Some of the problems we face in education are new, but many have a long history and we must consider more comprehensive changes that go beyond individual students and teachers if we want to make any headway. We have to find concrete ways of disentangling ourselves from the past, from assumptions about education that date back to the 16th century.
What exactly changed about education back in the 16th century that was the cause of problems in education today?
How we school people today is for the most part a global system. That system may vary from place to place and its relationship with government, and with parents, also varies. The universal assumption is that education has to do with students moving through a curricula. This idea was framed originally by Peter Ramus, French mathematician and philosopher, back in the late 16th century. Ramus was disappointed by the practice of education at the time which employed what was known as the “studio” approach to education. The studio approach assumed that education stemmed from a long-term apprenticeship and learning personally from a master. Ramus argued eloquently that education needed to be standardized and organized methodologically. He suggested that knowledge could be delivered to students in digestible chunks and that the student could then go through the material in a linear fashion, acquire it systematically, and then be tested and rewarded individually based on his or her demonstrated grasp of the material.
This “curriculum” model of education has been in use for five centuries, and has globally replaced the previously dominant apprenticeship or “studio” approach to education wherein students wanting to gain expertise in practice or area of understanding would commit to an open-ended, potentially lifelong process of engagement with a relevant master. This “studio” approach has fallen by the wayside. In the new curriculum model, education is understood explicitly as terminal—a process that must come to an end. Interestingly, the term “curriculum” comes from the Latin word for a “race course.” So the curriculum model of education is one in which you compete with other students to see who wins—who gets the best grade. Learning becomes entangled with ranking “pupils”—literally, the passive “apertures” through which knowledge is methodically put into action. This approach to education was later applied to further the modern agendas of industrialization, urbanization, and the nation-state building, where it proved quite successful. In connection with this, there also emerged the need for a uniform format for education to meet new demands for a uniformly prepared labor force. All this occurred, of course, in connection with a massive migration of the population from rural areas to cities globally—a process that started in different places at different times, but has gradually been almost universally embraced, dramatically altering our world as a result.
The social transformations that began during the 17th century vastly accelerated in the 19th century. The underlying assumption informing education thereafter was that individuals must be properly trained so that they can in new kinds of (especially industrial) labor that required uniform skills and knowledge. There was a broad convergence among educators on scientific convictions about the uniformity of space and the mathematical representation of reality, and on a constellation of modern values including: universality, autonomy, equality, control and freedom of choice, as well as ideas of precision and predictability drawn from the scientific method. This amounted to an enormous paradigm shift that went “viral”, globally, transforming both intellectual discourse and daily life around the world.
We live with the consequences of that revolution. The curriculum approach to education was very effective at what is was designed to do: produce populations that had standardized common information at their disposal and a standardized set of skills, enabling anyone educated through that system to be easily slotted into the larger political-economic machine. As the workplace and its demands became more uniform, this education system seemed more convincing.
When we ask ourselves how to respond to perceive crises in education, we need to keep this history in mind. A snapshot of the present is not enough. We need a “movie”—a clear sense of how things have come to be the way they are—in order to effectively change the way things are changing. We cannot look at the shortcomings of today’s educational systems as problems for which we can find technical solutions. In fact, what we are facing are quite complex predicaments, where predicaments occur when we are confronted with the presence of conflicts among our own values, aims and interests. Addressing today’s educational predicaments is inseparable from questioning and aptly reorienting a profound social and ideological system that undergirds everything.
Problem-solving requires, first and foremost, that we have an agreed-upon set of conditions within which we can define what a solution would be. But in the case of education today, we do not have that. The educational issues we are facing are interdependent with a complex array of political, social, cultural, aesthetic and technological issues and values. Changing education requires challenging and responding to the entire system of interactions and relations that make our lives possible. Education doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it is part of the fabric of our globally interconnected societies and is affected by all the forces shaping them.
So are we not talking about civilization in that case?
