Education is an Experiment

November 3, 2008

by Tammy Drennan


Educating another human being is an experimental endeavor by its very nature.  Of the vast amount of knowledge out there, what’s best to cover? How much literature for the science buff, how much science for the literary sort? What standards of writing and to whom should those standards apply? What about the inventors and artists and musicians and builders and runners? What encourages and what stymies genius? The questions go on and on, all with multiple answers that satisfy only small groups of people.


That’s why the tutorial and mentoring methods tend to work best and why institutional settings tend to fail so many children.


In a one-on-one situation, corrections and adjustments can be made quickly and intelligently, tailored to the individual student. Mistakes in methodology, subject matter and materials can be short-lived, given the willingness and wisdom of the teacher. Innovations can be worked out and opportunities seized.


Institutional settings have built-in resistances to general change — not to mention resistance to tailored change based on individual learning styles, talents and needs. Still, many private institutional schools do admirable jobs of overcoming the inherent challenges of education in a group setting. That’s because they have both the freedom and the incentive to do so – freedom from government regulation and accountability to paying parents who expect results.


Then there’s public schooling – the hugest education experiment of all, but without any of the benefits of manageable experimentation or meaningful accountability — and with many added burdens to boot.


First, of course, there’s the problem of trying to standardize so many children. Standardization is a nearly unavoidable criterion of institutional schooling, but especially of compulsory state schooling. Classes of 20-30 students would quickly become unwieldy if all students were not essentially working toward the same outcomes, and the government powers-that-be would be driven mad minus standardization (how on earth would you make up education laws?).


Of course, standardization has the major pitfall of serving the interests of only a handful of children. The rest languish, either over-challenged, under-challenged or inappropriately challenged.


But the problems don’t stop there. State schooling is by nature a political animal and vulnerable to all the machinations of the political process. Politicians, from the President on down to local school board members, have their own ideas and agendas and the muscle to impose them on schools. Many of these ideas come from the endless array of special interests (unions, social activists, education reformers, religious groups, anti-religious groups…) that lobby the politicians for their particular agendas.


As if the natural experimental character of education were not enough to deal with in an institutional setting, all the politics of state schooling makes the process a ferocious battlefield of trial and error that results in a heartbreaking amount of error.


This brings us back to our original point and what’s so important about it: Educating another human being is an experimental endeavor by its very nature.  It’s an effort we should approach with the utmost sobriety, humility, honesty and open-mindedness.


The state (and its many jugglers) is serious, indeed, in its drive to control education – but sober, humble, honest and open-minded it is not.


When Thomas Edison’s mother saw that her son’s school was trying to force her square peg of a son into its round holes, she took her son away from them. Many other parents have done the same. Some students have even found the means to take themselves back, often empowered by the confidence of their parents.


It’s time for us to be honest about the nature of education and sober in the decisions we make about our children’s future.


The power to effect change, to create a brighter and better future, lies firmly in the hands of mothers and fathers, but many of them do not know it or have been intimidated.


We can remedy that – one family at a time, starting today.


Useful Links


Reversing the Mass Exploitation of Children


Ben Franklin’s Bucket Brigades


Start With the Babies