Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Focus of Education Should be Learning

Some questions make the answer. In life as in research, as in education, it is the question that comes first and is more important. The issues and problems with our 'educational system' invariably lead to questions, such as "How do we fix the system?"

Of course, if you set about fixing a system, you have to ask a more basic question: What purpose is it supposed to serve? What is the right way to do education?

Which leads to a question: Why do we educate? A better question is: Why do we learn?

Why do we educate? We educate children to train them up to be citizens and productive members of society. It is certainly appropriate that we make citizenship, scholarship, and professional achievement (to get a good career/job) goals of education. But that part of 'education', if it is not in giving them knowledge, consist of either indoctrination or inculcating in the children an acceptance of the role society has laid out for them. This begs a question of whether 'education' is for the sake of the child after all, for this is not education in the sense of opening up the child to knowledge and skills, but social conditioning.

Yet to a large degree Industrial Education was that enterprise. As John Dewey put it, "Education as a Social Function." The social function is the preservation and continuity of the society, by rearing up the young as participants. Thus it has been throughout history. We are ever 20 years from barbarism and it is education that saves society from it.

But why does a child learn? If one puts the focus back on the child, and ask why does the child learn? one gets a difference answer. The social function becomes secondary. Education means nothing without learning; and while education is the guiding of others to learn and is thus social, learning has a meaning all its own.

Learning is not a social process. Learning is a mental process, that extends inward and outward both. If there is not learning, there is no education. Thus, while the educative process is social and external, the learning process that it tries to affect is personal and internal. Learning involves literacy, via listening and reading and watching and communicating; learning involves thinking - critical thinking and analysis, memory, computation, and creative imagination and thought; learning involves the exercise of motor skills, behaviors, artistic skills, writing skills, complex skills (from stacking blocks to arguing Constitutional law cases) built on prior skills; learning involves the skills of observation, sensory perception, emotional intelligence.
The end result of these learning activities is to acquire knowledge, habits, skills and dispositions not previously acquired.

Why learn? For a child, learning up to a point is natural. Curiosity and 'play' is programmed into humans. Play is a form of learning, in fact, it's main 'useful' role is learning. Children are great imitators, and imittaion begets acquisition of skills. Alas, as they grow, children may end up imitating the worst habits and not the best if not guided in the proper way.

How do we educate? The best learner is a self-learner, so the best education is an education in learning HOW to learn. What are the learning skills? Reading, observing, skills in modeling behavior, acquiring motor skills, creative thinking skills, critical analysis skills.

The best way to acquire skills of any type, however, is to practice them, and thus the best way to acquire learning skills is to get engaged in learning and be guided in how you do it.

Are skills enough? No, need motivation, to improve the dispositions of learners: Motivation, curiosity, desire to learn or desire to learn in order to meet other goals (financial, social status and approval, gain ability to do specific things one desires, etc.)

However, if the motivation to learn is based on external appearances, then student will do enough to keep those appearances, eg, get a good grade, without absorbing the real lessons

If play is like learning and vice versa, then the problem with ‘boredom’ – people who are bored are people demanding sensory input - is a defect in learning and play skills.

Does education destroy curiosity? Sometimes. if organized education creates activities not tied to real learning, it can snuff out the impulses of real learning.

We started with the question "How to fix the education system?" and ended up in a point where in fact, the system itself in some cases could be crippling the real learning of children.

The cure or answer for this may be to think differently about education. The shadow of John Dewey has been cast over education for a century, and the 'social' approach to education has pushed it in a direction that is away from ideals of Roman education or that of prior centuries. Bringing students up to become socialized does not require Industrial Education. The fact of socialization has taken, through iterations and systems and controls and measures, to take education far away from the pure purpose of education as aiding learning.

There is a different way: Personalized learning; teaching students to be self-motivated and curious; teaching students to be self-learners; in short, the focus of education should be on the learning.

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