We are talking about the larger complex set of relations among disciplines, among economics, culture and the structure of society, but I hesitate to use the word “civilization” that comes from the Roman idea of civility and implies normative standards of behavior. It was these European standards that were forwarded as “universals” during the colonial period and that are now encompassed in the termas “civilizationand its opposition to what is judged to be “primitive” or “barbaric.”
So yes, in layman’s terms, this is a crisis of “civilization,” but that term is not so helpful. We are talking about a crisis in how we understand human refinement and maturation. Of course we are talking about how we educate people, but behind that question lurks the questions, “what are we educating for?” “What is the purpose of education?” The crux of the matter is found in these questions, which are not anxillary, but primary.
If education is just concerned with producing a workforce for a particular set of markets, then education is quite limited in its potential and—given the rapidity and unpredictability with which markets now change—doomed to failure. That sort of an interpretation of education sells us short. It limits the way we connect citizens and “learning.” It suggests that both learning and living in community are purely instrumental in nature. That, I think, is a terrible precedent to set. Education is, of course, changing. But we are at a global historical point now at which we are facing imperatives to change the way education is changing.
So why is it that education seemed to be working previously, but not appears to have spun off the track?
We can put it this way. The current approach to education worked well in supporting nation-state building and for consolidating national identities—political necessity in the new, geographically-defined, multi-ethnic, and multi-linguistic polities that emerged in the modern era. That process, although quite real in a political sense, was not “natural”; it was a historical invention of modernity. The curriculum approach is effective in creating a uniform sense of identity and the kind of standardized skills and knowledge sets needed for an industrial economy. The fact is, standardized education is very effective in inculcating abilities to solve problems—that is, to work within a predetermined set of constraints to reach an already defined goal. If you want to maintain current practices and values, then standardized education is great.
That model worked well until the middle of the 20th century. But then, as global interdependencies became more extensive and complex, we have been confronted with the onslaught of “reflexive modernization.” We crossed a threshold of interdependence and interpenetration beyond which further industrialization and economic growth force us to confront risks and threats that are in principle unpredictable. You can think of this as a threshold beyond which we can no longer externalize or export the negative consequences of our actions and in which further growth entails greater volatility. And so, although the prevailing development model may result in increasing the production of various public “good,” it will also result in the production of considerable public “bad”—pollution, degraded environments, disrupted communities, political and economic insecurity, and so on.
The fact is, we are not just interdependent in a linear manner, and we are not yet fully aware of the risk we have brought on ourselves, not because of any failures of our industrial, economic and expert systems, but precisely because of their successes. These systems have done exactly what we asked of them in pursuit of a particular set of values and aims. We now live in a world dominated, not by needs for problem-solution, but for predicament-resolution. Yet, the globally dominant paradigm of curriculum-based education is not oriented toward developing the capacities-for and commitments-to predicament resolution. On the contray, industrialized education and thinking will lead us into increasingly unpredictable situations and leave us needing to make responsible decisions without the resources to do so. That is not a comfortable position to be in, to say the least.
We could certainly look at the BP oil spill or the Fukushima Daiichi tragedy as the result of a tragic process of locking into a mindset.
Exactly. To grow our economies, we need energy. But we have already exploited the easy to access energy sources. So we need to drill a mile under the ocean or use nuclear power, knowing that the risks involved can’t even be fully calculated. These kinds of disasters are “costs” of further development, just like labor or financing or market development. In the past, these disasters were relatively local in scope. Now they are not. Climate change forces us to realize that humanity now has the capacity to affect planetary processes. Crossing that technical threshold comes with new responsibilities. If compels us to address the need to cross ethical thresholds as well—something our educations systems have not been geared toward doing.
What do you mean by “export the costs?”
To export, to “externalize,’ the consequences of industrialization is to displace them to some location where they are no longer “problematic” because they have been placed at a geographical distance or cloaked in ideological invisibility. We no longer can just dump pollutants in the river and have the waste products just go down stream and “disappear.” The results of those actions are coming back to haunt us. Similarly, it has been common practice to undermine political problems, to “export” them by creating an underclass that suffers the consequences, but which has no voice and is not participating in the political process. That invisible underclass is a product of modern democracy which defines participation in the narrowest sense: voting for candidates like products every few years.
