Philosophy and Education: Thoughts on Teaching Learning
If and when I have a child, I don’t know if I could send that child to a school. Not because I’d want to give my child a religious education, or stunt their social skills. Rather, I think most schools do terrible things to us. And in an age of teaching to standardized tests, this is increasingly so. The downside of home-schooling a child, in addition to how much work it is, is that the has fewer opportunities to socialize. But my sense is that learning to develop friendships and interact with peers can happen in less troubling environments than a school. But what’s so bad about contemporary education, what might be better, and what could be done?
The Problem: What Would Dewey Say About Today’s Schools?
If you read pioneering educational theorists like Lev Vygotsky or John Dewey, or more contemporary theorists like Paulo Freire and bell hooks, you realize pretty quickly that what we do in our schools is quite different from what these theorists argue we should be doing. Many education programs don’t teach these theorists works, rather, they have students read texts that summarize these works, and as a result, make them memorizable. This, of course, is precisely the problem in miniature. We reduce education to rote learning, memorizing pre-digested bits, which is precisely what all these thinkers criticize.
The interesting thing is that most educators know that what’s being done in schools is a problem. But legislators often see standardized tests as a way to force improvements and controls on schools from without. And since business plays a huge role in politics today, the lobbying done by the companies that produce these tests often creates the desire for more of these tests. As a result, education is reduced to test-taking.
Another problem is that most of what’s tested is irrelevant to the realities students will face upon graduation. We all know that most students will never need to know Shakespeare at work, or quadratic equations. And those few that do can be taught these in their majors in college. Does this mean we should simply then follow a vocational model, and phase out ‘general education’ which aims at producing ‘well rounded individuals’? There is the European model, which tracks students, often in their early teens, into either a ‘vocational’ or ‘academic’ path. Those who go the academic path get a more general education, then go to college and specialize there, without the general education requirements of most American colleges. Those who choose the vocational path don’t necessarily become manual laborers, they could in fact learn a high-tech skill like computers, but they specialize starting from what we call high school, and as a result, are employable right after. Nevertheless, America is the place where creative thinkers tend to come from these days. And the American higher educational system, despite it’s flaws, is still the envy of the world.
Honestly, American college education worries me a lot less than what comes before it. I don’t want my child spending hours learning how to do long division, when that skill is now obsolete. Nor do I want my child reading Shakespeare or Jane Austen, and knowing nothing about, say, Junot Diaz or Zadie Smith. These later authors, in their complex discussions of race, sexuality, and colonialism, have more to say to our contemporary world than Jane Austen or Shakespeare. While there are definitely reasons to study these older authors, the fetishization of things British and old turns literature into something students easily hate. Likewise, the reduction of math to technique makes it even more easy to hate than literature.
Banking Versus Modeling
This is what Friere called the ‘banking’ model of education. Students learn skills, and these skills are like money in the bank that can later be exchanged for goods and services. The problem is, this isn’t really what education is supposed to do. Which of course raises the question, what exactly IS education supposed to do? For Dewey, it’s supposed to prepare students for later life, and help prepare them to be fulfilled people and good citizens. How the heck, though, could we really do that? It’s much easier to teach and test rote knowledge out of a book, and Dewey knew this. But he argued that most learning happens by modeling, not by teaching. We see a teacher whose way of thinking, whose approach to the world inspires us. We identify with some aspect of that. And it doesn’t need to necessarily be a teacher, it could be any adult we learn from. Teachers, however, should be specialists in modeling.
But modeling what? For Dewey, few things are more important to model than the learning process itself. But how could schools do this? Certainly in the age of teaching to state mandated tests, it’s hard to do this. But when teachers are liberated to teach outside the box, magical things can happen. Dewey builds his notions on one of the first educational theorists, Plato. Plato argues that it’s impossible to teach. You can’t just take things from your head, and deposit them in someone else’s. Not even facts or rote learning. You can present things, and someone else has to want them to come into them. This applies to facts, but also what is much more important than facts, which are ways of looking at the world, and ways of acting in the world. Learning how to think for oneself, how to love, and mourn, and grow, these are life-skills that can’t be taught.
But they can be modelled. This is why Plato, citing Socrates, argues that teachers can only ever be ‘midwives’ to the birth of knowledge in another. We help people to give birth to learning with themselves. And if we just push facts or techniques at them, they’ll never learn to think, or learn, or grow on their own.
But how can we teach learning? There is perhaps no more important skill than teaching our students how to teach themselves. As someone who has taught just about every subject imaginable, from math to science to music to english to film to gender studies, and to students of age ranges 5 through 75, I’ve learned that the biggest impediment to student learning is the feeling that they can’t do a particular type of thing. I can’t do math, I’m not good at chemistry, I don’t like reading. Most of my job as a private tutor was really to show students they could do these things, ultimately, a psychological coaching of sorts.
