Thursday, September 27, 2012

Abolish Education: Knowledge and Cultural Snobbery

For me one of the big problems with education is the way we fail to distinguish between intelligence and knowledge. We seem to have this belief that if someone knows a lot then they're very intelligent and well educated, and if they don't then they aren't. This is obviously not the case.

The problem is compounded by the fact that we have this cultural snobbery about what people should know and what they shouldn't. Or rather, what we think educated people should know. For example, someone with an extensive knowledge of Shakespeare is thought of as being very intelligent, whereas someone with an extensive knowledge of British sitcoms, let's say, is just thought of as an average person who's watched a lot of telly. Why is one set of knowledge more worthy than the other?

Why is a knowledge of fine wine more impressive than a knowledge of lager? Why is a love of Mozart seen as being an indicator of intelligence and education, but a love of Pink Floyd not? Why is an appreciation of impressionist art seen as being more remarkable than an appreciation of Hollywood movies?

Really the value of knowledge should be judged on either its practical merits or its personal value. Or more to the point, is the knowledge useful to the person that holds it and does it bring them joy.

No one should be reading Shakespeare to impress another human being. Really, reading Shakespeare should be viewed no differently to watching a movie or going to a football match. People should be doing it because they have a genuine joy and interest in it. If you get no joy from it don't read it.

But the fact is, our education system is built upon the idea that we have to impress other people. And people in education are acquiring knowledge not because they have a genuine appetite for it, but because they need to take it on board in order to climb the social ladder. In this regard passing an exam is really just jumping through one of the many hoops we're expected to jump through in order to get on in life. This is especially true of any subject that has a strong cultural dimension - English Literature, History, Philosophy, etc. Although to some degree it's true of all education.

The TV show University Challenge is a great example of all this. Week in, week out they ask questions, all essentially on the same subjects - Ancient Greece, Romantic Poets, Classical Music, Renaissance Art, Latin, English Literature. The vast array of things in the universe they could ask about, yet time and time again it's the same subjects that get touched upon. It's not so much a test of general knowledge, but more a test of your general knowledge in regard what we expect well-educated people to know.

Of course, these days they occasionally throw in the odd popular music question (with a nod and a wink) to mix things up a little, but it's still the same deal.

The message is simple. We do have social mobility and you can get on in life by embracing education, but you have to embrace the sophisticate culture of the upper-middle classes as well. And the western world's English-speaking upper-middle classes at that. No champagne, no game ...and you need to have an extensive knowledge of that champagne as well 'cause you will be asked about it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Abolish Education: Abolish Homework

I'm starting to worry that this whole Abolish Education thing is beginning to become something of a rant. Mind you, it's hard not to sound like you're whinging when you're actually having a bit of a whinge. Reading back my last post I think I'll have to develop my writing style a little and start writing in a more engaging way - a less whingy way. Still, the sentiment was honest enough.

I think this time I'll have a mini-whinge about homework.

In one of my earlier posts I mentioned about how school overbearingly dominates a child's life. Well homework just takes this to the extreme. Expecting a child to do school work outside school as well as in school is just too much. Far too depressing. A long school day followed by what little time you have being taken up by yet more work is just totally unfair. And we wonder why children don't enjoy learning.

A personal gripe I always had as a child about homework was the way teachers would waste an entire school lesson talking (and basically showing off) only to then, at the end of it, dump a vast pile of homework on top of you. I remember at times sitting there thinking "you've just wasted an entire hour of my life, sir, grandstanding in front of a captive audience and now you're wasting an hour more of my free time giving me homework to do after school." Talk about children messing around and time wasting.

And don't get me wrong, it's nothing personal, I actually liked all my teachers, but the fact is they did waste a lot of my time. In fact, every lesson tended to follow this general pattern. The lesson would start - an English lesson say - then after a ten minute spell where the teacher would try to quieten the audience, they'd say something along the lines of  "...right, today we're going to start reading Romeo & Juliet."

The teacher would then start eulogising about how important Romeo & Juliet was, which would then in turn morph into some story about how when they were younger they played the lead role in an amateur production of the play. That in turn would then wander off into various other anecdotes about university/school/personal experience, etc, etc. All, of course, relayed with a rehearsed self-aggrandising vigour. And all no doubt told to countless other groups of children in various classrooms over the years.

Finally, after about forty-five minutes of basically hearing someone talk about themselves for what seemed like a very long time you were then told "Right, now here's your homework...I want you to read through Scene 1 to Scene Whatever and then write a short essay about what you think is going on." Brilliant.

