Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Education's Future - Mass Production, or Networked Knowledge?

Hurrah for the news that MPs have noticed (finally) that 'teachers spend too much time "teaching to the test"'. And hurrah for them picking up that alternative forms that still involve testing are likely to lead to the same problems - namely, kids being taught only what they need to know, without necessarily being any brighter, more enthused, or ready for the world.

This idea is one that needs embiggening though, throughout the rest of British society. The notion that measuring "things" (generally people, but not always) through "ritual" (generally exams, but not always) leads to those "things" tailoring themselves to the "ritual" is ubiquitous. Meeting targets becomes more important than doing what the targets set out to measure.

I know I've mentioned it before, but the latest issue (41) of The Idler is worth picking up. An article in it proposes seeing education as a "web", rather than a stilted, "linear" progression of knowledge. That is to say, learning comes from a social context, and an individual curiosity born from motivated passion. We learn by being interested, or amazed by something, and we remember it by figuring out how to apply that knowledge.

Schools and testing bear very little of this. There is, on the whole, a list of things our children must learn. Then we see how much of that they've remembered. There is little opportunity to explore an area for oneself or to do things that aren't, or can't be, marked easily.

This is not an easy question. Obligatory education for every child demands a certain way of thinking, and often the scale of the challenge threatens (or, indeed, over-rules) the original nature of the mission. Here, equality and efficiency rapidly become the keys to a sustainable system - education for all means a) the same quality of education for all, and b) a system that delivers this equality for as many people, but for as little money as possible.

Still, it's amazing to see that, back in March, Jim Knight suggested class sizes of 70 pupils. (Interestingly just the following day, a study supported smaller class sizes.) Can you imagine a classroom that size? Even with 3 or 4 helpers, the fragmentation occurring and/or the "surveillance" needed to control it would be... 'unhelpful'. One can only assume that economic questions, of overheads and of scaling factors, can lead Jim to such other-wordly conclusions.

The paradox inherent here, of course, is "equality" vs "individualism". Should smaller groups, or one-to-one teaching, be encouraged if it means those more "naturally" suited to learning gain more from it? Or should all children be subjected to the same despotic system in the name of fairness?

But fairness assumes that we all learn in the same way, and that our own priorities are the same as everyone else's. ("You don't like Maths? But Jimmy loves Maths! How can you have any Physics if you don't eat your Maths?!") Or, at least, that we all are capable of learning the same amount in the same way. Maybe that's it - maybe standardised tests aren't built for pushing people at all, but for pulling them back - for making sure they learn in the right way so that equality is maintained. (N.B. Equality is also standardisation, which makes industrial people management planning so much easier, but that's another story.)

In amongst ever-greater amounts of personal-customisation, web2.0 "choose your view of the world" perspectives, and potentially greater interaction with strangers from around the globe, is the era of large-scale education feasible? Or is it likely to be encouraged as a way of keeping the ever-blossoming population under some kind of control until they're old enough to be arrested? Or are we facing an educational fork, where those with the know-how (and the tech to go with it) can "afford" to run their own education systems, while those without are left to the management policies of the state?


Richard Veryard said...

The relationship between measurement and mechanization is absolutely central to the subject of your blog.

For my part, I am particularly interested in the fatal flaws that frustrate and condemn the measurement/mechanization project, even on its own terms. For example, the same people who are pushing "numeracy" and "SATS" in primary schools are bemoaning the fact that fewer students want to read mathematics and science at university (not enough to fulfil the "demands" of industry, or even to cost-justify the existence of some top-rated science departments), but it doesn't seem to occur to them that these two machines are somehow connected.

Stephen said...

My son just got a 100 in reading comprehension on the MEAP. (The MEAP is a set of standardized tests used to torture grammer school kids in the US, supporting "No Child Left Behind"). As i can't stand the MEAP, i'm left at a loss about what exactly i should be feeling just now.

My objections to the MEAP are basically that they're supposed to test the teachers. I'm sure all of you are interested in having your career depend on the performance of random 5th graders. Now imagine that your 5th graders are Special Ed... And, these tests generally test to failure. Well, they have to, right? Because otherwise they'll clip off the performance of the best students. But testing to failure is still failure.

So here's a 5th grade test of math. What is two thirds of three quarters? An astounding fraction of adults can't do it. I refuse to mark on a curve. Score zero if you get it wrong. Score one if you can do it with a calculator. Two if you can do it with just paper and pencil. Three if you can do it in your head.

For the record, in word problems, "of" means multiply. So half of a dozen is twelve over two, which reduces to six. In the test problem, multiply two by three and three by four to get six over twelve, which reduces to one half.

In school, i was really, really good at math, and it showed in homework, but really pretty awful at tests. There are people who are the reverse. So what do tests measure?