We’re Too Good At What We Do

I want to try and lay some of the problems with the current educational model at the feet of an unlikely culprit – efficiency. And strangely enough, I think the cause is that we’re too efficient at the job of educating a massive amount of our population. In our culture, more people are demanding to know more stuff in less time, so that they can go on to college/get a good job. In order to meet this demand, educators, and those that help us manage our institutions, have had to be more efficient. But unfortunately, as the level of efficiency improves, the quality of the product goes down.

This isn’t far-fetched. Consider the trends of our food production in the United States. The food that is most efficiently produced consistently is of lower quality than food that requires more time and resources. McDonalds feeds 58 million people everyday. That is a staggering accomplishment. I am honestly in awe of an organization that can do this day after day. However, in order to do this, they have to decrease the quality of their ingredients to make it affordable yet profitable, cook in a manner that is fast but unhealthy so that all of those people can eat and deemphasize their concern about the environmental impact of their food producers so that they can meet demand. I’m not casting judgement on these acts, as McDonalds would not be able to feed so many without taking these steps. What I will question is whether or not regular consumption of their product is beneficial.

How does this manifest in education? In the US, there are currently 65 million people enrolled in public schools and they need to be educated every day. This is an equally impressive task. But how do we meet this demand? First, in order to get the information to the largest number of students in the smallest time, we rely on lecturing. Sit quietly and pay attention so that everyone has a chance to hear. Next, we need to know how all of these students are doing, but grading 65 million assessments takes a long time. So, we develop some efficient ways of quickly assessing them and giving them feedback – multiple choice, true/false, and plug-n-chug problems are much more efficient than narrative reflections, projects or portfolios. With the push to cover more content (after all, you need class X to get into college), we must spend less time on each topic so that students can learn all they need too. Thus classes focus on breadth of exposure over depth of understanding. All these decisions are starting to seem strangely familiar to me, and I have to wonder, is the education we’re providing beneficial to our students? I think the answer is yes and no.

Does the education they receive provide them with what they need to survive in the world? Yes. Just as a diet of fast food provides enough nutrition to live. Does it provide them with a high quality of life? I’m not so sure.

Just as with McDonalds though, I’m not casting aspersions at those involved in education. On the contrary, I think we should be applauded for providing a daily education to 65 million students (::pat on the back::). Thinking about these ideas, I realize that those who make these decisions that we as teachers deem damaging to students aren’t doing so maliciously nor are they being obstinate. The people that brought us to this point and those that want to keep us here are just prioritizing a different problem. They are attempting to answer the question of “How do we provide as many people as possible as much knowledge as possible in a reasonable amount of time?”. Any answer to that necessarily drives down the quality when you are dealing with the numbers and scope that we are. As teachers though, we’re trying to answer “How do I give the absolute best education I can to the students in my care?”. Smaller numbers, different scope. We are ready to slow down and spend more time with each student, but we can’t do that and remain efficient in the system outlined above.

If you’ve read this long and are expecting an answer, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m still wrestling with these ideas myself. Looking at this problem through this different lens though may help us see solutions that we hadn’t considered before.

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3 comments

  1. Brian,
    This reminds me of the semi-historical talk on the history of grades I give my students every year—it does seem that the wonderful theme of educating a greater percentage of our population also comes at the expense of compromises that must be made—textbooks, standardization, grades. And I guess the hope of every generation is that technology will somehow save us from some of these compromises, but I’m not so sure.

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