Friday, December 13, 2013

Passions and Procrustes

Many of the problems with education reform come from starting with overly simplified models and assumptions, then compensating with overly complicated implementations schemes. This is true with the areas we talk about a lot -- teacher and school quality, incentives, accountability -- but it's probably even more true with pedagogical questions.

Though virtually every proposed educational innovation comes with language about treating students like individuals and recognizing different learning styles (until the phrases start to sound like the conditioned aphorisms of Brave, New World), it is simply the nature of general, top-down reforms to tend toward the Procrustean. Most start with good intentions, but the pressure to come up with something easily implemented and widely applicable (not to mention, pitchable), invariably undercuts those intentions and generally produces an overly simplistic, one-size-fits-all solution.

All of this tends to lead to those weird disconnects you often see in education reform debates where a group of people approvingly discuss proposals that are completely at odds with their owns experiences as students. This is never more true than when you look into the origins of the passions that drive the best work.

Good teachers try to cultivate and where possible leverage and concatenate enthusiasms. They understand that...

R.L. Stine can lead to Stephen King.

Stephen King can lead to H.P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft can lead to Arthur Machen

Machen can lead to Ovid and Grimm and any number of wonderful  books on myth and folklore.

And, of course, myth and folklore can lead to pretty much any area of art or culture.

The trouble is, you really don't want to put R.L Stine in your standards. It's not an approach that would work for everybody and besides, he's not that good.

You do, however, want all of the students to have an RL Stine of their own. It could be JK Rowling (who is good). It could be comic books that lead to folklore through stories about Thor and Hercules. A collection of Star Trek books that lead to a career in physics or engineering (which has happened surprisingly often). A fascination with sports that leads to a career in statistics.

When you ask successful people how they got interested in their fields, most will tell stories that are variations on this theme. Paul Krugman, for example, first became intrigued with the underlying principles of economics when he read Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy.

The trouble is that this is what they call in ed schools divergent learning, every student is expected to a different outcome. Worse yet, it's doubly divergent. Not only are students reaching different destinations; they're getting there via different paths. Movement reformers favor standardization, test-driven metrics and top-down initiatives, and despite endless protests to the contrary, it is horribly difficult to foster the kind of learning I've just described using these approaches.

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