Radically rethinking education

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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19 Responses

  1. Kyle Cupp says:

    Thought provoking video. I particularly like the bit about waking students up through aesthetic experiences.Report

  2. Sam M says:

    I taught at a college four four years. It was a pretty big, state related institution with decent prestige and reputation. The VAST majority of my students had no interest whatsoever in “education” as your or I might envision it, Straight up, they wanted job training. They were there because they thought it offered them a better chance at a better job. Composition? Literature? Science and philosophy? They didn’t give two shits, unless it was going to be on the test.

    I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. I think most of them are RIGHT not to be interested in such things. Or, any more interested than they would need to be to follow their limited scholarly interests on their own time. (Which is basically what i did in college anyway.) Rather, I think that in any given population, there’s a pretty small percentage of people who want or need to pursue “academics” in a sustained, systematic way. How it is that our culture now requires insurance salesman to go through four years of acting like they care abot such things?

    Yeah yeah yeah. Everyone’s more wll rounded. Whatever. My dad was in the Korean War and became a mechanic afterwards. He read plenty of books without going to college andm in the end, i suspect he was more well rounded than I’ll ever be.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Sam M says:

      @Sam M, I think it makes perfect sense for young adults, once out of the k-12 system, to want to focus solely on career-building skills at the college level. I’m focused more on pre-college stuff in the first half of this post.Report

  3. Trumwill says:

    I appreciate how you outline the tension between standardized curricula and lack of school choice. Because both of these things are pretty unacceptable to me. If I have to send my children (or make alternate arrangements on my own dime) to a particular school, I want the curriculum to be decided by someone other than the teacher in a classroom and I want some sort of way to gauge student progress other than the teachers saying “They’re making progress!”

    Ideally, though, I want school choice. I want you, ED, to be able to sent your kids to a 1-room classroom. Meanwhile, I would prefer my kid be sent to that school with 1,400 students that you want to avoid (mine had 4,000) unless I find a small school that I am comfortable with.

    I can’t watch the video from where I am, so I will comment on it more fully later when I’ve had a chance to. Abstractly, I will say that despite my preference for large schools I do have an attraction to freer schooling environments. But I consider the latter to be significantly more risky. What I got from my gargantuan high school was tedious and uninspiring. But it was also as effective as it needed to be. Before we junk that model, I want a chance to better evaluate the effectiveness of other models. The part of me that objects when I hear experimenters talk is that they are often operating from the Wonderful Land of Theory, which outside of controlled environments is often conquered by the Invading Army of Reality. The best way to test these things, of course, is with school choice.

    But maybe the video will convince me of the error of my ways and I will be waving the banner of immediate adoption.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Trumwill says:

      @Trumwill, No I think you make some good points about choice. My conundrum: I don’t want my choice to be built upon the backs of those less fortunate.Report

      • Trumwill in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        @E.D. Kain, ultimately, I am not sure how avoidable that is. I mean, the second you implement any sort of choice, those equipped to make the best choices are going to separate out from those that have to rely on advisers because they don’t even know how to begin thinking about the various models out there.

        One “advantage”, I suppose, of the no-choice, assembly-line model is that you’re putting everyone that lives in a particular school’s jurisdiction on the same assembly-line, preventing parents that could make better decisions from leaving the others behind. Not particularly effective, though, since they usually move to a better assembly-line (those with the means to do so, at any rate).

        At any rate, you can at least try to address the bus situation. Maybe there’s a solution in there that you have large schools but then separate them out so that different things are tried by different entitites in the same building or education park? I know that there has been a tendency in my school district to build different schools (grade vs middle vs high) on the same tract of land. If you did that, you could bus everyone to the same general area.

        Just a thought.Report

  4. Kyle Cupp says:

    Personally, I’d like to see much more leeway given to public and private schools to experiment, not merely with new educational strategies, but also with fundamentally new (or old) paradigms. In our Internet Age, it would be easy for the world to see what many schools throughout the land are doing differently, what works for them and what doesn’t, what successes might be applied elsewhere and what practices might be better kept to the local institution.Report

  5. Trumwill says:

    Having watched the video, it reminds me of one of those films that seems really exciting and engrossing when you watch it, but then after you leave the theater the questions start popping up.

    What would a school following this model look like? How would you measure progress? How would you know whether it’s actually preparing the kids for the new world and the new economy or not? Absent choice, how do you know you’re not just holding some folks’ kids hostage to a theory that may or may not pan out?

    To answer the first question, I could see it playing out 100 different ways. That makes all the follow-up questions all the more crucial because some of those ways are surely bad while others are surely promising.

    The other reservation I have is that these are the sorts of things that would probably be really effective for the sorts of smart, intellectually curious people that read TLOOG. It could probably be pretty effective for the educators and for academics in general when they were young and it could be really effective for their children. This is the sort of thing that appeals to people that love learning and are interested in the process of learning.

