Few institutions in our society are subject to as much passion, dissent, and, ultimately, paralysis as education. What is the source of the crisis in education and why does it seem to be so difficult to resolve?

As readers of this blog you won’t be surprised that my answer to both these questions is beliefs.  Whenever you discover dysfunctional behavior—in individuals, organizations, or institutions—you will find beliefs at the source.

To understand the role of beliefs in creating the current crisis in education, let’s look at one widely accepted belief about what education should do: The primary purpose of education is to impart a prescribed amount of information about specific subjects. 

As a result of that belief, we have federal, state and local programs designed to insure that students achieve a minimum level of proficiency (in other words, a minimum amount of information acquired) according to standardized tests.  We rank our country compared to other countries based on scores on standardized tests that measure this.

What happened that initially led most people to accept the belief that a good education can be measured by the amount of information acquired? To answer, we must go back in time.

Compulsory education

When compulsory education was initiated in America over a century ago, its purpose was to prepare people to work in factories. Workers needed to read and write and be able to follow instructions. What a person knew about the world remained true during a lifetime of forty-some years. The amount of new knowledge produced during adult life was minimal. It wasn’t particularly important that one learn how to think independently or creatively.

Given such an environment, it made sense to conclude that there was a certain amount of information needed to succeed in life and that the function of school was to provide that information. The belief about the importance of learning a certain amount of information while in school was not wrong when it was formed. It made perfect sense and was totally appropriate, given the circumstances.   It was the logical outcome of looking at the world as it existed when the belief was formed.

In today’s world, however, “facts” are in a constant state of change.

The amount of new knowledge produced every few years is greater than all the accumulated knowledge to date. The ability to succeed in the business world today (forget succeed—the ability even to get hired!) depends not so much on the quantity of information you know and how well you can follow orders but on your ability to think and act on your own. As Alvin Toffler put it, “The illiterate of the future are not those that cannot read or write, but those that cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Today, people are not only changing jobs several times during their work lives; many of them are changing careers several times. Moreover, it has become increasingly clear that a satisfying life consists of more than business success. It requires a good sense of yourself, the ability to relate well to others, a positive sense of oneself, and lots more.

We need a new set of beliefs about education

The proposal for national standards to measure how much information has been learned in school is consistent with the existing beliefs about what education should be, but those beliefs are no longer appropriate. We need schools that operate consistently with a new sets of beliefs that are appropriate for today,  one that opens the possibility for new educational strategies. There are some schools providing what is needed, but by definition they are “alternative” schools, operating outside the prevailing set of beliefs.

Let’s consider the difference between the “current” set of beliefs and a possible new one that is more appropriate for our time.

Compare the strategies resulting from different beliefs

Notice that the beliefs constituting the existing paradigm generate questions and strategies about how to achieve norms, obedience, and correct answers. The new beliefs lead to questions and strategies about how to motivate for lifelong learning, how to strengthen self-discipline, how to awaken curiosity, and how to encourage creative risk-taking in people of all ages.

Ron Miller, author of What Are Schools For?, describes the essence of this new paradigm:

Holistic educators recognize that all aspects of life are interconnected. They contend that education must be concerned with the physical,  emotional, social, aesthetic/creative, and spiritual qualities of every person, as well as traditionally emphasized intellectual and vocational skills….  In our culture, education is implicitly equated with the transmission of information, particularly through written sources.  But holistic educators have, for two centuries, asserted that education is an active engagement between a person and a vastly complex world. Holistic education emphasizes experience, not “Great Books” or a few “basic skills.” …  Why limit students to a curriculum of academic subjects when the entire cosmos is at hand? Education, as John Dewey so eloquently argued, must not be seen as “preparation” for life—it is life! Education is growth, discovery, and a widening of horizons. This is just the opposite of traditional educational goals—discipline, order, high test scores—that aim to prepare children for the limited world which the adult generation has created.

If this description of an alternative model for education makes sense given today’s world, what educational strategies might we use to improve the educational system? We might focus on learning how to ask the right questions and how to think, rather than on dry facts that are not seen as relevant to one’s life.  We might give students more responsibility for their own learning. We might use more learning experiences outside the classroom. We might relate the information that is taught to each student’s daily life.   We might blend information from different areas together into core curricula so that students learn math when they study art and grammar when they study drama.

Strategies already exist that could solve most of today’s educational problems. What’s missing are the beliefs that would allow us to accept those strategies.

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