Monday, August 30, 2021

A Very Brief History Of Schooling And Why We Still Reject The Evidence

We are currently engaged in the largest experiment ever performed on human children. We call it schooling. Up until the later part of the era called the Industrial Revolution, which most historians peg as the mid-1800's, we had never tried the mass education of children. It was a concept inspired by the innovation of mass production with its systems of standardization and repetition, most notably, the assembly line. The closest historical parallel to what we today call school can be found in religious settings in the era that preceded the invention of the printing press (the grandfather of mass production) in the mid-15th century, when literacy was uncommon and manuscripts were hard to come by. Young monks would sit in rows, facing forward while senior monks read to them from their handwritten copies of manuscripts. The young monks would copy the words, creating their own books, which they could in turn read to the young monks that followed them. Again, it was a kind of slow motion manufacturing process, one suited exclusively for adults who had chosen the monastic life.

Until we began our experiment, formal education was a rather ad hoc project, one that was built upon one-on-one instruction and was carried out largely for the benefit of the children of the elites. But then, inspired by the "success" of factories, the idea that education could be manufactured the way one manufactures consumer products was born, which lead to schools that are fundamentally unchanged to this day.

In other words, the foundations of schooling are not built upon the careful study of human children and how they learn, but rather on commercial processes designed for efficiency and profit. It has only been relatively recently that we've begun to address the full societal costs of these methods: things like pollution, the depletion of natural resources, and the condition of so-called "human resources." Climate change, loss of bio-diversity, racism, sexism, war, poverty -- all are either direct results of this process or have been greatly exacerbated by it. 

This experiment in mass education has been ongoing for a little over a century. Most of us cannot imagine childhood without it. Indeed, if the pandemic has highlighted anything, it's how absolutely essential this model of mass education is to our economic processes. The very fact that we are opening our factory model schools right now in the face of a virus that has grown even more virulent is evidence that we've come, as a society, to value economic productivity over our children's health. Parents, those of us most inclined to side with the welfare of children, find ourselves caught between the horns of a life-or-death dilemma: do we risk our children getting sick, which they assuredly will if required to cram together in these mass production facilities called schools, or do we risk them starving because keeping them at home means we become less able to perform our own economic role?

Educators are obviously caught in this dilemma as well: we are being charged by society with both keeping the children safe and healthy in an environment in which no one can be expected to succeed, while also continuing the experiment of mass producing education lest our products "fall behind" or suffer "learning loss."

Meanwhile, since about the start of the 19th century, researchers have been examining the results of our experiment. Some of the biggest names in education come to mind: John Dewey, Friedrich Froebel, Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, Rudolph Steiner, Lev Vygotsky. These pioneers essentially founded the field of education in an academic or scientific sense and the more they dug into how humans learn, the more obvious it became that the manufacturing model of educating humans doesn't at all match what we know about learning. The idea of moving children along an assembly line as if they are raw materials to be shaped for a particular use is a fatally flawed one: it produces little true education for most children while subjecting them to decades of dehumanization. Today, cognitive scientists, child psychologists, and others engaged in the actual study of education, tell us that most humans learn precious little from being manufactured and no amount of homework or testing or lecturing can change that. On the other hand, we know through actual research that we readily learn things that matter to us, and we learn those things best mostly by being allowed to explore in our own way at our own pace. 

This is what the entirety of the last century of research into education has taught us, yet any suggestion that our schools consider an evidence-based approach is either dismissed out of hand by education establishment types or, more commonly, we are gaslighted by the objection, "But, we're already doing that" when we clearly are not.

The science of education is still in its infancy. The truth is that we still don't even understand how learning happens or how memory works, but we do know what doesn't work. We do know that our children are not standardized widgets to be manufactured. They are not empty vessels to be filled, but rather unique, fully formed human beings, driven to learn things that matter to them. We still have a lot to learn, but the evidence is clear that this, not the assembly line, is the proper foundation for education.


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