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Accountability in education

The following was inspired by Luke’s recent post about laptops in the classroom, and appears as a comment on his site. I’ve reproduced it here because I don’t think I’ve gone into my “education theory” at this much length before.


I believe the Roman-style classroom lecture system has been outdated since it was implemented. That is, I don’t think it’s at all useful, and should be abandoned entirely.

I have been pondering for years the problem of making education systems educational. It is too easy for people to slack off, pass without learning anything, and graduate with the same degree as a person who actually did learn a thing or two. Nobody is watching students individually. Nobody knows them personally. Guidance counselors are as close as we get, and in my experience they have too much on their plate to get to know each student. They may know them all in passing, but they’re not keeping tabs. There’s no time for that.

We are not guaranteeing, in grammar school, secondary school, or our university system, that anyone is learning anything. And what is happening is that people aren’t learning anything.

I truly believe that a big part of the reason is lack of pressure to learn. There is plenty of pressure to get a degree, but there is virtually no pressure to take this knowledge with you into the world. Our society doesn’t check up on people enough. In valuing our independence, in staking our claims as “individuals” who are “more than numbers”, we actually relegate ourselves to number status, in that we all refuse to be bound by people’s expectations. We are uninteresting, no more than our name and SSN on paper. We choose slacking as our expression of independence, and give up that individuality we supposedly crave.

Meanwhile, in other countries, there are rigid systems of education that are successful in using the lecture-style classroom. This is because in those countries, education is not the road to a degree, but the road to a career. The learning doesn’t stop after university. University is just there to give them a head start and a foot in the door. And they make good use of it.

The reason the lecture system doesn’t work for us, then, is that we have a distinct lack of personal motivation and external guidance. But there is another problem.

Nobody knows what they want to do “when they grow up”.

So many of us just get whatever degree we can manage. We hope and pray that somehow the degree will magically lead to a profession we can be happy with. And then we graduate and flounder around lost, because all we knew was the road to the degree.

This, too, is an effect of lack of guidance, I believe.

Children hear “You can do anything you want”, but they aren’t guided to choose anything. They learn procrastination at home from watching their parents, and put off making a choice about their future. It’s a luxury of the United States that our children don’t have to go to work in the family business…but this luxury is crippling, because our minds are the most fertile when we’re young, and that’s when we should be learning the skills we need for our future careers.

What are we learning instead? How to watch TV.

I’ve established that a lack of guidance and accountability is at the root of our educational problems in this country. The solution is more difficult to see. I would first like to say that I do not advocate a governmental department for micromanaging every person and leading them to their career. I believe that this problem, like most problems, should be solved at the local level.

Community. Community bonds bring forth the greatest accountability. You can’t shoot Farmer Jed’s dog and then go sit next to him at church. And you can’t profit from a community you’re a part of without giving back to it somehow.

If there are strong bonds between people, connections that are used to help raise each other up, then people will try their hardest to do their own part–to pay the emotional debt.

How do we apply a sense of community to a college campus, where people come together from all over the world?

The solution I’ve been thinking of involves organizations that specialize in one type of education, a strong sense of belonging and being known not for what’s on paper, but for who you are, and a shift from lectures to discussion sections and, ideally, one-on-one master-apprentice relationships.

Instead of trying to do everything, a school of thought would specialize. It would be located in a city, to ground it in reality. It would be affiliated with some local, non-university entity that actually does work in that field. Students would learn theory and train on the job. The school would also be affiliated with every company in that industry that was interested in affiliating itself with that school, so that additional training could take place via the Internet or by trips out of town, and “networking” within the field could begin early.

General education requirements would be fulfilled at the high school level, or achieved through self-study. We have the Internet. As you said, Luke, use it.

In my ideal situation, a student would have a mentor who worked in the field, and he would learn directly from her. The mentor, and the mentor’s colleagues, would know the student, would spend time with him outside of class, and would chart his progress. The student would feel important, and this would motivate him to do better. Upon graduation, the student could start work with the mentor immediately, or go to one of the other affiliate companies.

I haven’t quite fleshed out how it would all work…but that’s where I am right now. I do believe that if we continue to teach the way we do now, with no true accountability or identity, our nation of dunderheads is going to inspire malice from countries who actually produce thinking minds. In fact, I believe this is already happening. To my mind, bettering ourselves and continuing to learn and grow is our responsibility as citizens. For our privileges of freedom and our very high standard of living, we absolutely must give something back…and yet there are so many who do nothing but feed off the system until they die. This system is critically flawed and will not sustain itself forever.