Doc Searls has a great two-part essay in Linux Journal. The first part criticizes Tom Friedman’s new best-seller The world is flat (seemingly a “more of the same” book from The Lexus and the olive tree, my favorite book on globalization.) The second part criticizes the education system (what Doc refers to as “the bell curve”) and how the focus on measurement and conformity is ruining many children’s use of their own capabilities.
I don’t agree with Doc that an education system focused on measurement ruins childrens futures, at least not the way he describes. For one thing, I think lack of measurement – multi-dimensional at that – of students and lack of measurement – in general – of teachers is as much to blame for the many students not making use of the potential that is in them. Nevertheless, it is easy to agree with Doc and John Taylor Gatto, the excellent teacher he quotes a lot in the second part of the essay, that the chief problem of education is that it fails to unlock the wonderful potential inherent in every kid.
There is a small problem with implementation, though.
Starting with open source, which Doc says is an example of unlocked learning outside any classroom. That may be the case with Doc and Jon Lech Johansen and some others, but at a recent Linux conference, I was told that most open source software is written by those conformist, boring corporate programmers, not 16 year old whiz kids with home-built Linux workstations. If you check out the Gathering (not that I have), the biggest data meet in the world, you will find game playing and demoing, but not a lot of open source. So ideas can come from anywhere, but implementation, I suspect, is more of a sustaining technology kind of thing, patiently making it a little bit better every year.
As for the supposed genius inside every child – it may be there, but unlocking the potential takes enormous energy and resources. I teach myself, I like to teach, and I try to make my courses as good a learning experience as I can. But it wears me out – and I teach Master’s classes in a business school, meaning the students are preselected and fairly motivated. Focusing on teaching in an academic environment does not give me much to show for my efforts, except excellent course ratings and the occasional pat on the shoulder.
Good teaching is hard, not just because you have to make things clear and compelling, but because you have to spend such an inordinate amount of time motivating the students to prepare and think beyond what is in the book. That means discussion classes, preparing every class anew rather than run the old slides, and careful evaluation of every student’s participation after class. So much simpler to just run through the publisher-prepared text-book slides, give a simple exam that test whether the students can repeat the book, and spend my time consulting or writing.
Things would be much simpler if the students came pre-motivated. I did like the approach of Gatto’s grandfather. Gatto asks: Who is to blame for the state of boredom in the classroom? And answers:
We all are. My grandfather taught me that. One afternoon when I was seven I complained to him of boredom, and he batted me hard on the head. He told me that I was never to use that term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else’s. The obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, and people who didn’t know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible. Certainty not to be trusted. That episode cured me of boredom forever, and here and there over the years I was able to pass on the lesson to some remarkable student.He goes on to describe how his unorthodox teaching methods landed him in trouble.
That approach requires teachers who are able to nurture the seed of self-learning and push students to think for themselves. And we probably can find them – most teachers want to do just that, but they don’t have the means, personal or resource-wise.
The real problem, I suspect, is a lack of grandfathers.