Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Goals in Education

I recently started applying for a part-time job helping high school kids prepare for standardized tests used for entering college. As I worked through the application, I remembered the lessons of the years I spent as an educational consultant, which directly contradict the entire idea of such competition as a valid method in education.

Competition, by itself, is not a bad thing: it's a tool for reaching an objective. Like our economy, the objective is for people to gain more personal power than others. There are a limited number of colleges (“institutions of higher education”), so only a few students that apply can get into them; tests are a way for colleges to ensure that the students they get are capable of getting the most out of their limited resources. From a student's perspective, it is self-evident that “knowledge is power,” and college provides an opportunity to gain more knowledge. Employers value employees with more knowledge (and the demonstrated ability to gain it), and reward college graduates with better chances of a job, and higher paychecks, which improves the graduates' ability to acquire more of what they need and want.

My main problem is with the goal.

Focusing personal power is a strategy that enables populations to have access to resources that aren't locally available by providing incentives for a small group of risk-takers to search for them elsewhere. But as more people become risk-takers, the overall risk to the entire population increases, not least because the “incentive,” giving people more than they need, multiplies so that resources become depleted faster. In an environment with fixed resources, or a limit to how fast people can access new ones, the most successful risk-takers are able to thrive – for a while – while the rest of the population becomes less able to thrive, and then survive. Our entire planet is now in this condition, with populations of other species already declining rapidly (in large part because we consider them “resources”), and ours soon to follow if we don't change our behavior.

If the overarching goal of a population is to survive as long as possible, which is the most rational goal I can think of, then its members need to learn how to get the most utility out of what the environment can produce on a regular and reliable basis. That last part is what I would recommend as the most basic goal of education.

As to the methodology of education, let me use a helpful analogy. Two people each have a destination they want to reach. One has a map, and the other one doesn't. All things being equal, the person with the map has a better chance of reaching his destination without something unexpected either detouring him or stopping him altogether.

The map is the equivalent of “knowledge,” and the “destination” is the set of conditions that will provide one's needs and wants for a long time. For the map to be useful, it must accurately and readably represent landmarks and other information that correspond to identifiable parts of the real world that are meaningful to whoever is using it. If any of these conditions aren't true, then its user loses his advantage over the person without the map.

Suppose the person without the map knows how to make maps. She translates everything she encounters into a form that she or someone else can refer to later. She has learned on her own how to recognize places where she can meet some of her needs and wants, so she can live off the land if necessary while she searches for a location that provides all of them. If she never finds the ideal place, her maps may be never find their way into the hands of the people who feel the need to use maps. She may even discover that, for her, the “ideal place” is different from other people's, perhaps it is the totality of all the places she's visited, or just the experience of exploration itself.

If everyone is making “maps,” and testing the ones that others have created by using them and making corrections as necessary, then the chances of finding what they all need and want will be maximized. One reason is that more people cover more ground. Another reason is that there is a critical social component to life that is every bit as important as the “environment” we inhabit, if not more so: it is the glue that enables us to work together, and provides the impetus for playing together, which may be the most productive activity we can be part of.

Years ago, when I tutored for a living, one of the most common questions I heard from students was “Why do I need to learn this?” Fortunately, I had some experience I could use to plausibly answer it, but I knew that ultimately the students wouldn't be totally convinced until they had experience of their own. This was one of the reasons why my father conceived our education business: to develop and nurture the ability to synthesize knowledge and understanding from direct experience, to “make maps” and learn the communications skills required to share them with others so we can all benefit.

When my father died, the business effectively died with him, but the lessons live on. With our global crisis requiring us to collectively live within our means (another lesson I learned while running a small business), we need to change our goals from unrestricted growth (profit) to innovative use of what Nature can provide in the long term. This requires that we respect the many species that are part of the web of life we are part of, and must depend on. To do so we must get to know them, from experience; to learn how to “live off the land” -- and find happiness where we can, without stealing it from others now and yet to be born.

1 comment:

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