Education for competence, creativity, autonomy, thriving

[1031 words]

Again, this entry is a reflection for “What Future for Education?” in response to the following prompts:

  • In an ideal world, how do you think education should be organised?

  • What priorities do you think it should reflect? and who should be responsible for ensuring that it is of a good quality?

  • Is there anything from the padlet wall that has informed your position?

While I recognize the need of nations, governments and societies to pay attention to the prerogatives of the modern nation-state and while I know that education is one of the important parameters for developing a proper, well-informed, functional citizenry, I also believe that it is now time to focus on other objectives in education. Indeed, for decades now we have needed to shift fundamental models of learning. Some elements certainly need to remain. I generally agree, for example, that a measure of civic education is necessary. All citizens and resident aliens ought to understand (and, in general, subscribe to) the fundamental values and modalities of a society. It is productive and contributes to the common good to assure that everyone has a minimal level of certain competencies: literacy, numeracy, a grasp of basic ideas, information and functional principles of modern science, an understanding of the nation’s history, and so forth. (One can argue about just which competencies and understandings are necessary.)

However, there are two fundamental objectives nation-states’ development of education in the 19th century and that have been maintained throughout the 20th, objectives that I believe need to be discarded outright. First, is the somewhat underhanded intention of making citizens docile and easy to control. This objective is part of a nineteenth-century paternalistic and colonialist worldview, that ought no longer have currency. It is inappropriate and morally wrong. Indeed, education ought to teach citizens to be discerning, to be critical, to be skeptical, to ask probing questions and to press governments and authorities to be responsible and to work for the greater good. Citizens ought to have a grounding in how to demand transparency and accountability. Citizens ought to be taught to detect, to critique and reject (I’m echoing Harry G. Frankfurt here) bullshit claims. With a greater resistance to bullshit, to extreme bias, to deliberately propagated falsehoods, a democratic society or a nation is less susceptible to manipulation by ideologies or demagogues or extremist populist movements. Secondly, education ought NEVER to have as its primary goal the mass production of obedient workers. Yes, compulsory education ought to prepare everyone to do useful work. But it ought not to be aimed almost exclusively at stimulating economic production by preparing young persons to be mere cogs in an economic machine.

In an ideal world, I think that primary and secondary education ought to be about helping each person thrive, initially by developing fundamental competencies, but also by uncovering or discerning one’s capabilities, one’s capacities and propensities. It ought to be, in part, about self-actualization. It ought to be about developing creativity and critical thinking. It ought to be about engaging in an enthusiastic investigation of the world, learning how to use a variety of tools to learn, to explore, to detect and address problems, to develop solutions, to make meaning for oneself, to master oneself, to develop to one’s fullest potential. And for that reason, I believe that secondary and post-secondary education probably ought to be largely self-directed. Not in the sense of simply doing whatever one wants, but in the sense that each student will have a significant hand in planning her or his own education, deciding on what research or which investigations to pursue, which skills to hone, which problems to address, which questions to pose. By the final phases of secondary education, teachers will no longer be “the teacher” standing in front of a classroom, talking. Rather, they will be mentors, guides and models. They will support students by advising and encouraging them, by helping them to frame and pursue their own learning projects, standing ready to aid students who need further assistance or additional guidance. And for that, we need to rethink teacher education, so that teachers themselves are more polyvalent, interdisciplinary, autonomous and well prepared to mentor and, most of all, so that they are able and willing to co-investigate and co-learn in collaboration with students.

I truly believe that a move in the direction of promoting self-actualization and self-directed learning will make education more effective, more durable, more meaningful, with greater impact and it will, over the long term, contribute more effectively to the general good of a society than either market-oriented and job-focused education or expedient forms of education that look more like indoctrination into neoliberal consumerism (or other political philosophy), or a other way of “zombifying” children and making them less critical, less engaged, more compliant and less intellectually independent. In an ideal world, all educational systems ought to start with fundamental competencies (literacy, math, civic understanding, and so forth), move through teaching good collaboration and communication skills and end with autonomy, critical engagement, self-actualization, creativity and student engagement in the world beyond the classroom. Digital technologies and other technical infrastructures make these possibilities feasible in the 21st century. So, please, let’s leave the 19th century behind. We can develop a model of education that retains some elements of the past, starting with competencies and skills that are useful for taking part in meaningful work and social life, but let’s not end there. Let’s develop educational frameworks, structures and processes that culminate in critical thinking, self-understanding, self-actualization, expansive views of the world and learner autonomy. Let’s educate for the 21st century now, rather than in a century or two.

Finally, I note that there is no single Padlet entry that had a particularly strong influence on my thinking, except maybe one entry that referred to a Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss, “Why Pragmatic Liberal Education Matters Now More than Ever.” What most contributed to the thinking in this entry is my own experience of learning, further shaped by Stephen Ball’s comments in MOOC videos, in a lecture on YouTube, and in his book, Global Education, Inc., along with a TED Talk by Pasi Sahlberg, “GERMs that kills schools.”

What Ambitious Literacy Instruction Is.

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At this point, I’m now engaged in another MOOC, through edX (the University of Michigan is the organizing and teaching institution in this case). The title of the course: “Leading Ambitious Teaching and Learning.” Here is the link for information about the course as a whole:

Here is my reflection in response to the prompt, which asks students to thinking about what “ambitious literacy instruction is.”

Ambitious implies high expectations of students. So it is not simply instruction that “settles” for achievements or effort that are “good enough,” but that shoots for something somewhat beyond that level. Ambitious literacy instruction pushes students or asks more of students than they are comfortable with. It seeks to exceed minimal standards in literacy, in reading and understanding and being able to respond to texts.

In short, in my view, it is instruction that — in the realm of literacy, of reading, understanding and responding to texts — asks students to stretch beyond minimal goals, that asks students to move somewhat beyond their comfort zone, to confront and to wrestle with texts that are difficult, challenging, and uncomfortable to process. It is literacy instruction that asks students to engage with the texts, that forces them to ask questions of the text, that expects them to do more than attain a superficial or facile understanding of the surface of the text. It is instruction that challenges them to go beyond the apparent meaning of the text, that seeks to understand — or that succeeds at nearly fully or fully comprehending — implications and consequences of the text’s ideas and arguments.

It is instruction that prepares students to read a particular text, but that also prepares them to delve into the depths of meaning, the implications of that text. It is instruction that engages with the main ideas of texts or that elicits many questions that one may ask of it. To be honest, it is “instruction,” that is teacher-generated frameworks or teacher-suggested questions that guide students to discern the principal ideas or the principal themes of the text in question, yet that leaves the bulk of the work of deciphering and interpretation and meaning-making to the students. In my view, excellent instruction is not just “ambitious,” but it is learner-centered, as well as ambitious.

In brief, that’s what I understand in the expression “Ambitious Literacy Instruction.”