“Welcome my son, welcome to the machine. What did you dream? It’s alright we told you what to dream.” ~Pink Floyd
Each day, hundreds of millions of children around the world are forced to engage in boring school activities, to memorize disconnected bits of information without being given the opportunity to enjoy learning, develop useful life skills or maximize their creative potential. What is the purpose of such institutionalized schooling and is this really the best way to educate children?
In most nations, educational systems are set up the same way animals are trained, where children who comply with adult demands are given a pat on the head and rewarded. Those who endure the training process increase their chances of getting into “good” colleges, and hopefully moving on to “good” jobs in the global economy.
Those who are bored, confused or disinterested may eventually find themselves with lower paying jobs and run the risk of being drawn toward “harmful” and “antisocial” activities such as gang membership, drugs, crime or alcoholism. Schools are society’s indoctrination system, created to train and measure our children, using test scores to determine their future social status.
Pink Floyd’s social criticism was pretty much on target. The system has been set up this way since the beginning of the last century, as a way of programming children, much as soldiers are trained, to serve as “tools” for those in positions of authority. It’s a highly mechanistic and authoritarian system, not at all in tune with the creative and holistic ways young people naturally learn.
Time is cut up into disconnected periods, while children are forced to comply with the instructions of a single adult, rather than freely exploring what interests them. Subjects are taught in fragmented compartments, as if they had no connection to one another or the real world. We learned math and science for tests, not for building our own homes, managing bank accounts, understanding the global economy or experiencing how we are connected to the rest of the Universe.
While most Westerners are forced to endure “The Machine,” those growing up in Asia have had it even worse. Young Zhao, a professor of education at Oregon University describes the educational system in China this way: “It basically ignores children’s uniqueness, interests and passion, which results in homogenization. It forces them to spend almost all the time preparing for tests, leaving little time for social and physical activities. It also places them under tremendous stress through intense competition, which can damage their confidence and lowers their self-esteem.” (New York Times, Sept. 14, 2014)
For the last 20 years I’ve lived with my family in Fukuoka, Japan, and have seen this kind of indoctrination and competition first hand. The greatest pressures arose for my sons in late elementary school and junior high, as they prepared for high school entrance tests. Asia’s high-stakes exams are designed to select children for low, medium and top ranked high schools, which then determine a child’s social ranking and status for the rest of their lives.
The pressure to get into the highest ranking schools is incredible. Children are pressured to memorize disconnected bits of information, with little emphasis or reflection on how all the knowledge they are cramming into their heads fits together coherently or how it might actually be applied in the world.
As Yale lecturer Se-Woong Koo recently wrote in the NY Times, in South Korea this unrelenting pressure has been tantamount to “child abuse,” leading to high rates of suicide, physical illness and severe depression. In China, (as this CNN news video documented), the competition is so intense that some students have been hooked up to medical drips in their classrooms, to allow them to study from early morning till late at night, without passing out from exhaustion.
Along with first-hand observations of my sons’ education, I’ve been teaching English courses at two Japanese Universities since 1993, and can attest that this emphasis on exam scores and memorization of information causes far more harm than good. English education in most Asian nations is focused on teaching grammar rules, memorizing vocabulary and translating texts. It’s like the students are being forced to cram and reproduce electronic dictionaries in their heads.
Students in Asia gain knowledge of English, but its impractical, as they are rarely given the opportunity to practice and apply the language. As a result, the vast majority of Asian students (and adults) lack basic communication skills. They cannot understand spoken English, cannot understand American movies or music, and are unable to communicate with others. Since they have been studying English in order to take tests, they have excellent exam taking skills, but lack the practical language skills that would actually be useful in life.
This has been the situation in Asia for decades, and up until recently I had believed that education was much better in Western nations, especially for middle and upper class children with access to “good” schools. Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case. In the United States, two successive presidential administrations have attempted to follow in the footsteps of Asian schools, implementing wide-spread high stakes testing programs. President Bush began to move in this direction with his “No Child Left Behind” initiative, and President Obama has gone further with the “Race to the Top” and “Common Core” programs.
The main reason given for this shift was that American schools have fallen behind on international test scores, especially when compared with Asian nations. What that argument ignores is that an international comparison of test scores is absolutely meaningless. Students in Asia are forced to cram for exams, in many cases their scores do not reflect actual skills, knowledge or ability, just a tolerance for hardship, rote memorization and doing what people in authority tell you to do.
I once asked a Japanese high school English teacher about this, and that’s what she told me. She admitted that her students are not really learning English in a useful way, but that those who do well on the tests are “demonstrating a willingness to work hard, even if the work seems meaningless.”
When it comes to leadership, innovation and creativity the United States has always been way ahead of Asian nations. For leaders in Western nations to try and shift our education paradigms in the direction of Asia could have very severe negative consequences, if not questioned and examined closely. One reason I’ve been teaching in Asia is that many educators here realize their approach has not worked, and want to introduce more innovative methods.
This standardized text and test-centered paradigm has has been called the “factory model” of education. It was developed and promoted by wealthy industrialists in the first part of the last century. It’s been fairly successful at generating compliance and conformity, but has failed miserably at encouraging creativity or freedom of thought. As management consultant Steven Denning wrote in Forbes magazine, in 2011:
“Given that the education system is seen to be in trouble, there is a tendency to think we need “better management” or “stronger management” or “tougher management”, where “management” is assumed to be the factory model of management. It is assumed to mean more top-down management and tighter controls, and more carrots and sticks. It is assumed to mean hammering the teachers who don’t perform and ruthlessly weeding out “the dead wood”. The thinking is embedded in Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.
