Monday, February 21, 2005

The Paradox of Education

In an earlier post, I referred to the fact that restrictive methods actually liberate the mind as the paradox of education. This essay is my exploration of the topic. It may contain some ideas that conflict with the previous post, so let me say that everything contained herein respresents my most current (as of 2/20/05) thinking on the subject.

We have all heard it before. “Rote learning kills creativity,” the progressives say. They deride direct instruction and subsequent practice as drill and kill. In this constantly changing world, they say, it is better to have children learn how to learn. The motto of the progressive educator seems to be “You can always look it up.”

It is also the progressives who also claim to be the producers of free minds, unburdened with the oppression of a traditional education. Students of the progressive method of teaching reading, whole language, have never been burdened with phonics. Students of NCTM-based math curricula, which are championed by progressives, are never burdened with pencil-and-paper calculations. History students are never burdened with facts, names, or dates. Same thing with most other subjects. Instead, students are allowed to discover what is relevant to them.

The progressives say these unburdened minds are free to think critically about things. I say they are bound by the chains of relevance.

How are we to know what will be relevant to us in the future?

We can look to our long-term future, in which our lives may take turns that we cannot predict, especially as children. This, however, is beyond the scope of this discussion since it does not relate to the current paradox. We can also look to our short-term future, where we, as students, cannot know all that will be relevant to the next level of knowledge we seek. We will examine this angle.

Imagine, for a moment, that you know nothing about common practice harmony. (Common practice harmony is the harmonic practice used from 1600 to 1900, which was largely shaped by the works of J.S. Bach.) You are sitting in your first theory class. How will you know what is relevant to mastering the material of the course?

Looking back to my own experience in theory class, many of my classmates chose to learn only what was relevant to them in the beginning of the course. They thought the key signatures and triad spellings our professor told us to learn were not relevant to their theory education. “I don’t really to memorize this,” one classmate uttered, “I’ll always have the (reference) sheet.”

As the semester continued, I breezed through the class using the instant recall of the keys and triads that I achieved through memorizing them. While those who had chosen not to do so struggled to figure out what key a piece was in or what the root of that inverted triad was, those of us who had done so were free to devote our full attention to examining the structure of the harmony. Our assignments took us minutes to complete, while theirs took them hours.

The theory instructor knew that keys and triads would be relevant to our theory instruction since he could see the big picture of what he was teaching. We students, who could only see a small part of the picture, could not know what was relevant. Those who chose to learn what only what seemed relevant were severely hampered in their future efforts.

This is the problem with allowing students to learn only what they see as relevant. It binds them to their abilities at the time, restricting future growth. In the example above, the people in the class were explicitly told what would be relevant and the majority still did not learn it. Why? Because the instructor did not test the knowledge before continuing on, which sent a conflicting message on its importance. He tacitly allowed people to get away with not learning the material. Look at what happened.

Progressive educators bind children with these chains daily when they do not insist that children learn what they do not wish to learn, even though other skills rest upon that knowledge. They do this in the name of freedom. The problem is that is short-term freedom. Students are free today. The problem is that education is not about today, it is about the future. In the future, students will be bound by what was relevant, and not relevant, to them on a particular day.

This, however, is only part of the paradox. The other part is that, in keeping students from the seeming burden of rote learning, progressive educators burden their students with always having to look it up.

As we all know, the mind operates on two levels, conscious and subconscious. We are only aware of the conscious level, so it is easy to believe that all our important thinking goes on there. This is not the case. While our conscious minds are able to handle only one task, thinking in a primarily linear mode, our subconscious minds are able handle multiple tasks and do so in a non-linear way. Most high-level thinking, and almost all creative thinking, has non-linear elements.

Have you ever experienced an epiphany? All of a sudden something appears crystal clear, but you have no idea why? If you have, then you’ve experienced the impact of that subconscious manipulation of knowledge. It’s a big one. It is also an impact upon which creative minds depend.