    But most people, I have come to learn as I get older, are not like us. A lot of people seemingly have little or no interest in learning things outside rather narrow areas of interest. Now, maybe this is because the “love of learning” was browbeaten out of them when they were young. I’m not sure how much it was there to begin with, though, and I’m not sure how equipped we, from the subsection of the population that is genuinely interested in learning and discussion and all that, are to answer that.Report

  6. I think it’s important to remember as we move in the direction of more school choice that not everyone can be Leonardo da Vinci, and with more creativity-focused education, many more otherwise clever and capable people will fail trying to do something spectacular instead of being moderately successful at something ordinary.

    Perhaps the Amish have the right idea: everyone should at least learn a trade.Report

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    As I commented over at James’s post at OTB, don’t expect this kind of reform to spring spontaneously from the educational system. Every single person in a position of responsibility in the education system arrived there with the system as it is and they are likely to be committed to it. Further, universal education will never be home-schooling or the Little Red Schoolhouse. In a mammoth bureaucracy like LA Unified, you do what can be administered not what’s best.Report

  8. gregiank says:

    Absolutely killer guest post and thread about education on Ta-Nehisi Coates blog. A must read.


  9. E.C. Gach says:

    Great video, great post.

    Two things. First, with regard to school choice, I think the pitfalls of such a strategy are made well manifest in College Inc. Ross Douthat had a column in the NY Times this past week advocating something close to letting the funding follow the child. Each school would compete for students, and thus be incentivized to provide the most prized education. It sounds good, but I can’t help but wonder what would keep such a system from turning into the dreadful higher education system we are saddled with now.

    Second, I think the way to get around the market pitfalls from trying to introduce choice through privatization is to decentralize schools greatly. To the point of letting a municipality, city charter, etc. decide how it will school its own children, allowing the maximal amount of diversity across the board with out draconian standardization and education by edict from above.Report

  10. Murali says:

    Wait, american education is standardised?

    Then what would you call east asian education systems. South and East asian education systems are extremely regimented compared to the american one. In comparison, the american education system looks like a namby pamby feel good sing along session.

    And you’re advocating that americans move in a direction further away from the East asian model?

    Well its your future!Report

    • @Murali, I actually cover the Japanese education system extensively at my blog if you’re interested in reading more about the topic. Here is a relevant link:


    • Trumwill in reply to Murali says:

      @Murali, this thought had crossed my mind, too. The notion that standardized tests are ruining American education seems to be belied by the fact that other countries with education results we aspire to rely on them more than we do.

      One counterargument, I suppose, is that the US is fundamentally different and our education system needs to reflect that. An odd case of Exceptionalism coming from the left while the many on the right look internationally for answers.Report

      • @Trumwill, When you spend enough time at the margins teaching to specific tests, you’re going to have better results on those specific tests. If American students spent all day everyday taking practice IQ tests at school, I’m sure, “American students are the world’s smartest.” would enter the talking points lexicon pretty soon. But would we truly be the world’s smartest students? Or would we merely be the most well-acquainted with a specific testing standard? I think mediocrity on standardized tests is something to strive for, so long as our society keeps producing personal computers and the world’s entertainment and major medical breakthroughs. It’s tempting for the information aggregators out there to hope for a number that can provide a clear understanding of how well we’re doing, but forcing the system to adhere to such an abstraction will produce unintended consequences, such as in Japan, most of the adult population has no idea how to learn by themselves. Unless you’re somebody who believes that planned societies are superior to those spontaneously evolved, it makes far more sense to err on the side of having too much diversity in education instead of succumbing to the the international pissing contest of standardized test scores. I think the fact that the Bush Administration pushed so hard for more standards to be highly unconservative and indicative of the neoconservative genesis in Trotskyism.Report

    • E.C. Gach in reply to Murali says:

      @Murali, If you look at East Asia in terms of real time, you could make the argument that we need to beat them at our own game (i.e. standardized tests). But for the U.S. to start chasing after these countries feels anachronistic.

      If we look to the iPod as a symbol of the new economy, built around information exchange, social interaction, and aesthetic experience (in the form of art, entertainment, and design) it seems ludicrous to be running after China to beat them to obtaining the consumer class we had a generation ago. The 21st century industrial revolution taking place in China is well served by a pedagogy of standardization and educational drilling.

      The U.S. seems to be moving more and more away from any semblance of an aggregated, conformed and standardized society whose needs and wants can be met by an economy that seeks to produce both it’s people and it’s products by that method.

      If you’re diagnosing a lack of rigor in the American school system I completely agree. But I don’t think that rigor should be gotten from standardization, philosophically as a matter of principle, but even much more so because of where the economy and jobs seem headed.Report

    • Aaron in reply to Murali says:

      @Murali, before romanticizing the Asian model, I suggest reading the perspective shared by Professor Yong Zhao.Report