Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thinking about the Whole Education System

Which Australian 80s band performed “Who Can it Be Now?” and “Down Under” (Oh! do you come from the land down under (oh yeah yeah), where women glow and men plunder …)? Ok, Which US President managed to get the first federal progressive tax passed, pushed for the creation of a “League of Nations” and won the Nobel Peace Prize for the creation of the League of Nations in 1919, even though the Senate blocked the US from joining it?
How many of you knew the answer to the first question, but not the second? America has an extremely effective education system, but the system is much broader than simply what you learn in school, indeed schooling is an comparatively minor part of the overall system. Our system excels at aiding Americans in learning pop cultural information, and in developing strong and complex consumer preferences, but is sometimes lackluster at teaching the ability to enjoy poetry, or to make wise investment decisions. Sharon Astyk has, as usual, a good piece on our education system on her blog, but I wanted to respond with a much longer meditation. I believe that we need to see the whole scope of the education-system, especially how it pervades culture beyond formal schooling; we need to think about why some topics are promoted more heavily or effectively than others; we need to think about why some topics are learned more effectively than others when curriculums are in conflict; and lastly we need to think about what we can do.

The Whole Education System
Adults continue to learn new things throughout their life even though they are no longer in school. One common new thing we learn is the “news,” although we learn facts about the entertainments we enjoy, the names and faces of people we have newly met, and occasionally even new job skills. Children learn things outside of school, at least as much and probably more often as they learn things in school. Humans are constantly learning, but we don’t necessarily learn all different topics at an equal rate. Our own talents and interests are part of why we learn some things more thoroughly than other things, but our culture and education-system as a whole are part of the story too. Too often we think of “education-system” as a euphemism for “schooling,” but even in the US which has a lot of schooling comparatively speaking, only about 20% of the population is in school at any given point, and even for them schooling is probably at most ½ of their total education, although perhaps we do learn more while young and working on learning than later on, so I’d estimate that schooling (public schooling, private schooling, home schooling, and higher education) all together is probably only about 10%-15% of our overall education system. Not trivial, but not exactly central either.
The biggest chunk of our education system is the mainstream media and its curriculum of pop culture, TV, Radio, Movies, pop music, magazines, billboards, etc. Advertising is an especially important part of this section of the education system, but non-advertising content is pretty relevant too. The advertising curriculum focuses on getting to consumers to want or even feel that they need certain products, while the non-advertising content caters to entertaining the consumers. Often an attempt is made to blend other goals besides entertainment in with the entertainment, creating infotainment, edutainment, advertainment, etc. In the US, people watch an average of 4 hours of TV a day alone, (and sleep for another 8 hours) so estimating TV at about 25% of the total US education-system is probably about right. If we add in also movies, radio, magazines, newspapers, other forms of advertising, and mainstream media web sites with advertising, we are probably in the 50% range.
Third, we learn by direct observation of the people around us. By meeting them, talking with them, often imitating them. The brilliant educational psychologist Albert Bandura hammered this point home in many ways during his work over the past several decades, and the school of thought he created is typically called Social Cognitive theory, now. Children watch what adults do, they watch what other kids do and whether they get rewarded or punished for it. They chart out possibilities and options by looking at the people around them (or those they are exposed to via the media), in a process we call observational learning. Adults do this too, although we are typically already more set in our ways. Another form of social learning that adults habitually engage in is the opinion-leader effect. On a topic that one perceives as non-controversial one will form an opinion based largely on their media exposure. On a topic that one perceives as controversial, but well within one’s expertise or in an area of particular interest, one will spend the time to sort through the many competing claims and form your own opinion. But on a topic that one perceives as controversial, but not in ones areas of particular expertise or interest, one will seek out a trusted peer who is perceived as being more interested or more expert in the area and chat with them to form an opinion. For example, I’m a philosopher and I form my own opinions on anything I see as related to philosophy, but if I’m trying to decide what new computer to buy, or which blog-provider to put my blog on, I’ll talk with friends and learn what they have to say on the topic before deciding. An “opinion-leader” needs to be perceived as being a peer, and you need to be able to actually interact with them, but they also need to seem especially knowledgeable or passionate about the topic. Again this is a thoroughly social and cognitive form of learning, we are seeking fellow people directly as sources of learning. Peer pressure is another classic social cognitive learning phenomena. Social cognitive learning within the family is central to early development of children prior to school, and is also pretty key during school years, as well. If we add up these various social cognitive learning situations (early childhood learning, peer pressure, observational learning, opinion leadership, networking, informal mentoring, etc.) I suspect we have at least 10% of our overall education-system, albeit a particularly unorganized, unsystematic section of the overall system.
