Some half-formed thoughts about how the education system might be radically reformed, and in the process solve a host of political, economic and social problems bedeviling our world, from a guy whose experience in education, both as a teacher and as a student, was, at best, sobering and frustrating.


Emma, Doug, and I have been blogging lately about how education systems worldwide discriminate, demotivate, subjugate and demoralize most young people, teaching them not to think, but just to consume, and to allow the established, moneyed and powerful elites to pass on their business and political empires to their usually unmeriting children. And then, broken by that system, most young people willingly and gratefully work and grow old at boring, unfulfilling jobs, in constant fear of unemployment, and blame themselves for not doing better in our lands of supposedly unlimited opportunity.

A reading of the research cited in our earlier posts leaves little doubt that this subjugation and wage slavery were the intended purposes of public education systems when they were first formed. What is hard to fathom is that, given the effort and desire of most public school teachers to give young people the best education possible, the system seems to perpetuate itself generation after generation, and the gap between the elite and the rest of society grows massively wider every year.

Why is this? I think teachers are caught in the system’s net themselves, and would probably be the first to admit that the rules under which they must work largely undermine their ability to actually teach anything.

What would happen if we reformed the education system so that it didn’t perpetuate the cycle of economic fear, political apathy, social guilt, and self-loathing?

Let’s consider what such a system might look like, starting with objectives. I would suggest it should strive to do just two things: (a) Provide the skills, and ability to apply them, needed to make a comfortable, enjoyable, fulfilling living (as owner of or partner in an enterprise, not as an employee); (b) Provide the skills, and ability to apply them, needed to be an informed, contributing member of society (in other words, to be a good citizen and get along with others).

To do this it would need to teach young people some basic life skills, something like the list of eleven I published here back in March:

Creative Skills: Ideation: Coming up with new ideas
Representation/Spacial Skills: Capturing, applying and executing these ideas
Language Skills: Written Communication
Oral Communication
Non-Verbal Communication
Knowledge Processing Skills: Synthesis: Distilling and summarizing information
Analysis: Breaking down information
Interpretation: Determining what information means; adding insight
Interpersonal Skills: Sensing: Listening and appreciation
Connecting: Engaging, sympathizing, organizing and relating

Applying these skills to the tasks of making a living and being a good citizen is best taught by people who are actually doing it, where they are doing it, not by teachers and not in classrooms. If some young lady visits a team doing land surveying and decides she might want to make a living doing that, she should be equipped, and encouraged, to identify the resources needed to pursue that calling and apply herself to acquiring the knowledge and talent needed to do that. If surveyors have a professional qualifying examination, that, and not some standard pre-set grade-school examination program, should be her self-set gauge of accomplishment.

So I’m proposing a system that has no schools, no ‘teachers’ in the traditional sense, and no examinations. Is this naive, and an invitation to anarchy? This was in fact the way education worked before formal, standard education systems were introduced. Then, however, you had limited choice: your father taught you his skill, and you either succeeded at it or went off to learn another trade from someone else who needed apprentices. Once you had ‘mastered’ the trade you were your own boss.

The system I propose would take advantage of new communication and information technology and our greater interconnectedness, to allow each young person to pick from thousands, millions of possible callings, and link up with others with complementary skills to create what I have called New Collaborative Enterprises, businesses of equals. The basic rules of entrepreneurship are easy to learn, and all it takes to succeed at it is lots of practice, and the younger you start the better.

Perhaps it sounds as if I’m reducing education to finding a job, but I’m not. Making a living is not the same at all as finding a job. Discovering and pursuing the role you want to fulfil in society, what you want to spend most of your life doing, is probably the most important decision any of us makes. To some extent how we make our living defines who we are. And the second objective, becoming an informed, contributing citizen, requires us to learn most of the things that a traditional, elite, ‘liberal education’ requires: a knowledge of history and geography, an awareness of what’s happening in the world and what it means. The best way to imbue this, and to measure it, is for the ‘teacher’ to engage students in discussion about specific pre-determined issues, enable the students to do their advance research using the above life skills, the internet, and other tools at their disposal, any way they want to do so, and then gauge each student’s progress by the quality of their participation in the discussion. No ‘bums on chairs’ one-to-n teaching/preaching, but instead engaging in conversations. As grad students know, that’s how you really learn.

The ‘teacher’s’ role in all of this is facilitation, not instruction. That means setting up opportunities for students to meet and see and talk with people who make their living in different ways. It means ensuring they have access to the learning resources they need, and steering them in the right direction to learn how to use them. It means arranging and coordinating the discussions. It would require that all of us making a living now set aside a significant amount of time to show, and talk with students about, what we do and how and why we do it. It might well require a lot more ‘teachers’ than we have today, though it would save billions by eliminating curriculum development, textbooks, school buildings, and the administrivia that accounts for much more than half of the current education budget.

The implications of doing this would be staggering. There would be no employees, no labour pool for large corporations to dip into. I don’t think most corporations would mind this at all. They have already basically transformed most jobs into contracts and eliminated most employee benefits. The idea of converting every employee position into a supplier position is quite well understood by senior management and might even be welcomed.