And that's what education is - more or less.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Abolish Education: School Uniforms and Other Forms of Institutional Bullying

Another aspect of education that I find harsh is school uniforms. To be honest I just don't see the point. All the arguments in favour of school uniforms just seem really vacuous. For a start smartness is just a matter of personal opinion. Why should one group of peoples idea of smartness be imposed on another? It's just pointless bullying really. I've heard stories of children being sent home from school for wearing the wrong colour socks. Just silly. How shallow is it to even care what another person is wearing. Can't we just let children go to school in whatever they feel comfortable in.

The only argument that appears to be in favour of uniforms is the idea that it prevents bullying. The argument being that if everyone's dressed the same no one can be picked on for not having the coolest clothes or whatever. However, this is a bit like saying that if everyone was white there'd be no racism 'cause everyone would look the same. Surely if children are being bullied at school because of the clothes they're wearing the problem is the 'bullying' not the 'clothes'. Bringing in a dress code doesn't cure the bullying, if fact, in many ways it just means that the teachers are doing the bullying instead of the children. Admonishing a child because they're not wearing the right colour trousers? Really? Is this really how teachers should be spending their time.

This last point brings me nicely to the wider issue here, and that's the lack of respect children get in general. It's often said that children don't respect adults, but it's actually the other way round. It's children that don't get the respect they deserve in our society. We've had women's rights and rights for other groups that have been repressed in the past, but never children rights. If we're gonna move forward as a society this really has to change.

Some people reading this may feel I'm overreacting a little and that accusing teachers of 'bullying' their pupils is a little beyond the pale. However, you've only got to look at the way children are spoken to, by both their parents and teachers, to see that this is pretty much the case;

"Look me in the eye when I'm talking to you," "Sit up straight," "How dare you answer me back and question my authority?" All sentences uttered to children on a regular basis, but can you imagine anyone ever speaking  to another adult like this? Even in strict working environments adults aren't spoken to like this. In fact, if bosses spoke to their employees the way adults speak to children they'd be taken to a tribunal.

Why do we think adults have the right to speak to children like this? We're expected to use reason and communication when dealing with other adults, without resorting to the use of force and aggression. Yet when we deal with children it's commonly accepted that we can just tell them what to do, and if they have the nerve to question our judgement then we have perfect recourse to shout and scream at them as much as we want. Well, I'm sorry, I don't agree with this. And it is bullying.

Why should a child have to "stand up straight" when a teacher enters a classroom? Why should they "only speak when spoken to"? Do teachers have more value than children?

Children are human beings, they have minds, they can be reasoned with. I think their opinions should be as valued as ours.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Abolish Education: The Misery Factory

This post is about the social side of education. I particularly want to focus on the damage schooling does to people as individuals and the implications this has on wider society. I believe the sum effect of the school experience is both negative and profound.

I'll start by talking about my personal experience of school.

Pretty much from the moment I entered primary school I disliked the school experience. Of course, I used to feign interest and enjoyment, mainly to please my teachers and parents, but deep down it simply wasn't fun. The first and most obvious problem I had with it was the length of the school day. It was like working in a factory. In fact, as a child I used to just view it as a job. I didn't enjoy it, but I just kept my head down and got through the day, knowing full well that I didn't have any choice but to acquiesce.

Isn't school supposed to be enjoyable? How can we expect children to enjoy learning when from day one it's a test of endurance? From the minute you reach school age it dominates your life. Like a soul-sapping factory or stifling office job. Who can really, hand on heart, look back on their school life and say they enjoyed it? Remember that dread on Sunday night knowing you had school the next morning? Remember how blissful the summer holidays seemed - no school for six weeks! School was miserable and depressing, admit it. Don't pretend it was somehow more magical than it was now you're an adult. I'm always amazed how quickly adults forget what it felt like to be a child. Pushing the school experience on their own children even though that very same experience made them miserable. I remember as a child promising to myself that I wouldn't forget that. I guess that was where all this started.

Anyway, school days are too long. Period.

Another thing I remember from childhood was the way that school forced you to choose between your friends and your teachers. You basically had to choose whether to be popular and disappoint your teachers or be unpopular and please them. Walking the tightrope between those two options was virtually impossible and whichever option you leaned towards would be bad for you psychologically in the long run. It's almost as if you had to sacrifice your social skills to get good grades or sacrifice your grades to develop your social side.

For example, I leaned towards pleasing my parents and teachers. Thus I was one of the well-behaved quiet kids in the class. I left school with great exam results, but with criminal shyness and a lack of self-confidence. Others in my class left with brilliant social skills, but nothing much academically. I don't think any of us came out of it balanced, happy or better off.

