Monday, August 31, 2015

Don't Stay in School

So there's a video on YouTube called "Don't Stay in School." It's pretty great, and that's coming from a teacher:

He makes a lot of good points regarding content, and how we learn seemingly useless information for much of our educational experience. The last lines are: "If you can't explain why a subject is applicable to most people's lives, that subject should not be mandatory. Introduce those topics, yes... But we should choose if we want to learn more. Nobody should be forced to learn something that isn't practically useful."

So this reminds me of when I was applying for colleges, and my father's best ten minutes of parenting.

We were driving somewhere. I had applied, willy-nilly, to a bunch of schools - thirteen applications I think - which was a decent expense, given the fees for applying. I had sort of just fallen into my high school, and with my high school grades I was hoping one of the baker's dozen would be a good fit.

My dad was driving, and he asked me why I wanted to go to college.

I gave the corny, but sincere-to-my-mind answer, "I just...want to learn everything!"

"Great. I'll buy you an encyclopedia set and save a lot of money."

This wasn't said in a jovial tone. This was an earnest response to wide-eyed opinions, and for ten minutes I worked out an answer until it was something I'd not even known, but now wanted: the experience of sitting in with experts, and asking questions that are deeper than data collection.

It reminds me of this song, because the important question is: what's the point of school?

From what I can tell, there are three overarching answers people provide:

1) School is for life/job-readiness

2) School is for developing your passions

3) School is for creating good citizens

Not surprisingly these are at odds with each other. The source of this is that people are different.

Broadly I think it is safe to say there are Generalists and Specialists. There are Mozarts out there, and there are Da Vincis. Neither one would have enjoyed the other's education. And herein lies the problem between model 1 and 2. Meanwhile, there's Uncle Sam, the guy paying for all this, who wants option 3.

If you are a Specialist, all those extra courses may be a waste of time/energy/money. If you're going to be the concert pianist, I mean, do you really need an Anthro course in college, or Algebra II in high school? By this reasoning, this would be a waste of time, and indeed a number of Specialists complain about their schooling for just this reason. Some kids really do know what they want to be when they grow up, and go and do that thing.

But we also have the Generalists, who may do well in a few fields, or have some inclination towards one area and then another. For them, a broad set of skills is best, rather than doing one thing intensively. They play into both of the other categories. They work well in the 'good citizen' model because, so the reasoning goes, if you have to vote on a bill to build a nuclear power plant in your county, it might be good if you know a little something about nuclear power. Otherwise you've only got talking heads to go off of, and gut reaction. A broad understanding of things makes Generalist fit nicely in box three.

For the first category, the Generalists are also sort of popular, because, unlike the Specialist, you don't know what you want to be. So lets try them all out! You may discover something you really like, and in the process you'll learn the basics of the field you'll be entering.

From the theoretical bluff it is easy to look down on these three models and admire them. Up close, however, they aren't so great.

Starting with the last first, the problem with job-preparedness in high school, is, of course, that most of us will go into things like office/service jobs which high school doesn't prepare you for at all. Did you even have a business class, or a "how to work in an office" class? Most students don't get a year's worth of economics.

And let's get real - you won't enter the corporate culture, usually, with just a high school degree (unless you are one of those Specialists, like a programmer, who can get away with it). That's why Business and Management is still, as ever, the most popular college major. Accounting also makes the top ten.

As the video suggests, we don't really do the whole life/job preparedness unless, you know, you want to be a historian, biologist, mathematician, or literary critic. And, to be fair, if you want to do real work in these fields, they are now so specialized that you do need to pick up the basics in high school, or else college would be 6-8 years long, having to learn the fundamentals first.

This is a good juncture to mention the specialists. Once again, the system doesn't really work in their favor. If you want to be a dancer, the US Public School System isn't designed to foster your talents, as Ken Robinson has made clear. Even with an interest in one of the four cores would be offset by boredom and frustration with the other three.

But here too lies the crux for the citizenship view of schooling. I mean, an intro level understanding of cells doesn't really prepare you for complex genetic decisions. Think about GMO concerns, the panic caused by the Large Hadron Collider, and so many others. Science is the easy example - what about the arts? If we're having a conversation on whether the government should fund public art, how many of us will have had painting or art classes in PS 114?

Even the sponsors of education in America aren't getting what they want out of it, namely an informed citizenry.

It also brings up a slightly troubling concept, that some decisions are best left to the experts, which, for a proud democratic and republican tradition, is sort of hard to swallow.