But these systems are breaking down, not just among societies, but also within them. Recursive dynamics create not only global interdependence, but global interpenetration. The issue becomes, not just one of countries, societies, bumping into each other in diplomacy or trade, we are now internally related. In this new world you cannot simply export the costs associated with doing “business as usual.” Everything reverberates back to the start. There is no empty social space into which those costs can be exported, dumped,in a political social or cultural sense. We must deal now with the costs of the current world system directly, paying as we go.
The unfortunate truth is that many societies around the world, and many groups within those societies have some values in common, but their interests and concerns diverge radically. So the question is, how do you make a decision that balances or sets effective priorities among the political values that operate in a democratic country, like Korea? How can you balance the economic values of continued growth and industrialization, the social values that have to do with family and the education of children and the cultural values that have to do with specificities of Korea. Those concerns in Korea will be quite different from those in a country like the United States. But the dynamics that impact local systems are now global. And that means we need to start a conversation about how we can generate shared resolution—both clarity and commitment—regarding the global challenges we face.
Again, these challenges are not fundamentally technical; they are ethical. They have to do with what we mean by living a good life or having a healthy environment or a flourishing community. How can we make our educational systems responsive to these new global dynamics? How do we actualize the recognition that much of what we should be concerned about in schools is not about transferring technical information, but rather about generating ethical sensibility and a capacity to improvise together, not just about individually solving problems? That creative and ethical approach to education is the only one that can generate the resolution needed to address complex, global predicaments.
Interesting Suggestion as to how we can use creativity and ethics to address these challenges,while moving beyond the obsession with “problem solving” that undermines most reform. On a related topic you have written about at length, what do you feel is the impact of technology on education and perception, in society?
The impact of technology on education is extremely far-reaching. Its impact is not just far-reaching in a global sense, but also in a philosophical sense. I have two sons. One is 32 so he is beyond the formal education system. But the other is just ten years old and he is going into fifth grade. All o of his assignments from school are on the laptop computer issued by the school. His class features a blog to “facilitate communication.” In some ways the approach is exciting and offers new potentials. But this approach to learning is liable to causing a dangerous confusion between information and knowledge.
We are increasingly substituting information acquisition for knowledge development. That policy is extremely dangerous. We live in a world that is changing both rapidly and unpredictably. I think most people would agree with that assessment. Experts on cultural change, political change and technological change argue that the changes we can foresee are not the most important ones. There are some problems that you can predict and for which you can plan. We are not worried about them so much. The challenge is responding to challenges that are unpredictable, especially those to which you must respond quite quickly. If we identify education with the transmission of information, as opposed to the development of knowledge, we are training a generation to react to things, but not to respond thoughtfully. Knowledge is what is required to respond thoughtfully.
According to Gregory Bateson, “information is any difference which makes a difference.” That is to say, anything that happens and triggers some other association is information.. What is important about this definition of information is that it gives us an insight into how information works in the so-called information economy. Ultimately, information that is repeated is no longer informative. To just repeat information, does not help and it certainly is not education. But for a society like our own that is so saturated with information, information is always at our fingertips and can be readily manipulated and disposed of. Thus information has a set lifetime of usefulness for any given individual.
In a society where information is very readily available, you encounter information pollution, what we call “data smog.” The conditions resulting from data smog are like those resulting from atmospheric smog: something that gets in the way of your healthy normal activities. And there are issues of equity involved, If you look at information, you observe that it has a clear lifetime. In science cutting-edge information has a lifetime of about 18 months. After that point, this once-new information ceases being generally informative. It is old. Out of date. On the US Stock exchange the lifetime of information in the narrow sense is more like 18 seconds. If you do not act on new information in 18 seconds, you might as well forget it, you’ll be chasing a trend from the losing end.