Fourth, we often learn things on the job, or via our work. Workplace learning is more organized than just social cognitive learning, (although of course, all of the sections I’ve mentioned interpenetrate quite a bit). Most jobs have a pretty high repetition rate, one is doing the same sorts of tasks over and over and over. But there is usually some degree of variation and learning involved as well. Work place learning, often includes occasional seminars or training exercises of various kinds, especially at the beginning, or when major changes are about to take place. Jobs are not focused on learning the way that schooling is, but we spend a lot of time on jobs, and there are a lot more people in work than in schools. I think it is probably reasonable to see working life as 10-20% of our education-system.
Fifth, we have issues of leisure life, high culture, and social capital. Now a lot of our leisure activities revolve around mainstream media, or shopping both of which I’ve already mentioned. But what about a bowling league, or boy scouts, or religious education, or visiting museums? I think there are 3 distinct but related things to talk about here. First, not all of culture has been successfully captured by the mainstream media. There is “highbrow” culture that doesn’t really fit in it, and counter-cultures that are actively trying to maintain some distance from it. Museums, symphonies, theatre, and poetry slams are all contexts where learning sometimes takes place, but so are underground newspapers, local bands in bars, pagan festivals, or Amish barnraisings. Secondly, culture contexts outside of the mainstream media, often revolve around small local organizations, of like-minded folk. Bowling leagues, amateur astronomy clubs, churches, a band’s fan club, etc. Sociologists talk about these in terms of “Social Capital” networks of social relationships that provide frameworks for certain kinds of social action. I, for example, learned a LOT from the Boy Scouts while I was growing up, even though most of my “teachers” were volunteers without particular expertise in what they were teaching. Small, organized groups can provide learning situations which are quite a bit richer than unstructured peer groups, or direct one on one relationships, precisely because of the organization or social capital involved. Small organized groups like this were once a far more prominent part of American life (and education) than they are now, but they are still fairly common, and crop up in lots of different ways. Often, culture and social capital are mixed together. My church, for example, is a cultural context at least as much as a hobby, but one that is run mostly by volunteers (with a few professionals) in ways very in line with the social capital model, and local sports leagues are culture as well as small-scale organizations. The third big factor here is the notion of self-directed leisure. Unlike work or school, participation in these kinds of groups is largely voluntary and thus directly intrinsically motivated (more on that later). Now both for my wife and I, this kind of learning through groups that we have done volunteer work for, or interacted with on a leisure basis has been at least as important as our schooling, but I’m not convinced we’re typical and I can’t find any statistics to use to estimate the overall impact of this style of learning, so I’d guess that it probably collectively less than 10% of the US’s overall education system.
Sixth, I think it does occasionally happen that people engage in self-teaching or directed research. Sometimes we go to a library and try to look up information we want, rather than going to a place where someone will teach us something. Sometimes we experiment with various ways of doing things until we find one we like. Libraries, Wikipedia, and basement workshops are part of our education-system too, even though they don’t really function much like the first 5 I’ve mentioned. My guess is that this is the least significant of the sectors I’ve discussed at the moment, maybe only 1-2% (meaning I have maybe 10% left over for error in estimation, or sectors I haven’t thought of). But self-directed education is also quite cheap, and has a lot of potential for the future.