These methods are known to be failing in the private sector, because they dispirit the employees and limit their ability to contribute their imagination and creativity; they frustrate customers, and they are killing the very organizations that rely on them. So why should we expect anything different in the education sector? When the problems have been caused in the first place by introducing the practices of “management”, then a more rigorous pursuit of this type of “management” only makes things worse…”
So why this shift in the direction of the “factory model” of schooling? It’s not because teachers don’t know of better ways to educate children. As Denning suggests in his Forbes article, decades of research has shown that the key to successful education is to help children maintain a love of learning, and to be prepared to continuously update and re-learn for the rest of their lives.
In the field of education this is sometimes referred to as the learner-centered model of schooling. It’s the approach used in Montessori schools, which have proven themselves to be effective for well over 70 years. For many decades, this model has been developing and thriving in the U.S., as well as nations such as Finland.
Key to the student-centered model is the understanding that children come into the world knowing how to learn, in ways that are enjoyable. Supported by decades of research on how the human brain constructs knowledge and skills, it’s clear that most children have great untapped potential and will thrive when adults design educational environments that interest them and nurture their innate love of learning.
So that raises the question, if the learner-centered approach is more enjoyable and has proven itself to be successful over the course of seven decades, why the sudden push from government and business leaders to return to the “factory model,” with its focus on “common” standards and high stakes testing?
A key factor, I believe, is the way many adults currently in “leadership” positions of business and government were educated themselves, and how they tend to approach problems. As physicist David Bohm has pointed out, most adults in modern nations were trained to think in fragmented and compartmentalized ways. Successful business and political leaders tend to view the world in a “utilitarian” manner, seeking to measure everything with numbers. They want a return on their investments, to maximize profits. The problem with this way of thinking is it’s cold, mechanistic, ignorant and heartless when applied to children.
The result is what we see around us, a world where many of the “best and the brightest” in business and government constantly create problems that they are unable to solve. They’ve done little to reduce poverty, stop pollution, end wars, save the rainforests or build thriving economies. Instead, our leaders focus on making speeches, running campaigns, increasing profits, putting band-aids on social problems, driving nations into debt and maintaining mechanistic education, farming and economic systems that may do far more harm than good.
Not that many teachers didn’t once think and act the same way. Most did, and far too many still do. But decades of experience, experimentation and daily interactions with young people have helped most professionals in the field of education to learn, adapt and evolve their thinking. Many teacher now know of a better way, we’ve applied it in our classrooms, have seen it work successfully. While few in the media remember now, ABC News even produced a TV special on learner-centered ideas and approaches (see video below), back in 1993.
The learner-centered paradigm works because it encourages adults to see children as whole human beings and to present knowledge to them that way, with an emphasis on interdependence, meaning, communication and connections. Seeing the true nature of a problem requires coherence and open-mindedness. By communicating and listening we become better able to solve challenges with our students creatively, because we have a handle on the “big picture.”
This big picture understanding, creative thinking and open communication is lacking with current school reform efforts. Have you seen any of the corporate reformers or department of education leaders in the United States actually sit down with parents, students and teachers to discuss their reform plans and listen to concerns? It’s been a very rare occurrence.
The re-boot of the factory model has been presented in a top-down fashion, as a mandate crafted by billionaires and educational consultants who think they know “best.” Clearly, they do not. Their whole approach is built on sand, it has no logical or research foundation, this is simply an attempt to regain control and hijack schools, so that they can turn out good worker drones once again.
Honoring and respecting the hearts and minds of children isn’t rocket science, but it does take wisdom, flexibility and creativity on the part of adults. It requires that policy makers work together with teachers and parents, seeing children as developing human beings (all at different stages), who’s love of learning matters. Most of all, it requires love and compassion, to actually care about children as individuals, to see their potential and be willing to take the time to help nurture their growth.
If people in business and government refuse to make their nation’s children’s healthy development, growth and learning a priority, its up to teachers and parents to insist that they do. We have this opportunity now, to move forward with an innovative educational model that’s proven itself to be successful, or to slip backwards with an outdated mechanistic approach that hasn’t. Our actions now will shape the future.
For as Aristotle put it, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” And, to paraphrase Pink Floyd, “hey, clueless leaders, leave those kids alone.”
“One of the most distressing characteristics of education reformers is that they are hyper-focused on how students perform, but they ignore how students learn.” ~Diane Marie
“What is education for? Is it for pouring facts and formulas into students’ heads, or is it for creating learners? Research shows that an environment that emphasizes evaluation and testing creates a fixed [achievement] mindset. That is, it sends the message that intellectual abilities are fixed and that the purpose of school is to measure them. Students come to see school as the place to look smart and, above all, not look dumb— not a place to create and learn.” ~Carol Dweck
“Creating a society that goes against human nature is what creates the suffering… We live in a completely unnatural society, that actually tramples on what it means to be a human being. That’s the essence of suffering, and there are so many ways in which our society does that.” ~Dr Gabor Mate
“The purpose of the school is not just to raise test scores, or to give children academic learning. The purpose of the school is to give children an experience that will help them grow and develop in ways that they can be successful, in school and as successful adults. They have to grow in a way that they can take care of themselves, get an education, take care of a family, be responsible citizens of the society and of their community. Now you don’t get that simply by raising test scores.” ~Dr. James P. Comer; Comer School Development Program
“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here… Keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams; it is still a beautiful world.” ~ Max Ehrmann (Desiderata, 1927)