Thursday, June 10, 2004

A Specific Example of An Important Freedom Lost

I began my career in education fifteen years ago. I wanted to improve the world by means of education. I believed that it was important to train young people to think independently. I began leading Socratic Seminars in public schools, open-ended discussions of texts bound by the constraints of evidence and reasoning. Students were free to have whatever opinions they pleased, as long as they could defend those opinions cogently.

I discovered that there were some students in some communities who could do this well and many other students in other communities who could not. In order to have a coherent intellectual discussion, it turned out that there were three pre-requisites:

1. The ability to read critically.
2. The ability to participate constructively in a group.
3. An inclination to take ideas seriously.

If any of these three pre-requisites were missing, the discussions were weak. Without the ability to read critically, the discussion could not really use a text productively. Without the ability to participate civilly, discussions turned into a chaotic mess of insults, domination, and irrelevance. Without an inclination to take ideas seriously, the discussions became flat and meaningless.

My colleagues and I then developed an approach to train students in these pre-requisites. It required daily discussions, at least an hour per day. Sometimes the discussions focused primarily on reading techniques, sometimes they focused on group dynamics, and sometimes they focused on why ideas should be taken seriously. Some conversations combined all three pre-requisites.

Leading these discussions was an interesting, engaging, sophisticated art. But after a solid year of such Socratic Practice, as I called it, even inner-city students were able to read much better and engage constructively in intellectual discussions. They felt liberated, they enjoyed the conversations (students love to talk), and they learned crucial teamwork skills for the real world. SAT-Verbal score gains at some sites have been double or even triple the national average.

Given the need to provide students with a better education, one might have thought that such a pedagogy would flourish.

Instead, it is practically illegal to engage in this pedagogy.

The well-intentioned national standards movement, codified by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), puts pressures on teachers to "cover" specific standards in each discipline. While daily conversations that raise SAT-verbal scores and provide useful workplace skills may be intrinsically valuable, they prevent teachers from covering state-required content. While intellectual argumentation was the core educational experience in ancient Greece, in medieval universities (which educated 12 year-olds), aristocratic education throughout Europe, Jesuit education, Jewish education, and the best prep schools in the U.S., extensive use of this core experience of western civilization is practically illegal today.

In addition to the "standards" obstacle, there is the teacher obstacle. I have never had any difficulty finding interesting, intellectually capable adults who are eager to lead these conversations with students. Unfortunately, most of these adults are not credentialed teachers - and most credentialed teachers are not capable of leading sophisticated intellectual dialogue. Again, NCLB forces public and charter schools to hire "highly qualified teachers," which simply means teachers licensed in their discipline. This does not mean that they are capable of leading intellectual discussions.

I attended St. John's College, where all professors are required to teach all disciplines: The Greek Ph.D. must also learn to teach Newton's calculus, Racine's French, Bach's fugues, etc. Almost everyone in our society would regard this as horribly inappropriate: Why allow people to teach outside their range of competence? What happens at St. John's, and at secondary schools that have used this same model, is that the people who are willing to do this (and there are long waiting lists to teach at these institutions) are people who love to learn, who have a passion for learning - in every discipline and in every way. These are the kind of people that I want teaching my kids.

My ideal vision of education would train young people to be extraordinary autodidacts. It has been suggested that the ideal St. John's foreign language exam would be one in which you don't know what language you will be tested in: Perhaps Swahili, or Mandarin, or Polish, or something else. You show up for the exam, are presented with a passage in the language to be translated, and you are provided with a dictionary and a grammar. And you figure it out.

The same type of exam could be extended to science: You are provided with a technical paper in physics, or chemistry, or biology, or something else. You are also provided with suitable technical materials that will enable you to figure it out. And you figure it out.

Or perhaps the exam is a sophisticated software package still in its box. You are required to install the software and figure out well enough to accomplish a specified task.

It is possible to become a more capable, more independent learner. It is possible to train young people so that they can learn on their own. In my view, such an education would be vastly more valuable than the education that students currently receive.

But in any publicly-funded school, it is illegal to provide students with this type of education.


Blogger Ryan said...

It is unfortunate, but it seems to me that the average student views the educational process as complete after formal schooling. Such a mindset does not necessitate the development of the ability to self-educate, failing to provide the incentive necessary to demand that our public education instill such an ability. This prevents educational independence, which I believe to be of great value. I was additionally struck by your insistence on the importance of taking ideas seriously. I would not hesitate to suggest that this point is a necessary precursor to satisfying the rest. Young people are not naturally inclined to marvel at an idea as they are at a musical instrument or a great novel. One of the tasks of the effective educator (which may and should include good parenting, of course)is to document and discuss the consequential nature of ideas. Indeed, it is "ideas", vaguely stated, that lay the framework for muscial and literary genius. It seems to me that most young folks (of which I consider myself one, as a college student) learn the basic lessons in life via consequences, be they adverse or beneficial. In coming to appreciate ideas, I need only to grasp the consequential nature of even the most abstract ideas to understand its relevance. An educator, preferably one who is not limited in the scope of his/her material, should strive to provide some sort of meta-narrative that documents the evolution and impact of an idea. This, I do believe, will garner the attention necessary in young people to cultivate a genuine appreciation of ideas. If nothing else, the wise young student will see how ideas and/or information can be a powerful tool for achieving their individual goals. Maybe practice makes perfect........

10:02 AM  

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