In a sense, what we have are multiple curricula, math class teaches us one set of things, boy scouts another, and hip-hop music a third. Sometimes the curricula, are designed to be coordinated or work together, sometimes they are disparate but not really conflicting, but sometimes they are in more direct conflict. Boy Scouts teaches one set of values, and some Hip Hop music is teaching a very different set of values. Home economics class teaches us thrifty food prep behaviors, and food advertising teaches us to spend as much as possible to make food prep easier. When curricula directly conflict, it is often because there are conflicting agendas underwriting the education system. And these conflicting agendas mean that in practice the task of teaching, and the task of unteaching or anti-teaching are usually united, and teaching is often persuasion by hidden means.

E-ducation and De-ducation
The food advertiser wants to teach you to use pre-packaged foods as short cuts wherever possible, the cooking instructor wants to teach you to make from scratch wherever possible. Some teaching merely tries to convey facts, but usually you are trying to instill values, habits, and styles of thought as well, and that means that you habitually need to try to undo existing habits, values, or styles of thought. Education, comes from the Latin e-duco to lead out or lead upward, to build up or raise, often specifically to raise a child. The Latin has an antonym, de-duco, to lead downward, to subtract or reduce, to lead away or draw away, as a distraction leads away from the real issue. We do sometimes talk of deduction (where premises “lead down” to a conclusion under them), but we don’t usually use it as an antonym for education. So let mean coin the term “deducation” for the process of leading someone away from a particular pieces of knowledge, skill, value, or character trait, just as education is the process of leading someone towards a particular piece of knowledge, value, skill or character trait. Now deducation is not always a bad thing, breaking a bad habit counts. But deducation does often have fairly horrible motivations, the law forbidding teaching literacy to slaves in the old South were deducation policies, for example. Other cases are trickier, many facts are kept secret even in peacetime as matters of national security, and various tricks are used to prevent them from being known, and sometimes this is clearly defensible, and sometimes it is clearly immoral, and sometimes reasonable people disagree.
Our education-system frequently involves deducation as well, and often for reasons that are not entirely commendable. Governments want to keep some things secret, but they also want to be able to spin things that they cannot keep entirely secret, and the boundaries between spin and outright propaganda via conventional mainstream news outlets gets pretty shaky. Businesses likewise frequently wish to shape public discourse in ways that will prevent certain options from being considered or portray positions hostile to theirs in an inferior light. Advertisers want us to desire their products, but they often wish us to not think about certain downsides of the products as well. American’s die because of poor diet hundreds of times more often than they die because of terrorism, but food advertisers have every incentive to prevent us from realizing this, and are skilled at leading people away from serious contemplation of the dangers of poor diet. The creation of doubt and anti-knowledge as a PR technique (often called denialism) was pioneered by cigarette companies who fought a multi-decade battle against the fact that cigarettes are deadly, but has been applied to many other fields since. Our education system is used, and used effectively for PR, propaganda, to tranquilize legitimate fears, and to channel habits, and patterns of thinking into ways that are convenient for those with power over the education system.
And this happens at levels below government and corporate policy as well, and is often to some extent unconscious. For example, a profession earns its wage, by selling its skills. But the monetary value of those skills depends on exactly how rare they are. Thus, in order to keep a profession well paying, and thus high class, and well “professional” you have to limit how many people in the society have access to the skills. Lawyers command good pay BECAUSE legal skills are not particularly common. So any organization of lawyers (and lawyers are well-organized) has a strong incentive to prevent legal skills from being widely taught. There is a reason we teach very little law in public schools. Lawyer have a keen interest in deducation, and really most professions do even if they aren’t very upfront about it. Adam Smith has some interesting and counter-intuitive insights into the economics of education and apprenticeship for example (Wealth of Nation Book1 chap x part II, and Book V chap I part III).
