Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Crisis in Education

We are in a multi-crisis world according to experts. Our civilization is in crisis. Civilization is failing because education is also in crisis -a chain of crisis, so to speak-. Values are no longer respected and kids are disoriented. Knowledge is being taken over by specialized skills, and many things that were known and considered the pillars of humanity are being forgotten. Wisdom is obsolete, nobody seeks nowadays to develop his/her soul and to find peace of mind. Habits are battled away by the constant changes and enormous leaps in civilization, i.e., those who learned a set of essential habits to live and appreciate the world as it was don't understand anymore and can't live in the new

state of the world; and those who learned the new set of essential habits can't communicate with those who were living in the old world, and can't understand its richness.

Many explanations account for the decrepitude of education. One of them, the institutionalist approach, states that education is failing because institutions that have the burden of educating children, don't have the appropriate means to fulfill their mission. To solve this problem, pro-instutionnalists think, accordingly to this paradigm, that, in order to help the institutions to fulfill their mission, means must be given to restore their efficiency. Pro-institutionnalists range from conservatives (more books and discipline) to progressivists (new methods and more freedom).

I intend to show here that this solution is missing the point and argue i) that the current organization of education disrupt the mechanisms of education, and ii) that current teaching is too far from the real application of children's (and our's by extension) capacities. Let me say first that I'm not the advocate of "More morals and work at home" school. I think it's besides the point. It's not that parents are doing something wrong, it's that parents can't do anything, because almost everything in the organization of our western society is preventing them to do anything.

Let's begin with the basics. What is education? And what is its purpose? It's the means through which a group of people passes on its habits, its wisdom, its knowledge, its set of values, to the next generation. What are the means? Mainly the means are parenthood, family and group, sports, and formal education (schools, universities… any organized institution that aims to teach some skills and knowledge, whether it's State or privately funded).

1) Parents with no teaching power. 

Who is nowadays carrying out the mission of education? Schooling institutions and sport clubs mostly. And for a few hours per week in the best case, parents. Who's in charge of passing on knowledge? School. Who's in charge now of teaching values? School and sometimes parents. Who's in charge of passing on habits? School, sports and nursery. Who's in charge of nurturing the soul of the kid? I don't know. The Church (whatever it is) if the baby or the child is in a family with religious beliefs.

When we think, when children think nowadays, about physical activities, when we think about teaching physical habits and skills, we think about sports. When we want to see our kids physically active, we enroll them in a dance, kung fu, athletics, wrestling, running, tennis, soccer… class. To us, sports seems to be everything there is to know about physical activities, and associations and clubs are where sport takes place. Kids practice sometimes at home, but the core of the training is in the club. Yet, what do we learn in sports? Rules. The importance of performance and winning. Work out. There is no denying it, sport is no physical education. Children don't learn how to move efficiently, why solidarity is important for physical activity and its aims, how to avoid and treat injuries, how to breath correctly, how to defend themselves, etc. My point is that sport claims to be the best way to be active today, and yet it's a poor way to physical activity. Moreover, another problem arises from the fact that it claims to be the only way to physical fitness, and the fact that sport is elitist. Sport's purpose is to select the best achieving person in a highly specialized movement pattern (the fosbury flop, catching a ball, etc) and use them to win. Because winning is always the goal in sports, sport clubs need the bests to win (whatever the prize is, from money to fame or the pride of being better than others). This is why children and people of "average levels" according to their standards are excluded rapidly. And since sport is considered to be the only way to health, strength, and fitness, the left-out are quickly out of shape, not knowing what to do as a physical activity. So the problem with sports is not that it's not fulfilling its purpose. It's that it's doing that too well; that most children and adults are transformed as mere passive watchers, with no idea whatsoever about physical education; that parents, thinking that there is nothing else in physical activities than sports, don't get involved in physical education. They don't get their chance. And that is how some human knowledge, values and habits, disappear. Ending some of the most the basic features of human education.  

