Saturday, November 5, 2016

Education Reform: Doomed to Keep Repeating History?

In 1895, eminent French scholar Gustave Le Bon published La Psychologie des foules, or simply Psychology of Crowds. It became one of the seminal works on crowd psychology and is still referred to today, although if he were updating his research he would likely include "crowds" connected by technology such as telephones, television, radio and the internet.

In his book, Le Bon spoke to the impact crowd psychology was having on "instruction and education" which he believed was heading in the wrong direction. Because reformers at the time were able to use misinformation and imagery to sway the minds of the public, they were pushing away from learning by doing and towards memorization of curriculum content. Sound familiar? That's because the same thing is occurring today in that political and wealthy do-gooders are stressing the need for higher achievement defined almost solely as the memorization of content and regurgitation of it on a test.

Here's what Le Bon had to say in 1895 and would certainly echo his assertion today:
The primary danger of this system of education...consists in the fact that it is based on the fundamental psychological error that intelligence is developed by learning textbooks by heart (emphasis added). Adopting this view, it has been attempted to force students to learn as many textbooks as possible. From primary school and until students leave university they do nothing but acquire books by heart without their judgment or personal initiative ever being called into play. Education consists in reciting by heart and obeying (emphasis added). 
The acquisition of knowledge for which no use can be found is a sure method of driving a man to revolt.
Le Bon went on to predict that the mistake of standardized textbook learning and testing would eventually be realized and the importance of what we now call career-technical education (CTE) or vocational education would be realized.
It is evidently too late to retrace our steps. Experience alone, that supreme educator of peoples, will be at pains to show us our mistake. It alone will be powerful enough to prove the necessity of replacing our odious textbooks and pitiable examinations by industrial instruction capable of inducing our young men to return to the fields, to the workshop, and to the colonial enterprise which they avoid today at all costs.
He also noted that the former system of education in France, before this standardized learning movement was much more like that of England and America at the time. Little did Le Bon realize that America was just beginning down the same standardized, compliance-based, industrial model thanks in large part to the Committee of Ten that met the year prior to publication.
Did the superficial acquisition of so much knowledge, the faultless repetition by heart of so many textbooks, raise the level of intelligence? Alas, no! The conditions for success in life are the possession of judgment, experience, initiative, and character (emphasis added) -- qualities which are not bestowed by books. Books, like dictionaries, are useful to consult, but it is utterly useless to have lengthy portions of them in one's head.
Today we call those traits Le Bon listed life skills or 21st Century skills (although they were not invented in the current century). Today, employers are screaming for these types of skills in young employees but instead we keep pounding standardized curriculum content into their heads hoping they retain at least some of it for the annual high-stakes assessment. After that, we don't seem to care much what they know.

Maybe by the 22nd Century, our collective crowd psychology will finally show the education reformers the door and we'll get back to real learning in our schools and communities.

If we still have schools and communities.