Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Public education: A radically new vision

Opinion: Submitted by Ella Hawthorne

Public education, despite its name, is not about educating the public.  Its purpose is to babysit children during the day while their parents are at work and to create a new generation of workers – people who find it normal to sit at a desk all day doing whatever their boss tells them to do in order to create wealth for someone else, and then never questioning the validity of this system.

“How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?” -Charles Bukowski

There is not much difference between the classroom and the workplace.  In both places, there is one person in charge and a group of subordinates who have to take orders.  In both cases there is a plan of action for what has to be accomplished which is decided upon by people who may not be present at the school or work site.  The subordinates, as well as the teacher or boss, have to arrive at a specific time each day.  The teacher or boss has to enforce that these tasks are completed as decided upon by the (sometimes unknown) decision maker.  They have specific times scheduled for breaks, and cannot take a break at any other time.  They have a half an hour to eat a bag lunch. Using the washroom or eating when it is not break time is often forbidden.  This is a rigid hierarchical structure where someone is in charge, and this someone is always a privileged person with wealth, and this someone gets to dictate what other people will do during the day based on his own needs.  It’s not about the needs of the people involved.  School is not about the needs of children.  School is about the needs of the dominant culture.  The dominant culture is controlled by the people in charge, who are rich and privileged, and who are very few in controlling a great many.

Children do not need to sit in rows all day taking orders.  They do not need to complete a prescribed set of tasks just because they’re in a period of life labelled as “grade three.” They do not need to learn how to walk down the hallway in a straight line without talking.  These are things the bosses need. The bosses need a set of compliant workers to do their work for them and thus create wealth for them.  The only way a whole generation of human beings will submit to authority and do work for someone else is if they spend the first 18 years of their lives in captivity learning that they must submit and obey, and that there is nothing else in life besides submitting and obeying.

I love the idea of public education. Not a babysitting and indoctrination system, but real education for the public. We are capable of creating such a system immediately, but we aren’t going to, because it would not serve the ruling class.

My public education would be a combination of the Internet, private tutoring, public libraries and Montessori-style education all rolled into one system. Imagine a library where, in addition to signing out books, you could sign out teachers.  If you wanted to learn, say, woodworking, you would search the library catalogue for a teacher who could teach woodworking.  You would then set up an appointment for a lesson at a time that worked for both of you.

There would still be a school building, but it would be a bit different from those we have now.  Some of the usual facilities would be the same: there would be a gymnasium with sports equipment, a science classroom with basic equipment for experiments, an art classroom with art materials, a music classroom with musical instruments, and so on.  There would be group study rooms.  Instead of 25 to 30 students sitting in rows in the same room all day, there would be smaller rooms where groups could get together to study the same things.  There would be no expectation that study should happen in a group unless by chance several people wanted to “borrow” the same teacher for the same lesson at the same time.  The teacher would then book a study room for the impromptu class.

There would be no expectation that people needed to be sorted by age.  The only time people would need to be sorted by age would be in group sports where it is impractical to have people of very different sizes playing a sport together.

People would choose whatever they wanted to learn.  There would be no prescribed curriculum and no prescribed time period for completing tasks.

Teachers could be anyone in the community who could perform a skill.  People would apply to become teachers and a committee would decide if they are eligible.  For example, a criminal background check would be required and the person would have to prove they are capable of teaching the skill they are volunteering to teach. Once approved, they would be entered into the system as an available teacher for a specific skill and learners could search and find them.  There wouldn’t be anything called “grade 4 math” or “grade 10 English.”  There would be specific skills you could search for.  Want to learn how to multiply?  Just search “multiply” in the system and a list of teachers approved to teach that skill would appear with their availability for lessons.  You would book an available time, and sometimes several people would have the same appointment time.  A study room would thus be booked for the purpose of learning multiplication.  Want to learn how to do long division?  Same thing.  Want to play floor hockey?  Just search the system for available times when floor hockey is offered and sign up.  Want to learn how to sew a handbag?  Search the system for someone who teaches sewing and book a time in the art room when there is a sewing station available.  Want to learn how to play the guitar?  Search the system for a music teacher and book a time when there is a guitar available to borrow and a practice room open.  Teachers would get paid by the hour by the government.  We already pay teachers a salary with government money.  This system would be different but the cost would probably not change by much, if at all.  New teachers would get paid around $20 an hour.  Experienced teachers would get paid more like $40 an hour.  People with complex or rare skills, like senior level science and math, expert level musicians, robotics engineers, and the like, would get paid more.  Teachers would set their own schedules.  A teacher could work in the private sector and also in public education by scheduling their availability.  Someone could work full-time in the private sector and teach one or two hours a week.  Someone could teach full-time, without having any other job, especially if they were teaching a skill in high demand, such as reading, because students would be booking them often.  Talented members of the community would want to be teachers, because all of their students would be enthusiastic about learning their skill, and would appreciate being taught.  Any skill you can think of could be taught as long as someone was available who is capable of teaching it.  How to sew a button, how to fix a leaky sink, how to build a house, how to write a haiku, why not?  Just search for it in the system.  Maybe no one in your municipality could teach it, but maybe someone in the next municipality can.

