Why is Education Contentious?

14 Nov

Why Education is contentious?

Kieran Egan wrote an article ‘Why Education is so difficult and contentious’ in which he believed that our modern day education systems are founded on three key pillars – socialisation, Plato’s Academic ideal and Rousseau’s developmental theory.

But Kieran Egan believes that each of these three pillars – socialisation, Plato’s academic ideal and Rousseau’s developmental theory – are all ‘competing voices’ in education that not only contradict or compete against each other but also have conflicting ideals within themselves.

What does Egan believe by this?

The first idea – socialisation. We send our students to school in the hope that they will not only interact with other students but in doing so learn social morals or values, ways to behave socially so that when they leave school our students will be aware of what it is to be a good citizen, interacting socially correct with their peers.

But Egan believes that this idea of socialisation is all good and well for when people were hunter-gatherers and we depended on each other for survival and to act as part of a team. Schools by their nature are about conformity rather than about the individual. The wearing of a school uniform, the morning roll call, class times, where students fit in according to age and ability all aim to create a sense of belonging on one hand but a great deal of conformity.

However while we expect our students to socialise and learn the moral values of society, we also want our students to be individuals. We want our students to be thinking for themselves. We want them to not follow the crowd, but to be critical thinkers that know the difference between right and wrong.

In a democratic society, we want our students to uphold the values of individual freedom. We dont want our students to follow blindly the socially accepted ideals or norms that are morally wrong. But what do we do when we have an education system that demands conformity? Egan argues that socialisation requires acceptance of beliefs, values and norms that the disciplined academic mind sees as stereotypes and prejudices. Whlle we want our students to conform to social values, this conformity can lead to dangerous accepting of stereotypes and norms that are evident in facist or socialist dictatorships.

And this brings us to Plato’s Academic ideal where send our students to learn everything that they can about the world. We want our students to be intelligent and to learn the things that we expect that they should know, that will prepare them for life after school that will lead to either further education or good employment.

The problem is – whet exactly should our students be learning? As Egan points out that our libraries are full of books and knowledge but what exactly is it important to learn?

As adults, we can remember ourselves being in school and thinking that most of what we learnt was completely unnecessary. Who hasnt sat their and thought what was the point of Algebra or some history lesson about a person who was dead many hundereds of yeears ago that has absolutely no practical use in today’s workplaces?

Today’s employers, parents, community groups, government departments are all stakeholders or interested parties in our students education. Each of these stakeholders has a ‘voice’ in what education should be teaching our students. But as Egan points out, these ‘voices’ are often competing and conflicting against each other.

And what of practical use of knowledge in the real world? If we cannot see how knowledge, facts and theories are useful in everyday life, then why would students see them as important or relevant? Knowledge just does not exist in a book or in the teacher’s head – for students to understand the knowledge, the job of the teacher is to bring that knowledge alive, to show students how that knowledge is practical or can be used in the real world.

In our classrooms today we have the usual subjects of Maths, English, Science. To the lesser degree we have the humanities as History, Geography, and the arts as creative arts, drama and music and technical working as wood work and metal work. To satisfy the demands of employers, subjects as Maths and English are the dominant subject areas over all others. Ken Robinson noted that this focus on the dominant subject often leaves out the other subject areas so that students, no matter what they may be good at, often give up what they are interested in so that they will be good at the areas that will get them a job when they quit.

Information or knowledge is great but completely useless if it has no practical use in the real world. So why bother teaching it? If it put us to sleep when we were students, imagine what it is doing to our students today?

The third ideal of education is that of Jean Jacques Rousseau and the idea of development. Rousseau believed that children’s learning occurs in developmental stages and that therefore we have to alter our teaching techniques to the child’s learning. So rather than blaming the child for not learning, we have to look at how our own teaching styles are not catering for that child’s development stages.

Rousseau’s developmental theory should have led to a revolution in learning. We should have seen a change in education that moved from a subject-centred education to that of a child or student centred education. But this revolution has failed to occur in education. Why?

Since Rousseau’s ideas, we have had great educational thinkers as Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky and Maria Montessori but education has still not changed. Kieran Education believes that education has not changed because we are still debating the purpose of education.

Egan believes that when we began to see education in terms of either knowledge or the mind, we began to think of education as belonging to one or the other and so education became a war between those who were child centred and those who were subject centred.

Until these deep fault lines in thinking of education are resolved, then education will continue to be contentious.


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