Education Thoughts Part 1

Teaching is a profession that almost everyone holds an opinion on how to improve. In the video below, which has garnered over 37 million views, a visibly upset student criticizes his teacher's methods.."Get up and teach instead of giving them a packet!" he says in a southern US twang.

I sympathize with the student's desire for a higher quality education. But his angst is naively (albeit theatrically) misdirected. As evidenced in the video, the student student clearly lacks: 1) an understanding of cognitive origin of motivation, and, 2) the precarious position of the teacher in a deeply flawed education system. The video makes for spectacular social media signal-flagging. But unfortunately most discussion around the video fails to take into account the bigger picture of what we're seeing in the video.

No teacher enters the field with the desire to be a bad teacher. Teachers are generally passionate people who want to help guide their students to a more fulfilling future. But teachers are constantly fighting an uphill battle, because schools are not places for learning. At best, schools are like semi-educational daycare centers. At worst, they can seem like prisons.

There's much to be said on the specific ways in which primary and secondary schools in general fail to meet their educational mission. Large class sizes, poor home/school partnership, soaring childhood poverty rates, and over-emphasis on standardized testing are just a few of the obstacles standing in the way of a quality education. (Not to mention the large-scale failure to agree on what a quality education even is- is it vocational preparation? High technical achievement in a specific field? Liberal arts knowledge? Admission to a good college? Improvement of social skills? All of these things?). But to address any of these topics we must first recognize what schools actually are.

Schools are hierarchical, bureaucratic institutions which the government mandates that students ages 5-18 must attend for 6-8 hours a day, 180 days a year. Their original purpose was to create a literate population, the underlying assumption being that knowledge empowers individuals to make wiser choices, and when everyone makes wiser choices, society as a whole will be better off. Sounds great!

But the truth is that young people don't have a choice of almost anything when it comes to their education. The institution tells the students where to sit, when to eat, when to use the bathroom, and what to read. Now I admit that some people thrive in structured environments. I also think that schools do serve a somewhat valuable function for socializing young people. But until as a nation we recognize that they are currently NOT fundamentally places to learn, well...I think we can expect to see plenty more videos like these.

Edgar Girtain is teacher with 10 years experience in public, private, virtual, and foreign settings. He currently teaches music to 500 K-12 students at The American School in Puerto Montt, Chile.


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