At school, children learn the abc, the basics of calculus, history, geography, anatomy, evolution, religion, elements of biology, drawing, painting, modeling, physics, technology, philosophy, etc. Even morality is taught at school. Lots of topics of human knowledge are covered at school. Out of school, children are doing something for school (an essay, a translation, a show and tell, etc). School seems to be their alpha and omega. But let's do some analogy reasoning. Who's in charge of the education of a cub? His/her mother and the tribe. What do they teach ? They teach the cub how to hunt, how to feed, how to kill, how to find and recognize a prey, how to play, how to dig the teeth in the flesh and tear it, how to find water, etc. Anything that is valuable to live as a lion. Of course, all these capacities are instincts and grounded as capacities in any cub. But who's in charge of helping the development of the instincts? Who's in charge of sharpening the use of the capacities? The tribe and the mother. Now who's in charge of the education of a baby-bonobo? His/her mother and the tribe. What do they teach? They teach the BB how to brachiate, how to behave with others, how to find the fruits and leaves its need, how to hunt the small animals it needs, how to be oriented in a forest habitat, etc. Anything that is valuable to live as a bonobo. BB's capacities are all instinctual, but tribe and family share the task of sharpening the instincts and the use of BB capacities. And who was in charge of the education of a human baby, 70 000, 9 000, 2000, a few hundreds years ago? Family and tribe. They taught the HB what he/she needed and anything that was valuable to live as a human. Now, I know what you are thinking: this only an analogy argument. It's not because something is or was in a certain way, that it must be that way. Certainly not, I agree. And yet I can't help thinking there is a benefit in the process, because inherited and selected features are in the game. E.g., the fact of presenting some face features as a baby and child, and the disposition of parents of considering this features as an input, of interpreting them as "being cute", entailing the output of care and love of parents and of close people. Other traits are also involved but I can't list them all here. There is no denying it, some traits are made for obtaining a response of love and care from parents, facilitating the educative process. Cubs, bonobos possess these traits and disposition to interpret them. Why not humans?

So what's wrong with schooling institutions? First, they're doing the job the child expects the parents and the close group to do. Consequences? Children are expecting to learn many things from their parents. Instead, they are left with people they know nothing about, that have no importance for them, that they will forget, and that they will never see again. Anonymity seems the rule of the educative process now. Second, they're not teaching what's essential to live as humans and the basics of life. The bound uniting humans, parents and children is dissolved, and the link of human knowledge, values, habits and wisdom, has been replaced by expertise knowledge. Indeed, we're not educating children, teaching them to be adults, we're turning them into lawyer, physician, electrician, philosopher, or plumber. Education has been transformed into functionalization: children learn how to get a function in the society they live in. As such, they will learn to familiarize with an input (for example, a problem in civilian life), learn how to process the input (using civil laws), and produce an output (an application of an appropriate law). From this, they will get a reward (money, social capital, etc) and provide great and useful services to everyone. But that's not what education is about. Education is not about our function, it's about who and what we are. And that's exactly what schooling education is doing wrong: it's turning its back on human education, opening its arms to social functionalization, and breaking the link of human education by preventing parents to share their knowledge, habits, values and wisdom to their children. Who would want to ask for more?

Let me get some things straight. First I'm not an advocate of the caveman politics (macho, sexist and stuff) portrayed sometimes, as some may think I am. I'm husband at home, I'm the one doing the domestic chores and taking care of my children and yet I'm not a woman and I don't have any problem with this. We're doing fine, thank you. As I said: the job THE CHILD EXPECTS THE PARENTS and the close GROUP to do (i.e., not "the job the mother is supposed to do"). I'm not for the time being showing a solution to problem, I'm just showing why a set of interpretation-of-a-problem+solution isn't working. Meaning I'm not an advocate of the solution where one member of the family (a lonely mother for example, while the father is far away making crazy money and suffering from an eternal jet lag) raises alone the child. It's too hard for the child and the parent, and not efficient (because the member of the family "in charge" of education is compelled to ask for the help from institutions, there is no other solution nowadays, with its inherent limitations). Second, I have nothing against functionalization in itself and I don't want to go back to the paleolithic (I'm fond of up-to-date technology, and at peace up to some point with the world I live in). From my point of view, the problem with functionalization arises only when the ratio between education and functionalization becomes too much in favor of functionalization. Third, don't give me the cultural argument crap. Yes I know, human cultures have differences between each other, and that differences may affect the material that is passed on and the way it is from one generation to the other. But it's besides the point.

