Reading & Reacting: Schools don’t have to fail: Here’s how we fix education

Image: Excited Students

By Peter Gray @ Schools don’t have to fail: Here’s how we fix education

In a follow-up article to his controversial article “School is a prison — and damaging our kids” which was batted around the Twittersphere, Professor Peter Gray presents some possibilities for how education and schools, in particular, might be fixed. SInce I wrote about the previous piece, it seemed fitting to comment about the new one too.

While the first article was a perceived kind of salvo against the existing school system, and on some level that was accurate. Yet, in his new piece, “Schools don’t have to fail: Here’s how we fix education,” Gray attempts to clarify his central claim, as well as some of the most misunderstood aspects of the first article. He begins with the premise that all children, in fact all human beings, are naturally self-directed learners. This is crucial in understanding all that Gray advocates. Anyone that does not buy that premise need not read further.

In an effort to paint a picture of what an alternative possibility might look like, for anyone that did not bother to follow some of the links from the previous piece, Gray describes a setting that celebrates the all people are self-directed learners ethos. While I would venture to say many people will read this as some kind of dreamy alternate universe, it is safe to say that pockets of this vision already exist and they cannot be summarily dismissed as remote communes. Gray does emphasize the vision he shares is only one possibility, something I suspect many will miss.

Where Gray really sharpens his edge is in his accurate assessment of where our current educational system fractures. He articulates break down better and more precisely than any of the current edreformy types is likely even capable of doing. Here he addresses the inequities in two crisp paragraphs.

Our system of public schools is supposed to be the “great equalizer,” but it is not. It fails children who come from economically poor families at far, far higher rates than those who are more well off. That is no surprise. The competitive, teach-and-test system of schooling, which pits student against student in the striving for grades, shoves a wedge between those who already know and those who don’t. The well-off, who learn at home much of the basics taught in school, can perform well (at least as measured by grades) in this environment, because they don’t have to learn much that is new. Those without the same home advantages must try to learn what the others already know, and the stress of failure makes this nearly impossible. Some develop a fatalistic belief in their own stupidity; others drop out, whether physically or just mentally, from the whole enterprise. And thus, with each grade in school, the gap between the more and the less advantaged increases.

Children from economically poor families are born with the same drives and abilities to educate themselves as those from wealthier ones, but they need environmental settings that empower and enable them to do so. They need settings where they see real people enjoying reading, writing, discussing ideas and politics. They need settings where they get to know real people who are doctors, engineers or business leaders, or who have in other ways achieved societal posts that they don’t see in their home or immediate neighborhood. They don’t find any of this in our schools today. They will find it in the community centers and other educational settings that I envision for tomorrow. (Of course, transformation in education is not a full solution to the problem of inequality and poverty in our society. We need to address that problem also through other means, regardless of the educational landscape.)

While some might label Gray as some kind of educational utopian (he even concedes this point), he sizes up how poverty threatens education, instead of the mere claim, with greater clarity and concision. In fact, he even argues that the problem with edreform is the myriad of vested interests that converge to preserve the status quo. Here Clay Shirky’s famous comment, “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution” rings true here, although it might be better to insert “proposed” prior to the word solution, since so many proposed edreforms of the past have faltered or simply failed to address real problems.

It could be argued, and has been extensively, that the institution of education is just as guilty of the Shirky Principle as the edreformers. However, I would submit that anyone in charge of reforming of education should at least have some legitimate connection to the field of education and all its complexity. Being a professor of psychology at Boston College, Gray at least has more credentials as a scholar than many of the cast of edreformers, policymakers, and would-be pundits espousing all kinds of unproven and ill-conceived notions. What’s more, Gray can back his ideas with evidence of functioning examples, radical as though they might be perceived. The learning environments of which he dreams and those that he can highlight as already realizing his vision, may be rare, but they do exist. There is little point in arguing that.

On some level, they read a little reminiscent of Finland. Although it is a stretch and I do not think that is what Gray is advocating at all. He is not playing the comparison game and is chasing a much greater cultural shift. There is something about how the Finns conceive of educating their children that is far more in line with Gray’s aspirations than the ones we currently realize.

Ultimately, what Gray is clamoring for is a complete upending of how we think about schooling, traditional or otherwise. He pointedly explains, “We need to transform, rather than reform, the education landscape.” It is a bold call to action. While I am not quite ready to tear down traditional schools, in a full-on Gray-fueled transformation, I do think there is a lot of room for evolution and regeneration. Gray and his supporters are definitely on to something regarding self-directed learning. Even teachers within the traditional system have been advocating for this for some time, with the Internet and technology tools accelerating the calls.

Traditional schools need to make significant efforts to accommodate self-directed learning and avoid coercive institutional measures that drum it out of children. There is little to no chance for ideas like this to flourish, let alone survive, in a top-down, one-size-fits-all, standards-based, teach-and-test system, like the one currently being advanced on a national scale.

Of course, both of his Salon articles are simplified versions of ideas that are not well-suited for a short magazine treatment,  I definitely want to find a copy of Gray’s book.

Image: iPad

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