When others find that my wife and I have decided to homeschool our children inevitably they ask, "Why?" I've always tried to answer this question with tactful precision and achieved a varying degrees of success. Today I discovered a description that defines how I feel about what's wrong with public schooling in a wonderfully clear and precise way. It's found in The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences and authored by R. Keith Sawyer:
By the twentieth century, all major industrialized countries offered formal schooling to all of their children. When these schools took shape in the ninetieth and twentieth centuries, scientist didn't know very much about how people learn. Even by the 1920s, when schools began to become the large bureaucratic institutions that we know today, there still was not sustained study of how people learn. As a result, the schools we have today were designed around commonsense assumptions that had never been tested scientifically.
Sawyer goes on to outline these problematic "commonsense assumptions" as follows:
- Knowledge is a collection of facts about the world and procedures for how to solve problems. Facts are statements like "The earth is titled on its axis by 23.45 degrees" and procedures are step-by-step instructions like how to do multidigit addition by carrying to the next column.
- The goal of schooling is to get these facts and procedures into the student's head. People are considered to be educated when they possess a large collection of these facts and procedures.
- Teachers know these facts and procedures, and their job is to transmit them to students.
- Simpler facts and procedures should be learned first, followed by progressively more complex facts and procedures. The definitions of "simplicity" and "complexity" and the proper sequencing of material were determined either by teachers, by textbook authors, or by asking expert adults like mathematicians, scientists, or historians - not by studying how children actually learn.
- The way to determine the success of schooling is to test students to see how many of these facts and procedures they have acquired.
This traditional vision of schooling is known as instructionism (Papert, 1993). Instructionism prepared students for the industrialized economy of the early twentieth century. But the world today is much more technologically complex and economically competitive, and instructionism is increasingly failing to educate our students to participate in this new kind of society. Economists and organizational theorists have reached a consensus that today we are living in a knowledge economy, an economy that is built on knowledge work (Bereiter, 2002; Drucker, 1993). In the knowledge economy, memorization of facts and procedures is not enough for success. Educated graduates need a deep conceptual understanding of complex concepts, and the ability to work with them creatively to generate new ideas, new theories, new products, and new knowledge. They need to be able to critically evaluate what they read, to be able to express themselves clearly both verbally and in writing, and to be able to understand scientific and mathematical thinking. They need to learn integrated and usable knowledge, rather than the sets of compartmentalized and decontextualized facts emphasized by instructionism. They need to be able to take responsibility for their own continuing, lifelong learning. These abilities are important to the economy, to the continued success of participatory democracy, and to living a fulfilling, meaningful life. Instructionism is particularly ill-suited to the education of creative professionals who can develop new knowledge and continually further their own understanding; instructionism is an anachronism in the modern innovation economy. (R.K. Sawyer, The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, Cambridge University Press, 2006.)
It's not that instructionism isn't good, it's that it's incomplete. It was never designed to be more than an instantiation of, and a response to, these fundamental "commonsense assumptions" about what it means to be educated.
I believe there are probably as many different approaches to education as there are people, but this approach, embodied in instructionism is the problem. As long as any educational pursuit approaches learning from this perspective alone, young people will continue to enter the global workforce unprepared for the demands of the modern economy.
I want my children's minds to be factories for new ideas, not just warehouses of facts and procedures.