Friday, March 23, 2007

Teaching as an Ideal: Part III

[By Michael Bycroft]

In my last two posts I have tried to show some ways in which schoolteaching is an attractive thing to do. In writing those posts I am partly motivated by the thought that schools need to attract good people if those institutions are to do all of the good things they are meant to do. My motivation is sharpened by the thought that at the moment schools are in a pretty bad state, and hence need good people to repair them. Is it true that schools are in a bad state? I can’t really say, since I have not experienced many of them. However, there are two things that I can say, and that give point to this last part of the series. First, not all schools are perfect. Second, it would be worthwhile to list all the ways in which the imperfect ones might be improved.

So that is what this post is for: to complain about schools. There are a lot of things to complain about, though, and it would take a lot of space to justify and elucidate all of those complaints; and besides, it is not worth going into detail about complaints have been raised many times before by other people. So I want this to be a kind of taxonomy of tentative complaints, rather than a detailed account of fully-reasoned complaints. If a complaint is listed here, that does not mean that all schools suffer from this complaint, nor that most of them do. Nor does it mean that the flaws identified is easily remedied in practice, or even that it is possible to remedy in practice. This is a list of the most likely ways in which schools might fail to be ideal. I invite people to add to it (there are quite a few gaps) and to point out any errors I have made in my taxonomising.

I have not made much explicit attempt to weight the following imperfections according to the extent of either their actual presence in schools or their relevance to school well-being. Nor have I made much attempt to illuminate their causal relations. The idea is to hold all complaints in one hand; once that’s done one can start to work out how they are strung together.

I will start by looking at some external imperfections.

1) EXTERNAL. By “external” imperfections I mean those flaws in schools that are best dealt with outside of schools. Because they lie outside of schools, I won’t spend too much time on them. This does not mean that they are insignificant. Indeed, it may be that the best thing which could happen for schools is that these flaws be eliminated. I don’t know. The best person to ask about it is probably a sociologist, not a philosopher. Here are some that come to mind:

a) Lack of resources ie. money and people. In my country at least I have heard complaints about the lack of new teachers and the lack of money being directed towards schools. I have also heard some complaints about the quality of available teachers, as well as of the quantity. Perhaps because of the perceived disadvantages of the profession (low pay, ill-discipline of students, regression etc.) and perhaps because Universities steal the most academically gifted and academically enthusiastic students, the people who become school teachers are overall not as talented as they might be. (Of course, this complaint is based upon casual testimony; and casual testimony also tells me that an awful lot of teachers are creative, intelligent and terrific, and would laugh off this complaint.)

b) Bad administration eg. incompetent ministers, inefficient or conservative bureaucracy, and so on.

2) ADMINISTRATIVE. Here I mean administration within schools (and the remainder of the categories listed here are internal, though I have dropped the "internal" label for convenience). Again, there’s not much for me to say here. Feel free to fill the gap.

3) SOCIAL. Problems with how students treat eachother, the general mood of schools, race relations in schools etc. I have two main complaints here; no doubt there are others.

a) Attitude towards learning.
A big problem with schools is that many students simply are not that all interested in the things that are taught. To gifted students, taught content is aimed at too low a level to be stimulating and worthwhile. To less gifted students it is boring or irrelevant, and generally it is nowhere near compelling enough for school to compete with other pastimes of young people. Perhaps there is a group of students in schools who have the right mix of ability, obedience, and academic zeal, to make the academic aspect of school interesting for them. But in my experience that group is pretty small, and it would be nice to make it bigger.

b) Attitude towards learners. Here (cheers Richard) is an essay that says a lot of interesting things about schools in general, and about the social life of schools in particular. The academically inclined ones are not usually the popular ones, which tends to discourage people from indulging their academic inclinations or from displaying those inclinations publicly.

4) DISCIPLINARY. Ways in which student misbehaviour, and teacher treatment of it, damages education.

a) Damaging student behaviour. Truancy, rowdiness, abuse of teachers, etc. etc.

b) Unhelpful responses to student behaviour. Corporal punishment is the obvious issue here, but that is no longer very prominent. Another possible complaint is that schools sometimes place too much emphasis on trivial points of student behaviour, like uniform or singing the school song or wearing long hair.