There would still be grading, but learners would only be graded if they wished to be graded.  If a learner wanted to prove they had learned a certain skill, they would ask to take a test, and their skill level would be assessed by an expert in that skill and an official stamp added to their transcript.  Someone’s transcript might include: “Ability to count to one million, cook spaghetti al dente, and put up drywall.”  Who knows, anything.

Every person would have an electronic file.  In their file would be a list of all the skills they had been tested on and passed.  In a person’s electronic file would be their attendance record as well.  Everyone would have a swipe card and would have to swipe in and out of each room.  A record is then made of what rooms the learner entered.  Parents would have access to the password to see their children’s files until their children turn 16.  If parents told their children they had to learn some math skills, but their child spent the whole day in the gym, their parents would be able to tell.  If someone stole something, say, sound equipment from the auditorium, security personnel would look up who swiped into the auditorium that day and those people would be questioned.

There would still be prerequisites to get into university or college, and to get into the workplace.  Workplaces would name specific skills candidates are required to have in order to get specific jobs.  People who wanted to apply for a new job would have to make sure they have learned all the required skills.  The candidate would have a copy of their transcript printed and sent to the workplace to prove that they can do business math, write well in English, and program a computer.  They were never forced to learn these skills just because they were sitting in a room called “grade 10.” They willingly learned these things because they needed to know them.  They may never have learned how to do a cart-wheel, speak a foreign language, or draw a two-point perspective drawing, but that doesn’t matter.

If someone wanted to do a demanding job requiring a lot of education, they would still have to go to university or college.  In higher education there would be a set curriculum for each career.  There would still be a school of medicine and a school of business and a school of science, etc, like we have now.  Candidates for university would have to prove they can perform quite a lot of skills, which would be decided upon by the college, in order to get in.

Theoretically, if a person’s only ambition was to do manual labour, they would not be required to go to school at all, but chances are, everyone would want to.  Chances are there wouldn't be anybody whose attendance was zero because humans are naturally curious and want to do things, and everyone would find something they wanted to learn about.  A small child might decide they didn't want to learn to read, and spend a year doing nothing but playing soccer, but then upon deciding they wanted to build robots, would realize that they do want to read, in order to help them learn to build a robot, and then would voluntarily sign up for reading lessons.

There would be very little separation of children and adults.  People could sign up for a lesson at a public school at any age, at any time.  There would be day care for children too young to sign up for lessons and attend on their own.  A parent who did not have a full-time job might attend school with their child all day and participate in the same lessons.  Parents who both work full-time might have to leave their child in day care for a while until the child is responsible enough to study on their own.

There would rarely be any discipline problems, because in this system, there is no dominance and no submission, there is no forcing anyone to do anything.  A learner who did not want to stay in a class would simply leave and go somewhere else.  There would be one or two security guards in each school building full-time so that if someone got angry and started a fight or was stealing equipment they could intervene.  If someone brought drugs or weapons to school they would be confiscated and if someone was inexcusably rude they would be asked to leave.  They would not be given a “punishment,” they would just not be allowed in that room anymore until the lesson is over and would have to go somewhere else.  Parents would be able to see any discipline issues in their child’s electronic file.  If a child had been asked to leave a classroom it would be noted.  Parents could receive email alerts if their child is ever asked to leave, and if they are able, can go to the school immediately to talk to their child or the security guards about what happened.  Unless the crime was serious, like a physical assault, the learner would be allowed into another lesson right away, they would only be kicked out of the lesson in which they had just been rude.  They would then have to book a time to take that lesson again, knowing that they will not be able to complete it if they are rude again. They only real “rules” would be treat others with respect and be there to learn, not to disrupt.  People would be there to learn, because if their goal wasn't to learn, they would have never signed up for the lesson in the first place.

This system of education would be public education.  It would be a way for anyone to learn whatever they wanted to learn for free.  Real learning would take place.  People would love learning.  We would unleash unimaginable human potential. This style of education will not happen without a fundamental change in our society.

In this system of public education, people would not learn to submit to authority.  People would learn that they are whole, worthy human beings who are capable of accomplishing what they want to accomplish. No one leaving this education system would be willing to go to a workplace at someone else’s scheduled time every day to create wealth for someone else, because this does not make any sense.  People would look for meaningful work in their lives.  Our lives would have meaning.

Ella Hawthorne is the pseudonym of a writer and activist living in Ontario

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