So the answer may be: let the parents and the close group take care of the children. But no, we can't! Why? First, because schools and sports have incapacitated potential parents. Since school and sports claim to give anything there is to do, care about, and know, and have act accordingly since many generations, potential parents have forgotten what is essential for humans (basics skills and knowledge, physical education, development of the soul), having succumbed to functionalization and overspecialization in sport. Second, because of the organization of our society, many couples with children live in cities, where family and close friends and members of the group are… not that close. They are away, maybe in another country. They don't form a unified unity. They are individuals, that sometimes share a moment together. But the children expect the family and the group, not one person, to educate them, to teach what is worth knowing and doing as humans. The social group is in a way dissolved, and parents find they are unable to carry out alone education. Thus parents leave their children at school and sports' clubs, thinking that they're doing the best they can for their children. With the best intentions. That's how human civilization is failing.

I'm not finished yet. There is another point about the kind of knowledge and know-how children are getting from school and sports.

2) Children not getting the informations they expect and need.

Remember the distinction between proper and actual domain of a module in Dan Sperber's theory of mind? This distinction, applied to capacities in general, may be crucial. To any capacity, there is a bounded domain of stimuli that will trigger an automatic and appropriate response. The proper domain consists in the set of stimulus that it is the capacity's biological function to process, and the actual domain is all the information in the environment that may satisfy the capacity's input conditions (See Sperber 1994) and trigger an output, a response.

What sports do? Basically, a sport isolates one capacity and stimulates it with a certain movement pattern. Think about baseball. A catcher, a thrower, and a beater. Think about athletics. A fast runner, a long-distance runner, a thrower of sticks, a thrower of ball, a jumper. Think about soccer. A catcher, a player with a ball at his feet. No need to continue, you get the picture. 

So what's wrong? First, they focus on one capacity only and isolate it from the rest. Do you think we're good because we are experts at one thing? Because we are able to do a fosbury flop? Do you think we survived because we're great at one thing? Well let's see. Compare to a cheetah, the fastest human is really slow. Compare to the most average chimp, the best gymnast looks like a clumsy amateur. Compare to migratory birds, the best long-distance runner is really slow and non-endurant. We don't have any absolute extraordinary capacity. But we're okay at many things. That's how we survived (among other things). When hunted by felines, we could brachiate. When hunted by brachiators or species with good climbing capacities, we could run fast. What's the point of doing one thing when our strength is that we are diversified? You want to know the result of sports? Overspecialized people at one physical movement who are basically unfit (yes, most of them are suffering from inflammations, injuries, asthma…). Weird, no? Second, sports, compare to physical activities, with actual/proper domains distinction as a background, is like being fond of chocolate and having a sweet tooth. Seeing a fruit and wanting to eat it is a normal response; indeed, a fruit belongs to the proper domain of recognition of food's capacity. We need our liver to be full of carbs to be able to run fast if we're attacked, so we developed the capacity to recognize edible food with high sugar material, and the trait spread because it was beneficial (I'm not making this up, there are studies backing this up). Wanting to eat chocolate all day is a gross distortion of the recognition of food capacity. Chocolate triggers the response because it's food, but the capacity was never built for it. Consequences: eat chocolate all day, your liver will be intoxicated and you'll be sick. Sports is exactly like this, a trigger to some capacities that were never built for it, that is intoxicating for your body. We were built to jump, not to do the perfect fosbury flop. Wanting to run when the terrain is smooth is a normal response. Wanting to climb into some trees in a forest, or a pole in a city is a normal response. Interactions with the environment is the keyword of physical activity. But repeating over and over the same physical move is an abnormality. Do a fosbury flop again and again and you'll end up with overuse injuries and lack of balance in structure and capacities. We were built to be physically active in general, not to be super-expert in one movement. Furthermore, Sports creeps on our need to play to instill the need of victory. Soon, performance takes over pleasure; finding the weaknesses in others, and winning something is all the sudden all that matters. And it's not what children are expecting from their parents, it's no real physical education, no value system. It's not useful. Not functional. Body awareness is completely out of question. Pain is something that athletes don't know what to do with, they ignore the best system we have about our health by taking "Vitamin I" (i.e. non steroidal ibuprofen). And pleasure is out of the picture. Incredible. Serena Williams, one the best tennis player in the world, doesn't like to play tennis. It's something, isn't it? Sports uses the body without involving the body. But an involved body is exactly what any child needs. (And any adult, for that matter.)