5) PEDAGOGICAL. How subjects are taught. Complaints under this heading are closely linked with the complaints about the curriculum, and I'm not sure that there is any very clear distinction between the content of a lesson and the form in which it is delivered. Hence the points listed here could be reinterpreted, without too, much strain, as points about the curriculum. But they do seem to belong more naturally in this category than in the next category.

a) Passivity of students. It seems plausible that students learn better, and with greater enthusiasm, when they do so with some degree of independence from the teacher. And as far as I know, educational theory recognises this: "Creating Independent Learners" is something of a catch-cry among some teachers I know. But I am not sure that the principle is as well followed practically as it might be.

b) Irrelevance to real life. Ideally students should be taught in such a way as to bring out the connection between the taught matter and real life, to show how the taught matter is continuous with commonsense and with common values. The reason is that teachers might as well make the most of what students already know and value, when trying to show them how to know and value the new things they encounter in academia.

c) Lack of cohesion. One way to illuminate a subject might be to teach it in relation to one or more other subjects, to identify the similarities and differences between different forms of inquiry. Not much of this happened at the schools that I know. (Of course, there are practical barriers to this sort of integration. But, as you may have noticed, this is not meant to be a very practically-oriented post!)

6) CURRICULAR. What is taught in classrooms. This category will get the most attention here, and is probably of the most interest to philosophers of education. After all, the primary function of schools is to teach things, so it is pretty important to consider the things that they teach. As mentioned above, what schools teach is closely connected to how they teach (ie. pedagogy). I won't try here to justify my handling of this close connection, but I welcome any objections to that treatment. I will also defer any elaboration on my division of what is taught into method and matter. That division is closely related to the division between skills and facts; I want to explore that division in a later post.

a) Method. Schools should do more to teach students the processes by which knowledge comes about, rather than just teaching the results of those processes. This has been covered before on this blog and on blogs nearby, so I won't say any more about complaints about method in general. It is worth mentioning one particular sort of method, however:

i) Neglect of reasoning. Again, this point has been discussed a fair bit in this vicinity and so I won't go into too much detail. I'll just observe that the school curriculum is sometimes summarised as "writing, reading, 'rithmetic." It would be nice if "reasoning" was recognised as one of the most important, if not the most important, of the r's; that the summary just mentioned does not contain it suggests that it is the most neglected 'r''s. This neglect may be split into two kinds:
I) Neglect of abstract reasoning. This has been discussed nearby a few times eg. over at Siris we find: "the fact that most schools do not teach logic as a regular thing is genuinely scandalous." I am not sure who would be brave enough to disagree.)
II) Neglect of applied reasoning. ie. communal deliberation. Again, I can't really add anything to what has been written in this vicinity; and probably there is a lot written elsewhere as well. I'll just say that the ability to reason well with other people, especially with people object to one's own views, is important both socially and politically. It is important if we want to get on with eachother in everyday life. It is also important if we want politicians and non-politicians to participate constructively in government (some introductory thoughts on deliberation in democracy can be found on Philosophy Etcetera over here). Some past thinkers have regarded school education as primarily a preparation for political deliberation. This may be going too far, but I think it is going in the right direction.

b) Matter. Methods are applied to various separate fields of inquiry, and some of these fields receive an amount of attention that is incommensurate with their importance. It is a hard thing to judge, just how much weight should be given to each field, since they are all quite different and since people are usually biased towards one or more of them, in virtue of studying those fields at the exlusion of others. But it is worth mentioning the following...

i) Neglect of ethics. At my school I discovered very little reflection on morality, on core values, on the importance of ethical reflection or on the methodology of it. In my experience most such content comes from assembly speeches, either from the headmaster or from celebrities who are brought in to give students some worldly advice and to make school seem more exciting. This sort of thing can be valuable, I suppose, but usually it takes the form either of self-righteous rhetoric or warm platitudes. And it does not usually do what moral philosophy is meant to do: train people to reason competently about ethical issues.
ii) Neglect of politics. I found some mention of politics in school, but it usually occurred either as the historical study of the country’s politics or as politically-minded rants from the social-studies teacher. It was certainly a minor part of the curriculum, and it did not do much to effect my vague, youthful view of politics as an infantile exchange of insults and platitudes, and as something you got involved in once every four years then forgot about. I have mentioned politics already, in the "Methods" category. Here I assert that methods of communal deliberation should be taught in relation to the political system (as well as in other fields in which such deliberation is valuable).
iii) Neglect of philosophy. This point may have already been covered with a), b), c) and e); and it has certainly been covered before on this blog. But it is worth mentioning anyway. There is a strong case, I think, for the view that philosophy is the central intellectual discipline. Even if I am mistaken about this, I don’t see how philosophy is any less important than Maths or English or French. Some schools already teach philosophy. All of them should do so.
iv) Neglect of Education. I mean the teaching of Education as a subject. Occasionally information about “study skills” was handed out at my school. But this usually discussed the pragmatics of swotting (how to draw diagrams of your year’s work, how to make flash cards, how to memorise the syllabus in two weeks, and so on.), which is useful but not very profound or very interesting. There was little formal teaching of what it means to be educated, why anyone would want to become educated, and what role schools play in educating people. It seems obvious to me that this sort of thing should be taught: people spend a pretty large proportion of their life, and a very large proportion of their youth, involved in schools; so it is strange that they are not asked to reflect more often upon the nature and purpose of schooling.

