What was the one thing you always wanted?
I must admit that this is probably the most difficult question for me to answer, not because I don’t know the answer — it’s obvious and anyone who’s known me for more than a few minutes will know the answer, too. It’s that it sounds so artificial and performed. I’ve never had the kind of desire that other people say is normal and human. I don’t want people or sex or pleasure or even companionship. I will accept people on occasion and companionship when I feel up to it, which is rarely. But the one thing that I’ve always wanted was a classroom. I don’t just mean to become a teacher but to have a classroom of my own in which I could create the environment, make the decisions on how to teach, what to teach, the way classes would be structured and how evaluation would take place.
In an age where this is not at all what teaching is, I feel more and more that my one dream is staggeringly out of reach most of the time. There was a time when education was about taking a series of things that was important for students to know and understand, giving that list to a teacher and, sometimes with some general guidance, telling the teacher to use their expertise to make sure that the students in the class possessed that information. Those days are now long gone.
With the advent of required hard-copy lesson planning, segment-by-segment guidelines for how to teach individual topics, classroom materials prepared by government departments or by the school’s topic-specific specialists (from worksheets to sample instructional tools to powerpoint slides, as if teaching from a powerpoint was ever going to be a sensible approach in a classroom unless you are both incompetent and visually obsessive), the days of teacher autonomy have completely come to an end.
What is the result of all of this? Simply put, we have made education teacher-proof. It’s not necessary for the teacher to know anything about the subject, know anything about teaching or, in general, know anything. It’s no longer even necessary for the teacher to speak the language or do anything other than provide behavioral management in the room. The class can simply get on with the lesson while the teacher sits at their desk and quietly meditates on the meaning of life — or paychecks.
People say to me that it’s a good thing that students are getting a standardized education and that we can now expect that all students have never been left out because of having a bad teacher or that everyone has achieved a particular level and that is wonderful. And in some ways, I can see how that might be the case. But the level that we are now allowing students to consider “achievement” in a course is so incredibly low that by the time they finish high school, it is highly unlikely that students will be capable of much beyond the level of tying their own shoes and knowing which direction is up.
Making sure that every student is capable of a particular level of expertise in all subjects is incredibly important. Eliminating the role of the individual teacher is certainly not going to solve the problem, though. But there’s a far larger problem than that. Students will, generally speaking, live up to expectations. If we have intensely low expectations, students will absolutely live up to them. Why is western education without exception abysmal? With every passing decade — and every passing year in many cases — we lower the achievement standard in schools. Students giving the same answers on the SATs, once seen as the real benchmark for academic excellence before entering post-secondary, are now given higher scores than their parents and grandparents received. We are told a story about the rise of the knowledge economy but it appears we are selling knowledge all too cheaply.
Why has the world not completely collapsed if we are training generations of uninformed and disinterested graduates? Two reasons. One is that the people who are out there expecting others to have a certain level of knowledge are well aware of the level that they might possess and are unlikely to ask them to perform better than that. How has that happened out there in the wild where teachers aren’t the majority and people aren’t really told any of this? The process has been gradual and the reduction of standards in the classroom has meant that as new students graduate, the people who have graduated in the years previously are similarly uninformed and, as they are older and more experienced in the world, they don’t expect the new graduates to have the same level of knowledge that they possess — it’s a downward spiral where expectation follows experience and experience begets expectations for the future. If you ask a group of people for an answer and get nothing but intellectual excrement in return, you’re unlike to ask the same question again without expecting the same answer and that is, indeed, exactly what you will receive.
The second reason is that, while this is a world nearly completely lacking in knowledge within the heads of the general public, specialist knowledge is at an all time high in a very small minority of the population. While the educated elite has always been a minority, there has never been such a gulf between those who have received a high school or undergraduate education and those who actually possess some real learning about a topic. Why does that matter? In a word, Wikipedia.
You know and I know that if there is something that we don’t know anything about, ten minutes and a few taps on our phones and we will be able to sound like an expert to anyone other than an actual expert in the field. Don’t know anything about Etruscan pottery? Ask the internet. Need to have a conversation about American immigration policy? Ask the internet. While there is an intensely overwhelming quantity of fake news out there, there are some places that are surprisingly good at moderating the quality of their articles and Wikipedia is a deity in the world of online fiction. While there are many articles that are subpar, the overall understanding possible from reading a few pages of an article on almost any topic is so much higher than a typical student would possess after an hour or two of class time on that subject, it is staggering to comprehend that this shift has come about completely during my lifetime — in fact, during the second half of my lifetime, to be more accurate. During the time that I have been an adult, the shift has occurred where reference books and trips to the library to investigate basic questions has been replaced with keyword searches on devices that were science fiction when I was a teenager. And in case you’re wondering, I’m not really all that old.