But how does one go about preventing people from learning something? What are the best techniques for deducation? Well, you can simply suppress or forbid knowledge, as for example, our nuclear launch codes are kept tightly secret and any real attempt to inquire into them has terrible consequences. But suppression is a bad tactic in most cases. It makes the target tempting, it clearly shows the value of the knowledge being suppressed, it piques curiosity and motivates us. What is usually more effective, especially if the knowledge is not exactly dangerous, but merely must not become widespread, is to make the knowledge available, but very inconvenient to get. Put institutional barriers in the way of the knowledge or skill, forms, permissions, hoops to jump through. Make it a pain in the ass to learn the skill unless you do so through the carefully controlled channels. Anyone can learn the legal profession, but if you try to do it outside of a law school it takes an awful lot of work. Another common technique for preventing knowledge from becoming widespread is jargon, structure the knowledge so that the uninitiated will have difficulty understanding it even if they do happen to find it. But by far the best technique for preventing people from learning a particular skill, habit, or piece of knowledge is misdirection, get them to learn something else instead. Humans are wired to learn. We love learning, and we learn a lot all during our lives. No matter how bad your education system is, people will learn. But what will they learn? It is sadly easy to direct our learning away from a particular topic by directing it towards a different topic.
And this is the dark secret of entertainment. Americans are exposed to a lot of entertainment largely to prevent us from learning other things that might threaten the interests of the folk who have power over the education system. If we learned too much history, or politics, or economics, or even just cooking skills or legal skills, things would be quite different.

Competing Curricula
So our education system is characterized by disparate and often competing curricula, where different segments of the system are trying to teach children and adults disparate and often directly conflicting things. Should my values be shaped by my church or by heavy metal music? Or perhaps by the church down the road? Should I spend my time working on math or listening to pop songs? Should I store food, or buy as I go?
When people decry the problems of the education system, they usually mean to point out the problems with the schooling system, but the main problem that the schooling system has is that it can’t really compete with the mainstream media and pop culture. Our children are learning fine, they are just learning the curriculum promoted by the mainstream media corporations, far better than the curriculum promoted by public schools.
Consider the conflict between the math problem and the pop song. Which is more interesting? Which is more relevant to the life of the student? Which is better promoted? Which is taught in ways that better conform to our current best theories about educational psychology? I’m a mathematician so I like math, but even I think that pop songs are usually more interesting than math problems. Further, we focus on boring math problems, because those are the ones that are easiest to test over, and teachers incentives are tied to testing far more than to other areas of teaching. The math skill may eventually be useful to the life of the student (and even there we do a bad job, focusing a lot of math skills that were relevant to the life of the 19th century), but the pop song is relevant right now. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and PBS and a few other organizations may occasionally try to promote mathematics as a topic, but not nearly as extensively or expertly as the music industry promotes itself. Indeed, what are the primary motivations for listening to a pop song or doing a math problem. We listen to pop songs for their OWN sake, but we do math problems to get a grade and perhaps a diploma or good job someday. Everything we know about the psychology of learning tells us that intrinsic motivations (doing something for its own sake) are far more powerful and long lasting, than extrinsic motivations (doing something for so other reward). External rewards teach students that a subject is boring, and that they must be rewarded for the effort of doing it, they help motivation a lot over the short run, but absolutely destroy it over medium and long runs. The pop song probably talks about sex, and relationships, and things that the student actually cares about, but the math problem is probably divorced from anything that might be controversial. It is not JUST that pop culture is much better funded and more powerful, pop culture is frequently simply doing a better job of teaching than schooling is.
But the advantages are not all on the pop culture side. Schooling involves a large segment of a child’s time, and frequently can make good use of peer pressure. More importantly, many teachers manifestly care about the student, whereas even student can often tell that pop culture is trying to sell something to them and manipulate them. Some segments of schooling are things that the students can see the relevance of to their own lives. But many chunks of schooling have only dubious relevance, and far worse, schooling systematically transforms intrinsic motivations into extrinsic motivations, thereby killing most student’s love of the subject matters, and the motivation of all but the most ambitious students.

So what should we do?
