Back to School
Let’s talk about school. I hated it. I think a good portion of us did, especially if you, like me, went through the American public school system. It was boring and dull, and though I wasn’t bullied or harassed, I didn’t gain any useful social skills out of it, either. Fortunately for future generations, there are new schooling methods on the horizon, some of which could cause massive changes in our society.
The current standard schooling model was developed in the 1800s, to give a minimum education to every child and turn them into healthy, obedient factory workers. I’ve heard the model originated in Prussia; I know more about the Victorian English version, which also produced good workers and was championed by religious reformers who were horrified by the thought of poor children growing up in a Godless wasteland because they couldn’t read the Bible.
Wherever our current schooling model originated, or why, it’s apparent that the model works best for average children. That only makes sense. The originators had to come up with a standard, so they chose one that worked for the pupils clustered in the center of the intellectual bell curve, allowing a majority of children to get an okay-ish education. So children are placed in classes with everyone else of the same age and are taught at the speed of the average child, or a little slower, on the theory that it won’t hurt the smart kids and will be successful in teaching an extra few of the slower ones.
That’s the standard, and while it’s allowed nearly everyone in the Western world to acquire the basic of reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, it’s terrible for anyone at the ends of the bell curve, or even people who are a little above average. Anyone wonder why girls are doing better in school than boys? It’s not only an effect of feminism; it’s partly because boys tend to cluster at the ends of the intellectual bell curve (more geniuses and more morons) and girls tend to cluster near the middle, so the ‘teach to the average kid’ model catches fewer of the boys.
It leaves a portion of the girls out in the cold, too. I always brought a book to class, from the time I could read, because I was likely to finish an assignment before most of the other kids and would have had to sit and do nothing for twenty minutes while everyone else was still working. Most of my reading material consisted of small paperback fiction because it was easy to carry around. I love fiction; it’s a wonderful way to duck into someone else’s life without getting arrested for voyeurism. But my time would have been far better spent in actually learning something. The teachers didn’t care what I was reading, as long as I was quiet- I tested this theory by bringing bodice rippers to my high school classes, and was a bit disappointed when no one commented.
Anyway, the point is that classroom schooling is a giant waste of time for a lot of kids. Public school is more like a prison nowadays, with metal detectors, punishments for being out of bounds- even if you’re not disturbing anything!- and feral children masquerading as students.
There are a few ways to improve the situation. Charter schools and school choice force public schools to offer a decent education, lest they lose all of their students. Allowing kids to take classes outside their age group is also helpful- dual college/high school programs are the usual example, but a small elementary school could- with a little effort- schedule lessons in such a way that a kid who really likes say, math, could be bumped up to the next class for math time only.
But I’m more interested in major changes to the entire system of education. Homeschooling is becoming more acceptable, along with homeschool variants like online schools. And technology is improving to meet the needs of consumers.
I’ve been thinking about the ins and outs of homeschooling for a while (I don’t have kids yet, and I’m determined that they won’t set foot in a public school classroom until high school, if ever), but this post was sparked by a talk about gardening, of all things. Recently I attended a meeting for patrons of the county agricultural extension center, and the guest speaker talked about the ways in which the Master Gardener program was using online lectures to change the way they teach.
The Master Gardener program is what it sounds like- a series of classes on soil science, entomology, plant diseases, and other horticultural subjects. This particular program runs for sixteen weeks, once a week, so it was previously limited to retirees and people who could take an entire day off work for four months at a time. Students sat in a classroom and listened to lectures for eight hours a day, with an occasional break for hands-on work.
Last year, they began using an online resource called Blackboard. Course content, including powerpoint slides, useful links, and audio recordings of lectures, is uploaded to the Blackboard site, and the students can use it at their leisure.
To be sure, a gardening class requires some in-class time for things like insect identification and plant diagnostics, but not all classes are like that. My question for the speaker was, how will the proliferation of online classes change how we educate our children? Her answer focused more on the advantages of online university and I, being me, started extrapolating that toward the education of younger children.
Online classroom technology is not new. I used it in college, a few years ago, and while I didn’t find it overly helpful, the technology is improving. My experience was limited to submitting assignments and checking the syllabus to see if I could skip class because we weren’t learning anything important that week- which is an entirely separate topic, worthy of its own post.
Leaving my personal experiences aside, I can see how online education is likely to introduce massive changes into the way we teach our children. For starters, education will be cheaper, because the instructor can record a lecture and offer it to more than one class, so the cost of giving the lecture is spread out over more students. There will be no school building to heat and maintain, because the kids will be at home. Any bullying will be done in a public forum, not hidden from the teacher’s eyes, and there will be no way for one kid to physically beat up another. Kids will be able to learn as fast as they choose, listening to one lecture a day, or five. As long as they complete their assignments, the teacher won’t know if they’re reading a book in between lectures or taking another class.
Combine these advantages with an economy increasingly geared toward telecommuting, and it’s not hard to envision a future in which one or both parents work at home, supervising their children’s education at a level that we haven’t seen since before the industrial revolution. Children of all abilities could finish their education faster and move on to productive work, because they’re not wasting time waiting for the rest of the class to finish each assignment. It’s reasonable to imagine a future in which most kids will begin structured online classes around the age of five and finish a high school education around fifteen. Add another three years for college if they choose (also accelerated with help from online classes), and you have an eighteen year old who has a bachelor’s degree, no debt, and a strong work ethic developed from years of having control over his education. Widespread online schooling could be the antidote to the prolonged adolescence so prevalent in modern western culture.
This future isn’t perfectly rosy, of course. Kids need some face to face interaction with their peers, or it’s likely that they’ll begin to see other people as ‘talking heads in a box’, aside from their parents and siblings. Online interaction is better than nothing, but it can give a very photoshopped view of another person, and kids who only interact with other kids online will be in for a rude awakening when they meet their friends in person and discover that, no, this other person is not the same as they portray themselves online. Even people who try to be honest online look different in real life.
So parents will need to find in-person activities for their kids, like sports, theater, scouting, robotics, 4-H/FFA- there are a zillion non-school activities that, by their very nature, can’t be shifted to online only. Families will find ways of keeping their kids active, unless the parents are determined to emulate those homeschool horror stories, where the kid finishes his lessons and is sent to his room to stare at the wall- has anyone ever actually encountered this situation, unaccompanied by other abuse?
No matter the technology, no matter the cultural shift, there will be people who get it wrong. There will be children mis-educated by online schools. But how is that any different from the current system, from which a large minority of kids emerge illiterate, innumerate, and feral?