12 November 2008

Abandoning A False Assumption

"Individual free choice, an idea that permeates common sense and [educational] theory, assumes that actions reflect the stable preferences of individual actors. Individuals are responsible for their actions (that is, their preference-driven choices), and [schools] can therefore be designed on that assumption.

"But if that assumption is wrong... then [schools] built upon it may not be advancing the ends they purport to serve."

The bracketed words in this quote are my substiutions, but I believe that both the original claim and the claim I have transformed it into are both true. (here's the source of the orginal quote at the Situationist Blog)

The challenge that schools face given the falsification of the assumption of individual free choice is, first, how to think about education given the substantial role of group dynamics and the constrained choices made available to individuals under different contextual circumstances.

The assumption that I believe is at the heart of the traditional academic classroom version of schools is that learning is deliberate, effortful and aviodable. That assumption is completely sensible given the assumed centrality of academic skills to the educational enterprise. Given that schooling took as it's central task the conveyence of knowledge, skills and information from teachers to student based on the collegiate model of subject areas that reflected the reductionist scientific worldview that was emerging about the same time that compulsory government schooling was also.

The focus of educational interventions in the cases of children who are failing in academic classrooms focus on the individual free choices of the students themselves or those who are expeced to be in control of them, teahcers and parents. There may be lip service given to the child's family situation, but if anything is even considered it will usually focus on the individual free choice of the parents to excersize more control over their child while effectively ignoring important situational factors. There is no attention given to the influences of the situation in which the child is embedded in the classroom, except maybe an exploration of how the individual free choices of the teacher interacts with the individual free choices of the student. And if a teacher and/or parent dares to explore situational explanations for the relational dynamics between teachers and students, then they are summarily dismissed (implicitly, if not explicitly) for excusing bad behavior and attempting to avoid their responsibility.

The alternative assumption, which I believe is well supported by the findings of cognitive and psychological research, is that learning-in-general is automatic, unconscious and impossible to avoid while learning-to-read is deliberate, effortful and avoidable (along with all the other academic skills). The difference between learning-in-general and learning-each-academic-skill creates exactly opposite descriptions of how they occur. Thus, when schools organize themselves as if all learning is exactly the opposite of the way it actually occurs, we get a system of inherent contradictions and problems.

But the problems are not with the components of the system, it is the relationships between the components. It would be like complaining about not being able to drive to work when the car is still in Detroit, the gas is still at the refinery, and you are sitting around in your pajamas at home. The components of the system are in good enough shape to get the job done, if only they can be put into a proper relationship. While there are areas where some of the components might be in poor shape, on the whole the school system in the United States of America are adequate. The students are bright, the teachers care, the buildings are standing firm, and they have access to an abundance of materials. They have just been put into dysfunctional relationships in which the teachers are given tyrannical control and expected to use that power to enforce "educational" academic activities and produce certain marks of instructional bookkeeping to the exclusion of the interests and passions of their students.

What we need to expect of them are relationships informed by the 3R's of respect, responsibility, and resourcefulness. We need to ensure that when academic instruction occurs everyone in the class has made a choice to participate. And for those who are not ready to meet high behavioral and academic standards are provided with an equally educational option that still holds them to the highest social and moral standards in whatever activities they choose.
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