Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

What's wrong with education

I just got back from a three-hour conversation with my friend Kenny. I only wish I could spend my whole life having those kinds of conversations all the time. That was one of the explict goals for the SKS community, and one that I still believe is worth pursuing.

The best thing about Kenny, in this case, is that I can natter on about ideas that excite me and he's actually interested. Tonight it was all about education . . . which is very appropos, since Kenny is a charter high school teacher, and both of us have worked with the same educational non-profit for the last fifteen years.

Here's my thesis: the thing that is terrible about education today is that it has practically no resemblance at all to the real world:

  • Almost everything we do in the real world is collaborative: we work with other people. Even if it’s just me and the customer, we have to work together. But most classroom education is completely individualistic and competitive; group projects are rare.
  • Because real-world work involves working with other people, you are almost always working to appease multiple audiences: the boss, the customer, the co-worker, the direct report, the vendor, the salesman, etc. Academic work has exactly one audience: the teacher.
  • Most important process skills that are used every day in the real world are never taught in school. No one is taught how to write an effective email, or run a meeting, or write an agenda, or extract a commitment, or follow up on commitments, basic problem-solving, or even say “thank you” and “I’m sorry.” It’s not that these are “adult” skills that can’t be taught to young people; it’s just that no one bothers to teach them.
  • In real life, people can take proactive action to resolve problems that they see, or seize upon opportunities. School is completely reactionary: the teacher gives the assignment, the student completes the assignment. At no point does the student get say, “I think we need to do this,” and then proceed to do it. (Teachers might give lots of latitude in letting students choose particular assignments, but the teacher is still initiating the action.
  • In school, almost all assigments are arbitrary and meaningless. Students rarely if ever get to do anything that has actual value for someone else. Students might work hard, but they rarely get to make a real contribution to anything other than their own GPA.
  • School is regimented by curricula. Everyone learns the same material at essentially the same pace. In the real world, everyone learns as fast as they can, and to the degree that they require it to fulfill their goals.

I could go on, but you get the idea. School is nothing like the real world. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Should we surprised that students are not ready for the “real world” when their school experience is so disconnected from what they will really do?

Of course, I have some ideas (some of which might even be good) of how to fix this. But more on that later.


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