In fact, I would write off the entire school experience were it not for the social dimension of things. If I had children the only apprehension I would have about not sending them to school and home-schooling them would be my worry that they'd miss out socially. That they wouldn't have the chance to interact with other children. I'd have no worries about them missing out academically. However, under the current system this isn't a real worry as the current system tends to damage social skills anyway. Like I said children who 'do well' at school suffer socially because they have to alienate themselves from their friends in order to satisfy their teacher's expectations. You can't laugh, have fun and mess around at school and get good grades and the teacher's seal of approval. It's pretty much one or the other. If you sit quietly in class and do as you're told while others play around and have fun it just reinforces that quietness and makes you something of a social outcast. But if you do mess around and spend the school days interacting with your friends you get written off as 'badly behaved.' It's a bit of a no-win situation really.

One final thing I'd like to mention is this idea that 'good' children are somehow better than 'bad' ones. As if the children who do well at school are not only better academically, but somehow more moral as well. The fact is the children who do well at school are actually doing it out of self-interest, because they believe in the long run it'll be better for them personally - deferred gratification. It's not that they have a heightened sense of social responsibility. It's the fear that if they don't do well at school they'll end up as miserable as they are now - working in a factory or some such place. In fact, if you look at the ambitions of really ambitious children they all want to do jobs that are fun when they grow up - astronaut, computer game designer, musician, etc. And the more realistically ambitious ones tend to chose something more attainable, like doctor or lawyer i.e. something that still requires hard work, but nevertheless stills pays well, offers a good standard of living and also the chance to climb the social ladder. Not many 'good' children dream of working long hours in a dull, but useful job, for low pay.

Likewise, children that don't try hard or don't do well at school aren't particularly 'bad' either. It fact, they're no better or worse than the children that do well. It's just that they don't feel that working hard and sacrificing at school will pay off in the long run. Whether that's because they're not academically gifted enough, or because they don't have the advantages the other kids have, or simply because they just don't have the foresight to see that far ahead. Maybe it's that they simply see life as one big swizz where no one in the system is ever really happy no matter how hard they try. It's certainly not because they're bad, or lazy or any other criticism you want to lay at their door.

People often say that school should prepare children for the harsh realities of adult life. Well, actually, it already does. In fact, school children possibly work even harder than adults. School dominates their life, they have no choice over whether they go or not and they're not being paid for doing it. School is harsh. It shouldn't be, and neither should life in general.

The school day is too long. Period.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Abolish Education: Photosynthesis

Before I move on I'd like to expand on my last post and talk a bit more about how and why we learn things. One thing that has always struck me as odd about the way we teach people is the way we force them to learn answers to questions that they haven't even had the chance to ask. We just drop information on people completely out of context. For example, a child will turn up for a science lesson and get told about photosynthesis before they've even had a chance to wonder themselves about how plants work and grow. It's daft to just dump knowledge on people and expect them to take it in without giving them a chance to develop an appetite for that knowledge in the first place - they haven't had a chance to ask the question, so why would they want or need the answer.

The stupidity of this way of getting people to learn things might be better illustrated by looking at how people find answers to questions naturally in real life. Whether it's a scientist trying to find the answers to life's mysteries or simply someone trying to find out something as mundane as where the train station is, learning generally begins with a question. How big is the universe? How does the human body work? How do I send an email? etc, etc. You begin with a desire to do something or find out something and you go on a journey towards the answer.

For example, if you need to find out where the train station is you ask yourself "where's the train station?" If you don't already know you then think how can I find out. Then you do something that might help you find the answer, you might wander around town looking for it, you may ask people in the hope that they can tell you, you might go and get a map. All this is pretty simple and obvious, but it illustrates that learning begins with a desire or a reason to do something. And that there's a journey from the question to the answer.

So, someone who wants to find out where the train station is probably needs to catch a train - either that or they have a genuine interest in train stations. Likewise someone who wants to find out where the Andromeda galaxy is probably already has a genuine interest in space. You wouldn't just randomly tell someone where the train station is if they have no interest or need to know it. So why just randomly tell children about the Andromeda galaxy, or photosynthesis, if they don't have any prior curiosity about it.

Learning should begin with questions and curiosity - and each person has their own unique questions and interests. We shouldn't be forcing people to take on board information they have no desire to learn. We should just let them wander where they feel they need to go.

Abolish Education: Why Am I Learning French Miss?

I guess I should start by asking, in my own bashful way, how and why we learn things. I've thought about this quite a lot and come to the conclusion that we generally learn things for either one of two reasons. The first reason is everyday necessity - basically things we need to learn to conduct our everyday lives. Things like learning to tie our shoes laces, or learning to use the TV remote. We generally learn these things regardless of schooling. The second reason is interest (or if you prefer passion or curiosity). For example, someone who's passionate about football will learn a lot about football - essentially they learn about it because they enjoy taking an interest in it. Anyhow, I've come to the conclusion that anything that doesn't fall into at least one of these two categories people will have trouble learning.

