school, purpose, and the means of instruction

schooling machine.jpg

Schooling has no purpose. What is has is a function. They're not the same thing. The difference is about awareness and intentionality. Maybe there was some kind of purpose when the system was first established. And maybe some people in the system would claim that it still has one. If there's something there, it would relate to learning and development. But that's a pretty vague basis on which to try and justify the billions being spent to solve whatever the problem is. Wait, what did we say the problem was? What is it that we're trying to do? See my point? If we pressed educators further on the purpose of schooling, the best we would get back would be a copy of the curriculum. Any curriculum makes some kind of attempt to describe what we hope students to learn. And they're all basically the same. The subject areas, the textbooks, the classroom arrangements, the system structures, and the expected outcomes--the only differences are cosmetic, and they're getting more similar every year as education systems "develop" according to the established "best practices". 

The trend today is to structure curricula around objectives or outcomes, rather than content. Fair enough. It's not a bad idea to think in terms of what we want student's to learn, as opposed to what we want to teach. Most commonly, these outcomes are articulated in terms of knowledge, skills, and attitudes--KSAs. Empires have been built around this structure. In reality, of course, attitudes are just included as decoration. Nobody is really serious about teaching attitudes, because teaching attitudes doesn't make sense in the way we think about teaching. So we're left with knowledge and skills. But the deeper problem is that, even if we include attitudes, nowhere inside of this framework is there space to get at what we really need from education. That is, as a minimal bottom line, the cultivation of people in a manner that will help them live together harmoniously with one another and with the planet. 

The irony of it is that with all the advances in our knowledge, and all the investments in formal schooling, we seem to be more out of balance on both the social and environmental fronts now, than at any other point in our collective history. Our education systems have become completely distorted, rootless, self-referencing, and bloated. We keep pushing more and more aggressively along the same path, but when was the last time we went back and took stock of what we are trying to do? When was the last time we took a good look at what our society has become, what we want for the future, and what imperatives we face? Round about never. This is the iron law of bureaucracy--as soon as we have a system set up, the vested interest in maintaining system quickly overrides the original goals for which the system was established. The bureaucrats take control. And education systems are some of the biggest bureaucracies in the world. 

And now we begin to see the real problem. We have these massive systems that are interested, first and foremost, in perpetuating themselves. From inside the system, they set their own markers of what progress should look like, because they're the experts after all. And we let them get away with it. We colour inside the lines. The debate over what education should be has been completely hijacked by red herrings. At any level of the debate, the discussion is about the details, and the underlying assumptions are never questioned. The most radical ideas in the so-called "reform movement" in the States have bipartisan support. That should make us a little nervous. This is true political finesse. 

We need to look past who is in control of school systems, past the unions, past teacher tenure, past who is writing the textbooks (and who is paying for them), past exam systems, and past KSAs.. we need to look broader and deeper. We need to look at how education shapes people. KSAs don't capture that. Turns out there is a lot that is going on in education that has not been questioned seriously for a long time. And all of it impacts students. And all of it is political. I don't think it's entirely intentional that things are the way they are. It's not a conspiracy. In fact, I think it's not intentional at all. That's the point. That's the reason education has a function but no purpose. But it's also no accident that our education serves the hegemon so well. We have defined education in such narrow parameters (KSAs) that the vast majority of what is shaping and conditioning our students is left up to default--a cocktail of market forces, vested interests, and inertia. Schools are microcosms of society. They express and perpetuate the dominant culture. And nobody inside the system has any incentive to change that. Quite the opposite. 

But it can be changed. Schools have incredible potential to create positive social change. Think about it, we have a captive audience for 8 hours a day, spanning 12 formative years of nearly every citizen's life. We should be able to do something constructive with that opportunity. But until we can get our heads around the idea that everything is educative.. that every aspects of students' experiences conditions them.. we will continue to have education systems which serve no meaningful purpose. Until we recognize how the mundane factors that comprise the educative context impact students' development, we will never be able to be intentional about how we are educating them. Whatever content we jam into the curriculum is going to be trumped by the context we immerse students in day after day. The good news for educators is that we already control the means of instruction. All we need to do is to start reorienting them to reflect the world we want, rather than the one we have.

Matthew Hiebert 2013-06-23