A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Teacher’s Dilemma

I recently had a student leave my tutoring program.  He had been making progress in understanding the basic math that would be needed to take on algebra as his next course in math.  I had spent a generous amount of time developing a process and presentation that would work for him, as well as visiting with his math teacher to coordinate strategy.  I don’t know why he quit tutoring; there could be many reasons.  But, my initial speculations turned into a more heavily loaded train of thought about some of the issues facing what we call “education” today.

My best speculation is that Tim (not his real name) left because he did poorly on a test that he and I felt he was prepared for.  If we think about the meaning of this “reason” for quitting and expand it out to its larger meaning, the key fault with present education begins to appear.  I had done my job.  Tim’s teacher was doing her job.  His ‘parental units’ were doing their job (as well as they could in a confusing world – he had more loving support than many other children).  The school was like many others that I had been in – the educational atmosphere was apparent and the teachers seemed attentive and interested.  The math course materials were a little too brightly colored and “attention getting” to suit my tastes, but the material was well selected, presented and the practice work well designed.  So what was the problem?

In a word the problem was Tim!  If we make Tim into “every student”, we begin to get the picture.  He is the product of social learning, personal experiences and the forces behind those experiences.  Tim’s life experience up to the age of 12 years had turned the native inquisitive sponge-like human learner into a creature with a complex, confused and unsatisfying relationship to the doing of learning.

I cannot speculate on the specific process by which this particular Tim came to this condition, but I am confident it was his life experience that has put him at odds with the doing and learning of school.  He is bright, personable, honest, agreeable to making an effort…  and disconnected from the mental state of inquisitive learning.  Again, he was not born this way; we, in the broadest sense, made him this way.

Tim’s life experience has made learning of, at least, tertiary importance – even uncomfortable, rather than desirably challenging.  Here is a metaphorical situation that I think is actually not overstatement:  imagine a physical training program with great equipment, competent instructors, good facilities, a general social acceptance that children should be in the training.  But… because of an unrelated socially sanctioned process many, if not most, of the children have joint injuries that prevent them from manifesting the human potential both possible and expected from the high quality training available.  And further, the joint injuries have become so commonplace that they are not realized as an impediment – the argument is made that many do succeed and so should all; there must be something wrong with the training.  Add to the mix that the conditions that produce the joint injuries are generally not realized as injuring and also have become important to the perceived economic wellbeing of the society as a whole.  And so, improvements in the training must be made without reference to or an understanding of the systemic injuries, except in the very most dramatic cases.

If we saw such a situation with this kind of clarity, it would be obvious that (1) training, and its expected results, would have to take into account the injuries; (2) the children would need to be treated in a way that fully supported their capacities, reduced the injuring conditions and remediated the injuries; and (3), most importantly, clearly and scientifically identified, the conditions that produced the injuries in the first place would have to be prevented.

If this is to be more than a queasy-making story, there must be real identifiable injuries being delivered systematically to our children; what are those injuries?  I think there are several direct sources of injury, but that they all originate from two primary foci: materialism and economic inequity.  And I present the hypothesis that education in this nation will not perform its largest and most desirable social function until, or unless, we return to a balance of material, intellectual and actualization goals across the population, and until there is economic equity in which all people are compensated for their contribution to society and not on the basis of the economic power to extort and steal from the labor of the community.  That, my friends, is the size of the issue.
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Children are not disposed to hopelessness.  But, just take a look at the distance between the lives lived by 90% of the population and the images presented everyday and in every way of how life is “supposed” to be lived.  Pick a movie, TV show, print ad display; they all present a way of life that comes to be the norm of expectation.  And that way of life costs, in America today, more than 100 thousand dollars a year for a small family, possibly much more depending on where one lives.

About 15% to 20% of the population lives within striking distance of that goal.  Many of the children in those families can imagine crossing the divide between where they are growing up and the media based standard; their parents can give them some or most of the economic tools to move toward those goals; and some will get there whether it is ultimately the best thing for them or not.

The children of 70% of the population (the vast majority of the total and almost every child in public school) cannot imagine in realistic terms how to bridge that divide.  They have never been in a million dollar house or a $10,000 a month New York apartment.  They know no one who has an income of $250,000 a year or what kinds of activities have to be done to have such an income (unless it is the often illegal local entrepreneurial activities that support selected parts of the media standard image).