By contrast, knowledge is something that develops over time, through repeated encounters, reflection, further action, getting feedback from the situation, responding to that feedback, and making an effort to heighten the quality and effectiveness of your interactions Knowledge is not static. It doesn’t exist in books. It is a the living edge of socially embodied creativity and mindfulness. Perhaps cooking is a good example of knowledge. You cook a meal from a recipe, but that is not the end of the process. You taste what you’ve done, ask others to try it, and then you go back to the kitchen. You remember what you did, make some changes based on the feedback you’ve gotten, and cook the meal again, and again,. Over time, with the right kind of attention to relationships among ingredients and peoples palates, you begin realizing what it takes to get the dish just right. Even if you are cooking a simple dish like bibimpap, to cook it, season it and present it well requires continual engagement. Knowledge is like, that from mathematics to music, to scholarship and sensibility. Information is involved, but it has to be brought to life through attentive, creative and reflective engagement for the knowledge to develop and mature.
Therein lays the difference between knowledge and information. Repetition does not cause the demise of knowledge or make it redundant. Technology confuses the differences between downloading and manipulating songs from the web and the fully embodied actions involved in making or appreciating music. There is a body-mind practice, and a social engagement with a teacher and other musicians that goes into learning to play an instrument in a fuller setting. We are talking about an entirely different process from manipulating information. This difference in learning is not limited to academic learning; rather all forms of learning are impacted. The root of the English word “learn” is the same as the root for “lore”—the shared stories, passed down, altered and enriched from generation to generation. Learning is a process of cultivation—a relational endeavor that results from and results in expanded attentive capacity, maturity and sensitivity. What would it mean for education to be truly aimed at enhancing learning in this sense?
Information is flooding around us because Moore’s law dictates an exponential increase in computing power and that increase in the ability to produce and manipulate information creates institutional and social change with which humans cannot keep up.
That is true, but there are techniques for dealing with information glut and saturation, including basic mindfulness techniques that make it possible to be avoid getting “caught” by specific bits of information, thus losing contact with the “flow” of information and the capacity to affect how that flow is directed. And there are techniques that have been informed by recent research in neuroscience that can aid in information acquisition. Learning involves the entire body-mind, as I said. But if you chew gum when you study, for example, and chew gum during testing, you will perform better on the test than if you didn’t have this biological point of connection between the “learning” and “testing” phases of the process.
Taste, hearing, seeing, smell, touch and cognition are all part of learning, all part of a process of human interaction that defines learning. The more senses and processes we use when learning, the better we will remember. The richer the environment, the richer the stimulation, the better the learning process will be overall.
Working with a computer screen gives us just the visual sense and maybe sound on occasion. It runs on what you might call a very narrow relational bandwidth. The experience is of much lower resolution than what we have when involved in an intense discussion with someone. The on-line context affords great freedoms of choice about who to interact with, for how long, and in way manner. But it is a poor substitute for being present in situations in which we can’t always just opt out—situations in which we have to confront challenges and really improvise.
You can use a computer effectively to train people, to instill a specific behavior, but that is not what we want for our children when they become adults. If we want democracy, we don’t want people trained mechanically to respond in predictable ways. We don’t want people trained to just repeat what they have heard over the media without reflection. And we don’t want them to acquire habits of just “turning off” difficult situations or confusing a life of maximum options with the optimal life. Reflecting on what you learn is far more important than how much you learn.
So what is the ultimate social application of knowledge?
There is the knowledge of “how.” You can know how do to something: how to tie your shoe. And then there is factual knowledge: knowing “that” something exists, or knowing some detail about something. But in addition, there is another form of knowledge: knowing “whether” to do something. That form of knowledge involved in assessing the long-term practical and ethical consequences of our actions. This form of knowledge is also known as wisdom. Wisdom does not come from isolated learning in front of a computer screen where your experiential context—your experienced environment—is strictly a matter of individual choice. Wisdom emerges only in the context of truly “broadband” relational encounters where shared meaning-making is required.
