Current Affairs Higher Education Teaching

Will Richardson and the new high school, Clay Shirky and the new college

I wrote a few days ago about a conversation initiated by Clay Shirky on the idea of reimagining college from the ground up. Will Richardson started a similar conversation on his blog a few days later about eliminating or reimagining high schools. Obviously these are just the most recent instantiations of what is an ongoing conversation.

So here are a few points I think we should consider before we roll out the dynamite.

  1. Education is a significant $100Bs industry, if not more. US higher education revenue itself is $400B. Add into that all the industries that provide services to educational institutions from cleaning supplies to textbooks.
  2. Think of the impact on local economies of closing down colleges and significant parts of school districts: both of which represent major employers in many, many communities. One could turn a 1000 college towns into mini-Detroits (sorry Detroit). 
  3. Add into that the economic contributions of universities, not only as spenders, but as developers of technology and attractors of talented professionals into economic regions. 

My point is that "people" like to complain about the expense of education because they read the big number in the state budget and they see the school tax bill and the money coming out of their paychecks. Generally though, people have little sense of the economic value resulting from that investment. Maybe we need better PR, but that's a matter for a different post.

One of the issues that arose on Will's blog has to do with maturity. Are we ready to leave our 14-17 year-old kids at home when we go off to work and say "make sure you get on the computer and do your lessons"? Because we can't afford to say home, right? And most of our neighbors can't afford to stay home. And I don't think we are just going to expect the retirees or the stay-at-home parent down the street to watch our kids? And if they did, do we think it would be any cheaper than our school tax bill? And would they learn anything as a result?

No, if we were going to eliminate the principle of gathering up the local teens and having them be supervised (i.e. job #1 of high school), it would have to be because we had a massive cultural shift wherein we determined these individuals were legally adults. That is, if your 15-year old burned down my house, I couldn't hold you any more accountable than I could if your 18-year old did it. In a way this is going back in time, because a century ago these teens were in the work force. 

And I think that's what would happen to the vast majority of teens today if we eliminated compulsory attendance at a HS. They would seek to enter the workforce, which would only further damage the economic viability of a community already reeling from the massive layoffs in the school district. Of course none of that is necessary. But we would have to significantly restructure the operation of market capitalism and the government to create conditions where these individuals were considered mature enough to not require supervision but were not considered as employable.

Meanwhile, though we can certainly contest the questions of the qualifications/characteristics of good teachers, best pedagogic practices, and the shape of curriculum, I think we would, again, have to seriously reshape society to imagine conditions where education would not be undertaken by individuals who are specialized in these activities.

Would you allow someone without specialized training to cut your hair? fix your car? clean your teeth? do your taxes? But you think it's a good idea to entrust your child's education to someone without specific education in doing that job? If we don't need professional educators then there are probably very few professions that we do need. And so there is a segment of our society that cuts their own hair, fixes their own cars, doesn't visit dentists, and doesn't pay taxes. Maybe they homeschool too. 

Is that the future America that we are in search of?

Now, I've been to high school, and it sucked. I was nominated "class bookworm" for chrissakes. It wasn't fun, and the education was mediocre. I've basically spent the rest of my life attending classes and working on college campuses. So I am aware of their limitations too. I've been known to spend a fair amount of time studying digital social media (which is often identified as a primary tool for whatever will supplant education). I have argued and will continue to argue that digital media should and will be further integrated into education. However, I will also continue to argue that for the foreseeable future and for the majority of learners, a primarily socially-mediated education will not work, not without supervision for minors and specialized educators to interact with.

So if you want to know my positive contributions to these questions of the future of schooling, very briefly, here you go:

  • stop using age as the primary means to organize students: let them learn and move through the curriculum at their own speeds.
  • use social media to create greater curricular customization (e.g. maybe you don't have enough kids in your school to study Italian but I bet there are enough in the county).
  • focus more on doing, on creativity and experimentation
  • stop stigmatizing failure through this debilitating test culture
  • sometimes one makes philosophical realizations while jogging
  • sometimes one realizes something about history while painting
  • a mathematical concept might make sense while practicing violin 
  • in other words, don't be so certain we understand how learning happens or what we need to learn

Anyway, that's probably enough griping for today.