Neither the k-12 nor higher education systems are broken. Hopefully we have established that at least. The biggest issues within the education system are societal and no one wants to have that conversation. What are they? Well first, as a society we need to decide if education is about a job or about an educated citizenry. It’s not that these two are mutually exclusive, and it doesn’t have to be either/or. However, the purpose of public education, the reason it was established in this country to begin with was to educate our citizens. The outcome happened to be better jobs. But that was never the intention. We wanted citizens who could make informed, educated decisions. Who could read and write and critically think and therefore contribute to a democratic process. Of course this led to better jobs. It’s important to remember that most people in the US were farmers until the early 1900’s. Before public education, only the well educated were educating their children at home leaving a large percentage of American children un or under educated. Historically, white-collar jobs went to the more highly educated. Also historically, the more highly educated came from white-collar and affluent families.
It was then in our quest for world dominance that our institutions of higher education fell into the same trap. It just extended learning and hopefully enhanced skills that then led to even better jobs (managers) than just having a k-12 public education. It was an unintended outcome. Then we started to see higher education as a means to getting a better job. Nothing wrong with that, it was the natural outcome. But now we are trying to simplify it and make it just about jobs. Forget the process, it’s about the outcome. Here’s the thing. If it’s only about jobs, let’s go back to trade schools. Hell, let’s forget trade schools and just go back to apprenticeships. That had to produce some great, highly skilled workers. Let’s just do away with public education for that matter. Why bother with a system that sucks our tax dollars? Why even bother with educating our citizens, we have the Internet? Every child can just follow in the footsteps of their parents. This is how it used to be. This is great for the white-collar, affluent workers. It might not be so great for those in less affluent or less educated households. Why bother with education at all? Let’s make it all about the jobs. It would save us a lot of money in the process. Hmmm, doesn’t seem very democratic. It also seems to skip over the benefits of an educated citizenry. But again, we have technology now. Technology and information will become the great educator. I think they thought the same thing when printing presses were developed because now anyone could access the information via books and newspapers They thought that about correspondence programs too when the US first introduced the postal service. Of course if you don’t know anything about history, then you won’t understand that at all.
This whole issue of education just being about better jobs has had an unintended consequence that then becomes the second big issue. We have turned education into a commodity and our students have become consumers of education, really of information, not even education. We think of our students as products of the system. That’s not entirely false but the issue with that approach is consumerism is passive. I doubt a tablet coming off the assembly line had to be an active participant in its completion. And therein lies the problem with students as consumers. It removes the part where they have to be active participants in the learning process. I don’t mean just evaluating a course or doing the research before buying a product (or picking a school) like you would a tablet, I mean learning requires their participation during that process. They have to be invested in taking part and take responsibility for their role in the learning process. But they don’t. They want someone to spoon feed them or passively consume the information so they can test well and therefore prove they have “learned”. They don’t want to think, that’s an active process. Most students even think a test score is more important than what they actually learned. This is not their fault. This is the way they have been trained to approach education. It’s not about learning, or their participation, it’s about a grade and a job. The outcomes. Of course for consumers buying a product, it becomes about their happiness. Students want to be happy, especially if they are spending money and that makes their teachers and instructors customer service representatives. Now again, that removes this whole active process. It removes student responsibility from the equation.
We have a lot of interesting dialogue around creating an education system where students get to dictate their own learning and are actively engaged in that process. Revolutionize the system and let the students solve problems instead of being lectured to by an instructor. That’s great. Of course, one can’t solve a problem if one doesn’t have some foundation from which to approach the problem. That also assumes that all students want to be actively engaged in their learning. Alas, that is far from reality in any classroom. Most students just want to consume it and pass a test. God forbid they actually take part in their own learning and want to really learn something. Most just want answers. I watched a really great video that discussed the idea that we know people remember things better and value something more when they actually have to search for and answer their own questions. Very true. See how far that goes in a class. The students will come back and say if they have to do all of the work, why are they paying you. You see, because the instructor is now a dispensary. They pay for it, the instructor dispenses what the student needs to know for the exam. Consumer model. This kind of conversation also assumes students want to learn. Problem is their idea of learning is skewed toward test scores and grades not towards them actually working to learn something. Here is how bad this consumer approach becomes. I actually had a student once who wasn’t getting her way say to me “I pay your salary”. Which of course implies since she pays my salary, it’s my job to make her happy. I responded with “Well, you don’t pay me very well, so I tell you what, get me a nice raise and I will consider your request.” Still waiting for that nice raise.
I must say in the defense of students that not all are like this. However, unfortunately it is only a minority who do really want to learn and see learning as being more valuable than a grade and also understand their part in that process. Again, can we blame them? This is how they are trained to think about education by their parents, society and an education system that focuses solely on grades and outcomes. If you talk to most k-12 teachers they will tell you students are still curious about their world until around 4th or 5th grade and have lost all curiosity by high school. We test it out of them.