Under-Education: Responding to @willrich45

Will Richardson writes, over at Modern Leaners, about the problem of under-education:

 A phrase I find myself using more and more these days (and probably mispronouncing) is “raison d’être” or reason for being, as in asking school leaders “why does your school exist?” The easy answer is “to educate our children!” For centuries, that was probably good enough. Everyone knew, sorta, what it meant to be “educated.” You “learned” a lot of stuff about different subjects. You learned how to read and write and work with numbers to some acceptable degree. You were “prepared” for life, for a job or a college. You looked pretty much like everyone who was “educated” before you, passed the same tests, got over the same bars.

I think I get what Will is getting at, here.  Why does your school exist? is a really fundamental question. I mean, in general, “to educate our children!” is a great answer.  But one school I taught at, the “our children” part carried a caveat — and that caveat was “because the schools that are closer to where we live have failed them.”

I taught in a boarding school from 1996 to 2001, took a sabbatical year, and then taught in that same school from 2002-2010.  That school focused on student success by providing a one-on-one tutor for 45 minutes every day; by requiring all students to participate in athletics; and by providing a formal study hall for two hours every evening for completing homework.  In the early part of the 20th century, the idea of learning disabilities was not widespread or understood; my school helped develop a series of one-on-one tutoring processes, including championing the Orton-Gillingham methodology.  People from all over the country (and now from all over the world) sent their children long distances, because my old school could do what no other school could do.  So that sentence becomes, “My school exists to educate our children through time management and compensation techniques for their learning disabilities.”  I think that some of my former colleagues might dispute that baldly-phrased statement, but it’s a shorthand way of thinking about the school’s identity.

My old school’s day and pattern was adapted from a model similar to many other New England boarding schools. The most famous of these schools (and not one where I ever worked), is probably the Groton School, where the names of graduates are professionally carved into the oak-paneled walls of the study hall; and the names of its graduates who went on to the American presidency are gilded with 24-carat gold.  Students literally sit for study hall each evening with light and shadow playing out on the names of those who went before them; and each of them is impressed constantly with the reality, “No matter how great I become personally, I will never be as great as that other alumnus of this school, four-term U.S. President, who led the country out of the Great Depression and through World War II…”  Those students literally sit in the shadow of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and under the names of numbers of his deputies and aides — and it affects every one of Groton’s graduates deeply.  That school’s sentence becomes, “My school exists to educate our children to be problem-solving citizen-leaders at the highest levels.”

Sometimes the identifier is more regional.  I went to a junior high school for grades seven through nine; our athletic rivals were the other two junior high schools in town… not even the next town over.  That school’s sentence might be construed as “My school exists to educate our children who live within walking distance of this building.”  It was a funny, wonderful place: a good theater program, a good music program, Home Economics, shop classes and drafting, computer programming in the mid-1980s when that was still a weird thing.  Sure, all the regular classes in math and science, English and foreign language, history and civics (I had a civics class in there, how weird that seems today).  But it was the extras, I think, that shaped who I am today though it took twenty years to see it.

The Thinkers and the Makers

My mind, though, often returns to the schools in the shadows of Europe’s great cathedrals.  The so-called Cathedral Schools of the 9th through the 12th century focused on the seven liberal arts, which were the simplification and inheritance of the Latin educational system such as it was: the Trivium, consisting of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic; and the Quadrivium of Music, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Astronomy.  There wasn’t much time for more than that, really:  boys (and it was mostly boys) were taken in at 7 or 10, trained until they were 16 or 17, and then shipped off to be clerks to bishops and dukes, professional literates in a world lit only by fire (as William Manchester called it).

Those schools’ sentence ran like this: “My school exists to educate our children in Christian virtues, rational thought, and logical and mathematical relationships, for the purpose of tempering the warriors of the age with some professional advice-givers.”  They were pretty explicit about this in their writings; they knew that they were trying to bring about relative pacifism in an age of violence, warfare and feud, through education.

Down the street from here is a technical high school. Kids study regular academic subjects, but they also pick subjects like plumbing and electrical work, automotive repair and carpentry.  One of my friends is a graduate of that school;  he’s not a great writer, but he visualizes objects in three dimensions and builds them.  He’s a master builder, a contractor, a savvy businessman, and a leader both in his community and of his employees.  He’s no FDR, but I think he could say, “My school exists to educate our children in building and making and managing workers and materials.”

The Measurable and the Immeasurable

Will says,

So, why do we exist? What is our higher, more modern calling? How do we talk about that even? Haque says that one place to start is to put “intuition over computation,” or as I’m referred to it in the past, the “immeasurable ahead of the measurable.” Or, as Russel Ackoff says, again, “to do the right thing instead of trying to do the wrong thing right.” I think most of us get this, yet we seem unable to move from legacy thinking.

And I think this is one of those places where Will — as much as I love him — have to part ways.  Because I think about what it is that schools used to do, and what they so often appear to do now.  I think that we’ve probably drifted too far from legacy thinking, myself.

Because the essence of school is not necessarily to measure, but to teach measurement.  When I think to the Cathedral Schools, focused on the essentials that they could afford to save of Roman and Greek learning, they chose to save the abilities to think, speak, and write precisely; how to count, and account, for numbers; and to understand mathematical relationships in space and time and vibration.

