Education for Better Citizens and a Better World
We live in the information revolution. Unlimited knowledge is at our fingertips, yet the current education system remains unchanged, leaving students without the skills they need. It’s time we challenge our factory-like school system and ask more out of public education.
During the industrial revolution, governments needed ways to effectively educate the future workforce. One method that arose during this time was the Prussian model, which sorted students into grades where they would learn by a set curriculum. Although it served the purpose of educating the population, it was also used by the Prussian government to indoctrinate their citizens and create an obedient population. Hearing this may be alarming because this is the same education model public schools utilize today. To be fair, Horace Mann, the education reformer who brought the idea to the US, didn't intend for it to be used as a form of evil, but rather an efficient way to educate the growing American population. Later on, to further regulate education, a committee of 10 was devised in 1892 to decide how, when, and what students should learn. Little has changed in the structure of schools nor the curriculum they teach.
The problem with a heavily structured school system is that it leaves little room for discovery. Many classes focus on memorizing facts to pass tests, but this doesn’t provide lasting knowledge. Upon being asked what they would cover in his course, MIT physicist Victor Weisskopf is quoted as saying, “…it doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover.” Students should be provided the tools and resources to launch inquiries into the subjects they are interested in. While fact-based learning creates students who dread the subjects they learn, discovery-based learning promotes curiosity and passion.
In recent years, the nationwide education system has increasingly placed their measure of success on standardized exams. These exams test students in the basics of English and math, and once they achieve a certain level of proficiency, they move on to the next grade like items on an assembly line. Teachers, who are also graded based on their classroom’s performance on these exams, are provided an incentive, not to teach for an understanding of the material, but rather to teach the bare minimum that these exams access. Additionally, tests are typically used as grading methods in classrooms outside the standardized testing window, and like their government-issued counterparts, these tests reward those who “pass” and memorize facts over those who can make meaningful connections between information.
This model emphasizes efficiency over mastery.
The students who don’t master the basics fail in the future when they are unable to build upon the information they have already learned. These students fall through the cracks and are often labeled as stupid and incapable when what they really need is a better education. A student who fails to master algebra is likely unable to master precalculus and might eventually decide they aren’t smart enough for math. If they had been given time and attention from teachers to master algebra rather than simply “passing,” they could build the confidence and skills necessary to pursue higher levels of math and the possibility of a career in the field. An education model that focuses on mastery leaves students with understanding rather than quickly forgotten equations.
Subjects such as business and science tend to be prioritized since they teach students technical skills useful in the job market. However, the purpose of education isn’t merely to produce a workforce of professionals. Subjects like the humanities teach the necessary skills to be good people and participate in a democracy. Through rhetoric, students can learn how to form arguments and recognize bad ones, preventing them from being manipulated by media and politics. Empathy can be explored through literature, culture, and world religion, resulting in students who think globally. Imagination, which often leads to innovation, can be fostered by the arts. History teaches students to evaluate the past and recognize harmful patterns in their governments. A full education, encompassing a variety of subjects, provides the wisdom necessary to make better decisions and thus creates better citizens, who can stand up for themselves and think critically.
Education certainly has a long way to go, but we shouldn’t be limited by the systems that are already in place. Technology has made educational materials available to more people than ever before. A personalized learning plan using technology can help students master topics, discover information on their own, and bridge the gap between differences in school quality around the US. Of course, there's still a long way to go before this becomes a reality. Many students don't have access to the necessary technology and we lack the infrastructure to support such a wide-sweeping change. Still, we need to think about how we will teach our students in the future and what sort of people we want them to be. In the words of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, “The thing is that, of course, when we bring up children in the family or the school, we are always engineering. I mean, there is no values-free form of education in the world….... So, you can't avoid shaping children.” What kind of people we want education to foster is up to us. We need to decide if we will continue pursuing the utilitarian factory model or if we will make the necessary changes to teach students the values of tomorrow.
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