Friday, November 26

Musing about Education

Everyone has an opinion about what is wrong with our educational system these days. In the past before my blogging days, I thought there were two main faults to lay on our system. Now I find I there may be a third. One popular topic of discussion educators and the society at large around them like to discuss is curriculum. Alas, this topic I think is largely irrelevant to preparing a good student to take on the real world, at least at the elementary level and possibly through high school.

The first two faults are that the educators forget why they are teaching and that the overhead is way too high. What I mean by "they don't know why they are teaching" is that I feel many teachers lose sight of the forest for the trees. They forget that the reason for schooling is to prepare us for not being in school. It is not to get the kid past their standardized tests, or teach him the subject matter covered by his syllabus, or to the college of their choice. The reason of school is simple. Look, if I like my job, my life will be so much more rewarding than if I don't. One way of looking at school that it is an forum for the student assisting him in his search for what he finds the most rewarding, and then preparing him so that he is good enough at that activity to be paid for doing just that. As for the latter (by high overhead), I mean something like managing the logistical tail problem that armies face. For armies, this means trying to minimize the extraneous costs, people, and materials not related to the getting guys in the field with the bad attitudes and right sharp pointy implements. For school, this means minimizing the extraneous costs, people, and bureaucratic fluff not related to keeping the best teachers in front of undistracted students.

However, in a recent discussion about evolution, creation, and all that with an evolutionarily minded gadfly (DarkSyd this means you) the following thought occurred to me. Curriculum choice is far less important than we think. Especially much less than today's educational establishment thinks, even before "No Child Left Behind". Here is what I think we really need to learn from school (before college):
  1. A minimal set of skills to survive.
  2. diligence and how to study.
  3. How to reason
  4. memorization. (This skill gets a bad rap today, quite unfairly.)
  5. Attention.
  6. perseverance

What the actual subject matter is being studied is unimportant. If a student is good at these skills, if they spent their elementary years learning anything it wouldn't matter because if they learnt the skills listed above well, they will excel at whatever profession they choose. In fact, so much that is shoehorned in by people who believe the kids should learn this that or the other thing (computer "skills", evolution, the metric system, or whatever comes down the pike next) is a distraction. And today that many school programs have decided memorization is not a required (or useful) skill for the modern man. This assumptions is false. I also think that many teachers implicitly if not explicitly believe that ability in attention, memorization, and perseverance are inborn and cannot be improved. This too is false. While a student not talented by upbringing or birth at paying attention (memorization, diligence, or perseverance) can get better at it. And any student who excels at all of them will do well at whatever field of study he undertakes and more importantly, if he is "behind" his peers in learning some of the basic facts of a new field, will quickly outstrip them if he is better at those skills.