When we look at the impact of technology, we need to focus not just on how using certain tools (for example, televisions, smart phones, computers) impact us as individuals, but on the full spectrum of relational impacts generated by the spread of a given technology. Unlike tools, technologies can’t be put in the closet. They are relational systems. And those relationships everything from those involved in manufacturing and marketing certain tools to the impacts of their use on families and friendships—the ways we engage one another socially, politically and economically. It isthe full spectrum of these relationships that needs to be taken into account assessing a technology and its impacts.
What you say makes sense, but it seems to be so hard for people to consider the differences in the quality of learning, especially those aspects that cannot be readily measured.
We are laboring with conceptual deficit. The vocabulary we use to discuss education does not provide us the vocabulary or the concepts required to address most of the issues I have raised. The current model for education based on classes, credits, courses and grades, operates with the individual student as the unit of analysis. How the individual student performs, measured as an aggregate through statistics, is how we judge success. But we live in an interdependent world in which the relations between people and groups should be a crucial part of education. To try to understand the education process using only terms that refer to the individual is like trying to eat soup with a fork. You can do it, but you will only get the pieces of stuff floating around in the soup; you will not get the essence of what makes it soup, the broth. We need to move to a more relational understanding of education in which the individual is at the center. And we need to move away from the idea of “bodies of knowledge” to something like “ecologies of knowledge.”
Is this not a misconception related to the definition of values in terms of markets, in terms of consumption?
We find that students are now expected to make their own curricular choices and build a customized course of study in college, and often in high school. This sounds “good.” But if you step back and think about it, this is a market system aimed at providing different niches for educational consumers to maximize educational “productivity.” In some ways, this is a good approach in that the process can meet the individual needs of the students. Some choice is undoubtedly better than none. But if we look at this trend philosophically, some of its larger implications are disturbing. We are moving from the ideal of universal education in which everyone is given the same education, toward a model of educational variety in which each person is educated however he or she sees fit. If education is a purely private good, then this is fine; but if education has any public purpose, if education is supposed to create conditions for society to flourish and not just maximize individual self-satisfaction, then we have to retain a sense of the public dimension of education that structurally addresses the aim of strengthening society as a whole.
At a practical level, the student-as-consumer, market approach to education has the liability of transporting the kinds of distributional inequalities that we find in other markets into education—a process by means of which educational equity is seen strictly in terms of the “opportunity” for any individual to “choose” the education he or she wants. But in fact, our choices are constrained. And just as the wealthiest in society can live in the cleanest and most secure environments, eating organic foods and experiencing only the best of what world culture has to offer, there will be a very small sector of society that will get “high end” educations, while the fast majority will be “shopping” at the educational equivalent of Walmart.
But at a deeper level, the market approach to education commits us to a simplistic dichotomy between unification/uniformity (with its connotations of potential coercion) and variation/self-centeredness (and its connotations of freedoms of choice). The term I have adopted to make an oblique cut through that seeming either-or is the notion of “diversity.” As I conceive it, diversity is a relational achievement that occurs when the differences that are present in a given situation are activated as the basis of mutual contribution to sustainably shared flourishing. What I am trying to do with the term “diversity” in terms of redefining education is equivalent to what Einstein did with the terms “space” and “time.” Einstein said, “We are using these terms like “space” and “time” as if they were distinct things, but in fact the world does not work like that. Time and space are interchangeable and they form a network of relations and we need to recognize that fact.”
This concept of diversity is taken out of an encounter with traditions that say that interdependence is basic and relationships are in some sense “prior” to things that are related. If we ask which comes first, the children or the parents, the first reaction is: “of course, the parents come first.” But in actuality, “children” and “parents” emerge together, if at all. What we mean by “son” or “daughter” or “mother” and “father” emerges through the dynamics of ongoing familial relations.
