December 17, 2002
Why bother with schools?

Well, there's nothing like a pure accident to stir up a bit of ruckus. This blog goes on the blink, so I shove a recent posting for it instead into the blazing limelight that is, and the comments haven't stopped. And now comes this email as well, which I reproduce now in full to encourage more:


In your blog on Samizdata that would have been on the ed blog if it had been up, you wrote:

" If the teacher has the knowledge, and the student wants it and is ready to receive it, then hand it over."

A niggling point, but one worth considering, I think, is the 'bucket theory' of education that this sentence reveals. While the teacher might have the knowledge, the student is interested in the *information* so that they can create the knowledge for their self.

I appreciate the effort you put into the ed blog - and maybe it is just the nature of the beast these days, that education is thought to equal school and teachers as an essential part of education, but please don't go down the road of bloggin about schools and teachers all the time, rather than real education. :)

just a thought,

The whole point of answering student questions when they are asked is precisely because students are not just buckets. The developing, active thinking of a student means that there are those moments when he is ready to receive a particular sort of – okay – information, which is why he asks for it at that moment, and why it makes sense to answer the question when it's asked.

However as a metaphor to describe a certain sort of child reacting to a certain sort of teacher, " information bucket" or even "knowledge bucket" is not that bad. Successful traditional teachers, the ones with a whiff of showbiz about them as well as old-fashioned knowledge of their subject, do indeed do something very like pour stuff into the minds of their student audiences. You get this a lot. You get people like lars saying that something doesn't happen, when what he really means is that in his opinion it shouldn't. Okay, different students receive and understand different bits of the performance, because if they are buckets then they are very complicated and rather selective buckets depending on what else they know and what they now would like to know, and also depending on which bits of their brains happen to be developing at that moment. Nevertheless, setting up a Niagara Falls of information, even of knowledge, and hoping that some of it gets caught in some of the buckets is a not totally contemptible way to educate.

As for "education equals school and teachers", well, that may not be where all or even all that much education takes place these days - as a proportion of all of it - but it's a big part of the story. And there is also the vitally important matter of what children really do learn at schools, the bad stuff I mean.

It's true that in recent days schools have, as it happens, been my main focus, but earlier I happened to be concentrating more on where computers and technology fitted into the education picture. I had a spell of focussing on maths teaching, both inside and outside schools. And there will be other little spells of interest like this focussing on all sorts of other things, many of which lars may be entertained by, and many of which he may disapprove of.

But I'm going to go on writing about schools and teachers and classrooms, (a) because it is an interesting subject in its own right, and also (b) because debates and stresses and strains within the official school system could lead to very big and very good changes in the future.

The dominant beliefs of the current education profession ever since the nineteen sixties have contained a strong libertarian strand, which is one of the very big reasons why traditional education is, for so many people, near to collapse. Remember that posting I did about what most educational researchers now believe. And maybe you also remember the two comments, from Michael Peach and from Alice Bachini, pointing out that the logic of this research is: forget about "schools" and just let children learn as and when they feel inclined, and in a far nicer place than most schools are? So the people who are now running the existing system actually don't really believe in keeping it going, and in many cases they don't believe in it at all.

However, what they do believe in is mostly too incoherent and self-contradictory to achieve anything, except harm to existing institutions.

Many "progressives", for example, believe in "freedom" but not in free markets, that is to say they believe in freedom but not in one of its most inevitable and characteristic consequences, a consequence which can only be eliminated by trampling all over freedom. Such progressives are thus incapable of devising a viable real world alternative to traditional schools, just as they are incapable of devising real world alternatives to anything else. However, the existing school system does allow them to push their anti-free-market propaganda, even as they fret about the fact that they are "pushing" anything at all, so they settle, very half-heartedly, for that. PC Prussianism, you might say.

Others react to the manifest failure of "progressive education" (i.e. the attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable) by lurching back to the old-fashioned orthodoxies, but in defiance of all that research which says, very persuasively, that there ought to be a different and better way to do things.

The only coherent opponents of traditional schooling whom I know of - the only coherent educational libertarians - are the home-schoolers and the non-schoolers, like Peach and Bachini, and, happily, many more besides.

I can perfectly understand why lars wants to turn his back on all the confusion and the bad faith, the coercion and the misery, that seethes within official schools. But I don't. I find it interesting, and I don't feel inclined to ignore it, any more than I ignored the Gulag Archipelago during the Cold War. I find it fertile soil to plant different and better ideas. If all libertarians just ignored the entire world of "official" education policy and official education research, and above all official education in the form of the official schools, they'd miss all this intellectual and (it's not too strong a word for the agonies often involved) spiritual turmoil.

So I bother with schools partly for the same reason that all subversives study the thing which they oppose. Know your enemy. But also - unlike lars? - I don't actually think that all schools are as bad as some of them are, that life at school for all children is as bad as it is for some children. I think that if there were no compulsory school attendance, and total consumer choice in education – in life itself - both for parents and for children, some institutions would thrive that would look remarkably like the schools we have now. There'd be the same sort of desks all pointing towards the front, the same sort of self-important pedagogues at the front holding forth, the same sort of testing to see what if anything had been learned. The difference is that there would also be the right to ignore all this if you didn't care for it, and the right to shop around between competing suppliers if something like this would serve your purpose.

Meanwhile, I think that all over the official school desert, there are oases of goodness to be found, of the sort that have an honourable future in a far more libertarian world. I am a subversive, but I am not a revolutionary. In fact I despise and detest revolutions. Revolutions are collective acts of self-indulgence which sacrifice people on the altar of mankind. I think I've somewhat strayed from lars' objections here. But never mind. Time I stopped.

Here endeth the lesson.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:40 AM
Category: How to teach