The “joint injury” is that no realistic highly valued goals are societally presented to our children that compete with the volume and constancy of the media presentation – everyone is to be materially rich at the media-based standard or they are some degree of a failure in life.  Children feel this disconnection in parental anxiety, the daily comparison of their living place with the images that enter it, in the magnified comparisons with those around them who gain some singular symbol of the media goal and in a dozen other ways.  The result is confusion, fantasy, sense of family and personal failure and the hopelessness of impossibility.  These are often deep feelings, like the lay of the land rather than the rush of river through it.

Since the nature of language is that one word must follow another, there is plenty of room for misunderstanding the above; let me try to address certain potential misreadings of my intentions.  I am not saying that everyone should be rich as a solution – that is an obvious perpetuation of the injury and the fantasy.  Neither am I saying that everyone should be poor; that would solve only a portion of the problem while creating others.  I am saying that the present economic inequity is injuring the vast majority of our children and significantly reducing their capacity to perform well in the educational system.  This is largely because they have internalized a sense of hopeless disconnection between the media-standard goals, the realistic options presented by society and finally the life goals that are good for mind and body.  The expectations of the education system seem to be supporting that disconnection: the people in education are just as much a part of the societal belief system as anyone else and have the same anxieties at not meeting media defined standards of material success.

The great difference between the performance of American elementary school children and middle and high school young people is a clear measure of injury.  The native condition of a human child is as an information-input sponge; supported in that condition and given the opportunity to manifest their interests in ways valued and found useful by those immediately around them and eventually by society at large, the growing child will become an inquisitive independent adult.  Certainly not everyone will be interested in the same things, and some more interested generally in everything, all in the expected form of a normal distribution.  This is not the picture that we see today.  Elementary school children strike a generally normal distribution of interests and enthusiasm which then drops off precipitously as they begin to leave the society of childhood and enter into the nascent adult world.  This is not only measured in educational research, but is one of the clearest processes seen by those who have taught at all these levels.  Children bring their whole lives to school; from kindergarten to graduate school.  They bring their psychical injuries just as much as they bring their physical ones.
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Let me present you with another hypothetical situation: you are a business person with a product or service to sell and you wish to get rich (really rich) selling it.  You therefore want (1) to control what people know about your product so that they desire it, (2) limit potential clientele’s interest in or capacity to supply an equivalent of your product on their own, (3) make your product socially acceptable, socially desirable and even prestigious.  You don’t want people to easily ignore, replace, critically evaluate or otherwise demean your product.

Since in a world of millions of products and services, very few enjoy that status of being truly essential or universally desirable, while almost all of them are pretty easily ignored, replaced, subject to critique and many fully demeanable, you have a problem.  If you also own and run the factory that makes your product or employ the people who supply the service, you have the additional problem of workers who can require that they have safe conditions, reasonable hours, living wage appropriate to their contribution and some authority in how the business, to which they devote significant amounts of their time and effort, is run.  All of which produce serious challenges to your getting really rich rather than just making enough to warrant keeping the business going.

What would be the most desirable construction of the population of people likely to consume your product?  Pick one: self-directed, educated, materially satisfied, critical thinkers or socially driven, uncritical, needy people who believe what they are told on TV.  Remember, this choice is for your business and not for the good of society.  I can tell you from my years in business that most business people are not hypocritical with this choice: they want the people who buy their product and lots of them; and it is just too bad that, for most products and services, the self-directed, educated, critical thinkers are not the most sought after clientele.  A similar thing can be said for employees: educated enough to do the work, but not so well informed or socially free to demand a fully equitable share of the profit. (Though most business folks will admit to wanting pliant clients and employees, explanations of why that condition is really good for them can be most inventive.)

In an economically driven society it is this business process that inordinately influences government and the social order, and it is this resolute, even arrogant, state of business need that begins to set the standards of education as it develops more and more social influence with advertising, product placement and general media content, both entertainment and news.  But….

It is not business’ intention to dumb-down the population and to ruin the lives of mis-educated multitudes.  Business leaders would reject such an assertion, as they should.  They only want to get rich from their efforts, just as everyone should.  And so, round and round it goes and where it stops only those who have thought it through knows.

Oh yes, and I wish Tim the best.