What about school then? Is there also something wrong with school? From my point of view, school is exactly like sports: a trigger to some capacities that were never built for it, which provokes, from overuse, dysfunctions. Memory, reasoning, focus, ability to build artifacts, creativity, ability to count, read, etc. Is school disregarding the effects of what it does? Take visual capacity (I borrow this example to Forencich, in Exuberant Animals). Do you think it's been built to be focused on one small thing all day long (a book, a screen)? No of course. Why do you think we always have to look at the window sometimes? Because that's exactly why it's been built for. Scan the big picture and focus. Scan and focus. Have you see any animals eating recently? Focus on food, scan the environment to see if there is no predators or challengers. Focus on food, scan the environment. So focus on the screen then scan. If not, the ability to scan in the visual capacity will atrophy and stress will build up in the body, because there is no verification of the environment. Another example. What about the ability to make sounds, the voice ability. At school, they learn to talk nicely and quietly. It's really impressive. But leave children alone in a class for 5 minutes, and they will scream, cry of joy or pain, mimic animals or adults or friends, sing, whisper… Chaos in the room. We say that we can't allow this at school or no teaching will be possible, that they should do that at home. But what do we do at home? "Be quiet. Shut up. You're too loud. Don't scream…" We just don't allow them to explore the whole range of the voice ability. And yet voicing and expressing are the most primal and useful things in humanity. It comes along birth, death, celebration of life, and everything that matters in life or survival (it increases rate of success in hunting of certain tribes who mimic with their voices animals' screams to get their attention and get them closer to hunters). I'm already picturing the teacher saying: it's not practically achievable. Well, first, children are not made to make the life of teachers easy (I know I'm one them, I mean a child and a teacher). Second, it's a basic skill. If not sharpened and explored, we just talk, and use this ability without really training it and involving the whole range of its capacity. Another example, with a less eccentric capacity for Westerners. Reasoning. Most tasks at school consist in finding the correct answer to a question: mathematics as they are taught are the paradigm of this attitude, but they are not alone. In literature, you'll have to find the right name of the figure of speech, the right structure of the text, the right way to spell the name, etc. It's called convergent reasoning (expression coined by Joy Paul Guilford). I always find this extraordinary that children are able to find the right answer most of the time. Because teachers never explain the basic rules of reasoning or the basic rules of argumentation. They just apply innate capacities. That's what school is: application of a small range of capacities without training. Even reasoning is far more complex than that. What about divergent thinking? What about the ground of fallacious reasoning? Mapping? Intuition? Metaknowledge? Hypotheses building? Conclusion, schooling institutions treat capacities like sport clubs do. At school, we apply and use capacities, but we don't train them, refined them, we're not considering the capacities for their own sake. Contrary to what conservatives believe, children don't need to spend more time on books. They need to be able to distinguish between capacities, and to apply them with efficiency and smoothly. Children needs their intellectual capacities and instincts to be sharpened, not loaded or used blindly without any guiding.

Schooling institutions and sports claim to teach valuable things to children. They just miss the point. They hypertrophy capacities while leaving other capacities to atrophy, and induce dysfunctions from overuse and ill-guided use. They just use capacities with stimuli that they were not built to take care of, without training them for their own sake. In one word, the main means of education are not fulfilling their purpose, and, more importantly, it was not the purpose of schooling and sports institutions to do educate, because functionalization and specialization is their primarily role. So the current situation is the following: children spend most of their time at school and sport clubs, and parents think that children are getting what they need at school and sport clubs; but children don't get what they need from school and sports clubs, which weren't built to offer what they need anyway ; children expect wisdom, knowledge, habits, and values from parents, and yet parents, because they also spent most of their time, when they were youngster, at school and in sport clubs, don't know how to train properly children's capacities. So who's doing the job? Who's educating the children? Nobody.

That's the hell of a crisis.

Remember, there is more to education that learning how to get a job.

BBC. Human Planet. Jungles.

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