Sunday, October 24, 2010

Rethinking school

Few institutions in the United States create more cognitive dissonance than its public school system. Complaints about the cost and quality of American schools fill newspaper opinion pages, and the rhetoric of “improving education” is a staple of every political campaign. Missing from this debate, however, is the role each and every person plays in his or her own education. This responsibility is much more important in determining quality of education than how much money is spent. Even the poorest among us, by embracing a return to the fundamentals of school, can take advantage of all being an educated person has to offer.

The time is ripe for a new way of looking at school. A Wall Street Journal and NBC poll taken in September found that 58% of those surveyed think public schools need “major changes” and only 5% believe they “work pretty well.” The pessimism of these respondents is justified. In 2005, for example, a study called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” led to a twofold increase in Federal funding for science education. A recent Congressional review of the results, however, found little improvement in U.S. elementary and secondary science education. More public funding and more Federal interference in science classrooms had virtually no effect in raising test scores, because simply doing more of the same thing is not going to solve the problem. We not only need to challenge what it means to be “educated” in the U.S., we need to recognize the limits of publicly funded or government-controlled education.

Proponents of publicly funded education are correct in insisting that education empowers, but their arguments in favor of continued government intervention in schooling can only be sustained as long as “being educated” is defined by the State. Currently, a person who is educated in the eyes of the State is a person who has passed all required exams, meaning that he or she has memorized certain facts and is able to recite them with over 70% accuracy. Multiple studies, surveys, and “man on the street” interviews have shown, however, that even among those who have graduated a public high school in the United States, there are many who lack critical thinking skills and basic knowledge of logic, math, science, history, and geography, as well as other markers of “intelligence.”

To get to the bottom of this problem, we must understand that simply attending and graduating a traditional liberal arts school does not guarantee a person will become educated or even intelligent. A state of being educated is typically defined as “characterized by or displaying qualities of culture and learning,” or “to qualify by instruction or training for a particular calling,” “to inform,” and “to develop the faculties and powers of (a person) by teaching, instruction, or schooling.” An educated person is someone who possesses a trained mind, not someone who can merely recite important facts or who can display a diploma.

An educated person has a great advantage over one who is not, not only in terms of employment and social advancement, but in terms of self respect, creativity, health and cleanliness, fitness, parenthood, and in being informed and able to participate in decisions that affect that person and his or her family and community. But as we have seen, publicly funded education in the United States has failed to develop this kind of person, and that failure is now reflected in every facet of popular culture, entertainment, and political life.

I would like to propose an alternative school that can be organized right now, that hardly costs anything (other than a small investment of time), and which is guaranteed to produce better results than any Federally-funded education program. This alternative school will be more successful because it is born out of a natural desire to learn. It can be performed by anyone with a brain and an interest in self-improvement, from high school students, to short-order cooks, to farmers and housewives.

The ancient Greeks invented some of the world’s most sophisticated learning with nothing more than the art of the dialogue. During the Great Depression, men who earned a few cents a day carried on discussions of the latest books by scribbling notes in the margins, then reselling them to be read by the next buyer. In the 1700s, men and women met in salons and coffeehouses to discuss important issues as well as the latest scientific discoveries. Today, all over the world, small groups meet in “schools of community” to discuss the works of philosophers like Luigi Giussani.

Imagine what would happen if instead of relying on the public school system for our education, we took education into our own hands and turned every coffee shop, bar, or even living room or front porch into a contemporary salon. Imagine what we could do if instead of spending $60 and several hours on buying and mastering a new Xbox360 game, we invested that time and money in learning a new skill, or in holding a discussion of Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law. I guarantee that Jay Leno would have less comedic fodder the next time he interviewed the average man on the street.

Suggestions for Action

1. Write a list of ten subjects or skills you would like to learn more about.

2. Invite five friends over for dinner and have a conversation about a topic you have not previously discussed. Ask a question and follow that up by asking them to explain their answers.

3. Set aside a half an hour before you go to bed to read a chapter of a book about a topic you know very little about.

4. Ask a friend to teach you something that they can do that you always wanted to be able to do.

5. Write down five things that learning how to do yourself would lead to being more independent or helpful.


Poor history education in British schools

Children’s ignorance of British history has been laid bare in a survey today that shows one-in-20 pupils believe the Spanish Armada is a tapas dish.