In the longer term, the liberation of being one’s own boss and having free choice about how one makes a living would work strongly against large, hierarchichal corporations. If we were all entrepreneurs with a choice of customers, few would put up with the control and bullshit that large employers today impose on employees, and the new ‘contract’ between large corporations and entrepreneurs would inevitably be much more egalitarian and much more expensive than today’s employment contracts. The consequence, I believe, would be that large organizations would break up into small, autonomous units that would be almost indistinguishable from entrepreneurial ventures, more responsive to customers, and free of the overpaid management and administrative bloat that makes most large corporations arguably (read John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization) even less efficient than similar-sized public organizations. As a result, corporate power would devolve, and our whole society might become, at last, classless, a world of equals, fulfilled, empowered, working and thinking for themselves.

As I said at the outset, these are half-formed thoughts. I wish blogs had more flexibility as collaborative tools, but in the meantime, please use the comments feature to join the dialogue and share your thoughts.

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  1. O RLY YA RLY says:

    We have something like this in our country. It’s called the ‘studiehuis’ – the study house. In practice it works by letting the students do projects which they do mostly by themselves. Every now and then you meet up with your teacher to make sure you’re on the right track. You have to find the information, process it, etc. by yourself. And, of course, learn how to work with the other people in your group.We also have people from the workplace coming in to the schools. I have mostly bad experiences with this. Actually, only one good one. Usually they have some nice anecdotes to tell, but totally lack teaching skills. They have no message. No theory or vision to convey. My one good experience was with a man who was a great conceptual thinker, but as usual couldn’t convey it to the students. Most people didn’t get it. I decided to hang around and sit in on some of his sessions with other groups. That did it for me. I was an exception. Most people were simply turned off by his woolly phrasing.That’s my experience on HBO-(more or less University)level. At high school level there were some big problems because there was too big a workload. I think this was because there was also still a big chunk of oldfashioned facts based studying also included and too many courses were made obligatory. (Not completely sure about that last analysis, I’m not really up to speed on this subject.)Hope this helps.

  2. I had a similar experience growing up in an age where public schools had a bit of discretionary funding. I.Q. testing was big back then and if one scored well enough one was eligible (right or wrong) for a kind of elite (or maybe elitist) program consisting of “fast-track” curriculums and a special summer school. (I know what you’re thinking and no, I don’t know how I slid by either…)Half of the time in summer school involved an immersion or at least an exposure into the fine arts sort of thing. Itzhak Perlman came and played for us. We attended field trips to various theaters for plays. That sort of thing. The other half of the time was devoted to working on an individual project of one’s own choosing. For example, one year I chose the lofty pursuit of the creation of a “summer yearbook”. (Which as most of you can imagine turned out to be a hell of a lot of work.) But the experience did address all four of your working points.There weren’t any teachers per se as there wasn’t any set curriculum. I probably learnedmore (and certainly with more diversity) in that summer period than the whole rest of the year. And I know I’ll never forget those summer afternoons in the darkroom with Cindy Miller.regards – rich

  3. Jon Husband says:

    I didn’t know anyone other than me had ever read The Unconscious Civilization. Saul’s style leaves something to be desired at times, IMO, but the core message is inescapable, and accurate I believe.I guess that ‘corporatism’ will keep on defining many/most aspects of our lives until it (perhaps) creates too much obvious dysfunction.I believe it was you that wrote a month or two ago of building a new system underneath the foundations of the existing one. I’m reminded of Britt Blaser’s work on XpertWeb aand the collaborative economy, as well as your thinking and Shoshana Zuboff’s support economy concepts and principles.Yeah, the difgital infrastructure and the mindsets of knowledge workers who can take their bit between their own teeth will create examples and encoragements to try something other than clawing, chewing, smiling and wearily stress-managing one’s way to the interesting work and power-endowed places in corporate hierarchies. And our towns, cities, countries and societies will probably be the better for it, unless the enterprises and dynamics spawned become solely transaction-based and mercenary.

  4. Sean says:

    Paulo Freire, paralleling and expanding on Sartre’s contentions in Situations I, wrote a lot about the nature of traditional (standard, western) education, comparing it, once, to the banking concept, where students are fed information according to the dictates of, as Foucoult would say, the apparatus of power. Freire argued that in order for education to be freed from oppression and its influences, the teacher-student relationship needs to shift from one based on the depositing of knowledge to one based on conscious intent of inquiry. The teacher thus becomes, as you suggest Dave, a facilitator, rather than an instructor.At the school I attend (Marlboro College), this type of education is promoted, and a fair number of courses are conducted entirely in this manner, with the student choosing everything from the scope of the course to the methods of evaluation to the resources and texts used. Coming from a public school background, it was intimidating at first, but ultimately a lot more satisfying to know I had control over what I learned.

  5. Candace says:

    I believe that we are in dire need of this type of educational system. The education system we currently have (K-12) may have worked in the past, but it no longer works. I agree with this article but I’d like to add a few ideas of my own. I believe that the problem is what kids are being taught. In school, we’re taught to; go to school, get good grades, and get a nice, safe, secure job. That just isn’t cutting it anymore. The schools should be teaching kids how to manage they’re money, how to play a role in politics and be involved in current events, and to take risks. This might prevent people from getting stuck in that old fasioned ‘rat race’. (Do you see History repeating itself?) And no wonder kid’s in they’re 20’s are suffering from the ‘Quarter Life Crisis’.

  6. Candace says:

    Oh, by the way, just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you’ll even get a job. How ironic is that.

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