Here’s a thought experiment that a friend posited a couple weeks ago. From a purely academic point of view, how long would it take a smart kid, working at their own pace with appropriate guidance, to learn the material up through 8th grade or so? Let’s say through basic algebra in math, reading and writing in complex sentences, some basic understanding of science, a first pass at American and world history, that sort of level (although, given the horrendous state of public education, that might qualify as a high school education at this point. Yikes!). My guess is four years. Or less. I did K-8 in 7 years, skipping two grades, and I could probably have skipped at least two or three more if it weren’t for socialization issues (sixth grade, for instance, was a total waste as the teacher refused to let me work ahead because she felt there were certain things sixth graders did and that was that).
Those pesky socialization issues. What, really, are we teaching our children for those other four years? I can tell you what I learned. I learned that I don’t have to work hard to succeed (at least in that environment). I learned that being out of the box often means being crammed back into the box. I learned that I can get away with mediocre work because nobody cares. And I went to an extremely good public school. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for students in a bad one.
It’s really frustrating. I can see some of these acceptance-of-mediocrity tendencies in myself even now, which is how the topic came up when I was talking with my friend. It makes me wonder why we accept such an awful system if people really believed that children are our future. Or are we aspiring to the dystopia alluded to in The Incredibles, where because everybody is special, nobody is?
If I were a cynical Rand-ian, I’d claim that the school system, as presently constructed, is designed to habituate us from birth to not make waves, especially those of us that are smart, because ambitious smart people are disruptive innovators that change power structures. School teaches us to sit still, keep our mouths shut, and conform to the majority. We’re taught to obey authority blindly (because teachers hate being challenged), which I think contributes to our acceptance of pseudo-science. If you squint the way I currently am, you can see many of the problems of our society reflected in our education system.
So what would I do differently? I have nothing that could be construed as realistic. To really teach kids right, you need to spend a lot of quality personal time with them, allowing them to pursue their interests in a guided fashion. There are some things that everybody should know, like the basics I outlined above, but beyond that, leveraging the natural enthusiasm of children would seem to be a natural thing to do. And given that children are natural scientists, it seems like we could take much better advantage of that than we currently do with our memorization of orthodox science dogma. Not that I’m saying we should doubt the current scientific paradigm, but that we should give students the opportunity to ask why and, when possible, figure out where the paradigm came from, as Postman suggested.
I don’t know what I’d do if I had kids. My friend pointed me at the Montessori method, which looks promising. I’d almost be tempted to home school them. But there is a genuine need for socialization. The smartest person in the world is completely ineffectual if they can’t persuade other people to their way of thinking, a skill I continue to hope to learn. I don’t know how one teaches that to kids though. Cooperative learning environments? Play groups? I don’t really know.
Lots of hard questions, as there always are when I address education. And it’s getting late, and it’s time for this to be out of my hands, so out it goes.