Sunday, February 12, 2017

Thinking about schooling

Direct, unfiltered experience of the universe is overwhelming so we need to filter and reduce our experience to something simpler than its reality. Education is no exception.

How we think about something shapes our understanding of it and our approach to dealing with it. Metaphors can be useful in encapsulating a wide range of ideas, arrangements and activities in a few words. They can make it easier to cope with large scale experiences and to share complex ideas.

At the same time, there are several dangers involved in this approach, including
  • much of our thinking based metaphors is unconscious and erroneous
  • we tend to disregard or overlook the aspects of reality that don't fit our chosen metaphor/paradigm
  • we tend to believe aspects of our metaphor/paradigm are valid, even though in reality they are not

Schooling as "engineering" is not a useful metaphor

Engineering is based on the natural laws that apply to phenomena in which cause and effect are consistent over time, place and object. Unfortunately, no such natural laws can be applied to schooling. In education, cause and effect are not consistent over time, place and person. People are not objects in an engineering sense. 

Schooling as "medicine" is not a useful metaphor

There is a sense in which some aspects of schooling can be thought of as "treatments". However, we do not "hospitalise and treat" whole groups of people uniformly on a daily basis simply based on their age.

The hope for "linearity"

Things are much easier to deal with if they can be dealt with as if they are closed linear systems. 
  • Input => Process => Output
The natural laws on which engineering is based enable us to deal with most physical phenomena as linear systems. In addition, best practices can be readily established, readily duplicated, transferred and scaled.

To a lesser extent, medicine can adopt a similar approach, using surgery, antibiotics and other therapies at the individual level dependent on the starting conditions (the health and well-being of the individual).

Transferring and scaling practices

Education is more like medicine than engineering because the starting conditions (hopes, needs, abilities.. of the student/patient.) are unique to the individual learner, and successful practices can be duplicated and transferred from one situation to other closely matching situations. 

This is not an indication that we can adopt a linear systems approach to schooling. In retrospect, we may be able to identify the steps that led to successful learning by a student but this is not the same as identifying the steps that will lead to successful learning for all students. 

Educational practices do not transfer or scale anywhere near as well as engineering practices.  "Evidence-based practices" are practices that, on the available evidence, have wide, but not universal usefulness if used in the right context in a timely manner. There are no silver bullets!! 

Mandating certain practices is an overly optimistic approach and disruptive.  Mandated practices will be a service to some students, a disservice to others and compromise the professional judgement of teachers. 

Schooling as its own metaphor

Engineering and medicine are their own metaphors. But what about schooling? Historically schools were developed to prepare young people for working in the industrial age. Are schools factories? Most retain many of characteristic of factories.

Does the required attendance of students give schools some of the characteristics of prisons? Governments remove children from the care of their families on a daily basis in order to attend school.

Interventions in schooling

School improvement is often successful but not long lived. Many improvements are dissipated by the next external intervention or change of school leadership. This is because the school is continually constructed and reconstructed in the everyday conversations of those involved.

The represents a wicked problem for governments because their interventions are based on a linear systems view that supports their belief that the required responses to the interventions are readily transferable and scale. But successful educational pratices are complex (emergent, involve self-organisation, situated...) and so do not scale in the way governments hope.

That is,
  • Education is complex, not linear
  • Its processes are individual, situated and emergent so do not transfer easily nor scale
  • Mandated school improvements are disruptive and not a good fit for most schools
  • Successful school improvement initiatives are generally short-lived - they are disrupted by the next initiative

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