Thursday, January 07, 2010

I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.

Our discussion on the roles and processes of education ends with a commentary by correspondent Gene M. on the value of learning by doing.

According to various surveys, the average American will have seven careers and 43 jobs in their working lives. Or maybe it was 9 careers and 17 jobs. The point is that as lifelong-employment is fragmented by global forces (wage arbitrage, etc.), fast-moving technological changes, the implosion of a debt/credit-dependent "prosperity" and the insolvency of local, state and Federal governments, then most of us will no longer have the luxury of learning a formal set of skills, get hired, and then cease our learning.

Indeed, my forecast in Survival+ is that fulltime paid jobs performing one task/job for an entire career will become increasingly scarce: the new model will be what I call hybrid work, a dynamic, flexible combination of unpaid work, paid work, work-in-kind (barter), community work ("paid" in the sense that you receive some stability otherwise unavailable) and pursuit of "free" creative interests.

If this is so, then the focus of formal education might have to shift from the factory model to "learning how to learn/learn by doing." Formal education at all levels is fundamentally a factory model: raw materials (children/the unemployable youth) are assembled in large formally organized "factories" where a strictly rationalized mode of production "processes" the raw material into a standardized employable unit (tested and stamped "approved for work.")

Some stamps are more valuable than others (Harvard, Stanford, etc.) in terms of being employed in high-salary positions.

Units (students) which are defective after processing are either re-processed or sent to other even more tightly organized institutions: the Armed Forces, prison/gulag, etc.

If we view the education complex/industry in this light, we see it as a very high-cost, bureaucratic structure. As the factory "owners" (school districts supported by taxes) go broke, then perhaps the entire factory model will be viewed as unsustainable. Perhaps education will shift to the "workshop/apprentice" model of much smaller units of production, less formalized processing (learning), and a much heavier responsibility placed on the students.

Once the Savior State expires due to insolvency, the whole notion that you can depend on some distant State to fund things expires, too, and cost-heavy bureaucracies will devolve.

From my point of view, most of the discussions about education are limited to tweaking the parameters and inputs of a system which is already doomed to some transformation due to larger financial forces. (Hence the classic "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" metaphor.)

Correspondent Gene M. offered an insightful commentary from a point of view outside the usual circle.

There's an old Chinese saying, "I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand."

If one ponders truly one's own experience and those of others, you will surely agree that it describes most often what happens in our lives. Yet besides the essential dynamic of experience in this statement, it is wise because it starts from the viewpoint of the learner. Almost all of your correspondents start from what's good or bad about teaching, as if they are the same thing. They are not, by a long shot. They may be interactive sometimes, but they may also not be. Learning happens without formal teaching--most learning.

We must start from the viewpoint of the learner. This is characteristic of Asian traditions, which put most of the responsibility on the student. Much of the analysis of your correspondents is part of the endless parsing that goes on about this topic of education, and it leads nowhere, however well-intentioned. A teacher can give you music lessons, for example, but you learn how to play the violin yourself. Many have learned to play simply by watching really good players play and imitating them; and to get really good at anything, this is what you do. I do and I understand.

Look back over your life and recount the most important ideas and skills and feelings you have learned and I'll bet you will find the vast majority did not come from teachers as such. For example, we all learn so much from our parents, good things and bad things. You may say they were your teachers, but how many of the lectures and words of wisdom that they thought were so important do we remember? I hear and I forget. No, we learn as little children by osmosis and by watching what our parents do. We give our deepest attention to how they behave, not what they say. If they taught, they taught by example, not by our usual notion of teaching. I see and I remember.

With learning as our focus, and observing closely how we ourselves and others truly learn, we note that learning is dynamic and changes as we age, yet still, I would say, beneath the overall dictum, I hear, I see, I do. For young children, there are in fact schools, such as Waldorf schools, who practice this rule. Their students often do poorly on standardized tests in the early grades, but make up for it later on. Why, in the early grades? Because then they are learning how to be imaginative human beings. There are others like these.

Even at the university level, bankrupt as these institutions are in many respects, professors are not content that students merely attend lectures. I hear and I forget. They assign papers or labs etc to see if anyone listening understood what was presented--to see if their students can DO--even if these assignments are in large measure pitiful attempts to induce real learning. If you graduate from college, you have spent 16 years in school. Sixteen years. If you wrote in a notebook 10 years later, what you remember from those years, how many pages could you fill?

Finally, as we leave school, we leave most teachers behind. Life becomes our teacher unless we are brain dead. Then our genes, our inherited intelligence or lack thereof, our emotional bent--some of which we may have got from our parents, some from some unknown ancestor--what we may have absorbed about right and wrong from our parents and later from our peers, what we have absorbed or rejected from the blitz of societal messages, all interact in a vastly complex way, and we learn and find a measure of peace and happiness, which after all is what it's all about, or we don't. I do and I understand--and vice versa.

Ultimately, it's that simple. The universe like a big Waldorf school. What a concept.

Thank you, Gene M., for providing another view on the purpose and limitations of formal education. I would say the real value of formal education, beyond teaching kids to read, is to teach students how to learn on their own--how to assemble "information" into "knowledge"--and how to work well with others.

There may be many ways to accomplish these goals, and it may be that education will become as hybrid as work.

Important book recommendation: Correspondent Charles S. just recommendedPedagogy of the Oppressed by the late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, a very influential book on practical education which is still being read 40 years after its initial release. Though I have yet to read it, I believe its critiques and solutions will augment today's entry.

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