Thursday, March 1, 2012

Educational Reform

The Lost Tools of Learning:
Sara Jones, February 2012
This is an essay I was asked to write in my application for the Director position mentioned in a previous post. Interested in your thoughts and in dialoging, especially with professional educators.
Dorothy Sayers explores the mediocrity of modern education in her paper The Lost Tools of Learning. Realizing without the foundational education of how to learn, children become adults knowing facts without any real ability to think and connect ideas and disciplines. By pointing out the failings of modern education by comparing the current theories to classical ideas of education, including the Trivium, Sayers establishes a basic formulation for learning that focuses more on the ability to learn than on any particular subject in the primary years of learning. It is with mastery of how to learn that a student can then begin to focus on subjects, specializing personal education.
The fundamental failing of modern education is the failure of teaching the student to think. Without providing a basic fundamental framework of how to learn, think and obtain information, a student becomes not a thinker, but instead a very well versed Trivial Pursuit player, knowing vast amount of information bits, but having no ability to use understanding of this information to formulate larger principles that takes that information, the concepts of that information, and is able to apply those concepts as they relate or differ from other seemingly non-connected disciplines. By turning from a generalist to a specialist structure of education, a person can become "a master in one field and show no better judgment than his neighbor anywhere else; he remembers what he has learnt, but forgets all together how he learned it." The student, and by proxy, society, loses out on the full benefit of specialization when no connections can be made to a broader understanding. Valuing economy and efficiency toward money making occupation over the value of an education for the sake of understanding and personal growth, the student gains employment but not education. Understanding the limitations of modern theories of education, the natural question becomes an alternate solution.
By looking back to when educational processes produced skilled thinkers, the medieval "scheme of education" offers a viable alternative. The Trivium, from the Latin meaning the three ways or roads, offered a formula to learning that prepared the student for later specialized education of subjects. The Trivium focused on Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric. Breaking down how the student learns into steps, the student develops a structure to learn any subject. The first step, Grammar, is learning the structure and vocabulary of a particular subject. This was learned in context of language, in the classical time, Latin. In this step, regardless of subject, the foundation of the subject was broken down allowing the student to gain understanding in the workings of the subject so as to understand how to use it in the following step. The second step, the dialectic stage, the student then learns how to use the language. In this stage, the student knows the basic units of information and their structure and is now working to use that language, defining terms for others and how to accurately share the known information. Logic, the patterns of information, and Disputations, the ability to organize truths through debate of the patterns of information, are placed in the student’s arsenal. In the third step, Rhetoric, the student having a basic structure to understand information and becoming skilled in how to organize that information to build a larger truth, now would gain the skills to create larger truths, persuading and sharing information in an eloquent way. These three stages are not to be limited to a certain age group or educational level, but instead are continual. Progressional in nature, for a student to become a master of the Rhetoric stage, he must first be master of the Grammar and Dialectic. In mastering all three stages, the student is then able to use the ability of learning and apply that to the subjects he wanted to learn. Having this framework for knowledge, the student is prepared for further study in a particular specialized subject.
In moving from a generalist to specialist focus in their education, the student may focus intently on one or two subjects, while continuing to study on a lesser scale other subjects. Maintaining the rhetoric stage of learning, while simultaneously developing the grammar and dialectic understanding of the particular subject, should not cause the student to see each subject as an isolated item. Instead the focus on this particular subject is balanced with the place the subject fits in the universe at large. The determination of when a student is ready to move from stage to stage is based on the skill of the child. Presenting information to a child to memorize should not be categorized by the child's ability to analyze the information; “What the material is is only of secondary importance." In integrating subjects into the student's education the focus should remain that subjects fit into a structure of learning and not the structure of learning fitting within a particular subject.
Within the boundaries of educational reform, there can be no success for betterment if the student is learning information without a context of how and why to learn at all. Connecting the skill of learning at all to the mastery of a particular subject, in that order is in the long term the only way for education on a public scale to be improved. It becomes necessary for the professional educator to feel less the teacher of subjects and more the teacher of the process of learning. In the end, teachers cannot educate students, but instead can provide students with the skills to educate themselves. It is when the student has the skill set and takes on the responsibility of educating himself that true, long lasting education reform will occur.