My friend’s technical high school taught him how to cut 45°-angles into complex pieces of wood crown moldings for construction; how to keep an account book; how to price out a job; how to hire and pay workers; how to pay his own way in the world.  Measurement is at the core of his business and his success; and it is what his school taught him how to do.  He lovingly tells the story of one of his carpentry teachers inspecting a joint between two pieces of molding, holding the two wood scraps up to the window. “No. There is light shining through. The angle is wrong and the cut is not straight. Do it again.”  It is that love of accuracy and precision that makes him one of the most sought-after contractors in town.

The school where I used to work focused on teaching time management and attention management to students with ADD and ADHD; how to read effectively and to speak clearly; how to function with limited note-taking in high-information environments; how to move cleanly from one task to another.   It wasn’t exactly the exalted study of astronomy practiced in medieval times atop cathedral towers.  But it was the teaching of measurement and management.

Even Groton, with its oak-paneled study hall, was teaching the vitality of measurement and technical expertise: “one of your predecessors solved the greatest economic crisis in our country’s history, and you’re going to whine about a little algebra?” I can almost hear a teacher telling a recalcitrant student.    Except that my sense of things is that the environment of Groton does a good job of helping students understand that whining is not helpful. 🙂

In any case, a school is for educating our children in ways to measure the world.  We begin with counting and rulers, then teach angles, and a variety of formulae for converting one kind of measurement to another.  Temperature, humidity, wind speed.  Weight, velocity, angle of repose.  Supply, Inventory, Demand.  Current, resistance, voltage.  Light-years, Miles, Yards, Inches, Angstroms.  Pounds, Quarts, Grams, Micrograms. Syllogism, Fallacy, Validity, Conclusion.  Even in classes that focus on writing and reading, in storytelling, we are focused on methods that measure the world and make it return logical results: If this, then that; if not that, then not this.  The Cathedral Schools sent graduates into the world who knew the power of words, but also the structure of rational argument; they were not Christian fundamentalists, but deep and careful thinkers trained in Aristotlean and Platonic logic, Boethean grammar and Ciceronian rhetoric, with a skilled understanding of what to say, how to say it, and how to argue for and against different positions.  Aesop’s fables, annoying and boringly familiar as they are to us, taught medieval Frankish children Latin grammar, rhetorical style and logical thinking all at once; and prepared their minds to understand the formal relationships of geometry, the pitch relationships of music, and the  vast interplay of arithmetic, geometry and time that was astronomy.  My contractor friend builds houses from stacks of lumber — but stands in awe of another friend of his who knows to the board-foot and last chop-saw cut and nail-count how to build a Sonic drive-through restaurant.

Where we fail, I think, is that we spend far too much time taking the measure of the student.  In the pursuit of ever-more-accurate understandings of what is going on in the child’s mind, we fail to impart the critical lessons of how to apply differently-graded yardsticks, containers, and meters to various kinds of problems, or to analyze those results.  Nor do I simply mean physical tools like rulers and protractors — no, I mean the genuine tools of rational, evidence-based thought.  Instead, we look for evidence from the students themselves that they know what we’re talking about; and we give in probably too often to confirmation biases: a student says something, and we take their words at face value, hearing the measurements and evidence that we have laboriously collected for ourselves — instead of hearing all out their evidence, data, and interpretation.

But the child is not the center of the school.  

There will be some teachers and parents who will clutch their pearls  or adjust their ties at this.  And I think that we can agree that the best teachers that we know are the ones who care deeply about children and their welfare.  But true adults, capable and competent adults, are ones who know and understand the facts of the world — who are capable of measuring aspects of their lives, and interpreting those measurements against certain standards.  Doctors know the names of all the bones, muscles and ligaments in the body, all of the spaces and valves and passages; and they recognize when a blood-glucose level is too high or too low.  Lawyers know the names of the laws, how to look them up, and how to argue that one action either does or does not fit a particular interpretation of that law.  It’s a bit of great humor to me that Teachers measure and interpret children according to a variety of yardsticks, too.

It’s just that we forget sometimes that children are not in school to be measured; they’re in school to learn how to measure.

Where We Agree

I don’t think that Will and I are in any disagreement about one of the key challenges, which is finding ways to express what teachers want and need from the non-professionals: the politicians, the parents, and the other stakeholders.  We’re not medieval churchmen trying to save the scraps of a fallen empire from the dark ages warlords; we can’t claim God is on our side, and wow our opponents with secret knowledge of when an eclipse will occur.  We’re not all shop teachers, holding boards up to the window to look for the perfect angle.

But I wonder if a teacher focused on measurement for a few weeks in their lesson planning, if they did not see a marked improvement in the quality of their students’ work?  When we ask ourselves, before we begin each lesson, “what measurement process am I teaching today? What method for interpreting information am I offering to my students?” it may be that on some days we’re teaching fact-gathering.  On other days, we’re teaching the construction of logical thought.  On other days, we’re concerned with helping students string facts together into a story.  On other days, we’re teaching how to use a ruler or a thermometer, more basic tools that nonetheless reveal important truths.

But the centerpiece of our work as teachers, regardless of what subject we teach officially, is the work of helping students to measure the world.  And if a school isn’t doing that — then maybe that school should be closed.

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