08 June 2005

Education as a Moral Enterprise

The crux of the matter seems to me the conceptions of morality and education. In my own work the two are inextricably linked, whereas there seems to be a dominant conception of education as merely the delivery of units of knowledge, skills and information with no necessary link to morality and the daily human struggle to decide what is right versus wrong action.

In my work I propose that we can better understand education as a mapping of experiences. There may be units of knowledge, skills and information that are necessary, but the mere accounting for the presence of the unit is not adequate. In order for the learner to become educated they not only have to have an experience of the unit, they must also be able to relate that unit to where they are in their life, where they are going, and how that unit relates to other units that the learner has experienced. Thus in my view the delivery of knowledge, skills and information are a fundamental part of learning, but in order for an educational result to occur from that learning, that lesson must be incorporated into a map that shows the learner, the teacher, the lesson and other relevant information from the learner’s life.

The idea of creating a map also means that the cartographer has to be able to privilege some information over others. There is a big difference between a topographical map and a highway map. The cartographer must decide what is important and what is not important within the context that the map is going to be used. If I am a delivery driver trying to drive from Seattle, Washington, to Los Angeles, California, then I am not concerned with the height of the mountains along the way, but I do want to know the difference between a high speed interstate highway and a country lane. But if I am a mountain climber trying to get up to the top of Mt. Ranier then I do not care what kind of highway goes up to the foot of the mountain, I want to know how steep the different climbing routes are.

Consider what it would be like if you were an apprentice map maker creating a map according to the way our education system is organized. Someone would tell you that you are going to get a whole bunch of information that is supposed to be valuable, but you only have their word for it since you can’t tell it’s value. In fact, the information is presented in ways that make it boring and therefore enhances the perception that it is totally irrelevant to anything in your life. You are given the information in bits and pieces over a very long period of time and according to a scheme that is organized only superficially by those who actually present it, but mostly is haphazardly assembled from the conflicting political and social interests that wield influence in the highest levels of society. Given this amalgam of data you are expected to produce a map.

The system, while it may leave some things to be desired is reasonably good at delivering units of knowledge, skills and information. Thus you would have a lot of data for your map. You have units of history, mathematics, and a variety of other subject areas. The way they know that the delivery was successful is that soon after you have had certain units delivered the schools account for those units. Once they have accounted for the units they delivered, then they give you some recognition of this fact by giving you a grade, a test score, or a diploma to signify that you have all the appropriate units of knowledge, skills and information as far as they are concerned.

The only problem is that people are like sieves. This scientist named Howard Gardner who is famous for creating the theory of multiple intelligences did some studies that showed that people who are supposed to know great things because of the advanced degrees they have been awarded, do not actually understand the world in the way their discipline has shown the world to be. What he did in his study was to take a bunch of people who had been studying for a long time and presented them with the most basic problems from their area of expertise. The most interesting result was in physics because in physics there is very little room to argue about the interpretation of the problems and how they should be answered. The problems were presented in several ways, on e way was the way they are always presented on tests, of course, the well-schooled almost always solved these easily. But when these very basic problems that can easily be solved by applying the most fundamental principles of physics were presented in realistic ways that might occur in the real world, well over half failed to apply the simplest strategies of their field of expertise. They came up with the same kind of answers that any untrained adult or even a child would come up with.

My interpretation of this result is that what went wrong is that those who failed to apply the most basic principles in spite of their advanced training failed to integrate those crucially important tidbits into their understanding of the world. They were well trained to regurgitate the unit in the prescribed format for testing, grading, and all the other instructional bookkeeping, but it is wandering around in their brain unconnected to how they actually operate in the world. If these students are trying to get to Los Angeles they are hopelessly lost because the school system has trained them to take tests and respond to the requirements of instructional bookkeeping instead of the requirements of the real world.

The choices that need to be made in order to relate to the real world are moral choices. The student of reality must have the courage to locate themselves in the world, decide what direction they want to travel or a destination they want to go to and then honestly discern the relationships between them and the units of knowledge, skills and information that are presented. If education is to be truly relevant, then it must take the learners decisions into account. It does not have to bend to the whim of students, but it should at least have some consideration for the students lives and goals.

The problem with units that are not related to each other or relevant goals is that they are not useful. If I know that I am in Seattle and want to go to L.A. then it is vitally important that I can locate them both accurately. If I am literally traveling then it is important too also have the basic concepts of compass directions and navigation. Without these basic concepts I will not be able to even read a map, let alone make one. I could end up wandering around trying find a big red line on the ground, and that’s assuming I got the highway map and not the topographical map!

The way to discern right action (morality) is dependent on having the ability to relate experiences to ourselves, our goals, other people and other experiences. This kind of discernment relies on both the head and the heart, it is both cognitive and affective.

Education is a moral enterprise when it is conceived of as a process of helping a learner relate to their world in such a way that they can effectively choose right action based on considering their goals, their opportunities and the society in which they are situated. If education is reduced to the delivery of knowledge, skills, and information then it is effectively divorced from morality because delivery can be achieved without ever addressing how the lesson can or should lead to right action.


Don Berg

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