Mozart once said, upon being asked how he could compose in a noisy tavern with no piano, that the music was already in his head, he was just writing it down. How did that music get in his head? Did he consciously and analytically write every note down on some mental sketch pad and then go play it with his mental orchestra? Possible, but unlikely. It is far more likely that he was hearing the music that his subconscious mind pieced together from all the knowledge and experience he had. I’ve had a similar experience on occasion, where I will hear completely formed music in my head that my subconscious mind has composed and that I have to write down. It is a powerful experience indeed.

High-level analytical thinking also works like this. When I am looking at a piece of complex music, it feels as though I “just see” what is going on. What is really occurring is that my subconscious mind is using its immense power and non-linear mode of thinking to piece things together nearly instantaneously. I know other people who are able to do the same with mathematical data, computer code, plants, or people. The trait we all share is that we have a lot of knowledge available to us on command.

One possible explanation for this is that we are all naturally talented in our fields, and therefore absorb the knowledge of that field easily. This is indeed possible, since a strong interest in a field will make it far easier to learn about it.

Another explanation is that we are blessed with a natural talent for instantly learning facts and recalling them later. I know personally that the latter is not the case, since it takes me effort to learn new things.

The explanation I prefer is that we all worked hard to acquire the knowledge have, learning things until we could remember them instantly, practicing skills until they were second nature. I will be the first to admit that my own strong interest in music made this easier, but I’ve found it is completely possible for me to do this with other subjects, though it gets progressively harder the less interest I have. Therefore, to enable our students to be high-level analysts and creative thinkers, we must look to methods that allow students to have instant recall of important information and skills.

The best methods for this are memorization and rote learning. They provide the instant and unthinking recall necessary for knowledge and skills to be accessed by the subconscious mind. This is also the reason they draw such derision from progressives.

How many times have you heard a progressive talk about children mindlessly reciting facts or doing drills? Plenty, I’ll bet. Progressives would rather have students thinking critically about the big picture and filling in the specifics as needed by looking them up. To them, this is the intellectual way to do things since students are concentrating hard on analyzing the big picture and are conscious of the details. If one observes superficially, the progressive appears to be correct.

Let us think, for a moment, about the task of finding one’s way around an unfamiliar building. It is a challenging thing to do even though walking is an unconscious effort. Imagine if you were faced with finding your way around an unfamiliar building while concentrating on the mechanics of placing one foot in front of the other and not falling over. It would go from being a challenging task to a downright awesome one. The task is made easier because the mechanics of walking are effortless.

Now, let us move on to meditation. The whole point of meditation is to clear one’s mind to allow uncluttered thought. It takes discipline to clear one’s mind to the point of being on a meditative plane. The emptiness of that plane allows the potential of the unconscious to be unleashed. Meditation, while it brings wisdom, is an effortless activity. In fact, effort is a barrier to wisdom.

Take again the progressive’s criticism of “mindless recitation and drilling” and replace “mindless” with “effortless.” Now, the criticism holds a lot less weight, doesn’t it?
It is, in fact, the mindlessness of these actions which frees the mind to operate on a higher level. Then the knowledge of that higher level becomes mindless, freeing the mind to operate on a still higher level. The process continues this way, leading ever higher, with each level coming easier than the last as understanding accumulates.

Now, think back to my music theory class. Those who chose not to learn their keys and triads since they did not seem relevant were kept from ascending to the next level of understanding about harmony precisely because they could not mindlessly recall the knowledge upon which that level was based. They were kept not only from the simple chord progressions of first semester theory, but from all the material that builds upon them as well.

Let us address relevance again. When we allow students to determine what they learn early in their education based on what is relevant to them, we allow them to close the doors on huge areas of knowledge. The chains of relevance are formed.

Thus, the short-term freedom offered by the progressives is repaid by long-term restriction. Thus, the short-term restrictiveness offered by the essentialist is repaid by long-term freedom. Thus, we have the paradox.

UPDATE: This post has been included in the Carnival of Education - Week 3, hosted by the Ed Wonks. For those of you who haven't checked it out, it's a great place to find diverse views on education. For those who came here from there, I invite you to check out my other posts on education as well as my polls.

TOPIC: Education