That’s why I think that, particularly in the younger grades, students should be taught in a much more open-ended fashion. A certain amount of time each week should be about directed research. And some schools are actually trying this. That is, the teacher asks students what they want to learn, and then helps them do precisely this. Teachers are experts on learning as a process, and they help students learn how to teach themselves, and then teach others. This can be done at the level of the individual and as a group.
For example, the teacher might say to a third grade class that during the fall, the class will divide up into groups, and research future professions. Those who want to learn about particular professions group together. Then each group brainstorms about what they want to learn about these professions. The teacher helps each group, and then each group presents their work to the class. From here, groups formulates how they are going to learn about these professions. Perhaps interviews, books, internet, videos, etc. The teacher functions as a coach to the learning process, suggesting things that students might not have thought of, while keeping the process moving in organized stages. At the end of the semester, students then present what they learned to each other. Everyone learns about everyone’s learning, and learning is modelled by teacher, peers, and yet done, to one degree or another, by the individual as well.
Group research projects like this can be supplemented by individual research projects. A third grade class can have time set aside one afternoon a week in which students work on an individual research project of their choice, anything they want to learn about, and present to the class at some point later in the year. The teacher uses the quiet time in which students work on this on their own to meet with students individually to help them along. Students learn how to use the internet, books, and other sources to teach themselves. The teacher doesn’t need to know about all these things in advance, but merely how to direct the process. It’s likely the teacher will be taught a lot by their students!
And even if a child presents on the life of their favorite pop-star, the job of the teacher is to find a way to make this desire of theirs a teaching and learning experience. What hardships did this pop star face? How does one become a pop star? How has this changed over the years? The learning process starts with the desire and interest of the students, and then is broadened and ‘academicized’ by the teacher.
Curriculum: Project-Based Learning
A critic might respond that this doesn’t teach things like math, or great works of literature. And certainly, teaching certain specific skills and bodies of knowledge are essential to pre-college education. How might these be integrated into this approach? I think perhaps the most important question to ask first is why we want to teach particular things. For example, if teaching long division is teaching a skill that now can be done by computers, why do we make all youngsters still learn this arduous skill? Most educational theorists will say it teaches how to follow a set of complicated instructions, which teaches logical analysis. Once we get to algebra, we teach how to solve problems with multiple variables, that might have multiple answers.
That said, when we teach students these notions abstracted from context, and give them pages of long division or algebra to practice, these notions seem like hurdles. And in fact, that is what they are. Most of us will never use algebra, though we will need to solve complex problems with multiple variables, just not with x’s and y’s. So why not try to teach more specific things that students might encounter? The argument is that teaching algebra teaches general problem solving, and that this can be applied to any profession, while teaching the specific types of problem solving for each field would require massive specialization.
There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, there’s the assumption that math can’t be taught in relation to real world applications. For example, rather than teach students how to solve quadratic equations, and then how to do projectile problems in physics, I’d much rather have a competition. Students are going to design catapults, and build them based on their designs. Those who build the best ones win some prize. And along the way, the teacher will teach how to use physics and math to make this work. Students will have to present the equations they used to the class, and how this helped them design their catapults. This is math and physics as actual problem solving.
A curriculum of these sorts of ‘learning projects’ could be envisaged, at varying grades of difficulty. Each would introduce particular quantitative skills in relation to specific types of problem solving. I had a teacher in 4th grade who had us build a model stock market, and for a semester, we had time each week to ‘play stock market,’ and she awarded a small prize at the end of the semester to the folks who made the most play money. We learned more about math and economics in that ‘game’ than in any formal class. And it was fun, we barely realized we were in ‘school’, it felt like educational play. And that’s what all school should feel like!
When student desire is engaged, they teach themselves. When the teacher teaches ‘top down’, it will always feel forced. If you ask students what they want to learn, they will always have curiosities. And if there are specific things that need to be taught, like projectile motion or the economics, there are ways to develop ‘real world’ scenarios to teach these that are much more engaging for learners than ‘go home and read this, multiple choice quiz on monday.’
None of this is radically new, this is what good teachers have always been doing. But they have done it against the grain of the political pressure on how education should be done. We fear falling behind in abstract measures like math and science to China, and before that, the Russians. And yet, it is American creativity that has propelled this country forward in the new economy. Students need to learn flexibility, adaptability. They need to learn how to learn, and continually teach themselves new skills in a rapidly changing world. Rather than spend hours learning how to do long division by hand, it’s better to teach a student how to find a You-Tube video that can teach them if they ever need the skill. I didn’t know how to replace the hard-drive on my computer a few days ago, but I found a You-Tube video, it showed me how, and I did it. My mom would never have the confidence with You-Tube or computers to do this.
Education is largely about showing people how easy it can be to learn things you used to think you knew nothing about. If along the way students learn about specific skills, great. Or specific bodies of knowledge. And if we are thinking curriculum, we could say that teachers have to devise projects to teach certain skills or bodies of knowledge during particular grades, with suggested, age-appropriate examples. Some collective, some group. But always leave teachers the flexibility to change as much as possible. Encourage teachers to think outside the box, not teach to multiple-choice tests.