So, for example, you can teach children about the wives of Henry the Eighth until you're blue in the face, but they're probably never going to learn it - as they have no everyday use for it and in all probability no genuine interest in it. The only way they'll maybe learn that stuff is by rote and repetition. Which is a pretty awful way to learn anything really. Certainly not enjoyable. This is why a child will be able to tell you the entire Manchester United first eleven, but not be able to recall a single one of Henry's wives, even though you only taught them it the day before. They're interested in football, but not interested in Tudor monarchs. Sorry.

Anyway, this realisation has led me to the opinion that it's a complete waste of time trying to teach people things they have no interest in or no direct use for. It just doesn't work. In fact, the way children refuse to pick this stuff up is probably a sign that their minds are healthy and in good working order. A healthy mind remembers useful and meaningful stuff and forgets everything else. And of course, what's meaningful and useful to one person isn't necessarily meaningful or useful to another. What use is a mind that remembers every individual blade of grass it's ever seen, or the colour of the front door of every house it's ever walked passed, or every meaningless bit of dialogue it's ever heard on TV? A mind shouldn't be clogged and cluttered with useless and meaningless information. It should concern itself with the practicalities of everyday life and things that its owner finds genuinely interesting, meaningful and entertaining.

Therefore it's wrong to try to force people to learn things they have no interest in. It doesn't work and it's a waste of time. We should just let children learn whatever they want. Let them follow their own interests and curiosities. It's pretty striking really that children are much more aware of the pointlessness of our current education system than adults are. It's like French lessons. Children will often ask "why am I learning French when I don't live in France, Miss?" They usually get censured for asking questions like this, but it's a perfectly logical question to ask. What is the point in learning French if you have no interest in it and you don't know any French people? Why spend countless hours of your life learning something if you get no joy out of it and have no need to know it? I really wish adults would ask pragmatic questions like this as readily as children do.

Even if French lessons actually worked and everybody left school fluent in French what would be the point in this? Why have a country full of people who can speak French? What's the purpose? Why not Russian or Japanese or whatever other language? Either way most people, despite five years of secondary education learning French, can't speak it anyway.

In fact, this last observation generally sums up the entire point of this post. If you look at what knowledge the average person leaves school with it just goes to show that people only learn if there's a genuine passion or a genuine purpose. The average person (and I appreciate there are always people at the extremes that do very well or very poorly) generally leaves education with the ability to read and write - generally to a level that they need/use in everyday life. And they generally leave with basic maths - again, generally to the extent that they need it in everyday life - the ability to count and use money is needed in everyday life - unsurprisingly most people can do this. The ability to use calculus or quadratic equations generally isn't - unsurprisingly most people can't do this.

And that's about it. Basic maths, basic English and a few trinkets and baubles from other lessons. Basically the stuff they actually need in everyday life plus a few other bits and pieces that occasionally aroused their interest - they may vaguely remember, for example, that Henry the Eighth was a cruel dude with six wives or that Victorian Britain was generally a bit grim. In fact, French is a good example of this type of thing actually (sorry to keep picking on French). If you ask the average adult what they remember from French lessons they'll be able to count up to ten or twenty in French, say please, thank you , hello and goodbye, and maybe say one or two other words or phrases. Essentially the stuff they learnt in the first few weeks of doing French before the novelty of speaking in a foreign language wore off.

Anyway, my opinion is that teaching people things they're not interested in is a waste of time. And that therefore the majority of schooling is a waste of time. In fact, it's more than a waste of time. It's actually, in my opinion, doing more damage than good.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Abolish Education: Introduction

This is going to be the first post of a series of posts about education, or rather about why I feel all formal education should be abolished. Quite a grand vision I guess. I suppose I want to be the Thomas Cromwell of modern learning or something. Basically I feel that schools aren't working, aren't making children happy and aren't having a good affect on society generally. This is something I've wanted to write about for a while, but I've never been quite sure what form it should take - book/essay/blog? Or what style I should write it in, so I've kept kicking it into the long grass. Now I just feel it's time to just get it out there in writing. I'm not one hundred percent sure where I'm going with all this so there'll probably be a lot of re-editing, which I don't like doing on a public blog, but it's better than doing nothing. Anyway, here goes - wreck the classroom!

Abolish Education: Why Am I Learning French Miss?

Abolish Education: Photosynthesis

Abolish Education: The Misery Factory

Abolish Education: School Uniforms and Other Forms of Institutional Bullying

Abolish Education: Abolish Homework

Abolish Education: Knowledge and Cultural Snobbery