It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. That is how I look at the past decade when it comes to education.
While it remains to be seen how things play out, rapid developments in two areas seem particularly promising. Technology, provided that we harness its potential in ways that allow us to highlight and develop our best selves, places greater emphasis on the role of the learner. Similarly, it makes a much more compelling argument for project-based learning. The key measure is what one could do. The second is neuroscience. Aided by new technologies, we are rapidly discovering more and more about how the brain functions. But just as we must not become overly enamored of the Internet as a massive database, we must be leery of cognitive science, which analogizes the brain to a computer. The mind and all its glories remain mysterious.
It’s also encouraging that education seems to be heavily at the forefront of a national conversation. In just the past couple of years, several national magazines have featured cover stories on education. And they haven’t been just the usual “America if falling dangerously behind” pieces. Instead, they have talked about redesigning schools, teacher quality, modern curricula, and other crucial topics.
The worst? It’s that so many of those conversations lead to most people suggesting the same misguided solutions to various issues. All the solutions somehow seem to involve “raising standards”—be it for schools or teachers or students. Please understand that I’m not against standards. Certainly they should be high. I’m just not sure how they really work as a solution. A couple of years ago several politicians proposed firing all the poor performing teachers. Obviously we don’t want bad teachers. But how will they be identified? More importantly, who would replace them? Any guarantee they would be any better given the challenges?
I’m not sure at whom I should rant about this. Maybe Frederick Taylor and his whole notion of scientific management. But we seem to have this notion that education can somehow be mechanized to ensure quality. Six-step lesson plans, teacher-proof curricula, computer-assisted instruction—each was/is supposed to be the silver bullet.
In these discussions, we have to keep one immutable fact at the forefront: education is a human endeavor. That means it is going to be messy. It’s about figuring out what kids need, collectively and individually. It’s about teachers figuring out how to give of themselves in a way that serves those kids’ needs. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. In The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown makes a crucial statement about the idea of micromanaging education: “If every detail of a student’s learning were held to public account, a lot of valuable experimentation and improvisation would probably disappear” (217).
One of my soccer coaches used to move us all over the field, having us play in different positions. Even our formations changed regularly. Often we would grow frustrated, unsure of our roles. This would go on throughout most of the season, until we developed a sense of cohesion that came with having a much deeper sense of the sport. We learned intricacies and nuances of the game that eluded others. It helped many of us play at higher levels and coach. I now parrot one of the coach’s favorite sayings whenever we expressed our aggravation: “Sometimes you have to make a real mess in the kitchen when you’re baking a delicious cake.”
While it serves many purposes, the process of learning is the process of learning to be. It’s an enculturation as we slowly grasp how things operate within communities of practice. In time we discover ourselves and our place within those communities.