A friend of mine who happens to be an expert in educational technology, Jon Madian, sent me an interview in which he committed a mistake very similar to that committed by Seymour Papert, and 99% of those who aspire to improve education: He tries to preach a solution rather than openly advocate for fundamental structural reform. This, for example, is preaching,
“Students, teachers, administrators, and those who support them, like publishers, need to learn from each other.”
There is nothing wrong with encouraging people to learn from each other. But in terms of moving towards the educational goals that Jon and I share, such exhortation will accomplish precisely nothing.
I am completely in agreement with him that learning should be based on autonomy rather than external control and coercion,
Research on how to educate people to solve problems supports something quite different. Daniel Pink lays out the research in his book, Drive. He strongly suggests that autonomy, or choice and purpose, or setting personal goals, is fundamental to engage people in complex tasks, including learning.
But the only way to achieve the great things desired by Montessori, Papert, Pink, Madian, and others who believe that education should be a matter of “lighting a fire, not filling a pail,” is ongoing radical creative destruction by means of allowing education funding to be completely in the control of parents and students.
Thomas Jefferson was perfectly clear about the importance of letting parents, rather than governments, control education:
When a 1780 bill proposed placing education in the hands of state officials he said “If it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council…or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience.”
Our entire statist education system is a Prussian perversion of Jefferson’s dream that was foisted upon us by Horace Mann. (Germany prosecutes, and imprisons, homeschooling families to this day). It has NOTHING to do with Jefferson’s vision of democracy.
It may well be the case that in small communities (less than 1,000 people?), one could manage local schools well by means of elected school boards – if those boards had complete control. This might approximate Jefferson’s notion that the schools be “managed by the parents within each ward.” But creating educational policy at the level of large school districts (Miami-Dade has more than 30,000 teachers), less alone at the state or federal level, so dilutes the connection between parent and school that formal, “objective” accountability measures have become the norm. Even at the level of a school district the size of Miami-Dade, educational policy becomes sound-bites at press conferences. Anything more nuanced is lost.
I expect few parents know much about the school board candidates in Miami-Dade. All they know much about is whether or not their child likes their teacher and is doing well or not. If they are forced to go to a neighborhood school as their only option, there is not even much of an incentive to learn more about education than that. “Accountability” necessarily is some combination of headlines that politically ambitious school board members put out there and the reality of one’s child’s life in the school. Worse yet, the combination of union rules and state and federal policies significantly constrain even thoughtful, well-intentioned school board members and the superintendents that they appoint.
A good analogy for understanding the challenge of transitioning schools from external motivation to internal motivation is to consider the challenge of transitioning a nation from driving on the left side of the road to driving on the right side of the road (but vastly more complex). You can’t create an effective transition by having some of the people do it some of the time sort of: You just end up with head-on collisions over and over again, and everyone concludes that it was a bad idea to change.
I see this as a simple parable for what Diane Ravitch calls “A Century of Failed School Reforms.” For a hundred years, many intellectuals (including most university-based education professors, psychologists, philosophers, etc.) have proposed reforms designed to move the system more towards authentic, self-directed learning. Meanwhile the combination of population growth, school district consolidation, and increased state and federal control were simultaneously creating ever-more bureaucratic educational institutions that have steadily reduced district autonomy, school autonomy, and teacher autonomy. The “head-on collisions,” in terms of wave after wave of failed school reform, have left everyone exhausted and many concluding, sadly, that education really can’t have much of an impact.
May Jon Madian, Seymour Papert, advocates of Montessori, and everyone else who believes in the unlimited potential of education as “lighting a fire rather than filling a pail” join me in forthright advocacy of allowing parents and students the right to choose schools freely, so that they can reward diverse new educational entrepreneurs, some of whom will create the schools of our dreams.