Research carried out to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar shows many schoolchildren believe that Horatio Nelson was captain of the French national football team in the 1990s.

Almost one-in-four also said that ships evacuated British troops from Dover – not Dunkirk – during World War Two, Walter Raleigh invented the bicycle, Captain James Cook was the captain of the Starship Enterprise and Christopher Columbus discovered gravity.

The disclosure came in a study of 2,000 secondary school children in England to coincide with the anniversary of Admiral Lord Nelson’s defeat of the Spanish navy in 1805.

Children aged 12 to 16 were questioned about a series of key events in maritime history over the last 200 years.

Captain Mark Windsor, from the Sea Cadet Corps, said the poor answers highlighted the extent to which many children failed to connect with Britain’s maritime past. "As an island nation our relationship with the sea is a critical one since much of our food and trade passes over the oceans and our place in the world largely stems from our maritime heritage,” he said. "But it seems children are very confused when it comes to what key historical events occurred on the sea which helped shape the world in which we live.

"Horatio Nelson wouldn't be impressed to learn kids think he was a football captain and Columbus' discovery of America went completely unnoticed. "By picking up a book, exploring the UK and getting involved with activities on the sea, children can become much more clued up."

National Trafalgar Day – on Thursday – celebrates 205 years since Admiral Lord Nelson's fleet defeated the combined might of the French and Spanish. But according to the survey, carried out by the Sea Cadets, one-in-20 children believe the Spanish Armada is a tapas-style cuisine.

Three quarters did not know that Trafalgar Square was home to Nelson's Column, with eight per cent believing it was from EastEnders, while 15 per cent thought it was a shopping centre or chocolate biscuit. One-in-six thought Sir Walter Raleigh was the brains behind the Chopper, not the adventurer responsible for bringing tobacco and potato back to our home shores.

Some 14 per cent said Captain Cook starred in Star Trek rather than commanding the Endeavour on the first voyage of discovery to Australia. The report found six-in-10 youngsters did not know the Battle of Waterloo was fought in Belgium, with one-in-six opting for London's train station as their answer instead.

The disclosure comes two weeks after Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, announced a major review of the history curriculum in an attempt to revive interest in Britain’s “island story”. The historian Simon Schama has been named as the Government’s new “history tsar” to lead the drive.


Australia: Pressures forcing teachers to quit Queensland schools

"Behaviour-management issues" is code for lack of discipline

CLASSROOM sizes and behaviour-management issues are driving teachers out of the workforce. Almost three quarters of Queensland teachers say it is difficult to retain staff because morale is so low.

Teachers and parents are compensating for a lack of government funds by working longer hours and fundraising for school essentials, the State of our Schools survey by the Australian Education Union released exclusively to The Sunday Mail reveals.

Last year, parents and teachers dug deep raising $15 million through fetes, uniform sales and voluntary contributions, with funds going towards classroom essentials and new facilities. More than 60 per cent of Queensland respondents said this fundraising was "very important" in keeping the school running, with most of the money going to fund classroom equipment, library resources and sporting goods.

Other results include 44 per cent of Queensland teachers saying student outcomes would improve with smaller class sizes, 18 per cent calling for more support for students with disabilities and behaviour-management issues and 68 per cent saying reduced workloads and help with troubled kids would ease the pressure.

AEU federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said while teachers and principals were "the glue that held schools together", the public deserved better. "Ultimately our public schools are great schools and doing a great job by international comparisons," Mr Gavrielatos said. "But what we need to do is put in place resources to ensure the needs of every child can be met."

The survey was released to coincide with the union's national campaign launch around the Review of Funding for Schooling. The union is calling for more equity between the amount of funding given to government and private schools, saying two thirds of federal government funding goes to private schools, which educate just one third of students.

But Independent Schools Queensland executive director David Robertson said while this claim was strictly correct, it was misleading because government schools received 96 per cent of their funding from the states. He said he welcomed the review which was the first analysis of funding in 35 years.

Currently funding for non-government schools is calculated using the SES model (socio-economic status). This measures the income profile of students' parents through cross-matching postcode and census data. "It's a transparent funding model . . . the Government says these non-government schools whose parents can afford it, should receive less," Mr Robertson said.


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