Friday, May 04, 2012

The One Best System Syndrome

The One Best System is the title of David Tyack's classic examination (haha) of the 'History of American Urban Education'. In it he shows how large cities like Chicago constructed and executed their theories of a 'best system of education' and what the consequences were.

As more big cities elbow and punch (always above their weight, it seems) their way to global prominence, more rubbish about education policy (as opposed to education) begins to consume news cycles. You know that education can only suffer when we begin to ignore the cognitive neuroscience of 2010 while privileging the sociology of the 1960s and the politics of the 1980s — and ignoring the history of the last 200 years.

Children are malleable, even if the imago stage is not. Adults always fret about the pressures on children. I can tell you that young people, given a range of tasks of variable challenge in the classroom, and a range of commensurate rewards and consequences (both tangible and less so), will always rise to the challenge. What balks their personal growth is the weight of parental and societal expectation — the pressure of the social, cultural and economic 'reality' crafted for them by the parents who are complaining about that same pressure.

Only the enlightened parents with great courage and enviable reasoning powers escape the trap. They do this through a mixture of building tough endoskeletal support (e.g. 'spine', values) or by changing the environment (e.g. homeschooling, emigration). I prefer the 'spine' option because that is what differentiates vertebrates from invertebrates.

The highest form of education is the kind that combines planning (where the individual does not have the capacity) with personal interest and available breadth. A young person in a house with a large library in a nature reserve, with internet access only unlocked when specific but complex tasks are achieved, and some minimal guidance on tap, will likely prosper.

You're dreaming, is what most people will mutter. Well, no. This is what a school is, with the added benefit of live social networking and many guides (although, it must be said, not all are good at guidance). This is what a home can be. It is the reason why home-schooling can work for some. Build endoskeleton, and you can hook up muscle. The heavier the skeleton, the more the muscle.

But don't use politics and sociology and economics as the driving forces. These lead to 'One Best System Syndrome', the quest to systematize the life out of education, even while the injured politicians and sociologists and economists claim they are saving it.

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