7) ASSESSMENT. This one is pretty self-explanatory. I’ll just note that it is quite closely related to, but is meant to be distinct from, “Curriculum.” Many complaints about what is put into exams may be traced back to problems in the curriculum; I mean “assessment” to exclude that sort of complaint.

a) Intrusion of assessment into instruction. I have heard a few complaints about the heavy-handedness of assessment, and the way in which actual learning is being pushed aside by attempts to evaluate what students have learned. Perhaps this has something to do with the instrumental approach to education that seems to influence the general orientation of schools (see below): if schools are meant primarily to get people into jobs, then thorough and accurate records of their academic become fairly important. Of course, if schools are oriented towards enriching the mental life of students, the need for such records is not so urgent.

b) Assessing the wrong thing. This problem might be due to problems with the curriculum ie. assessment focuses on rote memorization etc. because the curriculum does not tell it to do any better. But it may also be a separate complaint, and require a separate solution. Of course, this is another imperfection that is easy to identify in principle but hard to remove in practice. It is easy to measure how many facts a person can memorize, and not so easy to measure their facility with the scientific method or their ethical wisdom.

8) GENERAL ORIENTATION. This category is meant to take in those complaints that address the overall aims of schools, explicit or implicit, that guide the workings of the school and the content of the curriculum. I’ve just put one complaint here, but it is a major one, and one that is expressed pretty often

a) Economic Instrumentality. The complaint here is that schools are thought to function primarily as centres for training people to play an effective part in the economic system. Hence the curriculum emphasises those subjects that are either have economics as their subject matter, or that lead directly into orthodox careers, like law and engineering. Of course, it is important that some place is given to these subjects: the complaint is not that they should be removed, just that they should receive less attention than they currently do. Sometimes this complaint is made about the manner in which all subjects are taught, rather than about the relative weighting of subjects. Hence it is thought that schools fail to appreciate, and students fail to discover, that learning can add depth and pleasure to a student’s life irrespective of how easily it leads to a job. Students are taught to learn, but not to love learning.

9) MISCELLANY. This is a category for complaints that don’t obviously belong to any of the categories mentioned so far.

a) Relationship with University. Ideally there should, I think, be a rich interaction between secondary school and University. I mean that schools should go some way towards preparing students for University ie. for the content that is taught at University, the manner in which it is taught, and the spirit in which learning occurs. Perhaps improving things in this area would lead to improvements in other areas mentioned here eg. the attitude towards learning and learners in schools.

So there is an attempt at an a summary of the imperfections of schools. What have I missed out, included twice, overemphasised, etc?


  1. Good post...

    Just one thing.

    > Ideally there should, I think, be a rich interaction between secondary school and University.

    just as long as we realise that not all people will go from school to university. there is no point training someone to be an academic if they neither want to nor have any use for that.

    I think universities goals are not all that closely aligned with students goals even for those students that do choose to go.


  2. Yeah, good point. I guess the whole post shows its bias towards university-style academia, with its emphasis on the intellectual rather than the social and the cultural.

    And its good to remember that schools are not the only place where education occurs - I guess a separate list of complaints could be written about Universities, polytechs, and other sorts of education.

  3. With respect to 9a under discussion, I think the key thing is that schools and universities ought to have more in common given that they have the same aims.

    That is, it's not that schools ought to be more university-like because that's what some students might go on to do, but rather that schools ought to be more university-like in terms of how they value things like independent learning, ambitious pursuit of knowledge, and so on. But that's because these things are intrinsically valuable, not because they're good things to get used to for university.


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