First, simply be aware that an education system is more than just a schooling system. Think of education as something that happens over a whole life, and in many aspects of life outside of schooling. Think of schooling as one part of a broader whole. This helps to see that there are many, many possible places to make improvements beyond just school policies.
Second, be able to adopt a critical thinking “mental posture.” Some thinkers like to call this a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” The idea is to stop and think, and in thinking try to look at the big picture and to identify the agendas of the various factions involved in the picture. If you see an ad, stop and think, and try to place the ad in a broader context, and try to identify the agendas and techniques of the ad. If your teacher lectures at you, stop and think about the content, try to place it in its broader contexts, try to identify the agendas of the teacher and the techniques he or she used. With enough practice this can become almost reflex. It doesn’t have to be an exercise in cynicism, perhaps the message fits in its broader contexts and the agendas in play are one’s you agree with. Criticism can include admiration for one’s goals or techniques as well as identifying worrisome features that might have slipped your notice if you had not taken the extra effort to stop and think. Critical thinking is a form of intellectual self-defense, and helps to prevent you from being manipulated by agents with agendas opposed to your own. There isn’t really very much teaching of critical thinking in our school system (it gets a lot of lip service, but every study ever done on it has found that it gets very little actual teaching), and it is strongly discouraged by the mainstream media. But teaching critical thinking in little chunks is pretty easy to integrate into social learning situations, and even into workplace learning. Ask someone why they think someone else did what they did. Get people to stop and think about the agenda and techniques that others use to advance their agendas.
Third, realize that learning and teaching in amateur contexts still counts. Learn about the things you love, the things you find yourself intrinsically motivated to learn about. Our society values professionalism too much and amateurism too little. There is a place for professionalism, I’m not really trying to insult it as much as say that we have too much and need to back off. Enjoy what you enjoy and let your enthusiasm show in teaching and learning. Our culture is poisoning our education, and our careerism is poisoning our culture so that everything is done for the sake of a career rather than for its own sake or some other sake. Joy is itself transformative of the educational system.
Fourth, we have lost a lot of social capital over the last few decades. Re-build social capital where possible and use these organizations for teaching and learning especially in amateur and non-school contexts. Similarly, seek to be a little extra knowledgeable on the things you care about so that you can act as a good opinion leader for your friends, and seek the educated opinions of your friends on topics that you think they count as good opinion leaders on. Usually it is a mistake to rely on experts, unless you are at least a “half-expert” yourself and can sort through the disagreements between experts adequately. Instead rely on someone you can trust who is at least half-expert and can sort through the issues honestly.
Fifth, think a little about the techniques being used to seduce people away from learning certain topics. It is hard to see your own blind-spots or hang ups, some tricks are used against us precisely because they are likely to work. But occasionally looking at the big picture, and regularly thinking about the context one step up from whatever issue we are working on, helps provide a little protection from misdirection.
Sixth, some techniques just plain work better in education than others. Often we want to tailor the technique to the context, but there are some fair generalities. Involving several senses in learning almost always helps, as does repetition, as does increasing the interactivity of the technique. Tapping into intrinsic motivations always does better in the long run, than tapping into extrinsic ones. I think there are a lot of things we can do besides trying to reform the school system, but trying to reform the school system makes sense too. We put too much emphasis on standardized tests, and this has a lot of negative consequences. Back off on emphasis on standardized testing a little in the school system would help.
Our education system pervades our culture, we cannot put boundaries around it, we certainly cannot confine it do the school system. But that means that improving our educational system is inseparable from improving our culture, and adapting our educational system for the end of growth economics is inseparable from adapting our culture to the end of growth economics. And I think this involves de-emphasizing the great cultural engines of growth economics, mass media, advertising, careers and professionalism, consumption, and social isolation, and re-emphasizing the cultural factors that were more central before growth economics became quite so bloated, social contacts, small organizations, amateurism, enjoyment, and self-directed exploration. Mass media and careerism and advertising are not going to go away, but it is not impossible for them to be taken down a peg or two.

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