nonsense. The politicians panic. "How can we prove that everyone is getting the same level of education?" they scream in horror. "Are you doing that now?" is all I can answer.

Ensuring that every child gets the same opportunity becomes a very different process. It would require inspectors who would check classroom by classroom, if need be, child by child, to observe that education is happening. The children are learning. Developing their ability to think, to express themselves, to engage with one another and to engage with the problems that they face in their daily lives, and some of them, with the problems of the wider world.

The validity of this model of education is that it seeks to prepare for the unknown future, by maximizing diversity. Compare with validating an education on the basis of how it prepares children for today, which is what politically motivated education does. Education is currently conceived, in most countries, on the basis that you can measure the progress of children's education through identical examination, and that you can measure the success of an education by how easily each school leaver gets a place in University or lands his first job. To call this a rather narrow view is to be very British about it.

Surely an education should be judged on its ability to prepare you (inasmuch as this is even possible) for your life.

So education needs to be free, not equal. So it needs to be off the path, as far from straight and narrow as possible.

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