If you were redesigning the public school system for the twenty-first century, what imperatives would need to go into the curriculum and teaching methods to make the change worthwhile?
We’re not talking “fad of the month” or “social engineering experiment” here, but a real top-to-bottom rethinking of how long we go to school, why we’re going, and what we should get out of it.
Learning to Think Clearly
Thinking clearly is a function of teaching reasoning. To do that, you have to also teach the elements of grammar (because that’s how you get to categories and the calculus of statements).
Fallacies, deductive and inductive logic, analysis of propaganda, all of these belong with an analysis of general concepts and concept-linkage (e.g. chair > dining suite > furnishings > living arrangements).
Having students learn how to debate as well as write — from the earlier days, when self-consciousness about “being out front” isn’t as great — would allow for evaluation via oral and written forms (some people do well in one format and lousy in the other routinely).
Learning to Challenge Information
With the tools of thinking under development, students can be taught how to find information, and challenge it.
If it hadn’t been, for instance, a routine part of a PhD level economics course at the University of Massachusetts to take recently published papers and recreate the findings, no one would have discovered the flaws in Reinhart and Rogoff’s paper on debt and austerity that has influenced so much public policy.
Teaching students to recreate findings in doing research, or to challenge and look for alternative sources and explanations, helps inculcate scientific method and research practices without making a big deal of it. It’s just “how we proceed”.
Learning to Think Historically, Economically, etc.
The same situation can be looked at multiple ways. More importantly, it should be, so that the habit of looking at the situation in different ways becomes ingrained as a habit.
If we looked at Detroit, for instance, as it is today, it could be looked at geographically (what makes this site a likely place for a city), historically (how did it grow and decay), economically (what can be done here, especially what can be done here that can sustain the community), sociologically, etc.
If all these different views are taken in parallel throughout a term, the act of doing them at the same time helps bring about the awareness that problems are not unidimensional. At the same time, the different subject areas are opened up for further exploration.
Here’s a funny thing about mathematics: one type of math doesn’t actually depend all that much on other types. Calculus — the mathematics of change — really doesn’t need algebra to get started. Trigonometry doesn’t need geometry. Algebra doesn’t need geometry.
They do all need arithmetic, and a knowledge of how to manipulate and calculate — but that’s all. Order of operations, that sort of thing.
If you use words, you can actually explain very complex mathematics (e.g. calculus) at much younger ages than we’re used to.
The more problems are laid out as things that need doing (laying out a frame, for instance, rather than as an abstract problem), the more likely it is words can augment symbols to get the concepts driven home.
We can teach how to organize things in a number of ways. Studying and writing stories helps in organizing thoughts. Studying history and civics helps in the principles of groups and getting them to cohere. Studying rocks (geology), weather, and living things (biology) helps in categorization and grouping. Projects to build things help with the principles of creating solutions.
By teaching these things, we make the notion of forming taxonomies, ordering work, group dynamics, etc. second nature.
We need to help students form bigger and bigger pictures.
So we use great stories (as a Montessorian would call them): large master narratives that help provide early order that can be expanded over time.
The deep history of the universe. The story of mankind. The morphology of civilizations (rises and falls, parallel periods, that sort of thing). The great chain of being from quarks to conscious beings as a set of emergences. That all things interrelate (ecology).
What these awaken is the sense that there is always more to learn, more to augment these with. Coupled with the starting point of learn it yourself, test it yourself, know for yourself, the students are also inoculated against accepting anything “just because”.
What we don’t need to teach
We don’t need to teach job skills. Full stop.
Everything we have been teaching are the foundations for working.
We don’t need to teach social skills or social behaviour.
We get that through the activities undertaken in learning. It doesn’t need a separate program.
We don’t need to teach career planning, self and society, or any of the other “be a good citizen” programs forced on our schools today.
That, too, comes out of having created critical thinkers who can research for themselves and learn all lifetime long.
How long to be in school?
Classical Russian education was eight grades long to do what we do in thirteen years. It also was a mix of oral and written examination, recognizing that different students “freeze up” under different testing and observation conditions.
If you coupled the notion of doing what has been laid out here across, say, ten to twelve years, then there would also be time throughout to work on manual skills. How to hammer a nail, cut a board, other useful abilities.
We are more than intellects, after all.
There would even still be room for making art, playing music, and other forms of expression. Also lots of time for playing and running around. Even to maintain a school garden (nothing teaches biology and ecology more than caring for living things — and you can eat the output).
…and what would it cost?
Oddly enough, what’s been described here would probably cost less than what we do today.
Mind you, we’d have to be open to using more than professional teachers to deliver it. The retiring neighbourhood carpenter, for instance, might come in one afternoon a week to teach his craft.
Yes, yes, I know. He’s not trained. Too bad. Get over yourselves.
All this matters because as we go forward, we’ll have less for education, just as we’ll have less for all the other “services” of society. (That’s what happens when you lack growth due to peak everything and have spent the next three generations’ taxes before they start.)
What I’ve laid out here is something that could be done as a home school — as a small neighbourhood school put on by a few parents — as a community school — or even as a school district. It uses the texts that are available, it doesn’t require a lot of equipment, it draws upon community resources.
In other words, it’s effective — and cheap to deliver. Exactly what’s needed for a century reinventing our civilization from the ground up.