So we have a knowledge economy, they tell me. Actually, we have an absence-of-knowledge economy. Most jobs require you not just not to have any particular knowledge about anything — you can do them far better if you have no knowledge about anything in general and the topic of the job in particular. The more you know, the more they want you to unlearn and teach you in a different way. Knowledge isn’t the price of admission anymore. You used to get a job based on what you knew. The price of admission now is train-ability. How quickly and thoroughly you can become indoctrinated.
That’s not a surprising result, of course. The school system has moved from teaching knowledge to teaching understanding. And that’s exactly what it should have done — in a world where knowledge is free and freely available in an instant, the only thing that needs to be there for knowledge is an awareness of how and where to look for it. Need to know the names of all the member states of the UN? Look it up. Need to know the constituent chemicals of petroleum distillates? Look it up. You’ll know in less time than it would take an expert to list them off and that is plenty fast enough for any use. Not to mention, the internet doesn’t have a bad day or make mistakes because it had trouble sleeping the night before. So we don’t need memorized knowledge, as the entire wealth of human discovery is there for the accessing twenty-four hours a day to everyone.
This sounds like praise for the shift. And it would be, if there had been a shift. We have moved from teaching knowledge to not teaching anything. The theory is that we would be able to access that information in realtime, as we do in the real world, in class. But we don’t actually let students do that. We still test them on knowledge that they can acquire without any effort — and then wonder why they no longer have it memorized. Not only is there no benefit to it, there’s no practical side effect of having to repeat it endlessly in a search to see it that would automatically translate into at least partial memorization. If you have to keep working at seeing something, you will gradually learn it by rote. If you can get it any time you want, seeing it a thousand times is unlikely to imprint it into your memory.
We should be teaching students how to understand the information but we don’t do it. Teachers aren’t particularly to blame for this, I must add. Teachers must indeed shoulder the blame for certain problems in our modern education system but I would suggest that this isn’t one of those things. I know many teachers who would love to open up class to students using all the real-world aids they can have — using a phone or tablet in class, for example, shouldn’t be something that we try to stop but something that we encourage. We should be teaching students how to function in a world where electronic communication is not just the norm but realistically the only form of communication that exists in much of life. We should be teaching how to merge the life of in-person, vocal communication with using technology to acquire knowledge and then to apply that knowledge to the situation at hand. Is it any wonder that students go home and spend their lives holding their phones and have no idea that it’s rude not to actually speak to the person next to them? Where would they learn this if not in school? We’re no longer training students for the world around them. We’re training students for the world of the nineteen-eighties. And as much as I miss my childhood in that decade, that’s not where we are today and the world doesn’t work either at that speed or in that analog reality anymore.
Who’s to blame for that? New curriculum has become an exercise in pandering to special interests, trying to be sensitive to differences (which of course we should be) but instead of doing it well, it’s meant minimizing information and knowledge to such an extent that you can graduate from high school or finish an undergraduate degree with so little actual knowledge or understanding — realistically, if you can’t pass any test or examination with the information that you can find in ten minutes on the internet, I would be amazed. I have yet to see any course that wouldn’t be easily completed by someone with access to the internet and a vague notion of how to keep that information in their mind for a day or two. We have raised standardization to an obsession and lowered the bar to the point that everyone can step over it without even having to try.
