03 December 2007

Responsibility in education

One of my personal favorite pedagogic precepts was best expressed by the laconic Mr. Miyagi, one of the all-time best teachers portrayed in cinema: "No such thing as bad student; only bad teacher."
"Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything."

Which is not to say that even the most gifted teacher will enjoy success with every student. It's just that the most important lessons we learn from our teachers--how to face the overwhelming reality of human ignorance, when and how to (dis)respect authority, when to resort to knowledge and when to resort to compassion--derive not from what the teacher knows but from who the teacher is. That's because good teachers know that learning is not the process by which the student absorbs the teacher's knowledge, but rather the process by the student creates knowledge. The teacher can only either stimulate or suppress the student's personal learning process; or, put differently, what a student really gets from a teacher is an attitude, and if a student internalizes a (teacher's) bad attitude, then that student will find all future learning difficult.

Thus Bob Talbert's corollary to Mr. Miyagi's precept: "Good teachers are costly, but bad teachers cost more." So when I see failure in an educational context, I always look to the teacher (and his bosses) first.
Corporal Punishment
Mr. Whipswitch could never understand why the other teachers kept ending up with the best students.

But it's not always that simple. Take the example of 14-year old Australian Beau Abela, who can barely read, let alone spell. He's in high-school, and has trouble counting beyond 10, so let's just set aside any questions you might have about his performance in algebra class. Beau suffers from a mild learning disability, so in some ways it's not surprising that his performance is subpar for his age, but this seems egregious. Indeed, Beau's condition--unless you're one of those all-too-common philistines who actually embrace incompetence--seems utterly outrageous. As in, it outrages me.

And I'm not the only one who's upset. Beau's father is suing the Victorian educational department for AU $300k. On the surface, seems like they probably deserve it. As you might expect,

Mr Abela [has] said his court action was not motivated by money, but by frustration at the way the system appeared to be letting down children. ... Mr Abela said he would drop the lawsuit tomorrow if the department would guarantee him it would educate (Beau) to a proper level.

I think most people can understand that Mr Abela is frustrated given his son's lackluster academic performance, but what exactly does he mean when says that the system is "letting down children?" Certainly the system doesn't seem to be producing measurable results in Beau's case. But to whom to attribute this failure? Or rather, how should responsibility for this failure be untangled?

Mr Abela concedes that
the Education Department had made significant efforts to help his son, including paying for one-on-one tutoring and providing a laptop. Over the years dozens of assessments and reports have been done to get to the bottom of Beau's problems. ... Documents seen by the Sunday Herald Sun show Panton Hills Primary School and Eltham High have directed considerable time and effort towards the troubled student.
What kind of problems, exactly?
Beau has been on ADHD medication in the past and school reports consistently say he does not concentrate in class or make an effort with his work. ... Eltham High School principal Vincent Sicari said in a recent report Beau's behaviour was increasingly disruptive and violent.
Doesn't sound like Beau's is an easy case. In fact, it rather sounds like the school system has been sensitive, proactive, and generous.

As framed by the Sunday Herald Sun, it looks as though Mr Abela is suing simply because he's frustrated--not because the school is at fault. And even if the school had been less responsive, how much (and what kind of) responsibility for Beau's failure could we honestly lay at the feet of his teachers and their bosses? How much (and what kind) belongs to Beau? Without more particular information on Beau's case, it's impossible to judge the case wisely.

But the very intractability of the case forces one interesting issue to the surface: Why do we persist in regarding education as a responsibility? Issues in contemporary education--especially failures--are almost always framed as a polarized conflict between individual responsibility and systemic sensitivity. The important question, as this line of thinking has it, is how much responsibility belongs to the student and how much to the system (as though responsibility only came in one flavor).

The key assumption which underlies this thinking is that education is a necessity, with all that that entails. And of course, education is necessary for the kind of society we operate [.pdf], the kind of culture we participate, the kind of government we practice. Indeed, few institutions bear more of the weight of our current way of life than universal education. The incredible social importance of education, however, tends to overshadow the fact that education provides (if these guys are to be believed) the most sublime pleasure available to human experience. It's worth remembering that our word school derives from the Greek skhole, which means "leisure"--school is supposed to be what humans do for fun.
Exam-centric Studies
In a Protestant culture (and especially in a Puritan culture), even the pleasure of learning is suspect; only the pleasure of discipline passes without question--especially if the one disciplined is oneself.

Wait just a minute? Did I just say that learning is fun? Yes. That's it exactly. We often get so invested in the importance of "an education" (by which we too often mean "a decent résumé") that we forget that we can always recognize real learning when it happens because it is always pleasurable. (Incidentally, this is a non-trivial criticism of contemporary schooling, which is, as everyone knows, no fun at all. When learning happens in an academic environment, it's almost always either an accident or against the rules.)

So I have one question for Beau and his teachers: What does it mean that Beau is obviously having no fun at all "being educated" at Eltham High?