The Educator’s Delusion

Read even a small amount of economics, and you might start to believe that human beings have things pretty much worked out. At its heart, economics views us as rational beings that make consistent, logical decisions on how to live. Quite in opposition to this, psychology sees humans as considerably less competent. Spend a little time studying cognition, and you will see that examples of fallacious thinking abound. In The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli exposes and catalogues 99 varieties of bias, fallacy and general failure in human thinking and decision making. This book offers us what we really need: a chance to introspect honestly, and reassess the way we think of ourselves. Perhaps our self-assigned pedestal is just a little too sizeable?

Ultimately, and this is a side note, I am given to trusting psychologists over economists, E.F Schumacher excepted. The simple reason for this is that economics (at least practiced by governments and corporations) is predicated on the absurd axiom that it is possible and desirable to obtain unlimited growth in a finite environment.

As educators, we work within long-standing traditions of belief, structure and human interaction, most of which we happily take for granted. These frameworks work well enough for younger students, on the surface at least, where there are certain foundations that we wish to build. As kids get older, however, they quickly start to backfire. For most educators, educational doctrine is so deeply rooted that the soil we till is essentially bound, preventing better thinking from penetrating and gaining hold. Even those espousing “21st century learning” generally don’t scratch through the top soil of educational assumption.

Given the right circumstances, which are vanishingly rare in schools, we might start to see through some of the smoke and mirrors, and see the harm that schools are doing. And not just in some extreme variations of industrial schooling (sorry Hong Kong), but in its very makeup. Perhaps we were lucky enough to have worked in other fields before we became educators. Perhaps our principal encouraged us to read Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, opening the door to “heretical” thinking. Perhaps we had one or two amazing teachers, who threw chairs, climbed on tables and shook us out of student complacency. Just maybe we work in a wonderful, small school, filled with amazing people, that is ripe for change. Perhaps, we don’t have to teach to a test, rank students or in other ways steal their dreams and humanity.

I count myself very lucky indeed to be in this exact position, at the rare confluence of a set of circumstances often beyond my control. The result? I have finally, fleetingly seen beyond what might be called The Educator’s Delusion. And I’d like to pin it down whilst I have the chance, because there is a risk I might never have it this fully in my sights again. Presenting at 21CLHK9 this weekend, and engaging in conversations with many other educators, has brought things into rather clear focus.

At its heart, what we share, and what is so dangerous, is a terribly misguided belief that that it is possible, in any meaningful way, to assess real human learning. There. That’s it.

Oh sure, we can write an exam that most people will fail, because it is based on isolated and arcane knowledge that is divorced from most people’s every day lives. And yes, we can carefully structure a curriculum to pump the required knowledge into students. And if we must, we can examine them before what they have learned has leaked away. And then we can check the box…our job is done.

In our wake, however, we leave a destructive scene filled with anxious husks of young humanity, living lives of disembodied learning, preparing for a working world that no longer meaningful exists (and it’s not getting any better). We produce a population of competitive grade seekers, ranked against each other, immersed in themselves and incapable of genuine living. At my worst, this is exactly who I am, a product of the system I now find myself trying not to perpetuate.

Under the guise of rigour the “best” educators follow best practice (what we might call backward design, as per Richards, Jack C., 2013): lay out a range of learning outcomes, plan experiences and content that meet the outcomes, teach through these plans, assess learning, give feedback. And repeat.

At each stage within the cycle, and across cycles, standards are met, boxes are checked and everyone is happy.

If, however, you return to students a few weeks after the final summative assessment of any particular chunk of learning, you’ll discover something deeply unsettling but mostly overlooked. Something we all know, but which we rarely let our minds dwell upon. Our students ultimately remember very little of what we teach them. Sometimes they can’t even recall the topic, let alone the details we carefully, cleverly built in.

And this is what we do, day in, day out, year after year. It is the educator’s delusion, that we can fill an inherently leaky vessel with disembodied information and expect it to be retained and stay fresh.

For me, in my professional practice, I’ve decided to finally call time on this one. The delusion is dead, its grip loosened. I no longer give grades, I don’t insist on a set pattern of learning and I won’t require mastery of a corpus of deadening knowledge. That’s not to say I’ve given up on teaching or learning: in fact I am more excited than ever about both.

What it does mean is that I am finding more interesting, enlivening, deeper, slower and more fun ways for students to learn. It means I am seeking to promote, not dampen, student agency and action. It means I am giving up direct control over learning, and focusing more more on setting the scene. Free Learning has offered the first steps in this, but there is much more to be done.

My question then, for anyone serious about teaching and learning, is this: have you seen through the educator’s delusion?

Credit: bucket image by Jon Pallbo from Wikimedia Commons, under Public Domain

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