Our education system doesn't try to be all of these three models at once, at least not at the same time. For your early years it's a poor hybrid of the job/citizen models, and then in college it is rather more specialized. This transition of course, is therefore not very natural. How can you know you want to specialize in Sociology if you never knew it existed in high school as a field of study? So the colleges start you off with more general classes, only with more choices, and now you need a Masters when a Bachelors used to suffice.

The man paying for this, Uncle Sam, is clamping down on us, though, determined to prove our students are the mighty finest, and this has translated horrifically into standardized tests. Which is awful for students, schools, and teachers regardless of which model. It is detrimental to the citizenship model, because now there is even less time to learn the basics, detrimental to the passions, for it stifles them, and detrimental to the job-preparedness, for again, wasting their time on unneeded content and skills.

So that's not good.

If I could take Artie Duncan's place (if only) and had legislative superpowers, I'd make school look like the following, in terms of requirements. It's a long list, but the expectation would be that this is spread over all of middle and high school. I wouldn't mess with elementary, 'cause that's a whole different developmental story. In other words, this is roughly six years of stuff, based on my view that we need, as a country, to aim for the citizenship model. Some of these studies would be over many years, some a semester or less. It reflects all of my biases:

Taxes and Stocks – what are they, how to file, what is the market, how to trade
Budgeting and Jobs – budgeting: why important, how, how to interview (both sides), resume writing, unions, basic company structure (board of trustees, CEOs, etc.)
Economics – where does money come from, basics of micro, how businesses are opened/make money/fail
Logic – identifying fallacies, creating arguments
Basic math – calculate a tip, mental math up to PEMDAS
Statistics and Numbers – basic statistics, gambling, probability, and odds, decoding numbers/advertising
Psychology – social psychological phenomenon, decision making, developmental stages
Anatomy and Physiology – how the body works, sexual health and pregnancy, diet/nutrition
Health – common diseases, symptoms, and treatments/support: mental and physical, bacteria/viruses
Gender and Sexuality – what they are, relation to biology
Biology – ecology, evolution, basic genetics
Human Rights and Legal Rights – UN and USA, how the Constitution works
Law – how do courts work, jury duty, suing and being sued
Government – three branches and powers, how to vote, terms/requisites/numbers
Geography – states/territories/capitals, continents v countries, physical geography/climate science
Rhetoric – how to speak, how to identify rhetorical traps, addressing a crowd/gathering
Physics/Astronomy – big bang/age of universe, basic Newtonian, relativity, quantum, how electricity works
Literature – how to write informatively/creatively, how to read prose/poetry, how to analyze literature
Computer Science – how do computers work: hardware basics and software basics, internet basics
Science – method: sample size, hypotheses, testing conditions, results, repetition
Home Economics – how to fix basics: carpentry, electricity, plumbing, how mortgages/real estate works
Cooking – farm to table, how to cook
Parenting - how to raise a kid without totally screwing it up
Learning – how to do research, working in groups/individually, different learning types
Visual Art – basic skills: sketching, painting, sculpting, how to analyze a piece of art
Performance art – basic skills: music, dance, theater, how to read/analyze drama, basic music theory
History and Philosophy – basic USA, basic world, cultural relativism, ethics, world religions
Languages – ESL/Mandarin/Spanish/French/Russian/Arabic/Latin/Hindi: immersive reading, writing, speaking
Shared Culture Classics – Western: Homer Iliad, Sophocles Oedipus Rex, Plato Trial and Death of Socrates, Virgil Aeneid (selections), Dante Inferno, William Shakespeare Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Cervantes Don Quixote; Eastern: Epic of Gilgamesh, Wu Cheng’en Journey to the West (selections), Matsuo Basho Narrow Road to the Deep North, poetry of Du Fu, Wang Wei and Li Po, Kalidasa Recognition of Shakuntala, Valmiki Ramayana (selections), Rumi Mathnawi, Murasaki Shikibu The Tale of Genji (selections), Luo Guanzhong Romance of the Three Kingdoms (selections); American: Herman Melville Moby Dick, Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Willa Cather Death Comes for the Archbishop, Arthur Miller The Crucible, F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby, Flannery O’Connor A Good Man is Hard to Find, poetry of Whitman, Dickinson, and Poe, essays of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson; Modern: Jorge Borges Ficciones, Tayeb Salih Season of Migration to the North, Wole Soyinka Death and the King’s Horseman, Juan Rulfo Pedro Paramo, Issam Mahfouz The China Tree, Octavio Paz Eagle or Sun?, Naguib Mahfouz Children of Gebelawi, Marjane Satrapi Persepolis.

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