This is not a mistake that has been made universally. Chinese, Japanese and South-Korean education systems, while certainly not perfect, have raised their standards while those in the west have dramatically lowered theirs. Those same countries have made their education systems more generalization-friendly at the high school level, making students understand a larger range of things, now that specific knowledge is no longer necessary to be memorized, allowing people to, in general, have a higher level of applied intelligence in the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, the education system in the United Kingdom, for example, is still stuck not in the twentieth century but the nineteenth, where rote learning is king, technology is banned from the classroom except for teaching tools (what exactly is the point of a smart board unless you are beyond incompetent and need dancing pictures to get students to understand fractions and the placement of lines on a map?). Specialization at a young age has made students in the UK some of the least educated in the world and the university system following from that useless high school graduation is just as ridiculous — for a system intended to create universal knowledge, a general education for all, given its name “university”, high degrees of specialization mean that those who do go on to finish an undergraduate degree in that country have highly specialized knowledge in a very tiny area and possess no ability to even have a conversation about anything else. Not that the level of knowledge in the specialized area is particularly high but even looking at a country with a deplorable secondary education system like the United States or Canada, which has fully embraced the teacher-redundant prescriptive curriculum model, at least university education includes enough general education that graduates of undergraduate programs are well-rounded and capable of intelligent conversation in a variety of areas of life.
That may sound rather curious as a problem and being able to speak intelligently about things may not appear to be a hugely desirable trait to you but it is making itself felt in western Europe in particular of late. People can’t communicate with each other. Someone who acquired a math degree can’t have a conversation about anything beyond the weather with someone who got an English degree. Not because these two people are stupid but because they simply have no overlap in their knowledge. Students love specialization because it means they don’t have to take anything they’re not interested in. It’s not until long after that they realize they simply lack any understanding of the world around them except in a very small, concentrated direction. People no longer feel a connection to each other — violence is on the rise, hatred abounds, nationalism, tribalism and segregation are rearing their ugly heads in a way that would make Hitler and Mussolini sit up and clap (or salute, perhaps) for the first time since the forties. If you don’t share any understanding with the people around you, they’re “other” and that’s to be feared, to be hated and to be fought against. If you can’t think of an example of this, take a look at the election of Trump in the United States or multiple right-wing elections across Europe (or the Brexit phenomenon in the UK, to be more specific in a European context). People don’t share anything with people of another political bent and that means they can’t come together — not for anything.
Teacher autonomy breeds a variety of approaches to learning, student-driven teaching and mutual understanding. If every teacher you encounter in your life has a different style, a different approach, not every one of them will be the optimal for you but some of them will reach you where you are and, for the others, you will strive to get there to meet them where they are. Not every teacher will be excellent but to solve that problem is to improve teacher training, teacher evaluation, increase teacher pay to attract the most intelligent people into academic roles (teachers are paid less now in terms of actual buying power than they have ever been paid in the history of record keeping for standard salaries in all western countries — even compared to salaries in the Great Depression or during the World Wars!). We do need a higher standard of education and to get that, we can either rely on technology or rely on having better teachers. It is obvious which direction the western world is heading on that but I would suggest that this is a horrendous mistake and will come back to bite this society in the ass — and it won’t take generations to do so. Education in China, Japan, India and various other countries in what is often grouped as “the east” is becoming more demanding and more rewarding. These are the countries that are beginning to dominate production and economic power in the first half of the twenty-first century and that is a trend that is going to continue unless education in the west catches up. I’m certainly not suggesting that western nations deserve to be dominant in these areas but, at this rate, Europe and North America are going to see their economies crushed in short order by Chinese and Indian market domination and it is no more correct for the power to lie only in that area, either.
So I dream of a classroom of my own. Relatively complete autonomy to achieve prescribed minimum goals and to extend those goals as far as my students are capable of progressing. To create and teach, to mold new minds to be as intelligent and capable and creative as they have the potential to be. It’s a beautiful dream and I hope someday I will feel like it has the possibility of coming true. For now, all I can do is hope that I will be able to escape a system of public education that no longer values education and whose society is hell-bent on eliminating understanding, knowledge and intelligence as virtues, relegating them to the status of disgust (listen to one of Trump’s speeches in which he references “averageness” as opposed to “intelligence” and you’ll know what I mean). Perhaps wishes someday do come true. I’ll stick to university education for the moment, where I can at least have an impact on student learning and really teach people some things. My father was a high school teacher before making the leap after retirement into post-secondary education and I can only imagine what dreams he had for a classroom when he was little, still thinking of becoming a teacher. At his feet, I learned the importance of education, of working hard to be an intelligent person and be able not simply to have knowledge and understanding but to see it as your duty to share and inspire those things in others. In the age of the automaton-teacher, there’s no longer a place for real teachers life my father in the school system and it is, without doubt, a far sadder place and a far more lacking world for its loss.