This new concept of diversity—as opposed to mere variety or universality—involves us concerning ourselves not just with how much we differ-from each another, but also and more importantly with how well we are differing-for one another. “Differing-for” suggests consideration for others. It is the first step of leading an ethical life. So also, contributing is not merely about giving something, it is about offering something to that is accepted and appreciated as enhancing an ongoing relationship. That is what education should be about: activating our cognitive, emotional, physical and spiritual differences to realize increasingly robust spaces of mutual contribution.
Please give us some concrete examples of new approaches to education that might be helpful here in Korea.
There is an elementary school in Los Angeles, a public school, that decided they were going to engage in place-based learning. From that day on, everything that they studied, whether math or social sciences, was done locally. They would learn about percentages by going to local businesses and interviewing the people who work there about what they do. They would ask how businesses calculated prices and used percentages in their work.
When students studied food and nutrition, they went to the grocery store to learn. They interviewed people there about how they purchased food, where it came from and how it was processed. They brought in farmers and scientists. So the student’s knowledge was generated through concrete research. They were able to generate knowledge about how the world around them works that will last for a lifetime. They explored their world with the new concepts they learned: how does the bus system work? how are goods distributed? Where does electricity come from and who decides how much it costs?
Learning is not about being told something, or seeing a Powerpoint presentation about the delivers some units of information. We learn through practice and through engaging others. Learning is building a communication network, the value of which is determined by the number of nodes in the network and the quality of contributions being made through each. Learning is not just building new skills or retaining data; it is overcoming our nervousness about talking to strangers and appreciating—at once sympathetically understanding and adding value to–our differences from and for one another. The sum of those activities is a far richer and long-lasting, educational experience.
Perhaps an even more radical approach to education, would be to have some of the student’s evaluation (grade) based on team activities. I think that such an approach to learning can help us get away from this relentless focus on the individual. The advantage of a learning practice that takes into account teams is that, as opposed to curriculum models based on student-to-student competition, this approach can bring cooperation back into learning.
We see little attempts to bring such team work into education these days, but its use is extremely limited. Team learning can be at the core of education with students learning at least as much from each other as from the teacher.
We want the students to engage with each other. The reason is simple: in an information-saturated society what becomes so scarce is attention, not information. We need to reclaim our own attention. For many of us, we do not even know what that means. We need to get young people to reclaim their attention and to use that attention to do something meaningful—to make meaning together. That is true learning—the cultivation of effective wisdom.
So often I hear parents tell kids, “pay attention!” or “you need to pay attention!” But to be completely honest, in most cases the children have no idea what their parents are talking about. Why? Because nothing in the child’s learning experience requires attention. Children are just required to be there to absorb, to consume Concrete examples of real attention building involve moving away from just absorbing information to being apprentices, to being engaged socially, mentally, emotionally and physically in learning. But you cannot achieve that by saying, “pay attention,” but only by investing our attention in practice.
So the question is not so much “what have schools tried that work.” The question is one of going beyond a view of education that is focused on the individual at the expense of the community, of the relations between people. Here is a hard question for us as parents:
What would be required from me in terms of my ideas and the society and culture I inhabit, for me to be able to say,
“OK, I know the whole system needs to be changed, but the system is not going to change overnight. I am not going to manipulate the system for the benefit of my own child, using my privileges to put him or her ahead while knowing that the vast majority of children are going to be left behind because they cannot attend a different school. I am going to fight for institutional change from within my school. I’m going to resist the temptation to take my children out of public school to put them in private schools, and to use the resources saved to struggle with making educational equity—a world in which educations fosters real diversity—a reality for all and not just a dream of future opportunity.”
That approach to education is very hard in Korea where people will invest their life savings on giving their children special advantages. It is hard in the United States where people pay to live in neighborhoods with good schools.
We need education that focuses on relations among students, including all of society. The individual student is important. But relational dynamics are indispensible. None of us would live but for short time in a total vacuum. Real educational change in a world of increasingly global predicaments is change aimed at the transformation of relational quality, not the achievement individually measured information outcomes. Such a shift would not just change our schools, it would have the potential to change our world.