Friday, May 13, 2011

There is too much theory in education

From the trivium and the quadrivium, the use of Greek slaves to teach Roman children, calligraphy in the Yeshivot or Madrasahs of the middle ages, the Mediaeval and Enlightenment predilection for Classics and Greats, to the trend in the last decades towards laws which set out in detail everything that must be done in a school, national curriculum, or the last two major education laws in Spain, the LOGSE of 1991 and the LOE of 2006, which are full of aspirations and broad statements about what must be achieved, and how, there has always been a huge gap between the theory and practice of education, and the needs of the educated. This might not have mattered much when education was primarily cosmetic, or was intended to fulfil a social, religious or personal role, but when almost every child’s future depends on the quality of his education, many of the problems with the system, and there are many, can be traced to an excess of theory and a dearth of practical knowledge.

The idea that children ‘should’ learn certain things, and that they ‘should’ learn them in specific ways and for specific, lofty purposes which owe more to the ideals of the theorist than to any needs of the child, or from ignorance and outdated understanding of what education is, has led to the study of religion which is not religion, of ethics, morals, etc to replace it, which is no more than the repetition of a set of pious platitudes unconnected to reality. More to the point, it is entirely worthless in the classroom. It is considered a well-founded and unquestionable belief that schools should forge character, teach fashionable ideology as though it were agreed upon laid down eternally in stone by the whole of humanity, indoctrinate in whatever way the controlling authority wants, tell them all about sex, and what kinds are currently fashionable (see ideology above), and provide a carefully controlled social environment containing just the right number of people of different colours, religions, intelligence, ability, interests and social position. (The fact that those who control education deny the existence of variation in two-six of those categories doesn’t stop them going on about the importance of it when they have something to gain.

All of which leaves little time for learning the things that matter. The idea that education is about much more than learning useful things- and most importantly about learning to think- is an old one handed down by the tradition of a thousand years of public schools, in which that

This leads to endless discussion about whether classes are better taught as a whole, in lockstep, in groups, or individually, and the same with the setting of goals and tasks. About whether children should learn to read by whole-word methods, synthetic phonics, modelled mimicry or some combination of these. People with only the vaguest idea of what these terms actually mean will develop such an ideological attachment to their position that no common sense, experience or actual facts are allowed anywhere near the argument.

The assumption that education must be obligatory, that governments should determine what is taught and how, that school is the place for doing sport, for meeting people, for discovering, through careful direction, things about the outside world, and is in effect a substitute for life during the whole of one’s childhood; All of this needs to questioned.

Once it is broadly agreed what children need to learn, and how much of that needs to be taught in schools, the rest can be left to experienced and competent teachers. The incompetent, lazy and those who are not up to the job will be sacked, because the education system exists for the children, not the trade unions and their subscribers. Children who cannot or do not want to benefit from education will not be expected to do so. It will not lead to perfect children, a perfect education or a perfect world, but it will work, it will cost much less and everyone involved will enjoy it more. And it will take a lot less time, rather than eight hours a day, ten months a year for your entire childhood.

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