We seem to think that education is a thing--like a vaccine--that can be designed from afar and simply injected into our children. But as the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats said, "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire." Gov. Jerry Brown, State of the State, January 2013
Interesting piece in this morning's Salon about how the quality of free online courses will impact education, particularly higher education. Why should should we or our kids go into massive debt to get information that is readily available on the net or can be credentialed cheaply through online delivery like "Khan" Univerisity.
Our institutions of higher learning in the next hundred years will move more toward the small liberal arts college model or they will become irrelevant. The post WWII technocratic university model is moribund. Colleges will be branded by the quality of their teaching, which will be a function of the quality of the relationships students can develop there. And that in turn will be a function of the quality fo the people hired to teach and the quality of the students accepted.
Why? Because information is cheap, and relationships are precious. I was listening to an interview with the psycholinguist Jean Berko Gleason recently, and she made an interesting point about how very young children acquire language. If you put a kid in front of a TV channel for hours and hours in which the language is, say, Korean, she will not learn Korean. If the same child had a Korean nanny that spoke only Korean to her, she would learn it.
Language acquisition, in other words, is relational. It's something that only happens when there's an emotional connection. I think a similar argument could be said about the acquisition of anything that is worth knowing, at least in a foundational sense. We can add to or build onto the foundation alone (online, books, TV, etc.), but the foundation for learning is built only in relationships with parents, teachers, and peers. And we forget what we learn unless we use it, and we use it in our interactions with others. Knowledge is relational, and the quality of our knowledge largely depends on the quality of the relationships we have with parents, peers, and teachers.
Have you seen this interesting Gallup Study on student motivation. So ask yourself why motivation to learn craters for most kids by the time they get to middle and high school. On the grade 6-12 levels the only really sensible reason to pay the steep tuition at a private school is that you are buying a much better teacher/student ratio. That is, you are buying a chance for your kid to develop a relationship with teachers that is harder for many kids to do starting at middle school in the public schools. Not impossible, just harder. In a private school your kid can't hide if there are only 15 kids sitting around a table. (Yes, Bill & Melinda, class size matters, once you understand that education is not about filling a pail, but lighting a fire. Teachers matter, too, but not in the way you think.)
Plato understood that real knowledge only happens in relationships, and that we only truly understand what we love. Information acquisition is not the same thing as knowledge. Facts are a means to an end, and the end is insight. Facts without insight are like jokes without a punchline. But things worth knowing, like a good joke, aren't worth much if they aren't shared with others who "get it".