And that said, even tests could be made different. A problem could be presented to students, and they have to write an essay about how they’d address it. Of course, essays, whether about scientific problems or governmental ones, are much more difficult to grade than multiple-choice tests. But essay writing, even about science and math, is how the process of thinking about these fields can be shown. Mathematicians write papers, so do scientists, they don’t publish tests on which they did well. The thought process is the point, not the techniques, which are only a means to an end.
And by requiring students to write about their reasoning on how to solve specific types of complex problems (ie: how would you go about getting an internet startup business off the ground if you had these factors involved, or how would you design a machine to do ‘x’ task, etc.), you teach them writing skills, and not just about literature. You show them how to write about science, or economics, or math. Writing and reading are universal skills. And this is why we need to teach students to read and write about more than literature. Difficult passages about science or finance, all these are worth teaching and writing about.
Does this mean that students might never learn Shakespeare or Jane Austen? Perhaps. But as with other subjects, rather than focus on content, we need instead to focus on why we teach particular content. Teaching students about the past helps them see the present differently. Teaching them to see through the eyes of others different from them teaches how to imagine the perspective of others. All these ways of approaching the world can be taught in many ways, not just Shakespeare and Austen, or any particular set of authors. Just because we learned these skills this way doesn’t mean they have to. What’s more important is that they learn about the power of the past, and other points of view. If there are other skills they gained from reading Shakespeare, or Austin, or learning quadratic equations, great, let’s figure out what those are. And then figure out new ways to teach these skills. But let’s not fetishize content.
Because when we do, we kill the educational process, which should never be about content, and only secondarily about skills. It should be about learning to learn, learning how to learn about many types of things, and how to be able to teach others in turn. Because as every teacher knows, you don’t really know something in your bones until you have to teach it to someone else.
How could we teach teachers to teach like this? Beyond content? By having them student-teach with other teachers already doing this. You learn to facilitate students teaching themselves and each other. In the process, you learn the types of content needed for some of the great projects that students tend to like (ie: a stock market project, a catapult making project, a make your own musical instrument project, a build a model city project, etc.) And instead of knowledges being cut off from each other, they intertwine, like they do in the real world. If students design model cities, they intertwine economics, law, urban planning, architecture, sociology, math, all together, and often without realizing it. Students will naturally gravitate to particular roles in groups, becoming specialists in their sub-field in the project. Learning by doing. And after seeing a good teacher do a stock market project with their kids, you learn how to do it with your own, or come up with your own age-appropriate project.
At the College Level
I’ve seen all these methods work first hand, and with great success, and the pre-college level. But what about in college. One of the biggest difficulties I’ve seen when trying to change teaching methods in college is that by the time students get to college, they’re not used to learning ‘outside the box.’ When I ask them what they want to learn, they usually respond with confusion, because no-one’s ever asked them that before. As a result, they tend to turn the question back on me, and say it’s my job to tell them what’s out there, because they don’t know.
This is why I think the entire educational system needs to be overhauled. Were students prepared to direct the learning process at a young age, they would come in ready to brainstorm about why they chose to take a particular class. They would ask the teacher questions, and we could co-create a syllabus based on a teacher’s deeper knowledge base, and student desires.
But since students aren’t used to this sort of teaching, I see the role of a teacher in college as having several usual functions. In intro level courses, the teacher can map out a field, give a gut sense of the big picture issues, and provide students a roadmap so they could investigate things deeper on their own after the semester ends. But in every class, the goal should be to mess up the certainties that students often come to class with. They think the subject is a certain way, or that learning about it will be this way or that. It is difficult to continually frustrate the attempts to tame learning. And it is difficult, as a teacher, to keep oneself off balance like this. But it should, I think, be the task.
There’s only so much one can do in a semester, when the entire educational system works differently. But to the extent that one can model a different type of approach to learning is the extent to which your class might actually help work against the grain of education in this country, one which teaches students to be passive recipients of facts and skills, rather than active teachers of themselves and others.
For anyone curious to know more about these sorts of approaches, one of the best places to start is bell hooks’ excellent book Teaching to Transgress. hooks (spelled all lowercase!) pulls many of her approaches from two theorists, namely, Paulo Friere, and John Dewey. Friere’s work Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a potentially life-changing text, one which can teach about both education and oppression. John Dewey’s Experience and Education is a classic text of radical pedagogy, and due to its being one of the first books to really discuss the relation of philosophy to education, still is often taught in education programs in the US. Highly recommended, despite the fact that it’s become institutionalized in this way! The work of Lev Vygotsky is also pretty great, it’s about how children learn, but it’s often watered down in summaries. Try to just get a good anthology of essays, one that has an introduction that can explain what might be difficult or odd about the essays. Then there’s an increasing body of writings on project and based and student-learning centered approaches to teaching, just go on amazon and search around!