Not deferential enough: What is the purpose of education?

Posted Saturday, November 9, 2013 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: What is the purpose of education?

A senet board, an ancient Egyptian game.

by Gina Hamilton

As a child, the school I attended was big on reading, writing, arithmetic, and science in the early grades, but was also among the finest liberal arts schools on the continent.  We suffered through our share of experimental learning processes - anyone remember SRA fondly? - but in the end, the school was smart enough to throw most of the textbooks in the trash, and we were told to find ourselves something interesting to do.

After fourth grade, we had six 45-minute classes in the morning.  First, we had literature,  in which we were assigned a novel that we read and wrote on in reading groups based on ability for a month at a time.   After that we had a heavy-duty class on grammar, spelling, and composition. Then, we had mathematics. Then, we'd go downstairs where we were taught lab-based science. We'd come back up and learn history and civics.  Just before break, we had rotating classes. Monday and Wednesday and Friday we studied foreign language (French, for most of us), and Tuesday and Thursday we had modules in art, music, or drama.

We'd go to lunch and have a long, long recess, part of which was "physical education".  At 1:30, we'd regroup.

And in the afternoons, we did something called "synthesis projects".  Every year, we had to choose a synthesis project based on some overarching thing we were interested in.  It could have been anything that interested us, and we were told to examine the subject using every area at our disposal.  So as I explored early humans in seventh grade, I had to look at the subject historically (we were big on "time lines"), from a literary perspective, using mathematics, using science, and using the arts.  I had to explore it from a physical perspective. I learned to make stone tools, gathered berries and figured out how to dry them, made baskets from reeds growing nearby, and learned to take an animal skin and use it to make clothing.  I learned to drill tiny shells to make beads.  I learned to make a fire.  I learned to make a shelter from plant material.  I spent a night in my shelter. I developed a hypothesis for how verbal language developed along with human physical development. I learned to make paint from plants and created rock art with it.  I learned what the available plants could have been used for medicinally.  I learned to make the medicine.  I learned what was known about the burial practices of early humans.  I learned to piece a skeleton back together.  I learned how to date a skeleton by the condition of a single tooth. 

At the end of the year, we'd present.  Today you'd probably call it a "multimedia presentation", but we didn't call it that back then.  Everyone gave a speech and presented a term paper, but also showed pictures, items we had made, read stories or poems we had written, shared food that might have been connected to our project, showed our timelines, demonstrated how we solved some issue scientifically or mathematically, and so on.  There were challenging questions from students and teachers, and we defended our thesis.

That's right, in fourth grade we were defending a thesis.  And every year after that, too.

In short, I learned.  Some of the minutia I learned carried over into other areas of life.  Most didn't.  But the process of learning by starting with an interest, then questions, then hypotheses, then research, then physical, hands-on experimentation, then some kind of resolution or conclusion - absolutely did carry over into every aspect of my life.  I learned to speak in front of an audience.  I learned to label materials correctly.  I learned to research subjects and cite sources. I learned to defend arguments. The auto-educational process of not being told what to study, or even how, but to feed an interest, using teachers as just another resource, was ultimately the most useful skill gained.

This system depends on a number of skills already being in place - a strong sense of the basics, including a phonics-based language system, the ability to write, based on thesis-and- defense essay and term paper writing, grade-level mathematics skills, a hard-core introduction to the scientific method from the earliest grades on, and some sense of how to translate  information that exists in a language one doesn't speak fluently - such as Latin or Greek - into an accessible language.  A basic or fine understanding of the history of humanity, including its arts, literature, and sciences, also helps. As does a wide understanding of the world, universe, and our place in it.

Most important were teachers who didn't automatically assume we were too young to do this on our own or with our parents' help.  Teachers who planned field studies for small groups of kids studying similar things.  Teachers who knew how to use a library and spent days teaching us how to use it, too.  Teachers who knew their stuff well enough to help us get on the right track, and who spent time arranging for us to interview someone at the college in the field we were studying or arranging for us to get a free ticket to an art museum or a concert hall.

Notice I didn't mention standardized testing? That's because there's really no way to standardize human learning.  A child who spends two hours a day exploring an area of great interest to her probably isn't learning what some Ed.D in the state Department of Education can possibly measure.  A child who is learning about games Egyptian children played and building his own senet board probably isn't learning how to do X is to Y as B is to C puzzles.  A child who is learning how to bake treats popular in Regency England and reading Sense and Sensibility for diversion probably isn't going to use the same vocabulary as a girl growing up in New York City.

Nor should they.  While everyone should have a basic education including language, math, science, and history, and be able to use those skills interchangably, testing as a limiting factor does a major disservice to our children.  The only thing that should limit children are their own imaginations.

In short, throw away the majority of the text books, the tests, and most modern "educational methods".  Teach the basics, teach critical thinking, and let the kids teach themselves.

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